A Sinking Feeling: America's New Stealth Missile Submarine Has a Problem

August 7, 2018 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Columbia-Class SubmarineNavyMilitaryTechnologyWorld

A Sinking Feeling: America's New Stealth Missile Submarine Has a Problem

Faulty welds have been found in several missile tubes made by subcontractor BWXT, Inc., according to a new report. 

The U.S. Navy and shipbuilder General Dynamics Electric Boat have run into a snag on the Columbia-class Ohio Replacement Program (ORP) nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) program.

Faulty welds have been found in several missile tubes made by subcontractor BWXT, Inc., according to a new report from David Larter at Defense News. It is unclear what the impact will be on the $122.3 billion Columbia-class program. Additionally, the defects could impact Block V Virginia-class attack submarines equipped with the Virginia Payload Module (VPM) missile tubes as well as the British Dreadnought-class SSBNs, which also share a common missile compartment with the Columbia.

The U.S. Naval Sea Systems Command and General Dynamics Electric Boat are currently investigating what went wrong. But while the impact from the welding problem is unclear, there are indications that the faults are not systemic and no other vendor has had similar issues thus far.

“The Navy/GDEB team is working to bound the scope of the problem and engineering assessments are ongoing to assess and determine remediation for the identified issues,” Naval Sea Systems Command spokesman Bill Couch told Defense News. “Initial reports indicate that the other vendors do not have the same issue, and they continue to produce missile and payload tubes.”

“Work at BWXT, Inc. has been temporarily halted while the Navy and General Dynamics Electric Boat figure out what went wrong. All BWXT welding requiring volumetric inspection has been halted until the investigation is complete,” Couch said.

It is not clear how long the investigation will take to complete or how long it will take to implement any fixes.

The faulty welds are a source of uncertainty for a program that has no margin for error. General Dynamics Electric Boat has to finalize the design and start construction of the first submarine in fiscal year 2021 in order for Columbia to make her first deterrence patrol in October 2030, just after the first of the Ohio-class SSBNs have to be retired as they reach the end of their service lives. That means components such as the common missile compartment (CMC) have to be ready well before the shipyards needs to insert those components into the Columbia’s hull when construction starts. Indeed, the Navy awarded contracts to start building the CMC in 2016.

Unlike with the Virginia-class attack submarine, Electric Boat will be the sole prime contractor and will be responsible for delivering all twelve Columbia-class boats to the Navy. However, while Electric Boat will be responsible for eighty percent of the work on the Columbia-class, Huntington Ingalls Newport News—the only other shipyard capable of building a nuclear submarine—is heavily involved in the design and build phase. Newport News has a total responsibility for about twenty percent of the boat's design and construction. Dividing up the work in this manner will help to preserve the nation’s critical nuclear submarine engineering and manufacturing skills.

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In an attempt to minimize costs, the Navy drew upon as much technology from the Virginia-class as possible—though the fact remains that the Columbia-class is extremely expensive. However, there are some major differences between the two designs—especially towards the stern of the vessel. The Columbia is designed to have greatly improved survivability compared to any previous American submarine design. The Navy emphasized stealth and survivability because of the boat’s critical nuclear deterrence mission—the Columbia has to be survivable through 2080 in order to guarantee America’s nuclear deterrence.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor of The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveMajumdar.