While they were born of a design first created in the 1970s, the Ohio-class submarines can destroy entire nations if we are talking about the SSBN version of these boats. Along with reconfigured SSGN models, these submarines are the very core of the U.S. Navy. And while they might be old, they are under consideration for an extension of service. Here is what we know right now along with an amazing photo essay:
The United States Navy currently operates 18 Ohio-class submarines, all of which were built between 1976 and 1997. While there have been plans to retire some of the older boats, the Navy may have to keep them around a little while longer. According to a report from The Drive, up to five of the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), along with four others of the class that were converted into guided-missiles submarines (SSGNs) are currently under evaluation for short-term life extension.
Rear Adm. Scott Pappano, program executive officer for Strategic Submarines confirmed that the nuclear-armed Ohio-class SSBNs, as well as the SSGNs, would be examined for “short-repair availability.” He explained the need to maintain the boats during an Advanced Nuclear Weapons Alliance Deterrence Center online event held on May 12.
As the largest subs ever constructed for the U.S. Navy, and the third-largest submarines ever built, the boats of the Ohio-class were initially designed to carry the concurrently developed Trident submarine-launched ballistic missiles. A total of 18 of a planned 24 Ohio-class submarines were constructed by the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics between 1981 and 1997.
Following the START II treaty, the number of U.S. Navy strategic missile submarines was limited to 14 beginning in 2002. Rather than simply phasing out or decommissioning four of the boats, the U.S. Navy opted to convert the four to conventionally armed nuclear-powered cruise missile submarines (SSGNs). Electric Boat was awarded a contract in September 2002 to convert the four oldest of the class including USS Ohio (SSBN 726), Michigan (SSBN 727), Florida (SSBN 728) and Georgia (SSBN 729). 726 entered the shipyard on Nov. 15, 2002, and completed the conversion in December 2005 and deployed for the first time in October 2007.
Last month, a Congressional Research Service report – “Navy Columbia (SSBN-826) Class Ballistic Missile Submarine Program: Background and Issues for Congress (Updated April 27, 2022)” – warned that the United States could face a delay with lead Columbia-class submarines, which could seriously impact the United States nuclear deterrent abilities.
Since 2013, the U.S. Navy has consistently identified the Columbia-class as one of its top priority programs. It calls for the design and construction of 12new SSBNs to replace the Navy’s current force of 14 aging Ohio-class SSBNs. The service procured the first Columbia-class boat in FY2021 and wants to procure the second boat in the class in FY2024.
“The Navy’s proposed FY2023 budget requests $3,079.2 million (i.e., $3.1 billion) in continued procurement funding for the first Columbia-class boat and $2,778.6 million (i.e., about $2.8 billion) in advance procurement (AP) funding for subsequent boats in the class, for a combined FY2023 procurement and AP funding request of $5,857.8 million (i.e., about $5.9 billion),” the report noted.
A critical factor in the delay with the Columbia-class has been the state of America’s shipyards.
“U.S. Navy submarines are built at two shipyards—General Dynamics’ Electric Boat Division (GD/EB) of Groton, CT, and Quonset Point, RI, and Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding (HII/NNS), of Newport News, VA. GD/EB and HII/NNS are the only two shipyards in the country capable of building nuclear-powered ships. GD/EB builds submarines only, while HII/NNS also builds nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and is capable of building other types of surface ships. The two yards currently are jointly building Virginia-class attack submarines,” the CRS warned.
In addition to GD/EB and HII/NNS, the submarine construction industrial base also relies on hundreds of supplier firms, as well as laboratories and research facilities, in numerous states. Much of the total material procured from supplier firms for the construction of submarines comes from sole-source suppliers, which can create bottlenecks and greatly impact the supply chain.
Keeping the Ohio-class in Service