Main Image Credit The Ohio-class guided missile submarine USS Florida makes her way through Cumberland Sound to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, in Georgia. The Columbia-class will start replacing the Ohio-class SSBNs in 2013. Courtesy of US Navy/Wikimedia.
The US Department of Defense has given the go-ahead to the next stage in its Columbia-class submarine programme, signalling continuity in what is one of the US military’s most expensive procurement projects.
In a departure from normal transfer of power procedures between outgoing and incoming presidents in the US, the US Department of Defense (DoD) this month authorised the next stage of the Columbia-class submarine procurement programme.
This critical decision releases the next stage of money that sees the start of the construction of the first boat in a class of 12, which will replace the ageing Ohio class, the sea-based element of the US nuclear deterrence triad.
The Ohios will have completed 50 years of service since they entered active duty with the US Navy; their replacements will start in 2031, when the first new SSBN, the USS Columbia, becomes ready for tasking. That submarine will be expected to remain in service until 2085.
The question is why was the decision made now? President-elect Donald Trump has made several comments about his desire to expand the US nuclear capability, so it was unlikely – at least based on public statements – that he would have cancelled the plans.
Yet the $126 billion procurement bill for 12 boats is the third-most expensive in the US DoD programme (after ballistic missile defence and the F35 fighters). It might well have come up for an element of renegotiation from an incoming president who has repeatedly tweeted his disagreement with the costs of the F35 fighter programme.
There was always only a small risk that the incoming administration would have adopted a similar negative approach to the submarine procurement programme. However, the potential impact of an adverse decision would have been significant.
As both Vice Chief of Naval Operations Admiral William F Moran and Ray Mabus, the US Secretary of the Navy, have stated, any delay would have caused development work to halt and delays to the programme would have been incurred.
Such delays would have been unacceptable, given the extremely tight timeline that the US Navy and the contractors (General Dynamics Electric Boat and its industry team-mate Newport News) are working to.
Indeed, the implications of deferring such decisions was highlighted in Sir John Parker’s recent report to the UK government regarding options and recommendations for the British national ship-building strategy, something on which we commented recently.
Americans seem to understand this more clearly than those on this side of the Pond.
The Columbia class of 12 will replace the 18 Ohio class – although only 15 are armed with the Trident missile – and have fewer missile tubes per hull (16 as opposed to 24). The reduction in hull numbers has been the cause of considerable discussion and disagreement for several years.
In 2013, the Federation of American Scientists produced a report claiming that the number of deterrent patrols conducted each year by the ballistic nuclear submarine fleet had declined by more than half between 1999 and 2013 – a figure disputed by the US Navy.
Four US Navy ballistic missile submarines are on constant patrol, each conducting patrols averaging 70 days. Shore time for the current vessels consists of training, validation, servicing, maintenance, modernisation programmes and major refit periods that go so far as to refuel the reactor mid way after 25 years.
But the constant modernisation has allowed costs for the new Ohio boats to be reduced. While much of the new hulls use new technology and materials, there will be a carry across of some equipment between the two classes.
Critically, however, new reactors that do not require refuelling will be installed, reducing the operating costs of the submarines. Some sensors will be transferred, and a common warfare operating system installed to reduce the training time for people coming from other classes of submarines. Technology risks were reduced, by using known, propulsor, anechoic coating and bow sonars from the Virginia-class nuclear attack submarines.
However, it is perhaps two other elements that make this programme announcement most interesting. The first is the inclusion of research and development funding within the overall programme, and within the procurement figure, which seeks to ensure that the hull design and stealth characteristics stay current with the Russian threat.
And, second, that the submarines may attempt an electric motor design that cuts the physical connection between engines and propulsor.
The change to the acoustic signature this would be bring about would be most significant, and take the challenge of detection by America’s adversaries to a whole new level.
So how do these vessels compare with the British Dreadnought-class SSBNs? Both classes will feature a common missile compartment and carry Trident D5 missiles. They also have a similar build-timetable – HMS Dreadnought is due to enter service in 2028, three years ahead of USS Columbia.
The Colombia class will be bigger, carry more missiles and have a longer life. A cost comparison is difficult since official figures for both projects contain and exclude different things, and even whole-life costs calculations do not tell the full story.
Finally, the American programme should be expected to exploit economies of scale, but that must be offset against a longer planned life of 50 years.
What is clear is that the US will spend a slightly smaller proportion of its defence budget on the new submarines, but a larger proportion on the entirety of America’s nuclear triad. And, of course, the UK will remain dependent on US technology for the replacement for the Trident missile system in around 2040.
But then, this is not a competition; it is a partnership.
Professor Peter Roberts
Director, Military Sciences