Delays with New Strategic Nuclear Missile Submarine Program Could Damage National Defense, GAO Reports
The GAO reports that General Dynamics’ Electric Boat is “facing delays” with new strategic nuclear missile submarine program, has not completed a required “schedule risk analysis,” and that not “delivering [these] submarines on time could have consequences for the nation’s defense”
The Government Accountability Office (GAO), which provides “the public with timely, fact-based, non-partisan information that can be used to improve government,” recently released a report raising concerns about the Navy’s Columbia Class ballistic (read nuclear) missile submarine program.
“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.” Making matters worse, the lead shipbuilder on the project, General Dynamics’ Electric Boat Division (Electric Boat), has not conducted a “schedule risk analysis.” “Both GAO leading practices and Department of Defense (DOD) guidance identify schedule risk analysis as a critical tool for understanding and managing program risks that could impact the schedule.” The GAO explains that without the schedule risk analysis being conducted, “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.” The GAO concludes, “[c]hallenges delivering Columbia class submarines on time could have consequences for the nation’s defense.” A detailed discussion follows.
The U.S. Submarine Force
The United States employs three types of submarines.
Fast attack, or just, attack submarines, designated SSN (submarine, nuclear powered), do not carry nuclear weapons, but rather “are designed to seek and destroy enemy submarines and surface ships; project power ashore with Tomahawk cruise missiles and Special Operation Forces (SOF); carry out Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions; [and] support battle group operations.” USS Toledo (SSN-769) is an Improved Los Angeles Class attack submarine that I had the honor to command. Although now an older attack sub, she is still in commission and going strong, as noted by her recent receipt of the 2022 “Battle E,” awarded to the top-rated submarine in each submarine squadron in the calendar year.
Guided missile submarines, designated SSGN (submarine, guided missile capable, nuclear powered), carry up to 154 Tomahawk missiles for powerful conventional cruise missile strikes, and can also carry special operations forces.
Lastly, important here, fleet ballistic missile submarines, designated SSBN (submarine, ballistic missile capable, nuclear powered), carry up to 24 nuclear tipped submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and are capable, while on patrol, of striking almost any target on earth with warheads far more powerful than the one that struck Hiroshima. “The SSBNs’ basic mission is to remain hidden at sea with their SLBMs, so as to deter a nuclear attack on the United States by another country by demonstrating to other countries that the United States has an assured second-strike capability, meaning a survivable system for carrying out a retaliatory nuclear attack.” Although I never served on an SSBN, I did have the opportunity to conduct an observation ride on an Ohio Class sub some years ago, and I was impressed by two things. First, they are massive, twice as large as an attack sub. Second, they are very quiet and the crews train very hard, and I was left with little doubt that if called on to conduct a “retaliatory nuclear attack,” it would happen.
The following two and 1/2 minute Navy video provides a good visual summary:
An SSBN Trident II strategic nuclear ballistic missile test launch is seen here:
Replacing the Ohio Class SSBN
One of the problems facing the Navy is that the current SSBN fleet, designated the Ohio Class and consisting of fourteen SSBNs, is aging out:
“The Navy commissioned the lead ship of this fleet in 1981. The first Ohio class SSBN to retire – SSN 730 – will leave service in 2027 and plans are to retire one per year following this. When these submarines retire, they will have been in service over 40 years, longer than any previous submarines. Navy officials have stated that the legacy Ohio fleet cannot be life-extended any longer than what is planned due to aging issues.”
The Navy’s answer to the soon-to-be-retired Ohio Class is new Columbia Class SSBN, show here:
And it is imperative that this sub, with a price tag of $132 billion for the 12-boat program, the lead ship of which is now under construction at Electric Boat, not experience any delays. This could lead to a reduced number of available SSBN assets as the Ohio Class SSBNs begin to decommission. In a worse-case scenario, this could, therefore, cause a potential gap in SSBN deterrent patrol coverage. Or, as the Congressional Research Service puts it: “The [i]issues … include … the risk—due to technical challenges and/or funding-related issues—of a delay in designing and building the lead Columbia-class boat, which could put at risk the Navy’s ability to have the boat ready for its first scheduled deterrent patrol…when it is to deploy in the place of the first retiring Ohio-class SSBN.” However you phrase it, though, it doesn’t take much imagination to realize the seriousness of a situation in which the Nation’s “survivable system for carrying out a retaliatory nuclear attack” is detrimentally impacted.
Nevertheless, the GAO, as mentioned at the beginning of this post, reports that Electric Boat is “facing delays” in constructing the Columbia Class “because of challenges with design, materials, and quality,” and has not conducted a “schedule risk analysis.” Both GAO and DOD “identify schedule risk analysis as a critical tool for understanding and managing program risks that could impact the schedule.” This tool is critical because “without this guidance, and the long-term planning that it enables, the Navy cannot be certain that the fiscal year 2024 budget request will be sufficient to meet the production schedule it has planned.
So why no “schedule risk analysis”? Well, Electric Boat says the Columbia Class SSBN program is “too complex,” and the schedule risk analysis “would not correctly assess risks to achieving the lead submarine’s delivery date,” such as “how they would conduct workarounds when problems arise such as a lack of certain resources.” The GAO disagrees and says that “some government projects, such as at NASA, that are ‘similar and in some cases even greater production duration, cost, and complexity routinely conduct schedule risk analysis to better inform program efforts.'”
The Navy, for its part, says that “they manage the schedule and schedule risk using [scheduling] margin,” inserting “buffer periods ahead of contractual events and milestones to accommodate unforeseen problems.” A Navy spokesman declared that “[t]he Columbia Program continues to execute multiple key risk mitigation activities to promote success in meeting cost, schedule, and performance requirements,” and “[o]verall, the Columbia Program remains on track.”
The GAO remains skeptical, noting that “the last three lead submarines of a new class constructed by Electric Boat were delivered an average of 20 months late.”
The Biden administration in recent months entered into a partnership with Australia centered on its “shared ambition to support Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy.” This quickly prompted Senators Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and then-ranking Republican James Inhofe to send a letter to President Biden expressing concern that the deal “may be turning into a zero-sum game for scarce, highly advanced U.S. [nuclear submarines]” and noting that “current conditions require a sober assessment of the facts to avoid stressing the U.S. submarine industrial base to the breaking point.”
Underscoring the postulated potential detrimental impact on national strategic deterrence should an SSBN asset reduction occur due to Columbia Class delays, we recently posted about the Russian threat lurking off our shores: U.S. Military Worried About Russian Submarine Strike Capability Lurking Off Our Shores.
And now, a new U.S. Naval Institute report titled “Russian Arctic Threat Growing More Potent,” notes that “despite the heavy toll [Russia’s] invasion into Ukraine has had on its naval infantry, army and special forces,” “Russia’s Northern Fleet’s ballistic missile submarines and strategic (i.e. nuclear weapon) bomber force’s capabilities remain intact.”
“The Arctic remains “of great strategic value to Russia,” Njord Wegge, a professor at the Norwegian Defense University College, said this week as the report was released. On the military side, the Kola Peninsula in the Arctic provides a gateway for Russia’s Northern Fleet’s attack and ballistic missile submarines to move through the Greenland, Iceland, United Kingdom [GIUK] gap to reach the Atlantic.”
In sum, there is little in the defense budget as important as the Columbia follow-on ballistic missile submarine project, but issues in the program’s schedule have started to develop and one hopes that the Biden Administration, the Navy and its chosen contractor are approaching the problems with the seriousness required.
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General Dynamics’ Electric Boat is “facing delays”.
Oh? And why is that?
Only one sentence by the good captain appears to address that question, to wit, “The issues … include … the risk—due to technical challenges and/or funding-related issues”.
As for “technical challenges”, USN has been building subs for more than a century, and surely by now understands how to NOT let the “wouldn’t it be nice if” people get control of the design bureau.
As for “funding-related issues”, let’s be blunt: a recent federal budget pie chart, for 2016, shows a $4.1 trillion budget with $634 billion [16%] to “provide for the common defense”, which means 100 – 16 = 84% is “other”, the vast majority of which not constitutionally justified.
We don’t build merchant ships anymore, having given that away to the Chinese and the Koreans.
Now we can’t even build our own naval warships?
The defense budget is big, no question. The four services don’t each receive a 1/4 of the budget, their individual share varies. Individual members/groups within Congress push for programs. Sometimes that’s as simple as the manufacturer being located in their CD, State, Region. Sometimes it’s affinity for a weapon system; A-10.
The other hurdle is spending priorities and deferred start dates for replacement systems. Iraq and Afghanistan sucked up a huge amount of money. Even with this $ we didn’t initially field body armor to our troops or mine/IED resistant vehicles for quite a while. Planners knew the need and options existed for both but the 1990’s defense budgets didn’t include funds for them.
I worked for thirty years for a military electronics company that, at least in my early years, was making anti-submarine warfare equipment, and playing nice-nice with the state’s U.S. senators and house rep, not to mention this or that admiral or captain, was very important.
I suppose we should all be motivated by the motto of the Jesuit order, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, to the greater glory of God, but that’s not realistic.
I would like to get our priorities right, and funding both attack boats and missile boats should be very high priority.
I don’t disagree. Just pointing out the motivations of those who set the priorities are not close to pure. Nor always wise. Frankly the sub force delivers on its promise. The super carriers are vulnerable and IMO we should seek to create a force of smaller but more numerous carriers that are more expendable. The US hasn’t lost a carrier to enemy action in several generations but it will happen.
For the Army the bugaboo is unconventional warfare. Big Army and the defense companies hate the idea of fighting asymmetric war. They both want to fight near peer forces b/c its way easier and more straight forward. Kind of like a big fighter with bad footwork but heavy hands wants to close up and trade blows. That guy gets frustrated by a more nimble opponent who can box v only being able to punch. Not to mention there isn’t much R&D needed on body armor, individual/crew weapons and mine resistant vehicles as opposed to gee whiz, high tech weapons platforms.
Smells like they just don’t want to have the conversation — how much novelty, and how much risk are we going for here?
“…how to NOT let the “wouldn’t it be nice if” people get control of the design bureau…”
Exactly, so. It’s not everything that “would be nice.” But neither is it everything just like the last time, either. I suspect the argument they’re avoiding goes: “Are we building a plug-replacement for the Ohio class, that’s just not worn out, OR are we doing new, cool, stuff now that it’s 40-50 years later?” It’s not that they haven’t had that argument. Rather the opposite — they’re tired of having it some more.
All that said, claiming this program’s “too complex” to review is BS. “Too complex to review” is too complex to do. Saying THAT makes what we call a “quick assessment” in the biz. You think it’s too complex to review, shut it down because you don’t stand a chance of actually doing the thing.. You claim it’s too complex to review as positioning, shut it down because crap-weasels don’t get stuff this hard done.
A prime example of stupid “would be nice” is EMALS [electromagnetic aircraft launch system].
The very first carrier catapults were hydraulic.
Then came steam catapults, naval warships being driven by steam since the middle of the 19th century, including 21st century nuclear.
But NOOOOOO, the Navy had to discard a half century of perfectly functional steam catapults and replace them with electromagnetic.
Best of all, the genius who designed the system, four catapults as usual, two forward, two on the angled deck, made a single electric system that had to shut down ALL FOUR CATAPULTS to perform maintenance on any single catapult.
Of course, the MTBF proved to be terrible, and with the abovementioned design, nothing could be done on any catapult without completely disabling air ops.
Yeah, good example. I continue to be pleasantly impressed at the on-point perspective on tech things in the commentariat here.
On-point, the Navy has not covered themselves in glory lately with their NewTech program risk management. The Littorals and DDX are both program-level disasters. Both programs contain *both* badly-managed NewTech — similar to the new carrier e-pults, and badly-managed Stuff We Already Know(tm), like Don’t Make Single Points of Failure like wiring all the ‘pults together.
“We don’t build merchant ships anymore, having given that away to the Chinese and the Koreans.”
Given away. or regulated and union-ed away?
“regulated and union-ed away”
I suspect the same as you, but curiously the Congressional Research Service does not appear to mention that.
We still produce our own bears, right?
Regulated away. Just about no ships on the oceans are flagged American because of regulations that make it much cheaper to build and flag elsewhere.
Translation: “We need more money because we are skimming money off the top”.
“All electric is our future: electric cars, electric boats, electric stoves, electric heaters, electric this, electric that,” Green Energy experts tell NY Times.
Electric Boat has borne that name since 1899. Its not about being green.
Electric Boat is not the name of the submarine, but the name of the company (General Dynamics Electric Boat) that is manufacturing the Columbia Class Submarine—which is to run on electric drive—that is, it will use an electric motor to turn its propellers.
Electric Boat also manufactured the previous Ohio Class Submarines which did not have electric drives, but instead used reduction gearing and mechanical drive systems.
designated SSN (submarine, nuclear powered)
Technically, the SS comes from sub-surface. Just a nit.
Technically, the SS comes from sub-surface. Just a nit.
actually it is to designate ” Submarine Ship Ballistic Nuclear” as in SSBN
they will have been in service over 40 years, longer than any previous submarines
Ummm, well, submarines haven’t been around that long, so, of course they’ve been in service longer than others. Maybe we can build the next ones to last even longer than that.
“submarines haven’t been around that long [40 years]”
“The United States Navy commissioned 51 S-class submarines from 1920 to 1925.”
Thus, in my post, I noted the Navy has been building subs for over a century.
This is an issue that must be unraveled and put back on track pronto
Hopefully, our silent partner—the Chinese—can help us clear the backlog and get those pigs out to sea. I assume this happens after DEI training and vaccination requirements are met. And, once the Chinese bring the masks onboard
When it comes to subs, vessels that will rarely be seen by anyone once commissioned, why does this info have to be made public for the world to see? I can understand tanks and armored personnel carriers which are highly visible. But subs? The whole world has to know?
Well, you’ll never see me post anything about actual submarine operations, or anything else of a classified nature, which is why everything in all of my posts is linked to unclassified public domain documents (in this case the GAO report and other material). Having said that, I think there is some value in highlighting the above issue because the Navy, which claims the program is “on track,” seems like they might have some rose-colored glasses on. My hope is that my Senators and Congressional Rep might, after seeing the groundswell of reporting on this, start asking some tough questions of the Navy and Electric Boat and get this program back “on track,” where it belongs. Lastly, the delivery of a new class of Navy ship or submarine is an inherently public event, especially the most expensive one in Navy history, so I don’t think I’m giving anything away by discussing a GAO report about it. Just bringing it to the attention of Legal Insurrection’s loyal readers.
You did follow the Gao. So my question should be directed to them which they will never see of course. You just happen to be the ‘middleman’ I guess. No harm meant.
A few questions for Mr. Nault:
— to the extent that this can be discussed publicly, what are the new technologies in the Columbia-class boats that require substantially longer lead times? Is that the “design” part of the concerns with “design, materials, and quality”? Which of these new technologies are essential, and which are ‘nice to have’?
— The Russian Arctic and off-shore threats would appear (to me) to require more ASW responses as opposed to more SSBNs. What am I missing?
–The Australian deal, signed a couple years back, was not for, as I recall, Columbia-class boats, but rather Virginia-class boats. If the concern is that we’d stress the overall sub-building industrial complex, wouldn’t it be better to give/sell them some late-model used Los Angeles class boats (perhaps those that were laid up mid-life)? That will still be a significant upgrade over what they had.
1. As I am no longer on active duty, not only do I no longer have any kind of security clearance that might enable me to have insight into the new technologies, I probably wouldn’t anyway even if I was still active unless I was associated with the program – need to know and all that.
2. The point of the Arctic piece is simply to point out that, contra many talking heads proclaiming the demise of the Russian military, their submarine force appears to still be quite potent, so having the ultimate ace-in-the-hole, i.e. an SSBN on patrol, seems important going forward. More ASW would be good too 😉
3. That might be a plan, but I don’t think we’ve sold any older SSNs like we did back in the old diesel boat days, probably both because we need every SSN on deck right now and for the foreseeable future doing real-world ISR missions (see above), and because the Australians, I would imagine, lack the nuclear power training, regulatory, safety infrastructure that would make such a transfer acceptable to Naval Reactors, Congress, and other big Navy interests. Just a guess, though.
Back in the day, GAO reviews were individually funded, thus individually sponsored, by someone from non-administrative govt. Good to assume that the sponsors have something in mind before they start.
You say “suspect a problem”; I say “have an agenda” — let’s call the whole thing off.
Why should we bother to build any of this new stuff at all?
We’ll only give them all away to Zelensky when they’re finished.
I don’t recall Boeing did much with the Navy other than the PHM (Patrol Hydrofoil Missleship) and that was in very limited number in the 1980s as I recall. Mostly the defense division worked with USAF – where I did QA and Config/Data Management work. With every major contract, a deep tier of schedules were produced, with quarterly Program Management Reviews and a host of deliverables produced for risk analysis and status reporting on a monthly basis. USAF Program Management Office could be very convincing where our performance goals lagged through withholding progress payments and incentive fees.
I left that business after 20 years in 1999 (at 44) so I’m not current on procurement practices – but can’t imagine the DoD has yielded their program management clout to contractors …. just wondering where the clout is to compel performance from the contractor(s)? PMO would have kicked our behinds for such performance and stonewalling …