Navy Submarine Programs Facing Many Pressing Challenges, Deadlines
By OTTO KREISHER, Seapower Correspondent
ARLINGTON, Va. — The Navy’s submarine production enterprise is besieged by growing demands as it moves Virginia-class construction to two a year, is building payload models for future Virginias and is designing new models, and is working on refueling some of the Los Angeles-class attack boats, while focusing on the No. 1 priority — keeping the Columbia-class program on the tight schedule to replace the aging Ohio-class boomers.
On top of all that is the urgent requirement to overcome the “debacle” of faulty welding in new ballistic-missile tubes that has taken 10 months from the narrow schedule margin to meet the Columbia’s firm 2031 start of patrols, and the possibility that Virginia production could be increased to three a year in the near future.
Adding to that staggering array of challenges described by the top submarine program officials Nov. 7, the Navy program managers and the sub building industry are confronted with a need to not only expand their workforces to meet the growing demands, but to find new skilled builders and designers to replace an aging cadre of workers.
But during their presentations at the Naval Submarine League’s annual symposium, the Navy officials returned repeatedly to the crucial requirement to have the first Columbia-class ballistic-missile submarines ready for their nuclear-deterrence missions before the current Ohio-class boats hit their already extended service life.
“We’re doing everything we can to deliver Columbia on patrol, on time,” said George M. Drakeley, executive director in the submarine program executive office. “Beside keeping the Columbia program at an affordable cost, “our biggest challenge is to deliver on time.”
History shows that the first of class in any ship program does not deliver on time, Drakeley said, noting “We don’t have that luxury.”
“It’s very important we get the Columbia out by 2031 as the Ohios retire,” he said, because “we’ve extended the Ohios [service life] from 30 to 42 years.”
Navy officials have said that they cannot guarantee that the oldest of the Ohio boomers would be able to submerge for a strategic patrol after 2031.
Earlier in the day, Adm. Frank Caldwell, director of Naval Nuclear Propulsion, showed the importance of the Columbia program by noting the ballistic-missile submarines were “the only survivable component” of the nuclear deterrent triad and would carry 70 percent of the warheads allowed by the New Start treaty with Russia.
Capt. Jonathan Rucker, program manager for Columbia, said they were “in full swing” with detailed design and advanced procurement underway and would be ready to start construction in 2021. In addition to focusing on keeping on schedule, Rucker said, “to ensure the Navy gets 355 ships … we need to get Columbia down to an affordable program cost.”
To do that, he said, “my staff is working on how to get to ‘no,’ which means don’t change requirements.”
To get a head start on Columbia construction, the program started production of the common missile compartments, which also will be used in the Royal British Navy’s Dreadnaught ballistic missile submarines.
But last year, inspectors discovered “this missile tube debacle,” he said, referring to a large number of substandard welds. The program office is working with industry to address the flawed welding and to impose a more stringent oversight regime, but correcting the flaws has taken 10 months from the schedule.
Capt. Christopher J. Hanson, program manager for the Virginia submarines, noted that they were now steadily producing two boats a year, were building the first of the Virginia Payload Modules, which will increase the boats’ strike capabilities, and were working on designs for improved future versions.
And Drakeley noted that “Congress has put into law” the requirement to negotiate with industry on increasing the construction rate to three a year, which might happen by 2022 or ’23.
Meanwhile, they are working on ways to refuel the nuclear reactors on five of the older Los Angeles-class attack boats to extend their service lives as part of an effort to expand the sub fleet from 48 to 60 to meet the demands from regional combatant commanders.