The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has concluded that the country’s already overstretched industrial base faces increasing difficulties constructing Columbia nuclear missile firing SSBNs and this is already causing delays on the Virginia program.  As the third component of the nuclear deterrence triangle – along with crewed bombers and ICBMs – the Columbia class are the USN’s highest priority acquisition.

In a report released on January 24, the GAO – the equivalent of the ANAO – made it clear that the Columbia program is in early trouble, saying:

“After more than a year of full-scale construction of the lead Columbia submarine, the shipbuilders are facing delays because of challenges with design, materials and quality. The shipbuilders are working to mitigate delays using additional shipyard resources, such as more staff to complete work more quickly.

“Because of the Columbia class program’s essential role in strategic deterrence, it has priority status over most national defense related programs, including the Virginia class program. The shipbuilder added staff to the Columbia class program who were originally planned for the Virginia class program, contributing to delays for that program.

“However, long-term planning does not account for shared risks between these programs that are likely to present production challenges and could result in additional costs. Without updated long-term planning, 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.”

In other words, for the foreseeable future it will be impossible to ramp up the speed of the construction of the Virginia class – a further indication that if Australia will receive any, it will be at some very distant future point.

Seemingly oblivious to this reality, Defence Minister Richard Marles has pre-empted both the Defence Strategic Review and the AUKUS announcement by ruling out the acquisition of a new class of conventionally powered submarines constructed in Adelaide.  In doing so, he is toeing the RAN line – which after the cancellation of the “regionally superior” Attack class is fixated entirely on nuclear powered submarines, irrespective of the cost or schedule.

Whether the nuclear-powered task force led by VADM Jonathan Mead – which is costing about $500,000 per day – is taking this reality about US production difficulties into account is unknown.  However, if his report on the way ahead – due to be made public at the end of March – does not fully deal with these issues it will be just so much waffle to be dumped on the pile of good intentions.

Washington is committed to spending $132 billion (a whopping  AU $187 billion) on 12 Columbia SSBNs and they are the largest and most complex submarines the US has ever built.  These leviathans of the deep weigh around 21,000 tonnes – almost three times the displacement of a Virginia – and are 171 metres in length.  Designed to replace the ageing Ohio class, they will be able to launch 16 Trident D5 nuclear-tipped missiles with a range believed to be around 12,000km.

SSBNs are considered the most secure part of a country’s nuclear arsenal because they can remain undetected deep beneath the waves and therefore are far less susceptible to being wiped out in an enemy first strike.  One of the main purposes of smaller, faster, SSNs such as the Virginia class is to hunt enemy ballistic missile firing submarines – and to protect one’s own fleet of them.  Since Australia has no SSBNs to protect, this removes one justification for the need for SSNs.

The GAO report says two U.S. shipbuilders—General Dynamics Electric Boat (Electric Boat) and Huntington Ingalls Industries Newport News Shipbuilding (Newport News)—design and build nuclear submarines. Electric Boat is the prime contractor for design and construction of the Columbia class, with Newport News serving as its major subcontractor. Newport News also builds Ford class aircraft carriers.

Electric Boat and Newport News are preparing for the most significant increase in ship construction in over 30 years. The shipyards are constructing both submarine programs while also completing various activities necessary to sustain existing submarines, and in the case of Newport News, building Ford class aircraft carriers. The shipyards are basing their plans for shipbuilding on the Navy’s plans to procure two Virginia class submarines per year through 2033 and one Columbia class submarine per year starting in 2026.

To make a bad situation worse in terms of resources, the USN wants to speed up the construction of the Columbias from the current 84 months to 78 months, putting even more pressure on the shipyards.  The GAO worries that it is doing this by cutting some regulatory corners by reducing the level of risk analysis associated with the build, writing:

“The Navy and DOD lack essential schedule insight because the shipbuilder has not 1) conducted a schedule risk analysis of the lead submarine’s construction schedule or 2) provided schedule data in a format that the Navy can easily use to validate the schedule’s quality.”

This situation is already flowing through to Virginia class production:

“After more than a year of full construction for the lead submarine, overall construction progress was behind where Electric Boat planned to be under its accelerated schedule. In response, the shipbuilders prioritized Columbia class construction over Virginia class construction. The Navy needs additional long-term planning to identify risks that are shared between both submarine programs.”

The GAO says because of the Columbia class program’s essential role in strategic deterrence, it has priority status over most national-defense-related programs, including the Virginia class program. To mitigate growing schedule delays, the shipbuilder is adding staff to the Columbia class program by using workers that were originally planned for the Virginia program.

The report quotes the USN as saying the shipbuilders plan to add more workers beyond its original staffing plan for Columbia class construction work until it recovers from schedule delays. This will likely result in additional delays to the Virginia class program.


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Editor Kym Bergmann at kym.bergmann@venturamedia.net

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Kym Bergmann is the editor for Asia Pacific Defence Reporter (APDR) and Defence Review Asia (DRA). He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism and the defence industry. After graduating with honours from the Australian National University, he joined Capital 7 television, holding several positions including foreign news editor and chief political correspondent. During that time he also wrote for Business Review Weekly, undertaking analysis of various defence matters.After two years on the staff of a federal minister, he moved to the defence industry and held senior positions in several companies, including Blohm+Voss, Thales, Celsius and Saab. In 1997 he was one of two Australians selected for the Thomson CSF 'Preparation for Senior Management' MBA course. He has also worked as a consultant for a number of companies including Raytheon, Tenix and others. He has served on the boards of Thomson Sintra Pacific and Saab Pacific.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Our requirement for SSN’s was never based on any requirement to protect Boomers and to say so is misleading and yet another case where you are misrepresenting the facts to support your own views.
    SSN’s can remain submerged and at sea for as long as provisions exist for the crew, NO Deisel electric even one fitted with AIP will ever be able to match an SSN speed, range or endurance. This alone given our location and distance from world flashpoints SSN were always the best option for us, but political and availability issues have always constrained what the Navy was allowed to have. UNTIL NOW!
    The US might consider the long-term advantages of Australian production in that would mean 3 yards producing SUB modules, there is nothing to say Australia could not produce extra modules for export back to US yards over the long term.

    • I’ve written about this a few times before and I’m not convinced that: a) extended submarines operations in the South China Sea are in Australia’s strategic interest – let alone for the enormous cost of being able to do so with a nuclear powered submarine; b) it seems unwise to give up the idea of an advanced diesel-electric submarine as a bridging capability; and c) I mentioned protecting SSBNs more out of curiosity than anything else.

    • Just because the US opened the door does not mean we should walk through… The point is not really whether nuclear powered subs are better than conventionally powered ones, its whether they are SUFFICIENTLY better to justify the massively increased cost and huge uncertainties over delivery. The SSN pathway is full of risk, not the least of which are the political factors in the US. Even now we are seeing wavering in the US side for all sorts of reasons. A huge 20+ year project like this “could” turn out well, but then again probably not… At the very least we will see delays and cost overruns. Hugely irresponsible to embark on this without a hedging strategy such as an interim conventional submarine.

      On the strategic side, my understanding is this has once again returned to the defence of Australia. It will be interesting to see the framing of the strategic situation and the justification for SSN’s in the upcoming DSR and AUKUS SSN taskforce reports.

  2. The Admirals all want the biggest and best Toys but at what cost, they are vehemently against an interim Submarine, in case they end up missing out on a SSN. They want Nuclear Boats and they want what the big kids have. In my opinion The Astute is the option that best fits what the RAN can operate . They have a smaller crew (90) and are shorter (97mt). Selecting the option of Virginia Class as the new Nuclear Submarine for the RAN is ludicrous. Putting aside the fact that the Virginia is possibly the most potent SSN currently in service, the RAN has enough trouble manning six Collins Boats with a crew of 58, crewing six Virginia Boats with crews of 135 seems problematic. Rebuilding the current infrastructure in place for the 77mt Collins to accomodate the 115 mt Virginia will be quite a daunting proposition. In short the Virginia is just to big.

  3. Canberra must make a decision based on what is going to best enhance Australia’s security. Spending gazillions on a few nuclear boats that will only play an auxiliary role in US global deterrence is not the way. It would pre-empt many other alternatives in the Defence coffers & leave us vulnerable.
    There is more to submarines than ‘speed, range & endurance’. Conventional subs, unlike their nuclear cousins, can sit on the sea bed at vital choke points or in littoral seas, presenting a formidable dilemma for any invader.
    One can only hope that Minister Marles, despite all the grooming he has been subjected to lately, will keep in mind his primary duty.

    • Unfortunately I have no confidence that Minister Marles will do anything other than parrot whatever the pro-nuclear faction tell him to say. It’s possible that there will be some push back from his Cabinet colleagues when the enormous cost of acquiring and operating nuclear submarines becomes clearer, but that might be some years away until some basic decisions are made, such as the preferred design.

  4. I agree whole heartedly with You Mr Bergmann. Minister Marles hasn’t shown anything that has instilled confidence in his ability to do the job. One has to wonder why Brendan O’Conner wasn’t given the Portfolio, as he held it while in opposition .

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