Shipbuilder Electric Boat faces 'atrophied' supply chain, GAO report says

An artist rendering of the future Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines


By ZACHARY VASILE | Journal Inquirer | Published: January 20, 2021

(Tribune News Service) — Inefficient computer-aided design software and inconsistent material supply threaten to hamstring Electric Boat's work on the next-generation Columbia-class nuclear submarine, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

The GAO, which audits federal agencies and military projects, said the Groton-based shipbuilder has "generally not met" its planned design schedule for the Columbia class because its design platform — which was not named in the report — is not working as intended.

And issues with an inexperienced shipyard workforce and weaknesses in supply chains, which presented themselves early on, threaten to bog down the project even further, compromising a rigid federal timeline.

The Navy had been using different software for its Columbia-related work but had to abandon it after its developer discontinued program support. The new platform was expected to reduce the number of hours needed to complete design disclosures, but unspecified issues "prevented the program from fully realizing" those efficiencies, according to the audit.

"Electric Boat faces persistent problems with its design tool, leading to cost increases and schedule delays during the design phase," GAO researchers wrote. "Late completion of design products threatens to impede construction progress and indicates challenges in the Columbia-class program's ability to achieve the lead submarine's construction schedule."

Development of the Columbia class is behind schedule due to delays in material availability, which the GAO blamed on an "atrophied" supplier base. Workers are also running out of space at company shipyards, as Electric Boat has been tasked with building both Columbia- and Virginia-class subs at the same time, an industrial ramp up not seen since the Cold War era.

Further complicating matters is that the Navy has almost certainly built too little money into is budget for delivery of the first two Columbia-class ships, the U.S.S. Columbia and the U.S.S. Wisconsin.

The GAO has recommended that Congress be given access to Navy reports that would more accurately reflect anticipated costs.

The Navy plans to invest around $128 billion to build 12 Columbia-class subs. They will eventually replace the aging Ohio-class nuclear-powered submarines, which have been in use since the early 1980s.

According to design specifications included in a 2017 report to Congress, the 560-foot-long Columbia ships will come equipped with 16 Trident D5 ballistic missiles, built by Lockheed Martin's space and missile defense unit.

Electric Boat and its subcontractor, Virginia-based Newport News Shipbuilding, laid down the U.S.S. Columbia in November. The Columbia-class submarines are expected to enter service in 2031.

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