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The U.S. Navy's New Plan to Build a More Lethal Ballistic Missile Submarine

The Navy's new deal to produce the first 22 missile tubes for it new Columbia-class nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines comes at time when the service is considering new build strategies for the submarines to address a massive funding shortfall for the top-priority program, Congressional and Navy officials explained. 

General Dynamics Electric Boat recently received a new $101.3 million contract to build the new U.S.-U.K. Common Missile Compartment for the new submarines, slated to ultimately replace the existing Ohio-class fleet. 

However, a newly released Congressional Research Service Report, called "Navy Columbia Class (Ohio Replacement) Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN[X]) Program: Background and issues for Congress," addresses substantial funding concerns expressed by senior Navy leaders. The primary concern, among other things, is that the Navy will need a substantial top-line budget increase in order to fund the new Columbia-class without massively depleting resources needed for other service platforms.  

"Navy officials testified that the service is seeking about $4 billion per year over 15 years in supplemental funding—a total of about $60 billion—for the Columbia class program," the report states. 

The report suggests a number of strategic avenues through which the Navy might seek to ameliorate this funding shortfall; the suggestions include an increased use of "block" buys and "multi-year" contracts which can both increase volume and lower costs due to longer-range planning. Varying the schedule of production to allow for incremental funding over the years was also proposed by the report. Another recommendation was to reduce the amount of Columbia-class submarines built, an option not likely to be favored given the priority placed on undersea deterrence. 

Congressional researchers credit Navy planners for investigating the possibility of using a single, joint-class block buy contract that would cover both Columbia-class boats and Virginia-class attack submarines.

"Such a contract, which could be viewed as precedent-setting in its scope, could offer savings beyond what would be possible using separate block buy or MYP contracts for the two submarine programs," the report says.

(This first appeared in Scout Warrior here.) 

The Congressional report also says the Navy could work on leveraging results from a specially-created National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund established in 2015.The fund was created by members of Congress as a way to allocate specific acquisition dollars to pay for the new submarines. 

Production for the lead ship in a planned fleet of 12 Ohio Replacement submarines is expected to cost $12.4 billion — $4.8 billion in non-recurring engineering or development costs and $7.6 billion in ship construction, Navy officials have said. 

The Navy hopes to build Ohio Replacement submarine numbers two through 12 for $4.9 billion each in 2010 dollars.

Early Submarine Construction Underway

The Navy has begun early construction and prototyping on a new class of nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines designed to help ensure global peace by deploying massive destructive power under the sea.

The Columbia-class program, previously called the Ohio Replacement Program, is scheduled to begin construction by 2021. Requirements work, technical specifications and early prototyping have already been underway at General Dynamics Electric Boat.

Designed to be 560-feet– long and house 16 Trident II D5 missiles fired from 44-foot-long missile tubes, ORP will be engineered as a stealthy, high-tech nuclear deterrent able to quietly patrol the global undersea domain. 

“This platform is being designed for 42 years of service life. It has to survive into the 2080s and it has to provide a survivable, credible deterrent threat,” Capt. David Goggins, Ohio Replacement Program Manager, told Scout Warrior in an interview earlier this year. 

Construction on the first submarine in this new class is slated to be finished up by 2028, with initial combat patrols beginning in 2031, he added.

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. The ship specifications have been completed and the program is preparing for a detailed design phase and initial production contract, Goggins explained.

“I have to make sure I have a detailed manufacturing plan that is executable. Now I’m working on the detailed construction plan,” Goggins said.

 Strategic Nuclear Deterrence

Navy officials explain that the Ohio Replacement submarines’ mission is one of nuclear deterrence.

Detailed design for the first Ohio Replacement Program is slated for 2017. The new submarines are being engineered to quietly patrol the undersea domain and function as a crucial strategic deterrent, assuring a second strike or retaliatory nuclear capability in the event of nuclear attack.

The Navy is only building 12 Ohio Replacement submarines to replace 14 existing Ohio-class nuclear-armed boats because the new submarines are being built with an improved nuclear core reactor that will better sustain the submarines, Navy officials have said.

As a result, the Ohio Replacement submarines will be able to serve a greater number of deployments than the ships they are replacing and not need a mid-life refueling in order to complete 42 years of service.

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