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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Columbia-Class: The Largest US Navy Submarine Ever Is Coming Soon

Columbia-class. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
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.

Columbia-class Nuclear-Ballistic Missile Sub Gets Funding Through Budget Patch: Congress just threw the U.S. Navy’s new boomer submarine a lifeline. The Columbia-class nuclear-powered SSBN ballistic missile sub recently got funded by Capitol Hill lawmakers in a temporary continuing resolution measure. The Columbia-class will eventually replace the Ohio-class to make up the Navy’s leg of the nuclear triad. While $500 million short of what the navy wanted, Congress approved $1.6 billion for the Columbia-class boomer.

Not A Good Way to Fund a Critical Acquisition Priority

The Columbia-class is at the top of the Navy’s acquisition wish list, and the branch wants 12 new boomers. But some members of Congress are not happy about continuing resolutions that they believe hamstring the naval procurement outlays. Small carveouts, according to Rep. Bobby Scott, (D-Newport News), are inefficient ways to fund the navy.

The Columbia-class could be one of the most expensive naval programs in history and will need every penny legislators can shake out of the piggy bank. Each sub will cost around $7.5 billion. But it’s necessary as the current Ohio-class is expected to be at the end of its life cycle in 2027.

The Columbia-class Will Be Deadly

Like the Ohio-class, these new subs will be outfitted with the Trident II D5 nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles with a range of 7,500 miles. Sixteen submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) tubes are on board. With three solid-fuel rocket propulsion systems, the three-stage Trident missile can “carry up to 14 multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles with W88 or W76 thermonuclear warheads,” according to

Why Not Bring On a Hearty Nuclear Reactor

But the real advantage is in the maintenance of the new nuclear reactor. Rather than requiring a nuclear reactor fuel exchange (refueling and complex overhaul) after half of its service life, the Columbia-class can avoid that expensive and lengthy maintenance period. This saves money and keeps it out to sea longer. This advantage along with reducing the size of the boomer fleet by two hulls could save $40 billion over the lifetime of the Columbia-class.

Biggest Sub Ever

The new Columbia-class will be the biggest submarine ever built by the Navy. The boats are 560 feet long with a beam of 43 feet and displacement of 21,000 tons.

This Sub-optimal Funding Process Risks Delays

The USS Columbia (SSBN-826) cannot be delayed if it is going to be ready by 2027. The $500 million shortfall due to the last continuing resolution to keep the federal government open is problematic, according to the Chief of Naval Operations.

Admiral Mike Gilday, the CNO, is trying to sound the alarm. “Since the shipbuilding account is uniquely line-item appropriated, the CR provides insufficient funding for SSBN-826, our first Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine and number one modernization priority … If the CR is extended over the full year, we expect construction delays to the Columbia-class program and costs to grow, increasing delivery risk to this critical system and threatening our ability to meet U.S. Strategic Command requirements. This is a program with zero margin for delays.”

Early rendering of what Columbia-class could look like

Early rendering of what Columbia-class could look like

With these dire warnings, it is difficult to envision a scenario in which the Columbia-class comes in on time and under budget. Can the USS Columbia be ready in five years? What about the new nuclear reactor? That alone sounds complicated and would need ample time for production. The navy says it’s $500 million short for this fiscal year. With continuing resolutions the norm for Congressional funding, the navy will have to fend off the budget doldrums as best as it can. If not, the Ohio-class will have to be extended in order to keep the SLBM leg of the nuclear triad intact.

Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.