10 January 2018
The Navy is defending the technological maturity of its now-in-development Columbia-Class submarine in response to a recent Government Accountability Office report claiming that many of the boat's technologies might not meet necessary standards of technical progress.
"The Columbia Class Submarine Program is well positioned to provide needed capability at an affordable price on the timeline needed to meet national strategic deterrent requirements," William Couch, spokesman for Naval Sea Systems Command, told Warrior Maven in a written statement.
Citing the submarines Integrated Power System, nuclear reactor, common missile compartment and propulsor, the GAO report says additional testing and development are required to assess technical progress.
"It is unknown at this point whether they will work as expected, be delayed, or cost more than planned," the report states.
While quick to emphasize that the service welcomes input and critical assessments, Navy officials responded to the GAO's central claims by explaining that the technological systems in question are engineering and integration efforts, as opposed to technology maturation efforts.
Also, Navy developers told Warrior Maven that the Columbia-Class acquisition program has met all of its requisite DoD metrics, therefore reinforcing and validating the program's progress. In particular, Couch said the Columbia program complied with all Navy, DoD and statutory requirements for conducting a 2015 Technology Readiness Assessment. He added that while some of the systems have not yet been tested in an operational environment, they are showing substantial promise and reliability in various developmental assessments.
Responding to a claim in the GAO's report that Navy developers underestimated some of the risks associated with the technology, Couch added that "the Navy continues to actively manage all Columbia program costs, schedule and performance goals, including engineering and integration risks."
The Navy response also emphasizes, according to Couch, that Columbia-Class submarine developers regularly brief DoD leadership and Congress to "ensure all risks are transparent and fully understood."
The GAO report does praise the Navy for its thorough effort to explore and complete design specifications early in the acquisition process - so as to set proper requirements and pave the way toward successful construction.
Overall, the issue raised in the GAO report is of critical concern to many throughout Congress and DoD for both budget and strategic reasons. Many regard the Columbia-Class submarines, slated to enter service in the early 2030s, as the number one DoD priority. Added to this equation is the fact that there has long been concern that there were not sufficient budget dollars available for the effort.
Perhaps of equal or greater significance is the fast-evolving current global threat environment which, among other things, brings the realistic prospect of a North Korean nuclear weapons attack. Undersea strategic deterrence therefore, as described by Navy leaders, brings a critical element of the nuclear triad by ensuring a second strike ability in the event of attack. Quietly patrolling in often unknown portions of the global undersea domain, Navy nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines are intended to perform a somewhat contradictory, yet essential mission.
By ensuring the prospect of massive devastation to an enemy through counterattack, weapons of total destruction can - by design - succeed in keeping the peace.
Although complete construction is slated to ramp up fully in the next decade, Navy and General Dynamics Electric Boat developers have already been prototyping key components, advancing science and technology efforts and working to mature a handful of next generation technologies.
With this in mind, the development strategy for the Columbia-Class could well be described in terms of a two-pronged approach; in key respects, the new boats will introduce a number of substantial leaps forward or technical innovations - while simultaneously leveraging currently available cutting-edge technologies from the Virginia-Class attack submarines, Navy program managers have told Warrior in interviews over the years.
Designed to be 560-feet- long and house 16 Trident II D5 missiles fired from 44-foot-long missile tubes, Columbia-Class submarines will be engineered as a stealthy, high-tech nuclear deterrent able to quietly patrol the global undersea domain.
While Navy developers explain that many elements of the new submarines are not available for discussion for security reasons, some of its key innovations include a more efficient electric drive propulsion system driving the shafts and a next-generation nuclear reactor. A new reactor will enable extended deployment possibilities and also prolong the service life of submarines, without needing to perform the currently practiced mid-life refueling.
By engineering a "life-of-ship" reactor core, the service is able to build 12 Columbia-Class boats able to have the same at sea presence as the current fleet of 14 ballistic missile submarines. The plan is intended to save the program $40 billion savings in acquisition and life-cycle cost, Navy developers said.
Ultimately, the Navy hopes to build and operate as many as 12 new nuclear-armed submarines, to be in service by the early 2040s and serve well into the 2080s.
Construction on the first submarine in this new class is slated to be finished up by 2028, with initial combat patrols beginning in 2031, service officials said.
The US plans to build 12 new Columbia-Class Submarines, each with 16 missile tubes, and the UK plans to build four nuclear-armed ballistic submarines, each with 12 missile tubes.
Regarding development of the US-UK Common Missile Compartment specified by the GAO report, early "tube and hull" forging have been underway for several years already.
The Columbia-Class will also use Virginia-class's next-generation communications system, antennas and mast. For instance, what used to be a periscope is now a camera mast connected to fiber-optic cable, enabling crew members in the submarine to see images without needing to stand beneath the periscope. This allows designers to move command and control areas to larger parts of the ship and still have access to images from the camera mast, Electric Boat and Navy officials said.
The Columbia-Class will utilize Virginia-class's fly-by-wire joystick control system and large-aperture bow array sonar. The automated control fly-by-wire navigation system is also a technology that is on the Virginia-Class attack submarines. A computer built-into the ship's control system uses algorithms to maintain course and depth by sending a signal to the rudder and the stern.
Sonar technology works by sending out an acoustic ping and then analyzing the return signal in order to discern shape, location or dimensions of an undersea threat.
Navy experts explained that the large aperture bow array is water backed with no dome and very small hydrophones able to last for the life of the ship; the new submarines do not have an air-backed array, preventing the need to replace transducers every 10-years.
In January of last year, development of the new submarines have passed what's termed "Milestone B," clearing the way beyond early development toward ultimate production.
Last Fall, the Navy awarded General Dynamics Electric Boat a $5 billion contract award is for design, completion, component and technology development and prototyping efforts.