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Welding Flaw Could Delay Multiple Submarine Programs

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Illustration of the future Columbia-class (USN)

By MarEx 2018-08-08 21:08:46

On Tuesday, Naval Sea Systems Command announced that a subcontractor for the new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines has discovered a minor error with potentially major consequences. 

Nuclear equipment manufacturer BWX Technologies has discovered a problem with weld quality in the ballistic-missile launch tubes for the subs, NAVSEA said. The issue affects 12 tubes, none of which have been installed. Seven had already been delivered to General Dynamics Electric Boat, the prime contractor for the class, and five were still in construction. 

A spokesman for NAVSEA told DefenseNews that the problem appears to be confined to tubes made by BWX, and is not expected to delay the Columbia program. However, it is less clear whether it will have an effect on the timeline for the UK's new Dreadnought-class SSBNs and the next generation of Virginia-class attack submarines, as these two programs also draw on the same tube design. 

The Columbia-class is the Navy's highest-priority acquisition program. It is set to replace the service's 18 Ohio-class SSBNs, which provide one element of the U.S. "nuclear triad" of warhead delivery methods, alongside land-launched ballistic missiles and strategic bombers. The oldest Ohios are now in their third decade of service, and the first Columbia-class vessel will not be commissioned until 2031 at the earliest. 

Last December, the Government Accountability Office warned that the Navy risked cost overruns and problems during construction by using a rapid acquisition timetable for the Columbia class. GAO noted that the Navy was moving forward with the detailed design phase for the class without testing several key systems for technological maturity. These included the sub's common missile compartment, which houses the missile tubes.