Home » Budget Industry » Navy Optimistic Nuclear Sub USS Columbia Will be Ready for First Deterrence Patrol in 2031


Navy Optimistic Nuclear Sub USS Columbia Will be Ready for First Deterrence Patrol in 2031

An unarmed Trident II D5 missile launches from the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Nebraska (SSBN-739) off the coast of California on March 26, 2018. US Navy Photo

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The director of the Navy’s Strategic Systems Programs was confident that the first of a new class of ballistic missile submarine, the planned USS Columbia (SSBN-826), would be ready for its first patrol in 2031. That will be just before the current Ohio-class nuclear-deterrent boats are too old to submerge.

The major components of what will be on Columbia are “on schedule and on track to support” a 2028 launch and a 2031 patrol, SSP director Vice Adm. Terry J. Benedict said.

Meeting that deadline is critical because the Ohio-class submarines will be reaching the absolute limit of their ability to submerge for a patrol, Navy officials have warned.

In what was likely his last public appearance before he retires in May, after 35 years of commission service and eight years as SSP director, Benedict was completely positive on the status of the Navy’s top acquisition program.

The missile tubes, which will go into a common missile compartment for both the Columbia boats and the planned HMS Dreadnaught, which will replace the Royal Navy’s Vanguard ballistic missile subs, are in production, he said.

And General Dynamics Electric Boat, the prime contractor for Columbia, “is now gearing up for production” of the hull and assembly of the components produced by others, such as the advanced nuclear power plant from Naval Reactors, he told a breakfast session of the Mitchell Nuclear Deterrence series.

“I do believe the hull will be ready,” Benedict said.
“All the fixtures for the common control compartment have been purchased, have been installed or going through their certification process.”

An artist’s conception of the U.K.’s Successor-class future planned ballistic missile submarine (SSBN). UK Ministry of Defense Photo

Benedict said the major features of the Columbia hull and the mechanical and electrical components are “leveraging, to the maximum extent possible, what we have done on Virginia,” the current line of attack submarines co-produced by Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls. “Where we can get commonality… it’s prudent to do that, not only to reduce risk, but also cost.”

“I think that will put Electric Boat and PEO Submarines on the right foot moving forward,” he said.
Benedict said all the Navy agencies responsible for the Columbia program, including SSP, Naval Reactors and the submarine program office “have scrubbed the various pieces” to ensure Columbia will be ready on time and “will remain a viable asset” until the end of its expected service life in 2084.

The Navy plans to build 12 Columbia-class SSBNs to replace the 14 Ohio-class boomers. Each of the new boats will carry 16 nuclear-armed Trident II D5 missiles in four “quad packs” that also will go into the new Dreadnaughts.

Last year, the Navy estimated that Columbia would cost $7.3 billion, but predicted that the price of the subsequent boats would drop to about $6 billion each. Even that amount would take up a major chunk of the annual shipbuilding budget, which this year hit a high of $21 billion.

An undated artist’s rendering of the planned Columbia-class submarine. Naval Sea Systems Command Image

Although the first Columbia boats will be armed with the Trident missiles, which are going through a service life extension program, the Navy is researching a possible replacement missile. It is collaborating in that effort with the Air Force, which is working on a replacement for its Minuteman III missiles.

Benedict’s replacement as director will be Rear Adm. Jonny R. Wolfe, who, Benedict noted, had served 22 years in SSP, including time as his deputy.

  • Duane

    “Too old to submerge” sounds rather odd. Service life for a sub or any ship is determined from a number of factors, both engineering and fiscal, as well as quality of maintenance. There is a fatigue stress cycle limit on steel submarine pressure hulls and seawater systems, but it wouldn’t be something that would prohibit submergence … perhaps such fatigue limits might limit submergence test depth, but that seems unlikely to be the limiting factor for service life.

    For nuke subs, practical service life is usually limited as a matter of reactor refuels. For the Ohio class boats, it was determined by Navy analysts that a single mid-life refueling overhaul would deliver the 42 year service life the Navy now uses (initially they had planned 30 year service lives).

    Is the terminology “able to submerge” used in any official naval statements or reports?

    • aztec69

      Yes, I’ve heard Sarah quote the Commander-in-Chief using the term several times in describing Navy operations to drain the Washington “swamp”. 🙂

      • Beomoose

        Surprised you can hear her over the herd of Administration members leaving in disgrace

    • airider

      Pressure hull is the limiting factor. Each sub is tracked by the number of submerges it does and the hull profile is checked at every availability. Compression stress on metal will weaken it over time. It actually can cause a crack that rapidly expands….obviously not something you want to happen at patrol depth.

      • Duane

        dup comment

      • Duane

        I’m a SSN veteran and a degreed and licensed engineer, so I understand cyclic stress … but that is only one of many factors in determining sub lifetime. Pressure hull fatigue stress cycles have never been the limiting factor on sub life on any prior nuke sub class It’s always been a combination of reactor fuel remaining, maintenance condition, and technological obsolescence.

        Even if cyclic stress was the limiting factor in sub life, it would not be a binary condition where all of a sudden one day in 2027 the boat can no longer safely dive .. it would be that test depth is reduced from X feet to Y feet.

        Also, structural limits on cyclic stress are typically measured in many tens of thousands of cycles, particularly if the typical max stress in any cycle is well below the design maximum (our nuke subs rarely go to their certified test depths in normal operations). Far more cycles than would ever be experienced by a submarine during its lifetime.

        If you believe that cyclic stress is the limiting factor on Ohio class boats, then give us your official naval source for that assessment.

        That was what I asked for above.

        • Stephen

          Yes, test depth is adjusted once a certain number of cycles is achieved. I served on a ship that had an X depth, adjusted to a Y depth & finally a Z depth, prior to decommissioning. Scary thought; we could submerge at the pier & launch. Can’t imagine what that would look like, definitely not something I’d like to try…

        • airider

          So you’re not a sub designer or maintainer? Go talk to some if you can.

  • Chesapeakeguy

    I don’t know. 13 years just doesn’t seem to be that much time when it comes to putting s new design into the water these days! (Yes, for those who might be wondering, I AM being facitious here!).

  • D. Jones

    Build em as fast as possible. Build them with the mindset that only US boats will be available.

    12 boats is NOT enough. We should be increasing our strongest deterrent, not decreasing it.

    • @USS_Fallujah

      It’s common misnomer that going down in total SSBNs means less deterrence. The amount at sea is actually the same requirement as the Ohio class, but because of advances in sustainment the Columbia boats will require less time out of service so you can provide the same number of missiles at sea at one time with fewer boats. And let’s face it, one at sea is enough (ok maybe two so you can realistically threaten anywhere on the globe at one time), since as my brother the boomer used to say “a rouge SSBN captain would immediately become the 3rd largest nuclear power in the world”

      • Jack___Hole

        Do we need to worry about the proliferation of cheap UUVs cutting into that deterrence? Too many eggs in one or two baskets?

        • @USS_Fallujah

          Short answer. No.

    • Duane

      To amplify. USS Fallujah’s comment, the Colombia class sub has a new advanced reactor design that is a “life of ship” reactor. It requires no mid life refuel as do the Ohio class boats. That eliminates one four year overhaul non-availability. Other tech advancements also increase availability for patrols. 12 Columbias will deliver the same number of patrol days as 14 Ohio boats do today.

  • Zorcon, Fidei Defensor

    Geesh, seems like yesterday, to me, the F-15 was a marvel. In 2031 I will be a old man. Makes one think of where they have been, and where they are going…

    • Ser Arthur Dayne

      Hear, hear.

    • johnb33

      I am amazed that the submarine takes 13 years to complete.

      • Zorcon, Fidei Defensor

        Takes 20’hears and 100 billion to build a useless train to SF from LA? Employment

        • johnb33

          True!

      • Steve Knickerbocker

        From a clean sheet design to first patrol? 13 years isn’t that long; It’s not like it’s an Ohio class they are building another of.

      • RedStatePatriot

        13 years is to design, and build… complex engineering is tough stuff, and it keeps getting harder to gain an edge.

        • Ctrot

          It seems we did these things faster when all the drawings were done with a T-square and calculations were done on a sliderule, maybe CAD is the problem.

          • RedStatePatriot

            Its more a matter of increasing complexity, and the exponential rise in engineering difficulty with each new generation of system. The low hanging fruit is long gone.

          • Ctrot

            I was being somewhat facetious but it is true that we used to do these things more quickly than now even though the new computer tools we have today were supposed to make them faster, easier than before.

  • El_Sid

    @Otto – there’s an “o” in Dreadnought…
    (and the image caption should probably be updated from “Successor” to “Dreadnought” for consistency with the text).

    • Stephen

      You just jolted a strong memory for me. Now I’ve got to find the Lensmen Series by ‘Doc’ EE Smith. Those books contained a tremendous wealth; vocabulary! Thanks!

  • DaSaint

    10 years to build a sub is absurd. Just saying.
    And I’m sure someone will say ‘I don’t know how complex it is, and yada yada’…No, 10 years is absurd.

    • NavySubNuke

      It doesn’t actually take 10 years to build it — it takes 7 years which is how (as stated by VADM Benedict above) it will conduct it’s first missile launch in 2028.
      What takes 10 years is: building a brand new first in class ship, testing that ship – including launching a 130,000 lb ballistic missile and making sure all the new systems and features work properly and are integrated correctly, fixing all the defects identified in testing, training the crew, evaluating and certifying the crew (which requires another 130,000 lb missile launch I believe), getting the crew to their new homeport, loading 16 130,000 lb ballistic missiles (that may or may not be tipped with up to 8 nuclear warheads each), and then sending the crew out on patrol.
      Construction times for subsequent hulls will be less than 7 years and total time for commencing construction and going on first patrol will also be less than 10 years.

      • Stephen

        It’s pretty telling that the Ohio was replacing a 20-year-old design. The Columbia will be replacing a 50-year-old technology. The design & actual construction is a complex, ever-changing environment. Even relying on proven technology & construction techniques contain unanticipated pitfalls. We were severely impacted by illegally obtain steel products in the Ohio & LA construction materials. A nuclear inspector, working overtime as a non-nuclear welding inspector, discovered high-Sulphur content steel. Welds, subject to failure, cost a considerable construction delay…

    • Duane

      It’s 10 years to design and build a sub. And our yards that are capable of designing and building nuke subs are operating at near max capacity today, between building Virginia class boats, conducting mid life refueling overhauls for older boats, and soon to begin building Colombia class boats.

      • DaSaint

        The initial launch is 2028. The design effort started prior to 2018. That’s more than 10 years.

        • DaSaint

          Understood. But the total effort seems much longer tha. 10 years. Seems as if everything is taking much longer than it used to.l, by several years.

          • Hugh

            More complexity, more manhours, more cost, more time……..

      • NavySubNuke

        Not even close to true – it takes far far longer than 10 years to both design and build.
        We’ve been working on the SSBN(X) which turned into ORP which turned into COLUMBIA since 2007. That was all early concept work with actual design work starting in ~late 2009/early 2010 if I remember correctly.
        The detailed design work contract was awarded in 2017 – 4 years before construction start and 14 years years before first patrol.

    • @USS_Fallujah

      I believe it was Abraham Lincoln who said “Give me six hours to cut down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening my axe”, same holds true here with the complex planning and design phase.
      Actually building the SSBN will probably be something around the 66 month number the Virginia Class started at (no counting production of Long Lead materials), so building the sub will take around 5 years ( a lot depends on when you consider it’s start, given that Subs are built in segments not in a dock like most surface ships).

      • DaSaint

        Completely understand and appreciate. Used to be shorter. Processes are more drawn out these days.

    • RedStatePatriot

      You are obviously clueless… so you think that designing, fabricating, and getting through sea trials to be from a clean sheet of paper to an operational deployment in 10 years is slow? Pretty clear you are not involved in engineering.

      • DaSaint

        Your arrogance notwithstanding, my point simply was that in years past, equally challenging designs for their time were done I shorter spans. I need not cite examples of complex engineering from the 60s or 70s or 80s for that matter, do I?

        And others have expressed clearly the complexity, which I do appreciate. And I lament that these days everything takes longer than it used to. Lots of current programs demonstrate that, and many of us are frustrated at that.

        And oh by the way, no, I’m not an engineer. Related field who works with and directs them accordingly for my designs as well as for others. Feel better?

        • RedStatePatriot

          Arrogance has nothing to do with it… you attack the engineers and people involved with your comments about how ridiculous it is to do this difficult work, and that it takes 10 years to complete. Yet somehow I am the bad guy in your mind. Ford would have a hard time doing a clean sheet design of a new pickup truck and having it on the highway certified safe and in the showroom in 5 years, and you thing designing and building a ship of war with complex engineering solutions is doable in less that 10? Yeah, I am the arrogant one.

          • DaSaint

            Words matter:
            Clueless
            Attack

            That said, let me step back, as this is meant to be a forum for discussion and debate. Maybe I overreacted in calling you arrogant and could have chose a less disparaging word. Maybe I should have said you misunderstood my point.

            I never ‘attacked’ engineers. I’ve studied and worked with engineers all my life, so I’m quite clear on their roles and capabilities.

            What I’m saying – and I’ll try slowly and clearly – is that we used to apply more resources to make complex things happen sooner, and that no longer is the case, even when clearly there is need.

            Many have lamented the pace of our recapitalization, and frankly that’s because of the lack of committed capital, not because of the skillsets of the engineers involved.

            We committed a ton of resources and created successes in space in 10 years, arguably a very complex series of requirements and accomplishments. We designed/modified a design and created the first SSBNs faster than 10 years due to the commitment of resources and the demand to make it happen.

            So engineers were not being either denigrated or attacked my friend, so please do not mischaracterize my statements.

            Enjoy the rest of your day. Life is short.

          • RedStatePatriot

            Points taken. We all are perhaps too fast to fire off a response. I would only add that these problems become more complex and difficult each time. It’s true the great Kelly Johnson and the skunk works ripped out the U2 and SR71 in amazingly short order, and at the time those were like the moon shot difficult design problems. The key here is that the difficulty becomes exponential not linear in difficulty. Further, budgets are tight as now we have massive deficits and budget constraints. That’s a topic for another day.

          • DaSaint

            Agreed. For another day.

  • PolicyWonk

    I’d like to think that they’ll build a few extras and outfit them as SSGN’s, like our 4 Ohio’s. they carry a LOT of punch.

    Even if all the subsequent Virginia’s were built with the VPM, they still wouldn’t replace the firepower of the Ohio SSGN’s we’ll be retiring.

  • R Andis

    Wow, I had the privilege of serving on a later first gen SSBN (SSBN 657) and USS Ohio Class. What a big difference between those two classes.