The Navy’s new nuclear-armed Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines will serve all the way until 2084, so the Pentagon is now taking specific, measured steps to ensure its weapons will be ready throughout the rest of this century.
The Navy’s Strategic Systems Program is now upgrading its existing Trident II D5 nuclear missiles with a special Life Extension program to ensure the electronics, warheads and guidance systems are current, functional and highly effective. Called the Trident II D5 LE program, the upgraded missile is in production to sustain Navy’s undersea nuclear missile strike capability, ensuring a catastrophic second strike in the even the United States is attacked with nuclear weapons.
The Navy is now also looking beyond the current electronics modernization program to begin work on a new series of technologies intended to bring the weapon well into the 2080s and beyond, through a program called Life Extension 2, Vice Adm. Johnny Wolfe, Director of the U.S. Navy’s Strategic Systems Program, told The Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies.
“We know we are going to need more missiles. Life Extension 2 will be the process by which we start to look at new requirements and start maturing new technologies to get on a methodical path. We are taking everything we learned with the Life Extension program and looking at new electronics,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe said the plan is to have the Life Extension 2 missile in production by the 2030s, following prototyping, technical development and various design reviews. The optimism for continued electronics upgrades of the Trident II D5 is based in large measure upon its performance track record in testing, as there have been 178 successful launches. Wolfe said ongoing tests flights with the Life Extension variant continue to verify high levels of accuracy and reliability.
“We need to make sure the Trident is always rock solid, because we will need to keep it for the next 60 years,” Wolfe added.
The reliability of the Trident II D5 missiles, and their performance over the course of many years, provided part of the rationale for why the new Columbia-class boats will only need sixteen missile tubes, as opposed to the twenty-two now on the Ohio-class.
“We have the most reliable weapons systems that anyone has ever built. There have been 178 successful launches. We took that reliability and if the 16 missile tubes stay the same, we can meet the mission,” Wolfe said.
Columbia-class submarines, to be armed with Tridents for the next sixty years, will quietly and secretly patrol the dark depths of the undersea to hold potential adversaries at risk, operating within potential striking range of high-threat targets such as major cities to guarantee a massively destructive response in the event of nuclear attack.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.