Columbia Class Submarine:

Delivery Hinges on Timely and Quality Materials from an Atrophied Supplier Base

GAO-21-257: Published: Jan 14, 2021. Publicly Released: Jan 14, 2021.

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Shelby S. Oakley
(202) 512-4841
oakleys@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

Over the next 20 years, the Navy plans to build Columbia class ballistic missile submarines while also constructing the attack submarine fleet—a pace unmatched since the Cold War.

In previous building booms, there were more suppliers available to the nation's nuclear shipbuilders than there are today. The Columbia class program's success is contingent on timely delivery of quality materials, but quality problems with some materials caused delays during early construction.

We recommended that the Navy provide Congress with supplier readiness information and reassess when to conduct inspections at supplier facilities to limit quality problems.

Rendering of the Columbia Class Submarine

submarine on the surface of water

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Shelby S. Oakley
(202) 512-4841
oakleys@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

The Navy's schedule for constructing the first submarine of the new Columbia class is threatened by continuing challenges with the computer-aided software tool that Electric Boat, the lead shipbuilder, is using to design the submarine. These challenges will likely impede construction because the shipbuilder is late in completing design products used for building the submarine. To ensure construction begins on schedule, the Navy modified its design contract with Electric Boat to include an option for constructing the first two submarines and requested sufficient authority from Congress for fiscal year 2021 to exercise it. Navy officials stated, however, that the Navy's budget request is lower than its current cost estimate, and it is not informed by an independent cost assessment. As a result, the program will likely need more funding to reflect the increased estimate.

Quality problems with supplier materials caused delays during early construction. These quality problems included missile tubes (depicted below) with defective welds. As the shipbuilders expand outsourcing to suppliers, quality assurance oversight at supplier facilities will be critical for avoiding further delays.

Quad Pack of Four Submarine Missile Tubes

Quad Pack of Four Submarine Missile Tubes

However, the Navy has not comprehensively reassessed when to seek additional inspections at supplier facilities that could better position it to identify quality problems early enough to limit delays.

Why GAO Did This Study

The Navy plans to invest about $128 billion in 12 Columbia class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. The shipbuilders will construct the Columbia class at the same time as the Virginia class attack submarines. They plan to rely on materials produced by a supplier base that is roughly 70 percent smaller than in previous shipbuilding booms.

Congress included a provision in statute for GAO to examine the program's status. This report assesses the Navy's efforts to complete the design for the lead Columbia class submarine and actions the shipbuilders and the Navy have taken to prepare for construction and ensure the lead submarine is delivered according to schedule and quality expectations.

GAO assessed Navy and shipbuilder design progress against cost and schedule estimates, reviewed documents, and interviewed officials about supplier readiness and quality assurance. This is a public version of a sensitive report that GAO issued in November 2020. Information that the Department of Defense (DOD) deemed sensitive has been omitted.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that the Navy (1) provide Congress with updated cost information, (2) include information on supplier readiness in its annual report to Congress, and (3) reassess when to seek additional inspections at supplier facilities. DOD concurred with the recommendations but disagreed with some of the report's details. GAO incorporated DOD's comments as appropriate and maintains the validity of the findings, as discussed in the report.

For more information, contact Shelby S. Oakley at (202) 512-4841 or oakleys@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Navy should provide Congress with information from the milestone decision authority meeting that convened in August 2020. This should include updated cost and schedule information following the milestone decision authority's review of the independent cost assessment and assessment of the program's ability to reduce development risks. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense: Department of the Navy

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Navy should ensure that the Navy includes an update on the status of critical supplier readiness as part of the annual report it provides under the provisions of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act to further inform Congress on the status of the Columbia class program's performance goals during design and construction. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense: Department of the Navy

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Navy should ensure that the Supervisor of Shipbuilding, Conversion and Repair (SUPSHIP), in collaboration with Columbia class program management, assesses whether additional materials require government source inspections as soon as practicable and if the Navy believes further government source inspections are required, take action to ensure the shipbuilder includes the inspection clauses in contracts with suppliers. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense: Department of the Navy

 

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