May 24 (UPI) -- Huntington Ingalls Industries cut the first steel plate of the Columbia ballistic missile submarine at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, marking the start of advance construction for the new class of subs.
A plasma-burning machine cut the first steel plate to be used to build Columbia, which is designated as SSBN 826 and the lead ballistic missile submarine in the class. Several company and Naval officials signed their names on the plate.
"The first cut of steel is a major construction milestone that signifies our shipyard and submarine industrial base are ready to move forward with production," Jason Ward, Newport News' vice president for Columbia-class construction, said in a Huntington Ingalls Industries news release.
"We have worked to engage the submarine industrial base and leveraged lessons learned from the successful Virginia-class program to building the Columbia-class submarines in the most efficient and affordable manner to provide the best value to the Navy."
Newport News, as a major program contractor for the program, is performing advance construction activities under a contract received from General Dynamics Electric Boat.
The 12-boat Columbia class will be constructed in Newport News, as well as at Electric Boat's facilities in Quonset Point, R.I., and Groton, Conn. Electric Boat will assemble and deliver all of the submarines in Connecticut, with the lead boat Columbia scheduled to be delivered to the Navy in 2027.
Newport News is three weeks ahead of schedule to support its advance construction efforts, according to the company.
"Today is a historic day," Ward said. "It has been a half century since Newport News Shipbuilding has constructed a ballistic submarine. Today, we celebrate the decade-plus effort spent working with Electric Boat on the design of this new class of submarine as we formally transition from design to material procurement and now to construction execution."
The Columbia is the first class of submarines built using fully digital blueprints.
They will replace the sole class of ballistic missile submarines currently in service with the Navy. Often referred to as "boomers," there are currently 14 Ohio-class vessels, according to the Navy. The subs include Trident II D5 missile,
General Dynamics' Electric Boat said the shipyard is 97 percent done with basic design and 43 percent complete on construction drawings and design disclosures of the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, CEO Phebe Novakovic said last month during a conference call on the company's first quarter earnings.
"We will be at 83 percent complete [in disclosures] at the start of construction, far in excess of historical design completion metrics for any class of warships," she said. "We have begun long-lead material construction on Columbia and will begin full construction of the first ship late next year."
The company has been expanding its production capability as the Navy increases demand in an effort to grow the size of its fleet.
Earlier this week, General Dynamics Electric Boat was awarded a $497 million contract modification to support future ballistic missile submarines -- the Columbia class and Virginia-class fast attack subs -- as well as the Ford-class nuclear carriers.