Asia Defense

US Shipbuilder Cuts First Steel for Lead Columbia-Class Ballistic Missile Submarine

Huntington Ingalls Industries officially began construction for the first-of-class USS Columbia on May 23.

Franz-Stefan Gady
US Shipbuilder Cuts First Steel for Lead Columbia-Class Ballistic Missile Submarine
Credit: Huntington Ingalls Industries

U.S. shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII) hosted a first steel-cutting ceremony at its Newport News Shipbuilding division in Virginia on May 23 to mark the beginning of the advance construction of the first-of-class USS Columbia, the lead boat of a new class of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) for the U.S. Navy.

The Columbia-class will replace the Ohio-class of SSBNs, 14 of which are currently in service with the U.S. Navy. The lead SSBN of the Columbia-class is expected to be delivered to the U.S. Navy by 2028. “After being delivered in [fiscal year] 2028, the lead boat would undergo substantial testing, with the aim of having it be ready for its first deterrent patrol in 2031,” according to a May 2019 Congressional Research Report (CRS).

The Columbia-class of 12 SSBNs is designed for a 42-year service life all the way through 2085.

According to an HII press statement, the May 23 ceremony consisted of a plasma-burning machine cutting the first steel plate that will be used to build the future USS Columbia, which will be the first submarine to be constructed using fully digital blueprints.  The Columbia-class is being built by HII’s Newport News Shipbuilding division in Virginia and General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut.

General Dynamics Electric Boat was awarded a $5.1 billion contract for detailed design work for the Columbia-class SSBNs in September 2017.

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“Today is a historic day,” Jason Ward, Newport News’ vice president for Columbia-class construction, said on May 23. “It has been a half century since Newport News Shipbuilding has constructed a ballistic submarine. Today, we celebrate the decade-plus effort spent working with Electric Boat on the design of this new class of submarine as we formally transition from design to material procurement and now to construction execution.”

HII is three weeks ahead of the construction schedule, according to the press statement.

“The first cut of steel is a major construction milestone that signifies our shipyard and submarine industrial base are ready to move forward with production,” Ward added. “We have worked to engage the submarine industrial base and leveraged lessons learned from the successful Virginia-class program to building the Columbia-class submarines in the most efficient and affordable manner to provide the best value to the Navy.”

Total procurement cost for the class of SSBNs is estimated at over $100 billion. “The Navy’s FY2020 budget submission estimates the total procurement cost of the 12-ship class at $109.0 billion in then-year dollars,” according to the CRS report. “An April 2018 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report assessing selected major DOD weapon acquisition programs stated that the estimated total acquisition cost of the Columbia-class program is $102,075.3 million (about $102.1 billion) in constant FY2018 dollars, including $12,901.0 million (about $12.9 billion) in research and development costs and $89,174.3 million (about $89.2 billion) in procurement costs.”