Shipyards building two classes of submarines simultaneously
Double Duty: Shipyards build two classes of submarines simultaneously
Rendering of Columbia-class submarine
Designing and building the next ballistic missile submarine involves addressing a host of unprecedented challenges for the Navy, according to service officials and experts.
The estimated price of $15.2 billion for the first boat, lack of skilled labor, supply chain issues and a tight schedule are the main hurdles. The Trident submarines it would replace will be in service years past their original intended lifespan.
Still, work has begun on the Columbia-class submarine and must continue, Navy officials said. The service considers resupplying the nation’s submarine branch of the nuclear triad its highest priority.
The USS District of Columbia (SSBN 826) – the first of 12 such ships – is expected to be delivered in 2027 and ready to patrol by 2031, even as the service must move forward with other projects . Any problems in the schedule could have ripple effects across the service’s shipbuilding operations, senior Navy officials said.
“It’s a must-have requirement for this class,” Rear Admiral Scott Pappano, director of the strategic submarine program, told a Hudson Institute seminar in June.
Nonetheless, the Navy and General Dynamics Electric Boat – the contractor building the Columbia class – say the project is progressing as planned.
The contractor is about 20% complete on the lead ship and has also begun advanced construction and procurement of the second-in-class, USS Wisconsin SSBN827, Pappano said.
Eric Snider, vice president of the Columbia-class program at General Dynamics Electric Boat, expressed confidence in the process — even though construction of the new boat is happening at the same time and the shipyard where the company is building the next Virginia-class fast -attack submarines.
The plan calls for the delivery of one Columbia submarine and two Virginia submarines per year – a considerably faster rate than when the fast attack class namesake – SSN-74 – was produced. The Virginia was launched in 2003.
“Columbia is two and a half times the size of a Virginia,” Snider told National Defense. “We are not completely crazy. We learned a lot about the modular construction industry. We got off to a good start, actually tracking where the Virginia was in her build as a lead ship.
Eighty percent of Columbia-class construction takes place at Electric Boat’s Quonset Point, Rhode Island, and Groton, Connecticut facilities. Huntington-Ingalls Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia handles the remaining 20% of the workload, with a focus on bow and stern construction.
The District of Columbia and future 11 ships of her class are set to replace the aging Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines.
“The Ohio premier class will go offline in fiscal year 2027, and we’ll begin heel-to-toe replacements with the Columbia class coming right behind,” Pappano said.
Meanwhile, work to extend the life of the Ohio to 41 years from the 20 planned when it was built is nearing completion, Pappano said. It is possible that the life of some Ohios could be extended a little more if necessary, he added. This would only happen if the propulsion facilities and general condition were good enough to make these extensions a low risk proposition. The idea is to ensure that enough submarines – at least 10 ideally – are on patrol at any given time.
The new boats will carry 16 missiles each, representing about 70% of the country’s nuclear deterrent. They will also carry Mark 48 torpedoes. Their construction will make them the quietest submarines ever built. Each will be 560 feet long and displace 20,810 tons, making them the largest submarines to come out of a US shipyard. Their nuclear reactors will not need to be refueled for the full expected life.
Pappano acknowledged that challenges have put a damper on the plan. The contract was signed and work began at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, which made it more difficult to hire the necessary labor.
“We have taken very aggressive steps to reverse this trend,” Pappano said, “There continues to be good progress.”
All of the missile tubes for the District of Columbia have been delivered, along with those for the Dreadnought, Britain’s Royal Navy counterpart project, he said.
“But I suggest the real risk here is not just to steer the ship well. We have to get [it] good for the rest of the class,” he added.
Assuming permission and credits are granted, construction on Wisconsin is expected to begin in 2024, Pappano said. Serial production of one ship per year is to begin in 2026. With construction of two Virginia-class submarines taking place at the same time, work is to continue on each Columbia. Pappano envisions an alignment of work and collaboration at the industrial base.
“Priority goes to the SSBN – the Columbia class – if there are shortages,” Pappano said.
When the Columbia-class concept was first envisioned in 2007, the idea was to incorporate “evolutionary — not revolutionary — technologies,” Snider said.
Navy and electric boat leaders believe they have a workable plan because they rely on proven techniques during the building process, rather than attempting a reinvention of the wheel.
“The precise and detailed requirements, the timelines we need to meet, and the need for 100% success in delivering the capability drives the need to use proven things,” Snider said.
For example, the incorporation of modular construction that began with the Virginia class is fully implemented with new ships.
“Columbia will be the first class of strategic deterrent submarines designed to be built in a modular fashion,” Snider said. It is “the most efficient way possible, both from a cost and time point of view”, he added.
The “stick construction” approach that was used years ago when the Seawolf and Los Angeles class boats were built – putting together the hull rings, circular cylinders and caps that make up the pressure hull of the submarine, then cut holes through which equipment and machinery would be moved into place — disappeared, Snider said. The old method could be done effectively, but it was more dangerous.
“Now we’re building these circular cylinders that make up the pressure hull of the submarine and stuffing it with equipment and everything we can while it’s sitting there with the biggest hole that will ever be… the diameter of the sub,” Snider said. “Then we bring them all together, weld them together, and seal them into the tube that becomes the submarine.”
The evolution that led to the emergence of Columbia also takes into account the significant changes in the demographics of the Navy. As they do now throughout the fleet, for example, women will serve on these ships. Virginia-class submarines, new as they were, had to be refitted to accommodate crew members of different shapes, sizes, and privacy needs.
This is not the case with Columbia – the accommodations are built as a Navy-specified requirement from the start. Modern shipbuilding has long considered the 95th percentile of men when designing line of sight, workspaces, valve placement, and other aspects of routine work. The 95th percentile of female crew members is now also considered in the design, Snider said.
Future modernization should also involve simpler processes, he added, thanks to a modular design and an overhaul of some placements.
“You can design a pump or a component to be very difficult to access from a replacement standpoint. We have decades of performance data and experience on various components,” Snider said. The idea [is] things that are going to break frequently, you try to keep that in mind. You try not to end up with a thing that you know you’re going to have to replace every 5 or 10 years in an almost impossible space [to get to] without tearing the entire compartment.
At present, the Columbia program appears to be on track with its tight production schedule and cost projections, said Mark Cancian, senior adviser for the international security program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. The Navy has no other choice, he believes.
“All the strategists say the maritime branch of the triad is the most important because of its survivability. And the number of boats the navy plans to build – 12 – shows up in every force structure assessment, in every shipbuilding plan,” Cancian said in an interview. “The good thing is that the Navy announced a little cost growth but nothing really big. On the other hand, they are just beginning to manufacture the first boats.
Cancian also considers the plan to build a Columbia and two Virginias simultaneously as ambitious.
“I’m no shipbuilding capability expert, but that’s probably beyond what underwater shipbuilding capability can handle. But I know it’s a consideration. The industry always says it can do it, and that’s fine. But very often it turns out to be more difficult than expected,” he said.
Snider and his team at Electric Boat remain committed to meeting the terms of the contract the company and the Navy have agreed to.
“We must support the nation’s strategic nuclear deterrent and maintain it, as the nation needs it,” Snider said. “This is the number one priority program for the Department of Defense, General Dynamics and Electric Boat. We are all completely aligned on this.
Topics: Navy News, Shipbuilding, Submarines, Submarine Warfare