The Buzz

Will the Navy's New Missile Submarine Become the Next 'F-35'? (In a Bad Way)

The navy pushes back on a report that states “It is unknown at this point whether they will work as expected, be delayed, or cost more than planned.”

The Navy is defending the technological maturity of its now-in-development Columbia-Class submarine in response to a recent Government Accountability Office report claiming that many of the boat’s technologies might not meet necessary standards of technical progress.

“The Columbia Class Submarine Program is well positioned to provide needed capability at an affordable price on the timeline needed to meet national strategic deterrent requirements,” William Couch, spokesman for Naval Sea Systems Command, told Warrior Maven in a written statement.

Citing the submarines Integrated Power System, nuclear reactor, common missile compartment and propulsor, the GAO report says additional testing and development are required to assess technical progress.

“It is unknown at this point whether they will work as expected, be delayed, or cost more than planned,” the report states.

While quick to emphasize that the service welcomes input and critical assessments, Navy officials responded to the GAO’s central claims by explaining that the technological systems in question are engineering and integration efforts, as opposed to technology maturation efforts.

Also, Navy developers told Warrior Maven that the Columbia-Class acquisition program has met all of its requisite DoD metrics, therefore reinforcing and validating the program's progress. In particular, Couch said the Columbia program complied with all Navy, DoD and statutory requirements for conducting a 2015 Technology Readiness Assessment. He added that while some of the systems have not yet been tested in an operational environment, they are showing substantial promise and reliability in various developmental assessments.

Responding to a claim in the GAO’s report that Navy developers underestimated some of the risks associated with the technology, Couch added that “the Navy continues to actively manage all Columbia program costs, schedule and performance goals, including engineering and integration risks.”

The Navy response also emphasizes, according to Couch, that Columbia-Class submarine developers regularly brief DoD leadership and Congress to “ensure all risks are transparent and fully understood.”

The GAO report does praise the Navy for its thorough effort to explore and complete design specifications early in the acquisition process – so as to set proper requirements and pave the way toward successful construction.

Overall, the issue raised in the GAO report is of critical concern to many throughout Congress and DoD for both budget and strategic reasons. Many regard the Columbia-Class submarines, slated to enter service in the early 2030s, as the number one DoD priority. Added to this equation is the fact that there has long been concern that there were not sufficient budget dollars available for the effort.

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. Quietly patrolling in often unknown portions of the global undersea domain, 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.

Columbia-Class Technology

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 in interviews over the years.

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.

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.

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 said.

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