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Columbia: Meet the Largest U.S. Navy Submarine Ever

Ohio-class submarine. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Ohio-class submarine. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The U.S. Navy needs ballistic missile submarines for nuclear deterrence missions. That means Washington is sinking billions of dollars in new underwater platforms to get the job done. The Columbia-Class is the future of the U.S. Navy A new contract modification shows just how much the U.S. Navy is willing to invest into its new Columbia-class ballistic-missile submarines. The so-called boomer subs are one of the Navy’s top acquisition priorities. Additional funding of $313.9 million was recently allocated to support the construction and development of the Columbia-class submarines.

The Columbia class will eventually replace the Ohio-class submarines, which will be taken out of service by 2030. Each vessel will cost $7.5 billion, so every dollar earmarked for the program is welcome.

A Critical Function

General Dynamics Electric Boat also wants to use this funding to help procure United Kingdom Strategic Weapon Support System kits for the Trident II D5 – the latest iteration of the U.S. Navy and British Royal Navy’s intercontinental submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Nearly all of the work will be conducted at Quonset Point, Rhode Island, and it is set for completion by 2029.

The boomers share certain components with British Dreadnought-class submarines, resulting in less money spent in developing the common missile compartment that will launch the 7,500-mile-range Trident II D5s.

Kevin Graney, president of General Dynamics Electric Boat, said in a news release that, “Ballistic-missile submarines are the critical, survivable leg of our nation’s nuclear arsenal, and Columbia is the Navy’s top acquisition priority. We are grateful for the steadfast trust and support the Navy and Congress have in Electric Boat as we continue the work we began 15 years ago to deliver Columbia and the next 60 years of deterrence for our nation.”

The Biggest Ever American Submarine

The USS Columbia is the first of its class, and work began on the boat in 2020. Research and development for the Columbia class has been underway for years. The Columbia is the first of 12 subs, and it should begin patrolling in 2031. The Columbia class will be massive – the biggest submarine the United States has ever built. The vessels are planned to be 560 feet long, with a beam of 43 feet and 21,000 tons of displacement.

The Columbia-class will have a life-of-ship nuclear reactor, which means the reactor could be in service for at least 40 years, with only a brief midlife maintenance period.

The Ohio-class boomers reach the end of their life cycles in 2027, so any delays in construction of the new submarines could be a major problem. That is why the U.S. Congress and the Navy are keeping an eagle-eyed watch over the process, and it also explains the substantial contract modification: A slip in the schedule could constrain the Navy’s ability to launch nuclear missiles. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said, “This is a program with zero margin for delays.”

But acquisition programs can always have snafus, so it is up to the Navy to be realistic about its timeline. 2027 is only five years away, and the Columbia will probably not make its maiden voyage until 2030 at the earliest. This timeline does not add up, and Adm. Gilday is right to worry. In January 2021, the Government Accountability Office issued a report in which it said cost and schedule plans are at risk for the Columbia class.

That is why this contract modification is so important. Can the Columbia class be built on time? Can the Navy avoid further extending the service life of its current SSBNs? 1945 will be watching the Columbia-class program closely to make sure it comes in on time and does not leave the nation’s submarine-launched nuclear deterrent in jeopardy.

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.