The Navy and industry may be speeding up full production plans for its first Columbia-Class nuclear armed ballistic missile submarine as part of a broader move to increase the size of the service’s submarine fleet more quickly.
According to Navy statements, the first Columbia-Class submarine has been scheduled for procurement in 2021 as a first step toward achieving operational status by the early 2030s.
“Depending upon available resources, the Navy plan is aligned with the current 30-Year Shipbuilding Plan,” Naval Sea Systems Command spokesman William Couch told Warrior Maven.
The Navy’s Shipbuilding plan, released earlier this year, does cite acceleration as a priority as the service strives for an expanded 355-ship fleet.
“Navy continues to aggressively pursue acquisition strategies to build ships more quickly and more affordably,” the plan says.
Also, industry leaders and members of Congress have discussed fully funding and accelerating the program, an effort which will bring new nuclear undersea strategic deterrence technology to the Navy. Submarine-maker General Dynamics has recently announced that early purchases are in place to acquire the materials needed to begin full construction by as soon as 2020, according to a report in The National Interest.
Ultimately, the Navy hopes to build and operate as many as 12 new nuclear-armed submarines, to serve well into the 2080s.
“The Navy’s role is to be a knowledgeable and demanding customer, to define the requirement, and to work with Congress to establish the foundational profiles to attain it,” the Shipbuilding Plan states.
While acceleration, given current industry expansion and Congressional support is expected to potentially speed this up, the shipbuilding plan cites formal procurement of the first Columbia in 2021, with the second slated for 2024.
While the exact timetable for full construction of the first Columbia is likely something still in flux, depending upon Navy and General Dynamics planning, the service has been working to add funding to accelerate the program. For several years now, requirements work, technical specifications, and early prototyping have already been underway at General Dynamics Electric Boat.
The administration’s 2019 budget request, released early 2018, has already increased funding for the service’s new nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine by $2 billion over 2018’s amount in what appears to be a clear effort to further accelerate technology development and early production. Several Congressional committees are strongly supporting funding for the new submarine in their respective budget mark ups.
The budget request, which marks a substantial move on the part of the Navy and DoD, asks for $3.7 billion in 2019, up from $1.9 billion in 2018. The new budget effort is quite significant, given that there has been a chorus of concern in recent years that there would not be enough money to fund development of the new submarines, without devastating the Navy shipbuilding budget.
The Columbia-class plus-up is a key element of a cross-the-board Navy budget increase; overall, the Navy 2019 request jumps $14 billion over this year, climbing to to $194 billion.
Many regard the Columbia-Class submarines as the number one DoD priority, and it is quite possible the additional dollars will not only advance technical development and early construction, but may also move the entire production timeline closer.
Construction on the first submarine in this new class is slated to be finished up by 2028, with initial combat patrols beginning in 2031, service officials have said.
Perhaps of equal or greater significance is the fast-evolving current global threat environment which, among other things, brings the realistic prospect of a North Korean nuclear weapons attack. Undersea strategic deterrence therefore, as described by Navy leaders, brings a critical element of the nuclear triad by ensuring a second strike ability in the event of attack.
The submarines are intended to quietly patrol lesser known portions of the global undersea domain. Ultimately, the Navy hopes to build and operate as many as 12 new nuclear-armed submarines, to be in service by the early 2040s and serve well into the 2080s.
Navy nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines are intended to perform a somewhat contradictory, yet essential mission. By ensuring the prospect of massive devastation to an enemy through counterattack, weapons of total destruction can – by design – succeed in keeping the peace.
Although complete construction is slated to ramp up fully in the next decade, Navy and General Dynamics Electric Boat developers have already been prototyping key components, advancing science and technology efforts and working to mature a handful of next generation technologies.
With this in mind, the development strategy for the Columbia-Class could well be described in terms of a two-pronged approach; in key respects, the new boats will introduce a number of substantial leaps forward or technical innovations – while simultaneously leveraging currently available cutting-edge technologies from the Virginia-Class attack submarines, Navy program managers have told Warrior.
Designed to be 560-feet– long and house 16 Trident II D5 missiles fired from 44-foot-long missile tubes, Columbia-Class submarines will be engineered as a stealthy, high-tech nuclear deterrent able to quietly patrol the global undersea domain.
While Navy developers explain that many elements of the new submarines are not available for discussion for security reasons, some of its key innovations include a more efficient electric drive propulsion system driving the shafts and a next-generation nuclear reactor. A new reactor will enable extended deployment possibilities and also prolong the service life of submarines, without needing to perform the currently practiced mid-life refueling.
By engineering a “life-of-ship” reactor core, the service is able to build 12 Columbia-Class boats able to have the same at sea presence as the current fleet of 14 ballistic missile submarines. The plan is intended to save the program $40 billion savings in acquisition and life-cycle cost, Navy developers said.
Regarding development of the US-UK Common Missile Compartment, early “tube and hull” forging have been underway for several years already, according to Navy and Electric Boat officials.
The US plans to build 12 new Columbia-Class Submarines, each with 16 missile tubes, and the UK plans to build four nuclear-armed ballistic submarines, each with 12 missile tubes.
The Columbia-Class will also use Virginia-class’s next-generation communications system, antennas and mast. For instance, what used to be a periscope is now a camera mast connected to fiber-optic cable, enabling crew members in the submarine to see images without needing to stand beneath the periscope. This allows designers to move command and control areas to larger parts of the ship and still have access to images from the camera mast, Electric Boat and Navy officials said.
The Columbia-Class will utilize Virginia-class’ fly-by-wire joystick control system and large-aperture bow array sonar. The automated control fly-by-wire navigation system is also a technology that is on the Virginia-Class attack submarines. A computer built-into the ship’s control system uses algorithms to maintain course and depth by sending a signal to the rudder and the stern, a Navy Virginia Class program developer told Warrior Maven in a previous interview.
Sonar technology works by sending out an acoustic ping and then analyzing the return signal in order to discern shape, location or dimensions of an undersea threat.
Navy experts explained that the large aperture bow array is water backed with no dome and very small hydrophones able to last for the life of the ship; the new submarines do not have an air-backed array, preventing the need to replace transducers every 10-years.
In January 2017, development of the new submarines have passed what’s termed “Milestone B,” clearing the way beyond early development toward ultimate production.
In Fall 2017, the Navy awarded General Dynamics Electric Boat a $5 billion contract award is for design, completion, component and technology development and prototyping efforts.
This article originally appeared on Warrior Maven. Follow @warriormaven1 on Twitter.