In a ceremony in Washington D.C. on December 14, the secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, formally announced that the lead boat of the U.S. Navy’s new ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) class will be named USS Columbia (SSBN 826) in honor of the District of Columbia, according to a U.S. Navy press release.
“Ballistic missile submarines are critical, stabilizing, and efficient elements of the U.S. nuclear deterrence and assurance policy, carrying the majority of deployed U.S. nuclear warheads. Columbia-class SSBNs incorporate advanced technology and will provide the most survivable leg of the Nation’s strategic triad,” the press release notes.
The new Columbia-class, formerly known as the Ohio-class Replacement Program, is slated to replace the Ohio-class SSBNs beginning in 2031 and will be designed for a 42-year service life all the way through 2085.The U.S. Navy continues to operate a fleet of 14 Ohio-class SSBNs, armed with up to 24 Trident II D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles fitted with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles.
Built by the General Dynamics’ Electric Boat Division, the first Ohio-class SSBN entered service in 1981 with the last submarine commissioned in 1997. Beginning in 2027, roughly one submarine per year will be decommissioned, with the last boat set to be retired in 2040. As I noted in an article for The Diplomat Magazine:
In 2010, the Defense Acquisition Board — the U.S. Department of Defense’s senior advisory board for defense procurements — endorsed “replacing the current 14 Ohio-class Ballistic Missile Submarines (SSBNs) as they reach the end of their service life with 12 Ohio Replacement Submarines, each comprising 16, 87-inch diameter missile tubes utilizing TRIDENT II D5 Life Extended missiles.”
With initial design and prototyping phases complete, the first Ohio Replacement Submarine (aka SSBN(X)) is slated to begin construction in 2021 and enter service in 2031. Overall, the U.S. Navy plans to acquire a total fleet of 12 SSBN(X)s with the last boat entering service sometime between 2040 and 2042.
This number, however, could be reduced to ten boats depending on future budgetary environment and a reassessment of operational needs. In the magazine, I also laid out some of the technical specifications of the Columbia-class:
According to the United States Naval Institute, the new sub will displace 20,810 tons when submerged — the largest submarine the U.S. Navy has ever constructed — measure 561 feet (171 meters) in lengths, and have a beam of 43 feet (13 meters). This will make the new class only marginally larger than the Ohio-class with 18,750 tons submerged, 560 feet (170 meters) in lengths, and a beam of 42 feet (13 meters). With a complement of 155, the crew size will also be roughly the same on both ships.
The Columbia-class could potentially also carry non-nuclear payloads in its missile tubes, including Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs), and Special Operations Forces.