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Columbia: The US Navy Has Big Plans For Its New Ballistic Missile Submarine

Columbia-class
An artist rendering of the future U.S. Navy Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines. The 12 submarines of the Columbia-class will replace the Ohio-class submarines which are reaching their maximum extended service life. It is planned that the construction of USS Columbia (SSBN-826) will begin in in fiscal year 2021, with delivery in fiscal year 2028, and being on patrol in 2031.

The United States Navy’s Columbia-class Submarines Should Be Feared: Once in service, the Columbia-class will be some of the most potent submarines on the planet.

The United States Navy’s Columbia-class submarine program aims to procure 12 brand-new nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines to replace the Navy’s current fleet of aging Ohio-class SSBNs and the largest submarine ever in service with the Navy.

The Columbia-class program is the Navy’s number one top priority program. In Navy parlance, this means the Columbia-class program will be funded, even if that means cutting funds from other Navy programs.

Though not yet in service, one of the Columbia-class program’s significant achievements is drastically reduced maintenance costs and time off-station. While the preceding Ohio-class required 14 hulls in total to ensure 10 Ohios were on-station at any one time, the Navy will need just 12 Columbia-class submarines to maintain a ten-hull, active force.

A smaller class number is primarily thanks to the Columbia-class streamlined midlife overhaul process. Unlike the Ohios, the Columbia-class reactors do not require refueling but instead operate with their original fuel for the entirety of their service lives. As a result, the U.S. Navy estimates that a slightly smaller nuclear deterrent force will save over $40 billion over the length of the class’ service lifetime.

Coming to a Navy Near You

Last year, General Dynamics submarine branch, Electric Boat, signed a modified contract option with the Navy to construct and test the lead and second Columbia-class submarines. The contract, worth $9.474 billion, covers both construction costs as well as engineering and design requirements, though the design is already over 90% complete.

The final assembly is scheduled to begin in 2024, with the class’s lead entering service in 2030.

Sea-based Nuclear Deterrent

As the United States’ up-and-coming nuclear-missile-capable submarines, the Columbia will be armed with the Trident II ballistic missile, arguably the world’s most capable submarine-launched ballistic missile, also in service on the current Ohio-class SSBNs.

The three-stage solid-fueled rocket’s range is estimated to be about 7,500 miles or around 12,000 kilometers. It is in service with two country’s navies: both the United States Navy as well as the Royal Navy on their Vanguard-class submarines.

Columbia-class: What’s Next?

Already by 2026, the U.S. Navy plans to purchase one Columbia-class submarine per year — this despite the class’ enormous $7.5 billion per-hull costs, estimated to consume nearly 40% of the Navy’s budget — due to their necessity in countering an increasingly capable Chinese Navy.

Although the first of the Columbia-class submarines is more than ten years away, once they are in service, they will provide a powerful deterrent capability and likely one of the world’s most convincing.

Caleb Larson is a multimedia journalist and defense writer. A graduate of UCLA, he also holds a Master of Public Policy and lives in Berlin. He covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society for both print and radio. Follow him on Twitter @calebmlarson

Written By

Caleb Larson, a defense journalist based in Europe and holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics and culture.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Carl Blondin

    December 21, 2021 at 11:34 am

    The Hunley was not the “USS Hunley.” It was an enemy warship, the “CSS Hunley.”

  2. R.Lee Radar

    February 14, 2022 at 6:33 pm

    We really needed to be replacing those Ohio’s years ago . While they’re extremally great at their job they’re outdated and require an attack hull to guard them at this point . The upgrades they’ve done help but even though they won’t admit it the Russian’s know how to track them if they get close enough . While still rare the info is out there that it’s happened on several occasions . They’re always talking about the life span of the carriers but the Ohio’s have been in service a LONG time by comparison ! The true “secret service” guarding or Nation should not be held up due to short sightedness on the part of our leaders .

  3. Dave

    February 14, 2022 at 7:02 pm

    So the Columbia class will be equipped with obsolete nuclear warheads, the W88 which entered service in 1988. In service for 34 years, it is functionally obsolete, but Congress will not fund the development of the Reliable Replacement Warhead, nor stockpile stewardship testing at the Nevada Test Site. The US nuclear deterrent is a paper tiger.

  4. Paul

    February 14, 2022 at 9:26 pm

    They’re turning the Washington Monument into a submarine?

  5. Paul Stuker

    February 15, 2022 at 7:31 am

    Wouldn’t a bunch of smaller submarines be a safer bet? Maybe a bunch of nuclear powered torpedos that stay on station waiting for orders for a year or two? Clearly I am not Navy but I have spent some time at SPAWAR.

  6. Barry Rogoff

    February 15, 2022 at 10:56 pm

    The H. L. Hunley was never commissioned into the Confederate Navy and thus never carried the designation CSS. She was a privateer although her third and final crew was commanded by George E. Dixon, a lieutenant in the Confederate States Army.

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