US Navy’s $20 Billion Program To Develop 12 Columbia-Class Submarines In Financial Trouble

The US Navy’s ambitious plan to construct 12 Columbia-class submarines equipped with intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) could hit the wall owing to the cost overruns of US$20 million, or about 20% of the projected cost.

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The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) stated that its calculation for the program’s new $120 billion estimate “reflects current industry conditions” in a report on Navy shipbuilding released on October 26.

As per the budget office, the USS District of Columbia, the class’s first submarine, will come with a US$17.5 billion price tag, exceeding the Navy’s projections by US$1.7 billion. The CBO further notes that the 11 submarines following the lead ship would cost US$9.2 billion each, or US$1.5 billion more than the Navy had budgeted.

“Costs for the Columbia class submarines could, however, exceed both the Navy’s and CBO’s estimates” as it is slated to be “the largest, most technologically complex submarine the United States has ever built,” it said. General Dynamics Corp. is building the submarines with Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII).

These financial roadblocks come at a time when the Pentagon and the US Navy have acknowledged the massive growth and expansion of China’s shipbuilding industry and the swelling number of vessels in the Chinese fleet, as tensions continue to rise in the Indo-Pacific region with the possibility of a conflict never dismissed by officials.

Currently, China has 370 boats, whereas the US has 290. However, even though the PLA Navy has more vessels, it has widely been observed by analysts and officials that US submarines are the most technologically advanced, and the US Navy sailors are more skilled than their Chinese counterparts.

Since 2014, Congress has provided shipbuilding with an average of US$2.5 billion extra annual funding than the Navy has sought. That’s partially due to concern that the fleet isn’t big enough to complete all of its tasks and, more recently, to stop China’s Navy from growing.

Although “the Navy’s specific long-term objectives for its Navyt are unclear,” CBO said, its plans will likely cost more than anticipated.

“Therefore, the Navy’s requirement to replace its 14 Ohio class SSBNs with 12 Columbia class ships has been set for many years and remains unchanged,” says the CBO assessment. According to Navy estimates, it will take at least seven years to build a lead Columbia class submarine, meaning the first one will enter service in 2028.

It would take another two or three years for the ship to undergo testing, training, and deployment preparation before it made its first deterrence patrol. It would take over seven years to develop and test each class’s subsequent submarines.

In the last two years, the US Navy has found a way to add two to three years to the service lives of five Ohio class submarines, meaning that the SSBN force would consist of 12 ships or more for all but three years between 2024 and 2028.

“The Navy’s broad goal is to build a larger fleet whose firepower is greater and distributed among more platforms than in today’s fleet,” emphasizes the CBO report. It further stresses the 2024 Shipbuilding document that notes “multiple threat-informed analyses conducted by the Department of Defense (DoD) as well as external entities underscore the need for a larger, more capable Navy.”

It is noteworthy that the force goals for SSBNs, in contrast to those for other ship classes, are based on requirements derived from the number of submarines that DoD’s Strategic Command deems necessary to be on station, followed by the operational availability of those ships.

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Columbia-Class Submarines

The objective of the Columbia-class program is to develop and construct a class of twelve new ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) to replace the fourteen Ohio-class SSBNs currently in service with the Navy.

The 42-year service life of the Ohio-class submarines was intended to be divided into two 20-year cycles with a 2-year nuclear refueling interval in the middle of the life cycle.

Since the Ohio-class SSBNs were initially put into service in 1981, they will begin to age between 2027 and 2040, losing roughly one boat annually. The Navy intends to replace every Ohio-class ship that isNavy to retire in 2031 with a brand-new Columbia-class SSBN submarine. 

In May 2019, Newport News Shipbuilding cut the first steel plate for Columbia (SSBN 826), the lead submarine in the class. It was October 2020 that marked the formal start of the submarine’s construction, while June 2022 saw the keel-laying ceremony.

According to reports, the ballistic missile submarines of the Columbia class will have dive planes mounted on sails and stern control surfaces shaped like an X. There will be an anechoic covering applied to the hull.

The missile compartment will incorporate four missile tubes manufactured in factories and have quad packs on each one. It will be constructed, installed, and integrated into the hull alongside decks, additional machinery, and systems. Each submarine will have a diameter of 13.1 meters and a length of 170.7 meters. The boat will have a submerged displacement of 20,810 tons (t).

To deploy sixteen Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, each submarine will be outfitted with sixteen missile tubes. Driven by a trio of solid-fuel rocket motors, the three-stage missile can transport up to 14 separate and independently targetable re-entry vehicles equipped with W88 or W76 thermonuclear warheads up to a distance of 12,000 kilometers.

Given that the US Navy’s SSBN fleet carries 70% of the country’s operational nuclear weapons, the new submarines will aid in the country’s strategic deterrent role.

With Ohio subs now advancing toward the end of their service lives, it may become imperative for the US Navy to proceed to work on the incoming Columbia-class subs. The cost overruns, thus, prove a hurdle.