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GAO: Delivery of First Columbia-Class SSBN Could Be Late

Columbia class submarine
Illustration of the future Columbia-class sub (USN)

Published Jan 29, 2023 8:34 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S Navy's ambition to deliver the first Columbia class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine in record time could fall short, thanks in part to a lack of schedule risk analysis, according to a new report.

As the Navy implements the largest and most complex submarine project in its history, the U.S Government Accountability Office (GAO) is now warning that lack of a schedule risk analysis could impede the success of the project, whose costs have already gone up by an addition $4 billion from the $128 billion estimated in 2019. 

Failure to deliver the submarines on time could have far-reaching consequences for the country’s defense, considering that the Columbia-class submarines are expected to replace the 14 current Ohio class nuclear-powered submarines that are nearing the end of their service lives, with retirement planned to begin in 2027.

To prevent a gap, the lead Columbia class submarine needs to be ready for its first patrol before October 2030. The Navy has set a target of April 2027 to deliver first-in-class USS Columbia. The target is a record time considering it took 88 months to deliver the first Ohio class nuclear-powered submarine, but the Navy plans for Columbia to be delivered 10 months faster.

However, GAO contends that the Navy lacks insight into the program's schedule because the shipbuilder hasn't conducted a schedule risk analysis that can help identify and manage risks to achieving planned delivery dates.

“Without a statistical schedule risk analysis, programs have limited insight into how schedule risks could affect the likelihood of achieving key program milestones, including delivery, and the amount of margin—or a reserve of extra time—needed to manage critical risks and avoid delays,” said GAO in a statement.

The Columbia-class project is already encountering headwinds. After more than a year of full-scale construction on the lead Columbia submarine, the shipbuilders are facing delays because of challenges with design, materials and quality.

Two U.S. shipbuilders, General Dynamics Electric Boat (Electric Boat) and Huntington Ingalls Industries Newport News Shipbuilding (Newport News), were awarded the contracts for the design and construction of the submarines. Electric Boat is the prime contractor for design and construction with Newport News serving as its major subcontractor.

The two shipbuilders are preparing for the most significant increase in ship construction in over 30 years owing to the fact that construction for the Columbia and Virginia classes is taking place concurrently. The companies are constructing both submarine programs while also completing various activities necessary to sustain existing submarines, and in the case of Newport News, building Ford class aircraft carriers.

Within the next 20 years, the two companies have to construct and deliver Columbia and Virginia class submarines at a pace not matched since the end of the Cold War. Due to the heavy workload, the shipyards are basing their plans for shipbuilding on the Navy’s plans to procure two Virginia class submarines per year through 2033 and one Columbia class submarine per year starting in 2026.

GAO reckons the delivery timeline for USS Columbia might not be achieved because Electric Boat has not conducted a schedule risk analysis, a critical tool for understanding program risks and managing risks that could impact the schedule. Electric Boat is already deploying extensive measures to tackle emerging challenges. Since the Columbia-class subs are essential for strategic deterrence, they are giving it priority status over most national-defense-related programs, including the Virginia class program.

To mitigate growing schedule delays, the shipbuilder is adding staff to the Columbia class program by using workers that were originally planned for the Virginia program. The shipbuilder plans to add more workers beyond its original staffing plan for Columbia class construction work until it recovers from schedule delays. The flipside is additional delays to the Virginia class program.

“The Columbia class submarine is a schedule-driven program with a national security imperative to deliver the lead submarine on time. Adopting a more rigorous process for understanding schedule risks would better position the program to more efficiently and effectively mitigate risks to achieving key dates,” concluded GAO.

In the report, the agency has made six recommendations, including that the Navy conduct a schedule risk analysis and update its long-term plans.