The Navy's program to build a new ballistic missile submarine that would remain on patrol until the 2080s faces a number of hurdles, raising concerns among service officials and analysts that the first boat might not be ready on time.
The Columbia-class is the Navy's No. 1 acquisition priority as it seeks to replace aging Ohio-class platforms, which are slated to begin reaching the end of their service lives in the early 2030s.
The Navy plans to procure the first of 12 boats in fiscal year 2021, and have the lead ship on patrol by 2031. General Dynamics Electric Boat is the prime contractor for the initiative.
The effort is currently on track, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said at a conference in September. But he has concerns.
"I said on track and that's true, but it is [just] right on track... and so we need to find some margin in that program, some margin in schedule in particular," he said.
"In a program of this complexity it's just a fact of life that there are going to be things that will surprise us going forward, and so we need to... build in enough margin to accommodate those surprises," he added.
The Columbia will include new technologies not found on previous boats. Traditional submarines use steam turbines, but the next-generation will have a stealthier all-electric propulsion system.
"That's the element of the ship that is the most untested," said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a former Navy submarine officer. "It's mostly new engineering that has to be done in order to facilitate that."
The Columbia is also expected to be equipped with a life-of-the-ship nuclear reactor, which will eliminate the need for midlife refueling.
"There is a little bit of technical risk," said Clark, who previously served as chief engineer and operations officer with the Navy's nuclear power training unit. "Life-of-the-ship cores is what the Virginia-class has, but that's a 30-year ship, and here we're talking about a ship that's supposed to last up to 50 years."
The reactor technology is well understood, he added. But "the area where the risk lies is primarily on how those [shipboard] materials behave in an environment where they're getting exposed to radiation for a longer period of time."
Adm. James Caldwell Jr., director of the naval nuclear propulsion program, said the service will start buying reactor plant heavy components this year.
There is margin in the schedule to accommodate manufacturing and delivery challenges, he told National Defense at a recent conference, but "we have to work hard at it."
Some technologies and manufacturing techniques that will be used on the new boat will first be incorporated on attack submarines, but the Columbia will be a much larger...