The Columbia-class will be the United States Navy’s most formidable submarines, but the program faces risks even before the submarines set sail.
Columbia-class: What We Know
The United States Navy’s future Columbia-class will be the largest submarines ever accepted by the United States’ sailing branch. The nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines will replace the United States’ current boomers, the Ohio-class.
Though the first of the new Columbia-class has already been laid down, a recent report by the Congressional Research Service highlighted some of the risks the program faces. Among the risks that the program faces, construction delays due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic topped the list, as did questions about the accuracy of the Navy’s pricing. However, two other factors are particularly concerning: ballooning program costs and a sufficient industrial base.
Industrial Base and Program Costs
One of the program’s most significant risk factors is the risk posed by cost growth. Congressionally-mandated spending caps have curtailed some of the Navy’s more recent shipbuilding programs, limiting several new classes of ships to much smaller hull numbers than the Navy planned initially. “Lead ships in Navy shipbuilding programs in many cases have turned out to be more expensive to build than the Navy had estimated,” the Congressional Research Service report explained.
But come what may, Columbia-class construction will go ahead. “Navy officials have stated consistently since 2013 that the Columbia-class program is the Navy’s top priority program, and that this means, among other things, that from the Navy’s perspective, the Columbia-class program will be funded, even if that comes at the expense of funding for other Navy programs,” the CRS states.
“Given this, the impact of cost growth in the Columbia-class program in a situation of finite DOD funding might be not so much on the execution of the Columbia-class program itself as on the consequent affordability of other DOD programs, perhaps particularly other Navy shipbuilding programs.”
Another potential issue stems from potential submarine industry construction challenges. In addition to the upcoming Columbia-class, the Navy is taking delivery of Virginia-class attack submarines, also nuclear powered. The Virginias currently under construction are an enlarged variant of the class, incorporating a multi-use Virginia Payload Module section that enlarges the submarines, both more costly and technically challenging to construct.
While the Navy required 14 Ohio-class boats to ensure 10 of the class were operational, just 12 new boats will be needed to meet that 10-boat requirement, potentially a source of program savings.
The challenges facing the Columbia-class are not inconsiderable. However, as the United States Navy’s top priority program, and as such will be funded, even if funding to other programs must be cut as a consequence.
Caleb Larson is a multimedia journalist and Defense Writer. He lives in Berlin and covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society.