Analysis: New Columbia-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine is a top priority for US Navy

According to information published by the Sea Power Magazine website on August 12, 2020, the project for the construction of the first new Columbia ballistic missile will start for the Fiscal Year 2021. The Columbia (SSBN-826) class is a program to design and build a class of 12 new ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) to replace the Navy’s current force of 14 agings Ohio-class SSBNs.
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Russian Vyborg Shipyard laid the Purga ice class coastguard ship of project 23550 925 001 Artist rendering of Columbia-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine. (Picture source U.S. Navy)

Currently, the U.S. Navy operates three kinds of submarines—nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs), nuclear-powered cruise missile submarines (SSGNs), and nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). The SSNs and SSGNs are multi-mission ships that perform a variety of peacetime and wartime missions. They do not carry nuclear weapons.

Today, the U.S. Navy operates 14 Ohio (SSBN-726) class SSBNs. The boats are commonly called Trident SSBNs or simply Tridents because they carry Trident D-5 SLBMs. They were procured in FY1977-FY1991 and entered service in 1984-1997. They were originally designed for 30-year service lives but were later certified for 42- year service lives, consisting of two approximately 19-year periods of operation separated by an approximately 4-year midlife nuclear refueling overhaul

A U.S. Congress report has announced on June 24, 2020, that the Columbia-class submarine is a top priority program for the U.S. Navy. Research and development work on the program has been underway for several years, and advance procurement (AP) funding for the first boat began in FY2017 (Fiscal Year).

The U.S. Navy’s FY2021 budget submission estimates the procurement cost of the first Columbia-class submarine at $14,393.4 million (i.e., about $14.4 billion) in then-year dollars, including $6,007.8 million (i.e., about $6.0 billion) in costs for plans, meaning (essentially) the detail design/nonrecurring engineering (DD/NRE) costs for the Columbia class submarine. The U.S. Navy wants to procure the second Columbia-class boat in FY2024.

The Columbia-class design includes 16 SLBM tubes, as opposed to 24 SLBM (Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile) tubes (of which 20 are now used for SLBMs) on Ohio-class SSBNs. Although the Columbia-class design has fewer SLBM tubes than the Ohio-class design, it is larger than the Ohio-class design in terms of submerged displacement. The Columbia-class design, like the Ohio-class design before it, will be the largest submarine ever built by the United States.

British Navy has also planned to acquire Columbia-class submarine under the name of Dreadnought-class SSBN. This submarine will be armed with eight D-5 SLBMs, or half the number to be carried by the Columbia class. The modular design of the CMC (Common Missile Compartment) will accommodate this difference. The UK provided some of the funding for the design of the CMC, including a large portion of the initial funding

The Columbia-Class submarine will be powered by an electric-drive propulsion system that includes an electric motor driving the propeller of the boat. It will use a nuclear reactor to produce the necessary electrical energy to supply the electric propulsion motor. The submarine will be able to sail at a speed of 20 k (38 km/h) and operate at a depth of 250 m.