Navy plans to seek block buy for next five Columbia-class subs

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Washington D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton speaks during the keel laying ceremony for the future USS District of Columbia. (Photo courtesy of General Dynamics Electric Boat.)

WASHINGTON — The Navy wants to purchase the next five hulls for the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine program in a five-ship block, a plan that will require special permission from Congress but also has the potential to yield billions in savings.

Rear Adm. Scott Pappano, the program executive officer for strategic submarines, told an audience here at the Naval Submarine League symposium the choice to purchase hulls three through seven in a block is meant to send a “positive signal” to the industrial base as well as maintain the program’s notoriously thin schedule margin.

“That was the most cost-effective method of trying to mitigate the transition risk of Ohio to Columbia in the mid-2030s,” he said, referring to the Navy’s eventual transition from the legacy Ohio-class submarines to the new Columbia class.

A “block buy” essentially means the Navy would place orders for the long-lead time materials for several ships to the industrial base through a single contract, as opposed to traditional ship contracting in which deals are inked and ships are bought individually.

The benefit for the Navy is the deal results in economic order of quantity savings, essentially buying wholesale — and when the program is as large as Columbia, that can mean billions of taxpayer dollars saved. The incentive for industry to cooperate is that it creates a guaranteed level of work — and money — well into the future. The Navy plans to spend some $128 billion for a total of 12 Columbia-class subs.

Given Columbia’s import as the Navy’s top acquisition priority, it is not surprising the service would opt to purchase the hulls in a block. But it could also stir questions about both exactly how much money the service believes it can save as well as the necessary debate that will take place in Congress, which will have to balance the upfront price against more immediate budget needs. (The Pentagon must seek lawmakers’ explicit approval for deals such as this.)

Pappano during his speech did not discuss details of potential savings. Breaking Defense has reached out to the Navy for comment.

In 2018 the service claimed to have saved an estimated $4 billion by executing a similar deal for the third and fourth Ford-class aircraft carriers, and officials told reporters earlier this year that shipbuilder HII and the Navy are already crunching numbers for a second aircraft carrier block.

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