December 9, 2020 – Trident submarines, their associated Trident II Strategic Weapons System and integrated shore support systems, are a critical leg of the nation’s nuclear triad and a key component of the National Defense Strategy. As the Ohio class submarines begin to decommission, they will be replaced by the new Columbia class submarines. However, the Ohio class has some impressive numbers in her wake including the completion of more than 4,000 strategic deterrent patrols, and 178 successful missile launches of the Trident II SWS.
On Nov. 05, 2020, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research Development and Acquisition James Geurts, Rear Adm. Scott Pappano, Commander, Naval Undersea Warfare Center who was also named Program Executive Officer Columbia, and the program manager, Captain Jon Rucker, held a virtual press conference to announce a $9.47 billion contract modification award to General Dynamics Electric Boat Corporation. November 5 also signifies the beginning of full lead ship construction of the first Columbia class vessel.
Cmdr. Bryan Bustamante, director, Submarine Integrated Weapon Support Team, NAVSUP WSS—the U.S. Navy’s primary Program Support Inventory Control Point, said the NAVSUP WSS Submarine IWST began supporting Columbia in 2015. The Strategic Systems Program office established a common missile compartment logistics manager position, while team NAVSUP continued cultivating relationships with its mission partners in preparation for sustaining and maintaining what many are billing as the “stealthiest” submarine ever built.
In early 2018, the Common Missile Compartment Working Group coalesced to analyze available data and make recommendations for Columbia class support moving forward. High-level representatives from several mission partners including NAVSUP WSS, the Columbia Class Program Office or PMS 397, Strategic Systems Program, Defense Logistics Agency, Trident Refit Facility and product support managers. The overriding objectives of this forum are to: review, document and validate Ohio legacy supply support processes; identify which of these can move forward in support of Columbia; and identify what needs to change for the new class.
Among the significant changes to the configuration of the Columbia class are an electric-drive system for quieter operations than its predecessors, a 560-foot long hull designed to carry up to 16 Trident II D5 missiles, x-shaped stern control surfaces, sail-mounted dive planes and a specially coated hull to reduce sound.
“One of the issues the Undersea Enterprise is addressing early is obsolescence management” said Bustamante.
According to Cmdr. Jonathan Connelly, assistant program manager for Columbia fleet integration and sustainment, obsolescence is already being proactively managed by PMS 397, Electric Boat, and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Keyport in concert with myriad stakeholders.
Ideally, the ongoing collaboration will identify and mitigate obsolete parts or systems prior to pull through to Columbia. If not, they are already working reengineering solutions and engaging with the engineering community earlier, which is imperative, according to Bustamante.
“We realize we cannot predict every part failure until a boat is in service,” said Bustamante. “But, if we do not engage early to ensure accurate data such as technical replacement factors and failure rates, especially when some parts are supposed to last the life of the ship, we are setting the entire sustainment system up for significant challenges.”
The NAVSUP WSS team views early onboarding of provisioners as a great stride forward. Jeff Miller, submarine Hull, Mechanical and Electrical, Branch chief, said, “Having provisioners onboard this early… so they become immersed on all things Columbia is enormous. They’ll be trained and ready as provisioning starts coming in.” The team has also reached out to PMS 397 to acquire the provisioning schedule to prepare for what items are coming in and try to identify peaks and valleys ahead of time, and plan and resource accordingly.
According to Tony Harper, director, NAVSUP WSS Strategic Weapon System Division, the initial guidance to the provisioners within the Hull, Mechanical and Electrical Branch included two goals; “…capture the knowledge of the retiring provisioners with Trident unique provisioning experience, and manage the initial influx of Columbia provisioning work.”
Harper said due to Columbia’s higher operational tempo, it will be supported at a more robust level than other Navy vessels, as is the case for the current Trident fleet. “This will be accomplished by forward positioning stock at maintenance locations by way of the Trident Load List, leading to a higher state of readiness for Columbia,” said Harper. “Due to her dedicated refit time and forward positioned stock, as well as operating with a second crew, Columbia class SSBNs can get in and out of scheduled maintenance much faster.”
Harper said the Navy made a $250 million investment into the TLL over several decades. “Think of this like a layer of insurance that includes wholesale and retail stock positioned at Trident stock points to ensure SSBN mission readiness,” said Harper. As the Navy’s end-to-end supply chain integrator, NAVSUP WSS continuously evaluates and adjusts the TLL and will use the same tools and processes to identify range and depth “adds” needed to ensure the TLL adequately supports the Columbia Class when she comes online. According to Harper, PMS 397 has committed to investing in the procurement of that additional material which will be recapitalized by the Navy Working Capital Fund prior to the first Columbia Class submarine arriving at its homeport.
Bustamante said one of the keys to success has been the early engagement and constant communication with mission partners throughout planning. Earlier this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic slowed many supply chains, NAVSUP WSS’s supply chains barely felt a ripple. Capitalizing on a robust engagement framework and relationships cultivated through the Strategic Supplier Management initiative, the command ensured uninterrupted lines of communication with every mission partner and supplier.
“We are making every effort to be transparent about our requirements and have regular dialogues with industry executives to talk about the impact that supply-chain providers have on readiness,” said Lynn Kohl, NAVSUP WSS vice commander.
The recent contract modification covers the build of the first Columbia submarine (SSBN 826) and advanced procurement, advanced construction, and associated engineering costs for the future USS Wisconsin (SSBN 827), with Wisconsin full construction starting in FY24 once authorized and appropriated. The incremental funding provided by the award is required for the first two ships to fund construction start and provides industrial base stability, production efficiencies, and cost savings compared to individual procurements.
According to a November 2019 Congressional Research Service report, the Navy plans to buy 12 Columbia class submarines for more than $100 billion. The program will replace the Navy’s current force of 14 Ohio class submarines, which are approaching the end of their expected lifespans.