Immature technologies could endanger Columbia-class schedule, costs, GAO warns

The US Navy’s next generation of ballistic missile submarines could encounter cost overruns and unexpected delays caused by new and under-tested technologies, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report has warned.

GAO noted that additional development and testing on several Columbia-class submarine technologies were required to demonstrate their maturity.

The systems requiring more testing are critical to the submarines’ performance, including the Integrated Power System, nuclear reactor, common missile compartment, and propulsor and related coordinated stern technologies, according to GAO.

“[As a result], it is unknown at this point whether they will work as expected, be delayed, or cost more than planned. Any unexpected delays could postpone the deployment of the lead submarine past the 2031 deadline,” GAO said.

The navy’s Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines will replace the 14 Ohio-class that currently provide the sea-based leg of the US nuclear triad, slated to begin retiring in 2027. The first Columbia must begin patrols in 2031 to prevent a gap in deterrent capabilities; the class will ultimately carry up to 70 percent of the nation’s strategic nuclear capability. The program is a top Navy priority with an expected cost of $267 billion over its life cycle, including $128 billion to research, develop, and buy 12 submarines.

The navy intends to complete much of the submarine’s overall design prior to starting construction to reduce the risk of cost and schedule growth.

However, the Navy recently awarded a contract for detail design while critical technologies remain unproven—a practice not in line with best practices that has led to cost growth and schedule delays on other programs, according to GAO.

GAO had suggested that Congress consider requiring additional reporting on these technologies but, before this report issued, legislation passed that did so.


You can read the full report here