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Columbia-Class: The Navy’s Largest Submarines Ever Have Special Mission

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 U.S. Navy is building an entirely new class of ballistic missile submarines to ensure that Russia and China are deterred from ever starting a nuclear war. These submarines will house dozens of nuclear warheads to ensure a good chunk of America’s underwater atomic arsenal is hidden from any enemy: Unbeknownst to most Americans who aren’t hardcore music history buffs, “The Star Spangled Banner” was not America’s first national anthem; in fact, Francis Scott Key’s song didn’t even become the USA’s official national anthem until 1931. Our actual original anthem was “Hail, Columbia,” named after the demigoddess who preceded Uncle Same and Lady Liberty in personifying the then-new nation of America; the melody was composed for George Washington’s first inauguration and had the lyrics added for John Adams’s Presidency. Nowadays, it serves as the entrance anthem for the Vice President of the United States in the same vein the “Hail to the Chief” does for the POTUS. So then, it’s only fitting that Columbia should go on to serve as the namesake of not only our nation’s capital but now America’s latest class of ballistic missiles submarines (SSBNs).

Let’s take a deeper dive (lousy pun intended) into the story of the Columbia-class SSBNs. Remember that these boats have one mission: to ensure the undersea survival of America’s nuclear weapons assets if Russia or China ever dreamed of starting a nuclear war and/or deterring them from even thinking about doing so.

Hail the Columbia-Class

These new undersea Columbiads are intended to replace the Ohio-class submarines, which have faithfully served the U.S. Navy since 1981 but are now starting to get a little bit long in the tooth; arguably the most famous of the Ohio-class boats is the USS Alabama, thanks to the 1995 movie Crimson Tide starring Gene Hackman, Denzel Washington, Geoge Dzundza, a post-Silver Spoons Rick Schroeder, a pre-Lord of the Rings Viggo Mortensen, a pre-NCIS Rocky Carroll, and a pre-Sopranos James Gandolfini (R.I.P.).

The Ohios will start reaching the end of their service between 2027 and 2040, at a rate of about one sub per year. Bearing that in mind, the Navy plans to replace each retiring Ohio-class boat with a new Columbia-class SSBN starting in 2031. A bigger plus in light of America’s renewed “near-peer” rivalry with revanchist Russia is that the Columbias will be fresher on the scene than Soviet-designed Typhoon-class submarines (Project 941/Akula i.e. “Shark” as the Russkies themselves call their behemoth boats), whose first year of construction coincided with that of the Ohios, although these Russia boats are mostly retired.

However, America’s proverbial new kids on the block (or would be new squids on the dock?) still won’t be as big as the Typhoons, which still the largest submarines ever built at a submerged displacement of 48,000 tons. For a basis of comparison, the Ohios have a submerged displacement of 19,000 tons, whilst the Columbias will weigh in at 20,810 tons, so at the very least the new boats and their crews will at least be able to claim bragging rights to the largest submarine ever built by the U.S. At a hull length of 560 feet (171 meters), the Columbias will still be 14 feet shorter than the Soviet “Sharks”…and presumably won’t be able to accommodate a swimming pool & sauna like the “proletarian” boats do. (Drat! Or as the Russians might say, “Черт!/Chert!)

Is the Columbia-Class Cost Effective? 

A huge plus for the Columbia-class subs will be the greater bang for the buck that they will provide. As noted by the Submarine Industrial Base Council (SIBC) information page:

The Columbia Class SSBN is designed with a 42 year service life.  The reactor is designed for the boat service life, eliminating the need mid-life reactor refueling overhaul (typically takes 2 years) which saves an estimated $40 Billion over the life of the class.  The elimination of the mid-life reactor refueling allows 12 Columbia Class SSBNs to replace the existing 14 Ohio Class SSBNs, reducing overall upfront procurement cost.  Despite being approximately the same size, 16 ballistic missile launch tubes on Columbia Class submarine will replace 24 tubes on the Ohio Class – reducing construction, operations, and maintenance costs.

The projected per unit cost comes out $9.15 billion USD. Regarding those 16 missile launch tubes, they’ll be loaded with Trident D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and backed up by twin torpedo tubes for the purpose of firing the MK 48 heavyweight torpedo.

Fight For Ol’ DC…”

Appropriately enough, the first boat in the Columbia class has been designated the USS District of Columbia (SSBN 826). The second boat in the class will be named the USS Wisconsin (SSBN-827), which I reckon makes for a lovely tribute to the WWII-era Iowa-class battleship of the same name, even if that was a mere coincidence and not a deliberate homage on the part of the current Navy brass.

On 4 June 2022 — coincidentally the 80th anniversary of the commencement of the Battle of Midway — General Dynamics Electric Boat conducted a keel laying ceremony for the USS District of Columbia at Quonset Point, Rhode Island. Appropriately enough (again), among the dignitaries present was Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), the boat’s sponsor and the delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives from the ship’s namesake. Norton went on record saying “As a third-generation Washingtonian, I am excited and honored to be the sponsor of the future USS Columbia. I look forward to meeting and establishing relationships with the men and women who will serve aboard her.”

In short, it looks like smooth-sailing (yes, one more lousy pun for good measure) for the Columbia-class submarines so far. We at 19FortyFive will be sure to keep our dear readers updated on the latest developments on the program as soon as the information is made available to the public. Stay tuned, ladies ‘n’ gents.

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).

Written By

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).