The United States Navy’s Columbia-class Submarines Should Be Feared: Once in service, the Columbia-class will be some of the most potent submarines on the planet.
The United States Navy’s Columbia-class submarine program aims to procure 12 brand-new nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines to replace the Navy’s current fleet of aging Ohio-class SSBNs and the largest submarine ever in service with the Navy.
The Columbia-class program is the Navy’s number one top priority program. In Navy parlance, this means the Columbia-class program will be funded, even if that means cutting funds from other Navy programs.
Though not yet in service, one of the Columbia-class program’s significant achievements is drastically reduced maintenance costs and time off-station. While the preceding Ohio-class required 14 hulls in total to ensure 10 Ohios were on-station at any one time, the Navy will need just 12 Columbia-class submarines to maintain a ten-hull, active force.
A smaller class number is primarily thanks to the Columbia-class streamlined midlife overhaul process. Unlike the Ohios, the Columbia-class reactors do not require refueling but instead operate with their original fuel for the entirety of their service lives. As a result, the U.S. Navy estimates that a slightly smaller nuclear deterrent force will save over $40 billion over the length of the class’ service lifetime.
Coming to a Navy Near You
Last year, the General Dynamics submarine branch, Electric Boat, signed a modified contract option with the Navy to construct and test the lead and second Columbia-class submarines. The contract, worth $9.474 billion, covers both construction costs as well as engineering and design requirements, though the design is already over 90% complete.
The final assembly is scheduled to begin in 2024, with the class’s lead entering service in 2030.
Sea-based Nuclear Deterrent
As the United States’ up-and-coming nuclear-missile-capable submarines, the Columbia will be armed with the Trident II ballistic missile, arguably the world’s most capable submarine-launched ballistic missile, also in service on the current Ohio-class SSBNs.
The three-stage solid-fueled rocket’s range is estimated to be about 7,500 miles or around 12,000 kilometers. It is in service with two country’s navies: both the United States Navy as well as the Royal Navy on their Vanguard-class submarines.
Columbia-class: What’s Next?
Already by 2026, the U.S. Navy plans to purchase one Columbia-class submarine per year — this despite the class’ enormous $7.5 billion per-hull costs, estimated to consume nearly 40% of the Navy’s budget — due to their necessity in countering an increasingly capable Chinese Navy.
Although the first of the Columbia-class submarines is more than ten years away, once they are in service, they will provide a powerful deterrent capability and likely one of the world’s most convincing.
Caleb Larson is a multimedia journalist and defense writer. A graduate of UCLA, he also holds a Master of Public Policy and lives in Berlin. He covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society for both print and radio. Follow him on Twitter @calebmlarson