By the time the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines come online around 2031, their immediate predecessors will be approaching 50 years of service. By contrast, the preceding George Washington and Benjamin Franklin classes served 30 years.
Building the Columbia class has been the Navy’s top shipbuilding priority since at least 2013. Currently, the Navy plans to build 12 boats to replace the 14 Ohio class.
Cost estimates show that like most Defense Department programs the Columbia class has been hit with serious cost overruns. The first boat, the USS Columbia (SSBN-826), was procured in the FY 2021 budget. The FY 2024 budget included a $3.4 billion budgetary request. The General Accountability Office warns that the program suffers from potential resource misallocation. It was estimated in 2021 that the entire program could cost $114.1 billion.
Columbia-Class: Delays In Program Likely
Only two locations can build submarines for the U.S. Navy: General Dynamics Electric Boat (Electric Boat) and Huntington Ingalls Industries Newport News Shipbuilding (Newport News). This means resources are finite and constrained.
“After more than a year of full-scale construction on the lead Columbia submarine, the shipbuilders are facing delays because of challenges with design, materials, and quality. The shipbuilders are working to mitigate delays using additional shipyard resources, such as more staff to complete work more quickly. Because of the Columbia class program’s essential role in strategic deterrence, it has priority status over most national defense-related programs, including the Virginia class program,” the General Accountability Office wrote in its more recent report. “Without updated long-term planning, the Navy cannot be certain that the fiscal year 2024 budget request will be sufficient to meet the production schedule it has planned for these submarine classes.”
Aging Ohio-Class Subs Cause Dilemma
The Navy initiated a program to keep the Ohio class boats in service until at least 2040. That could see the soon-to-be decommissioned Ohio class boats that were converted to carry Tomahawk cruise missiles scavenged for parts to keep the aging boats in service. That is not unlike when the Navy brought back the World War II Iowa class battleships during the 1980s and scavenged museum ships for parts that were no longer in the Navy’s inventory.
However, due to the advanced age of the Ohio class boats that were originally designed to serve 30 years, getting them into service is a necessity.
“The riskiest period for them is in the 2030s as Columbias come online and the Ohios go out,” Rear Adm. Scott Pappano said at the Navy League’s annual symposium last year.
The Navy decided that a reduction to 11 boats during this transitional phase would be acceptable.
The U.S.’s seaborne nuclear deterrent suffers from the same problem as the rest of the military, namely its age. Much of the military uses hardware developed during Ronald Reagan’s buildup in the 1980s.
The oldest Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine, USS Henry M. Jackson, put to sea in 1984 and will be 47 years old when the first Columbia-class boat enters service. “We’re going to have challenges” meeting submarine production demands and modernizing the existing fleet in sync with ship construction, Vice Adm. Johnny Wolfe told the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee in April. “Most U.S. nuclear deterrent systems – including the SSBN fleet – are operating beyond their original design life. Replacement programs are ongoing, but there is little or no margin between the end of the useful life of existing programs and the fielding of their replacements.
Wolfe continued, “As noted by the 2022 NPR [Nuclear Posture Review], we need to fully fund the Columbia class SSBN program to deliver a minimum of 12 boats on time, as the Ohio Class SSBNs begin to retire. We also need to continue to prioritize near-term investments in the submarine industrial base, Ohio-class sustainment and the second life extension of the TRIDENT II D5”.
About the Author
John Rossomando is a defense and counterterrorism analyst and served as Senior Analyst for Counterterrorism at The Investigative Project on Terrorism for eight years. His work has been featured in numerous publications such as The American Thinker, The National Interest, National Review Online, Daily Wire, Red Alert Politics, CNSNews.com, The Daily Caller, Human Events, Newsmax, The American Spectator, TownHall.com, and Crisis Magazine. He also served as senior managing editor of The Bulletin, a 100,000-circulation daily newspaper in Philadelphia, and received the Pennsylvania Associated Press Managing Editors first-place award for his reporting.