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Software threatening to derail US Navy’s Columbia-class delivery schedule

Columbia-class submarine
Artist's rendering of a Columbia-class submarine

A computer-aided software tool used by the shipbuilder responsible for delivering the next generation of US Navy’s nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines is threatening to disrupt the construction schedule.

According to a US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, General Dynamics Electric Boat faces persistent problems with its design tool leading to cost increases and schedule delays during the design phase.

At the start of the Columbia-class program, Electric Boat transitioned to the new customized software tool for design and construction because its prior tool was no longer supported by the original developer.

The new tool integrates new capabilities, such as some enhancements to material ordering and cable routing. It was also expected to reduce the average hours needed to complete design disclosures by almost half of the time required for the Virginia class program.

The program and shipbuilder expected these capabilities to enable greater efficiencies than previously possible. However, problems with the tool’s software prevented the program from fully realizing these efficiencies. Consequently, Electric Boat is behind schedule in producing key design products—design disclosures and work instructions—and as a result is experiencing delays in ordering materials needed to support the construction schedule. These delays, in turn, led to cost increases as the shipbuilder requires additional work hours to complete design products.

To ensure construction begins on schedule, the Navy modified its design contract with Electric Boat to include an option for constructing the first two submarines and requested sufficient authority from Congress for fiscal year 2021 to exercise it. Navy officials stated, however, that the navy’s budget request is lower than its current cost estimate, and it is not informed by an independent cost assessment. As a result, the program will likely need more funding to reflect the increased estimate, GAO said.

In addition to the software problems, the program was plagued early on with bad supplier materials. Missile tubes with defective welds caused delays during early construction. Despite the issues, the navy has not comprehensively reassessed when to seek additional inspections at supplier facilities that could better position it to identify quality problems early enough to limit delays.

Based on the findings, GAO recommended the navy to provide congress with updated cost information, include information on supplier readiness in its annual report to congress, and reassess when to seek additional inspections at supplier facilities. The entire GAO report can be accessed here