On thing is clear: the Columbia-class SSBN ain’t cheap.
Nuclear deterrence is an active component of our military. In layman’s terms, the possession of nuclear weapons reiterates to other nuclear powers the Cold War point of mutually assured destruction. If someone launches an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from a silo in the middle of nowhere with the intent to vaporize Western civilization, we would be inclined to return the favor. For decades, this mentality has run nuclear forces around the world. One hopes, such as in the case of a fledgling nuclear power like North Korea, mutually assured destruction is very clear.
The United States can launch its nuclear arsenal from silos in the American heartland, bombers, and missile submarines. The latter platform, known in naval jargon as a boomer, offers considerable benefits for strategists. The missile sub, or SSBN, relies on stealth, able to survive on long undersea deployments. Unlike an Air Force missile launch facility, the boomer is not in a fixed position. To find or destroy one, an enemy would have to deploy many anti-submarine warfare (ASW) assets, and since Earth is covered in oceans, the task brings up the adage, “finding a needle in a haystack”. The Department of Defense intends to deploy seventy percent of the country’s nuclear warheads on SSBNs.
According to a December 2017 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Ohio-class SSBNs presently deployed by the U.S. Navy are nearing the end of their service lifetimes and cannot be extended. The first of the class, USS Ohio (SSBN-726), was commissioned in 1981. Because of operations and strategy, U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) requires a new replacement missile boat in the water when the first of the dated Ohios, USS Tennessee (SSBN-734), is retired in 2031. (For trivia buffs, Ohio fired the first Trident C-4 SLBM in 1982, and Tennessee fired the first Trident D-5 in 1989.) The last of the Ohio-class boomers will retire in 2039.
The year 2031 seems so very far away, but it takes a long time to design, build, and launch a new submarine, to say nothing of fitting out, sea trials, or the snags that occur in modern shipbuilding. The heir apparent to Ohio will be USS Columbia (SSBN-826). This next-generation boomer will have lots of bells and whistles, including parts and systems developed from the Ohio, Seawolf, and Virginia programs.
- Sixteen (16) tubes for the Trident II D-5 missile.
- Electric drive propulsion.
- An S1B nuclear reactor designed to last the life of the ship, without refueling, for an estimated 42.5 years. (GAO has learned that the reactor will reduce maintenance times dramatically.)
- A propulsor unit that replaces a traditional propeller.
- An X-stern rudder-diving plane configuration that replaces a traditional cross-type configuration. The X-stern was first tested on the Navy’s USS Albacore (AGSS-569) and can be found on some European submarines.
None of this stuff comes cheap. The GAO says it will take $128 billion to “research, develop, and buy 12 submarines,” which is six less boats than the Ohio SSBN program. (Four of the 18 Ohios, it should be noted, were converted to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles and deploy special forces.) The Navy will need a further $267 billion to operate the Columbia class for the projected four decades of its life cycle. These figures, while astronomical, are just on paper. Realistically, the taxpayer hands out more than sticker price for high-tech military procurement, and a high-price weapon system cannot defend itself against budget cuts. In the case of the Seawolf attack submarine and Zumwalt destroyer programs, the Navy’s hand was cut to but three of a kind.
Will Columbia be worth the cost? In my opinion, the evolution of submarine warfare equates to bare survival. We need subs to fulfill tactical and strategic missions, including nuclear deterrence, but a well-built boat must also ensure the welfare of its crew. The fatal losses of Kursk, Thresher, and San Juan demonstrate the horrific risks to every submariner. SSBN-826 could change over time, perhaps in the way of a guided-missile (SSGN) conversion, or the dozen boats could be cut down in production. Either way, and regardless of cost, we can never put a price on the life of sailors. Safety and survival must come first in any submarine program. My express wish to Congress and the DOD: build it right to bring them home.
Photo: United States Government Accountability Office