Large-scale work on the first of the twelve planned Columbia submarines is slated to kick off in 2021, with deliveries starting in 2030. Credit: iStock.

It was the scenario the US Navy and Pentagon officials feared most — what would the Covid-19 pandemic do to its military suppliers, and how would it affect critical deadlines.

As fate would have it, the Navy’s top priority — its new nuclear-powered Columbia-class submarine — has taken a big Covid-19 hit.

Workers’ absences at a critical supplier have delayed construction and welding of the boat’s missile tubes by several months, a senior Navy official said this week, and the service is scrambling to somehow make that time up, according to a report by Paul McLeary at Breaking Defense.

Large-scale work on the first of the twelve planned Columbia submarines is slated to kick off in 2021, with deliveries starting in 2030 — just in time to begin replacing the Cold War-era Ohio-class subs as the Navy’s leg of the nation’s nuclear triad.

The subs will carry 70% of the warheads allowed by the New Start Treaty with Russia, Breaking Defense reported.

Head of the Columbia program, Rear Adm. Scott Pappano, said during a video conference sponsored by the Advanced Nuclear Weapons Alliance that the work experienced “a hiccup” earlier this year when less than 30% of workers at UK-based Babcock Marine showed up for work during the height of the Covid-19 outbreak, leading to serious setbacks in the work schedule. 

“There was an interruption in our ability to do work,” Pappano said, calling the delay of several months a “worst case” scenario that would stick if no actions were taken to speed up work going forward, Breaking Defense reported.

“We’re analyzing the plan right now,” he added. “Prioritizing what tubes go where and then coming up with mid-term and long-term recovery plans to go deal with that.”

Pappano said the Navy and industry may hire more workers and bring in more vendors to buy that time back, Breaking Defense reported.

The missile tubes have already caused the service some pain. In 2018, contractor BWX, contracted to deliver three tubes to General Dynamics Electric Boat, discovered problems before the tubes were delivered, eventually paying US$27 million to fix the problems.

The company later said it was considering getting out of the missile tube business with the Navy, leaving BAE Systems as the only US-based company capable of doing the work, Breaking Defense reported. 

The Navy is walking a tightrope on its Virginia and Columbia programs, and any slip on one program will affect the other. The two share the same missile tube design, which will also be fitted onto the UK’s forthcoming Dreadnaught class of submarines.

The Columbia is also expected to be equipped with a life-of-the-ship nuclear reactor, which will eliminate the need for midlife refueling, National Defense reported.

“There is a little bit of technical risk,” said Bryan Clark, who previously served as chief engineer and operations officer with the Navy’s nuclear power training unit.

“Life-of-the-ship cores is what the Virginia-class has, but that’s a 30-year ship, and here we’re talking about a ship that’s supposed to last up to 50 years.”

The reactor technology is well understood, he added. But “the area where the risk lies is primarily on how those [shipboard] materials behave in an environment where they’re getting exposed to radiation for a longer period of time.”

Each Columbia-class boat, which is two-and-a-half-times the size of a Virginia-class submarine, will have 16 nuclear missile tubes, serving as a deterrent against any threatening nation.