Next Missile Sub ‘Facing Delays’ Due to Design, Materials, and Quality, GAO Says
Electric Boat is pulling workers from the Virginia program to help the Columbia effort, but at unknown risks to cost and schedule, the watchdog wrote in a new report.
Navy leaders want their newest ballistic-missile sub six months early—but it’s already “facing delays” and its builder isn’t planning properly for problems that might knock it off budget or schedule, a Government Accountability Office report says.
“After more than a year of full-scale construction on the lead Columbia[-class] submarine, the shipbuilders are facing delays because of challenges with design, materials, and quality,” said the 41-page report, which was released on Tuesday.
Moreover, the report said, prime contractor General Dynamic Electric Boat “has not conducted a schedule risk analysis of the lead submarine’s accelerated construction schedule” as called for by GAO-identified leading practices and Department of Defense guidance.
Programs that skip this analysis “have limited insight into how schedule risks could affect the likelihood of achieving key program milestones, including delivery, and the amount of margin—or a reserve of extra time—needed to manage critical risks and avoid delays,” the report says.
In summer 2020, the Navy set an aggressive goal for the future USS District of Columbia: delivery in 78 months instead of the original 84. Navy leaders told GAO that the new target—April 2027—remains feasible because Congress allowed them to begin buying and building components earlier than usual. But the formal deadline—October 2027—remains on the books, giving Electric Boat “six months of margin to ensure on-time delivery,” the Navy told GAO.
The last time the Navy built a first-in-class submarine, it took four months longer than its 84-month target, GAO noted. That was the attack submarine USS Virginia, delivered in 2004 by Electric Boat—and much smaller than the planned Columbias.
To fix the delays, Electric Boat has taken employees from the ongoing Virginia-class program to work on District of Columbia, which is the Navy’s highest-priority shipbuilding effort. But that might delay future Virginias, the report said.
Understanding these “shared program risks” requires long-term planning and the kind of schedule risk analysis that is missing, GAO wrote. Such an analysis feeds data about the program and its schedule into statistical simulations that “predict a range of possible critical paths based on information about the program—such as resource availability and productivity, uncertainty, and risk,” the report said.
Without this guidance, and the long-term planning that it enables, “the Navy cannot be certain that the fiscal year 2024 budget request will be sufficient to meet the production schedule it has planned for these submarine classes,” the report says.
Program officials told GAO that “they manage the schedule and schedule risk using margin,” inserting “buffer periods ahead of contractual events and milestones to accommodate unforeseen problems.”
And Electric Boat told the GAO that the Columbia program was “too complex” for at least one of the risk analysis simulations, called “Monte Carlo,” because “it would not correctly assess risks to achieving the lead submarine’s delivery date,” such as how they would conduct workarounds when problems arise such as a lack of certain resources.
The GAO countered that some government projects, such as at NASA, that are “similar and in some cases even greater production duration, cost, and complexity routinely conduct schedule risk analysis to better inform program efforts.”
The GAO also found that the Navy receives schedule data from Electric Boat in PDFs and Microsoft Excel formats instead of the “native format” of the program used by the company, making it harder for the Navy to assess the data.
Navy officials said the formats were good enough to allow them to oversee the program and assess Electric Boat’s progress.
The GAO remained skeptical, noting that “the last three lead submarines of a new class constructed by Electric Boat were delivered an average of 20 months late.”
Routinely receiving Columbia’s schedule in several formats is “consistent with all previous submarine contracts,” and the information provided is good enough for overseeing the lead submarine’s schedule “and identifying risk areas for mitigation,” Jamie Koehler, a spokesperson for Naval Sea Systems Command, said in a statement to Defense One.
In their response to the GAO report, Pentagon officials concurred on four ofthe six recommendations while partially concurring on the remaining two, and said the Milestone Decisions Authority “will identify the appropriate organization and timeline to perform additional schedule evaluations and will provide the results to the Columbia program office.”
Electric Boat declined to comment for this story.
“The Columbia Program continues to execute multiple key risk mitigation activities to promote success in meeting cost, schedule, and performance requirements,” the Navy’s Koehler said. “Overall, the Columbia Program remains on track.