Navy’s $128B nuclear sub project faces watchdog’s review

THE U.S. NAVY'S Columbia-Class Submarine project will be audited by the Pentagon’s inspector general on how well the Navy is overseeing development of the propulsion and steering system. / COURTESY GENERAL DYNAMICS ELECTRIC BOAT
THE U.S. NAVY'S Columbia-class submarine project will be audited by the Pentagon’s inspector general on how well the Navy is overseeing development of the propulsion and steering system. / COURTESY GENERAL DYNAMICS ELECTRIC BOAT

NEW YORK The Pentagon’s inspector general plans to audit how well the U.S. Navy is overseeing development of the propulsion and steering system for its new $128 billion Columbia class of nuclear-armed submarines.

An audit this early in the Navy’s top-priority program – at least 17 months before construction is scheduled to start on the first of 12 vessels – signals concern about the potential risks in technology for the sub, which is still mostly in its design phase.

The review that’s likely to begin by June will “determine whether the Navy is managing the development” of the system to “ensure that it meets performance requirements without cost increases or schedule overruns,” the watchdog office said in its fiscal 2019 audit plan.

“There is a suggestion in this statement that the stern section may present some risk of cost growth or schedule delay,” Ronald O’Rourke, naval systems analyst for the Congressional Research Service, said in an email. Until now, he said, concern about cost and delay “has focused on things other than the stern section.”

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The Navy disclosed last year, for example, that Electric Boat identified weld defects in missile tubes from one of three tube suppliers.

The review concerns the propulsor, which drives a submarine through the water, and the coordinated stern, which allows it to maneuver. The submarines are being built by General Dynamics Corp.’s Electric Boat division, which has significant operations in North Kingstown.

“We look forward to working with the DoD IG on any such effort,” said William Couch, a spokesman for the Naval Sea Systems Command. The audit is likely to be complete next year as Congress considers the fiscal 2021 defense budget. The Navy is expected to seek an increase in funds to start construction of the first vessel in October 2020.

Tony Capaccio is a reporter for Bloomberg News.