Earlier this week, General Dynamics Electric Boat signed a contract modification option with the U.S. Navy for the construction costs of SSBN 826, the USS Columbia. The $9.474 billion contract covers both the full construction costs of the first ship, as well as related engineering and design elements. Electric Boat estimates that the Columbia-class’ design is nearly 90% complete.
The contract will also cover “advance procurement, advance construction, and associated engineering efforts” for the second of the class, the USS Wisconsin. Once completed, the Columbia-class will be twelve hulls in total, with final assembly slated to start in 2024 and first patrol scheduled for 2030.
The assistant secretary of the Navy for research development and acquisition, James Geurts, explained how important this contract award is to the U.S. Navy, stating that the Columbia-class is “the Navy’s number one acquisition priority program - awarding this contract on time is vital to keeping the program on track.”
The Columbia’s will replace the Ohio-class, the United States’ current sea-based nuclear deterrent and currently the largest submarines ever in service with the Navy. Once finished however, the Columbia’s will take the title of largest U.S. Naval submarines, at 560 feet long and with a displacement of almost 21,000 tons.
At twelve hulls, the entire Columbia-class will actually be smaller than the Ohio-class, which numbers fourteen hulls. This is partly thanks to Columbia’s improved nuclear reactors, which are designed to last for the submarine’s entire service life rather than needing a mid-life refueling. The Navy estimates that a smaller nuclear deterrent force will save the Navy more than $40 billion over the class’ service lifetime.
The Columbia’s will be armed with the Trident II ballistic missile, arguably the world’s most capable submarine-launched ballistic missile. The three-stage solid-fueled rocket’s range is estimated to be about 7,500 miles, or around 12,000 kilometers and is in service with both the United States Navy as well as the Royal Navy on their Vanguard-class submarines.
By 2026, the Navy will plan on purchasing one Columbia-class per year, and despite the massive $7.5 billion per-hull cost, estimated to consume nearly 40% of the Navy’s budget, is seen as necessary for countering an increasingly expansionist China.
Though the Columbia-class is still a decade away, once in service they will provide a powerful deterrent capability—hopefully the world’s most convincing.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.