The US Navy has placed an order for the construction of the lead and the first serial nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine of the new Columbia project. The fulfillment of this contract has actually begun and will continue until the early thirties. The appearance of new Columbia-class ships will allow replacing the aging Ohio SSBNs and keeping the potential of the naval component of the strategic nuclear forces at the proper level.
Research work on a promising SSBN to replace the Ohio started at the turn of the 2000s and 10s. In December 2012, General Dynamics Electric Boat (GDEB) received a contract for the preliminary design of a new submarine. The cost of the work was estimated at $ 1.85 billion in prices of that time.
In September 2017, a new stage of the program was launched, the purpose of which was to develop a technical design and working documentation for subsequent construction. The cost of this contract was $ 5.1 billion.A set of documentation to start construction was supposed to appear in 2020.
On November 5, the Pentagon and the GDEB signed a new contract, this time for the construction and testing of the lead and first production submarine. The cost of the two ships is $ 9.474 billion. Work will start in 2021 f.y. and will continue until the early thirties. In the near future, new orders are expected for the next series of submarines. The current plans of the US Navy include the construction of 12 new-type SSBNs by 2040-42.
“Columbia” in the context. Graphics US Naval Institute
The lead sub of the project, as it was already known, was named USS Columbia and tactical number SSBN-826. The first serial was named USS Wisconsin and assigned the number SSBN-827.
The construction of the new type of submarines will be carried out by GDEB in Groton, Connecticut, which is one of the main manufacturers of nuclear submarines for the US Navy. Part of the work will be entrusted to a subcontractor represented by Huntington Ingalls Industries – it will receive approx. 25% of the total order value.
Especially for the fulfillment of new contracts for promising submarines, the South Yard Assembly Building (SYAB) with large boathouses is being built at the Groton plant. The construction of this facility will be completed in 2023 and will be put into operation shortly thereafter.
In recent months, GDEB completed preparations for construction, and in early October, the first work on the lead ship began. At the same time, the official bookmark has not yet been announced, it is likely that the ceremony will be held in the near future.
Until 2023, the contractor company will have to manufacture all the main sections of the hull and carry out part of the work on the installation of the internal equipment. In 2024, after the SYAB complex is ready, the docking of finished blocks will begin. Subsequent work will take several more years. Ready “Columbia” will be taken out of the boathouse only in 2027. Sea trials are planned to be completed in 2030, and in 2031 the ship will enter the combat composition of the fleet and go on duty.
Rocket launch from the Columbia boat. Graphics US Navy
The first serial SSBN of a new type will be laid down only in 2024, and it will be built according to the same principles. By the end of the decade, modular construction and docking of blocks will be completed, as well as the boat will be taken out of the workshop and launched. Sea trials will be carried out in the early thirties, and in 2032 Wisconsin will join the US Strategic Nuclear Forces.
In total, it is planned to build 12 promising Columbia-class SSBNs. In the future, the Pentagon will sign new contracts for 10 serial submarines. Their construction will be launched sequentially in the second half of the twenties. The exact timing and cost of building individual submarines of the series are still unknown. The delivery of the ships is scheduled for 2032-42. – one submarine per year.
As they enter service, the submarines will be distributed between the Atlantic and Pacific fleets. Most likely, they will be divided equally. The ships will serve on existing naval bases. So, SSBN “Ohio” is currently assigned to the bases Kitsap (Washington state) and Kings Bay (Georgia).
Currently, the naval component of the US strategic nuclear forces consists of 14 Ohio-class SSBNs. The oldest of them began service in 1984, and the newest entered the Navy in 1997. The average age of submarines is approaching 30 years, and they are already becoming obsolete morally and physically, which is why it is necessary to take measures to replace them.
According to the current plans of the Pentagon, the process of abandoning Ohio boats will begin in 2029. Every year the fleet will decommission one or two submarines, and in 2039 they will completely retire from service, giving way to modern Columbia. At the same time, by the time the last Ohio-class SSBN is decommissioned, the Navy will have no more than 9 new submarines – the remaining 3 will enter service after the complete decommissioning of their predecessors.
SSBN USS Tennessee (SSBN-734) Ohio-class – in service since 1988. Photo by US Navy
It should be noted that the planned replacement will not be of equal quantity in terms of quantity. 14 current submarines will replace only 12 promising ones. Such a reduction in the missile-carrying submarine fleet is associated with both an increase in the cost of new ships and an increase in their combat effectiveness. However, the Navy does not believe that the reduction in the number of SSBNs will negatively affect the overall capabilities of the strategic nuclear forces and, accordingly, on national security.
Benefits of progress
Columbia-class SSBNs will have a length of approx. 170 m and a displacement of more than 21.1 thousand tons. Through the introduction of new technologies and components, it was possible to improve the main characteristics, and the use of finished products made it possible to keep the cost at an acceptable level. A new nuclear power plant with a service life of 42 years (at least 140 trips) has been developed. Unlike ships of previous generations, the nuclear power plant will operate without replacing fuel.
Colombia will be armed with 16 Trident II D5 ballistic missiles. By the time the carrier submarines begin service, these missiles will receive new combat equipment, expanding the range of combat missions to be solved. Replacement of the missile system is not yet planned.
In accordance with the plans of the Navy, the submarines of the new project will begin service in 2031-42. and will serve for at least 40 years each. The lead ship will be written off no earlier than 2070, and the latter will leave service only in the eighties. Long service lives, combined with modern technology, are expected to reduce life cycle costs compared to current Ohio-class submarines.
Between two stages
All stages of the development of a promising strategic submarine project took more than 10 years and were successfully completed. Now the Columbia project is entering a new stage – the construction of the lead ship begins. American shipbuilders and the Navy are getting pride and optimism about the prospects for strategic nuclear forces.
At the same time, the starting stage of the program will also not be fast. SSBN USS Columbia (SSBN-826) will be handed over only after 10-11 years, and the next ships will begin service even later. However, the high priority of the project requires high responsibility. The work of the coming years will determine the shape of the strategic nuclear forces and affect national security for several decades. Therefore, shipbuilders will not and may not be able to rush.