GAO concerned Columbia program may struggle to stay on schedule

This post has been updated to include a comment by General Dynamics CEO Phebe Novakovic.

WASHINGTON — A government watchdog organization warns the U.S. Navy does not have enough insight into whether and how ongoing challenges are risking the on-time delivery of the first Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, the Navy’s top acquisition priority.

A Government Accountability Office report released Tuesday found prime contractor General Dynamics’ Electric Boat “has not conducted a schedule risk analysis of the lead submarine’s construction schedule,” which goes against GAO’s best practices and DoD guidance for large acquisition programs.

The shipbuilding program has an integrated master schedule tracking the lead boat’s progress against the construction plan. That plan calls for the submarine to be delivered in record time: 84 months, compared to the 88 months it took to build the first Ohio-class ballistic missile sub and the first of the much-smaller Virginia-class attack submarine.

Though this master schedule shows the interdependency on a range of government and contractor tasks — and the ripple of delays that could be caused if one task falls behind — GAO faults the program for taking the additional step of turning this integrated schedule into “a dollarized and time-phased plan, called a Performance Management Baseline, against which progress can be assessed.”

The report notes that, a year into construction on the lead ship, “the shipbuilders are facing delays because of challenges with design, materials, and quality.” Though they’re taking steps such as adding more people to the project — at the expense of Virginia-class submarine construction —without that performance management baseline, “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.”

Commander of Naval Sea Systems Command Vice Adm. Bill Galinis earlier this month told reporters the future USS District of Columbia, the first of 12 planned Columbia-class SSBNs, remains on track to meet the 84-month contractual schedule.

The Navy and Electric Boat had worked out an accelerated 78-month plan that would reduce risk by creating a six-month buffer, but Galinis said that buffer has been eroded.

“We did have an early target set for ourselves,” he said. “We lost a little bit of the schedule margin that we had off of that early target date, but we’re still on the actual contractual date.”

Some of the delay has been pandemic-related; though Electric Boat, subcontractor Newport News Shipbuilding and other vendors remained open throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Galinis said productivity ebbed and flowed as workers and sometimes entire teams were home sick.

Beyond COVID, though, the admiral said “there is an element of contract performance, I can’t deny that.”

Electric Boat declined to comment and referred Defense News to the Navy for comment on the report.

In a Jan. 25 earnings call, parent company General Dynamics’ CEO Phebe Novakovic was asked about the Columbia schedule. She said “we’re about 30% done on the first ship, and we are ahead of a contract schedule.”