The US Navy is charting a new course for its emerging nuclear armed Columbia-Class ballistic missile submarines while it examines potential fixes to recently discovered welding problems with early construction of some of the boat’s missile tubes.
The service is now conducting a range of engineering assessments and analyses to both determine the scope of the problem and explore potential remedies, officials said.
Of greatest significance, perhaps, is that Navy officials tell Warrior Maven they do not expect any delay or major problems with the long-term development of the new submarines.
Developers say the reason for this is simple - Navy planners built-in procedural time and flexibility to allow for adjustments and needed fixes as part of the process along the way.
“The Navy purposely planned for early construction of the Common Missile Compartment including missile tubes and first article quad pack, to mitigate risks such as these, and construction start for Columbia remains on schedule in 2021,” William Couch, spokesman for Naval Sea Systems Command, told Warrior Maven.
Accordingly, formal production is still scheduled for 2021 as a key step toward fielding a new generation of nuclear-armed submarines to serve all the way into and beyond the 2080s.
The Columbia-Class, to be operational by the 2028, is a new generation of technically advanced submarines intended to quietly patrol the undersea realm around the world to ensure second-strike ability should the US be hit with a catastrophic nuclear attack.
While the Columbia-Class is intended to replace the existing fleet of Ohio-Class ballistic missile submarines, the new boats include a number of not-yet-seen technologies as well as different configurations when compared with the Ohio-Class. The Columbia-Class will have 16 launch tubes rather than the 24 tubes current on Ohio boats, yet the Columbias will also be about 2-tons larger, according to Navy information.
General Dynamics Electric Boat has begun acquiring long-lead items in anticipation of beginning construction; the process involves acquiring metals, electronics, sonar arrays and other key components necessary to build the submarines.
For many years now, early construction, prototyping and research and development work on the submarine’s technologies have been underway - particularly with the missile tubes. Developers with submarine-maker General Dynamics Electric Boat have been working on “tube and hull forging,” a process where missile tubes are welded into quadrants or “four packs” before being inserted into larger submarine modules being built for the boats.
The missile tube complication, which has been largely determined to involve only one of several subcontracting vendors building the tubes, is now being resolved. Some of the impacted tubes are now being evaluated.
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The subcontractor involved, called BWXT, has already delivered some of the missile tubes to the builder’s yard.
“All BWXT welding requiring volumetric inspection has been halted until the investigation is complete,” Couch said.
The Navy has not formally accepted delivery of the missile tubes, as they will ultimately be accepted prior to shipment to the UK or at USS Columbia delivery, service officials said.
Navy is working with the UK on a common missile compartment to be used for both the new US Columbia Class and the UK’s emerging Dreadnought ballistic missile submarines.
The Navy is working closely with the UK to evaluate impacts to Dreadnought, Couch added.
“Impacts to the delivery of missile tubes to the UK will be assessed upon completion of GDEB's (General Dynamics Electric Boat) efforts to define and scope next steps,” Couch said in a statement.
Both the Pentagon and the Navy are approaching this program with a sense of urgency, given the escalation of the current global threat environment. Many senior DoD officials have called the Columbia-Class program as a number one priority across all the services.
“The Columbia-Class submarine program is leveraging enhanced acquisition authorities provided by Congress such as advanced procurement, advanced construction and multi-year continuous production of missile tubes,” Couch added in a previous statement.
This first appeared in Warrior Maven here.