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Columbia: The Navy’s New Nuclear Missiles Submarines Are Coming

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.

The U.S. Navy’s vaunted Columbia-class submarine program is getting a monetary shot in the arm.

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The Navy has recently awarded General Dynamics Electric Boat a $5.1 billion contract modification for the ballistic missile submarine. The contract mod will improve the program’s availability for spare parts and components for its missile tubes. The industrial base will be improved with the fund injection and will help produce the boat in a more efficient manner.

District of Columbia Should Be On Schedule

The lead sub of the Columbia-class is the USS District of Columbia (SSBN-826). Electric Boat conducted a keel-laying ceremony for this vessel last June in Quonset Point, Rhode Island. The funding award will help the shipbuilder move forward with the District of Columbia and add future subs to the class. The missile tubes will be built continuously under the contract modification that will give the Columbia-class an advanced capability for its nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.

Replace the Ohio-class One for One into the 2030s 

The Columbia-class will begin replacing the older Ohio-class boomers that have served the navy since 1981. The first Ohio is planned to be decommissioned in 2027 and the District of Columbia will take its place. Each time an Ohio-class is retired the navy plans to replace it with a new Columbia-class. There is thus no room for delays in the Columbia-class program. That is why the latest contract mod will be pivotal in bringing the new boomers on time to begin patrolling the waters in place of the Ohios.

This Will Be a Huge Submarine

The Columbia-class subs are large at a displacement of 20,810 tons compared to 19,000 tons for the Ohios. The Columbia-class will be the biggest submarines ever built by the navy with a length of 560 feet – almost as long as two football fields.

The Navy Is Ready to Throw Down the Dollars

The Columbia-class does not come cheap. In November 2020, the navy awarded Electric Boat a $9.47 billion contract modification to start building the District of Columbia and for advanced work on the second boat, the USS Wisconsin. The Columbia-class is one of the navy’s top priority programs.

There Are Ways to Save Money

The Columbia-class is designed to last for an amazing 42 years. It will not need a mid-life reactor re-fueling maintenance period which can take two years of work. Without this requirement, $40 billion could be saved over the maintenance lifetime of the boat. There will also be cost savings attached to the new missile tubes. The Columbia-class will have four fewer tubes (sixteen) compared to the Ohio-class (twenty-four). Plus, the United States is working with the United Kingdom for the Common Missile Compartment to reduce production costs.

Make Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping Worry

The 16 tubes on the Columbia-class will fire Trident II (D5) nuclear ballistic missiles. This load will comprise 70 percent of the ballistic missile in the U.S. military’s total arsenal. The Columbia-class will enshrine another advanced leg of the American nuclear triad and will give Russia and China more to worry about. For self-defense the Columbia-class will launch the Mk48 heavyweight torpedo.

Aspects Congress Needs to Monitor

One aspect of the Columbia-class is risk mitigation. There can be no schedule slips for the program if the plan of replacing each Ohio-class is to be executed correctly. Congress and the Pentagon must work together to keep the contractors from losing time and suffering delays. The program could also be the victim of cost overruns, and this is another issue for the House and Senate Armed Services Committees.

Two New Sub Programs

The navy is also building Virginia-class fast attack boats and legislators will have their hands full overseeing two submarine programs that are high priorities for the navy. That is why this latest contract modification is so important because it makes investments into the submarine industrial base. Another issue to be hashed out will be the need to recruit skilled workers to man the production lines for both submarine programs. Supply chain issues could crop up too.

So, the Columbia-class is a noteworthy program and one to watch. The Ohio-class needs to be replaced and this new boomer will be a force to reckon with as it seeks to dominate the Russians and Chinese in undersea warfare.

It does have production risks like other major defense acquisition programs but Congress should be able to ward off problems and modify the contracts so problems can be avoided during the production schedule.

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Author Expertise and Experience: Serving as 19FortyFive’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood 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. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.

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.