Columbia-class test program delayed due to manufacturing defect

By Lee Hudson / March 15, 2018 at 1:07 PM

The Navy revealed yesterday the Columbia-class ballistic submarine test program is delayed because of a manufacturing defect.

Adm. James Caldwell, naval nuclear propulsion program director, said some of the components for the preproduction motor were not properly insulated.

"What we discovered was the sub-tier vendor did not properly flow down requirements to the manufacturer," he said during a Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee hearing.

The service will conduct full integration testing at a facility in Philadelphia, PA, using preproduction components for end-to-end testing, he said.

"We will take what we learned from that and roll that into the final design that will go into the first ship," Caldwell said. "While we lost some time on the preproduction motor we still have been able to shorten some test bands and doing some work in parallel."

Caldwell reiterated the Columbia-class test program still has a nine-month margin, but the delay inserts more risk into the program and puts pressure on the schedule.

Another challenge the Navy is facing with the multibillion-dollar Columbia-class program is manufacturing the length of the ship. The Columbia-class submarines are slightly larger than the legacy Ohio-class subs.

"We knew this was going to be a challenge to get to its 40-year life and will require the use of new materials," he said.

In 2010, the service decided to prove out the design by manufacturing a technology and demonstration core to use at a reactor prototype and training site in New York. The test core is nearly complete and Caldwell plans to begin building the first core for use on the Columbia next year.

Further, the Navy is conducting research on how to modify the core used on the Virginia-class attack submarine to allow for the boats to go faster. Caldwell anticipates the modified core will be used on future attack subs and will save the taxpayer $50 million compared to the legacy reactor.

The fiscal year 2019 budget request for naval reactors is $1.79 billion, which is a 21 percent increase over the previous year, according to written testimony submitted to the subcommittee.

"The overall increase to the budget request is primarily driven by the planned funding ramp for two national priority projects -- the refueling overhaul of a research and training reactor in New York, and the construction of the new Naval Spent Fuel Handling Facility in Idaho," the document reads.