Often referred to as the 21st Century Submarine the new Columbia class FBM is the most vital acquisition program the U.S. Navy has today because it represents a significant investment in maintaining America’s strategic deterrence far into the future as well as furthering our ongoing partnership with the United Kingdom in that endeavor.
Ballistic missile submarines are designed to accomplish long-endurance nuclear deterrence patrols while operating under near-complete silence. So, they provide a difficult to detect and destroy, fail-safe defense against the possibility of an enemy first strike that can destroy America’s land-and air-based nuclear delivery systems.
The initial patrol of the lead ship of the class, USS Columbia SSBN 826, is scheduled in fiscal year 2031. The Columbia Class Program is managed by Rear Adm. David A. Goggins the Program Executive Office (PEO) Submarines who’s phylosophy is to grow the submarine force for the Navy that the nation requires while ensuring that reliability in our submarines and undersea systems remain the key to success.
The Navy has estimated the cost of the lead boat at $14.5 billion including $5.7 billion in detailed design and nonrecurring engineering costs, and $8.8 billion in construction costs for the submarine itself, and it has announced that General Dynamics Electric Boat would be the prime contractor for the submarine class. It’s widely recognized that Electric Boat produces the best submarines in the world.
The Navy’s new class of ballistic missile submarines will be named in honor of the District of Columbia with the Lead ship, also identified as the Ohio replacement program (SSBN(X), to be named USS Columbia. While the name Columbia for U.S. ships and aircraft are not new with at least eight U.S. ships, a Space Shuttle and the Apollo 11 command module having all shared the name, it will be the first time the name has been chosen to commemorate the U.S. capital. The fleet’s current USS Columbia (SSN-771), a Los Angeles attack submarine, is named in honor of Columbia, S.C., Columbia, IL. and Columbia, Mo. The SSN-771 submarine is expected to decommission before the first Columbia class enters service.
The Columbia-class is expected to replace the current twelve ship fleet of Ohio-class Trident ballistic missile submarines. And, it will feature an electric drive as well as field sixteen Trident II D5 nuclear armed ballistic missiles for nuclear deterrence, as well as torpedoes for close-range self-defense. Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles, or SLBMs, form a key part of the "nuclear triad" of U.S. land, air, and sea-based nuclear weapons platforms.
The all electric drive is a momentous variation to USN nuclear submarine design and just two other subs have been built that had all-electric propulsion systems having an electric generator linked to an electric motor that directly turns the prop instead of a conventional steam turbine linked to reduction gears then the prop.
During the Cold War, the USS Glenard P. Lipscomb SSN-685 was the Navy's second submarine design to use turbo-electric transmission; the first was USS Tullibee SSN-597. Intended to test the potential advantages of this propulsion system for providing quieter submarine operations, with a displacement of 6,400 tons and a length of 365 feet, Glenard P. Lipscomb was heavier and larger than similar vessels with conventional drive trains which resulted in slower speeds. Those disadvantages, along with reliability issues led to the decision to abandon the design at that time in the subsequent Los Angeles-class submarines. Aside from the engine room the Lipscomb was generally similar to the 637 Sturgeon class boats, and although serving as a test platform the new drive it was a fully combat-capable attack submarine that served in the fleet between 1974 to 1990. Utilizing the all-electric drive system results in quieter operation and increased stealth since standard reduction gears are eliminated in contrast to steam turbine designs. The most efficient revolutions for submarine steam turbines are approx. 10,000 rpm however the most efficient rate for the propeller is around 15 or 20 rpm resulting in the necessity to have reduction gears to reduce the gear ratio and shaft revolutions down to an acceptable level to actually turn the prop efficiently. In the past he Navy has had difficulty perfecting the prototype version of the system which has in turn caused delays to the Columbia project
The remainder of the submarine design has a lot of commonality with the current Virginia-class SSNs, so there’s not a lot of new technology being incorporated into it. However, there are some improvements in terms of sound silencing and sonar systems, but it’s all technology that has previously been tested out and has been proven.
The Columbia class nuclear reactor is to be designed for a consecutive forty-two-year expected service life unlike the Ohio-class design that requires a mid-life nuclear refueling. This, because the Columbia is to be fitted out with a life-of-the-ship nuclear fuel core that is sufficient to power the ship for its entire expected service life. And, although the submarine will not require a nuclear refueling it will still need a mid-life non-refueling overhaul to the remainder of the submarine in order to operate over its full 42-year service life span. The subs will have sixteen SLBM launch tubes that are the same size as those on the Ohio class which have 87 inches diameter with a length sufficient to accommodate a D-5 SLBM Trident missile.
While the Navy embarks on the acquisition of the Columbia-class submarine it is also extending the life of the Trident II D5 strategic weapon system. The Trident II D5 SWS has been deployed on the current Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines for twenty-seven years and is now planned for a service life of more than fifty years, well beyond its original design life of twenty-five years and more than double the historical service life of any previous sea-based strategic deterrent weapons system. As well, the Navy is extending the lifecycle of the system to match the Ohio-class submarine’s service life and so it will also serve as the initial payload for the Columbia-class. Maintaining one SWS during the transition to the Columbia-class is beneficial from a cost, performance and risk reduction standpoint.
And, the Navy plans to upgrade its subsystems including the D5’s launcher, navigation, fire control, guidance, missile and reentry systems. The flight hardware, missile and guidance life-extension efforts are designed to meet the same form, fit and function of the original system to keep the deployed system as one homogeneous population, control costs and sustain the demonstrated performance of the system.
To date the D5 program is on track and It has reached a major milestone with the first two D5 life-extended missiles being integrated onto the USS Maryland SSBN-738 currently in service. This was a significant programmatic achievement and represents the initial step to convert the entire fleet to life-extended missiles over the coming years. And, the upgrades will sustain the weapon system until the 2040s.
The Trident II can carry two types of warheads, the W76 and the W88. Both are being upgraded, with the W76 life-extension program approximately 80 percent complete. The W88 major alteration program is slated to support a first production unit in 2019.
One major component of the Columbia-class program is the development of its Common Missile Compartment (CMC), which is being done in conjunction with the United Kingdom. The United States and the United Kingdom, through the Polaris Sales Agreement of 1963, have maintained a shared commitment to nuclear deterrence. They also share the Trident II D5 strategic weapon system and the UK is currently recapitalizing its four Vanguard-class submarines with the Dreadnought class.
Consequently, the Navy has developed a CMC that will support production in both U.S. and U.K. build yards allowing the life-extended Trident II D5 missile to be deployed on the Columbia and the UK’s Dreadnought class subs. So, because of this partnership, it is critical that the Columbia-class’ development proceed without any major schedule slippage.
Once commissioned into the fleet, the Columbia FBM submarines will prowl the oceans of the world carrying a lethal load of long-range nuclear-tipped missiles to provide a second-strike capability designed to discourage enemies from launching a surprise attack on America and its allies.
Nuclear ballistic missile submarines make up one leg of the U.S. “nuclear triad” which along with long range bombers and ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles give war planners options for deterring, and if necessary, waging a nuclear hot war. The stealthy nature of submarines makes them the perfect virtually undetectable and impervious to enemy attack ensuring that they can survive a surprise attack to launch a devastating response. More than any other arm of the triad, missile submarines deter war by ensuring a retaliation attack is possible, the basis for the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) a doctrine of military strategy.
The current generation the Ohio-class Trident Subs were built in the 1980s and 1990s and they are approaching the ends of their service lives and so replacements are desirable. When the Columbia class begins replacing those boats starting in 2031 twelve Columbia’s will be built to replace the current fourteen Ohio’s thereby reducing overall cost of the program.
The Columbia class FBM submarines will ensure the readiness of the Silent Service far into the future to remain on station 24/7 beneath the world’s oceans to provide a stealthy and potent defense and a nuclear deterrent to protect American interests both at home and abroad.