U.S. Navy Awards $9.5 Billion Contract for First Two Columbia Nuclear Missile Subs

The U.S. Navy has awarded General Dynamics Electric Boat Corporation the contract to construct the first two Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). The contract is worth $9.47 billion and covers the completion of the lead name vessel and advanced construction activities for the second.

The two boats, which will be named USS Columbia (SSBN 826) and USS Wisconsin (SSBN 827), are the first of twelve vessels intended to replace the Ohio-class nuclear ballistic submarines that began entering service in 1981. These are scheduled to start being retired from 2027 onwards.

The new class will carry less missile tubes than their predecessors – 16 compared to 24 – but shall be a foot wider and have a larger submerged displacement. The Columbias will utilise the sonar from the current Virginia-class attack submarines, arguably the most sophisticated in service. Additionally, the new boats will use an electric-drive system, making them even quieter than their famously silent predecessors.

Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine USS Alabama (SSBN 731) transits the Hood Canal, April 2017 (Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Amanda R. Gray/US Navy)

 The Columbias are expected to have a 42-year lifespan and the name ship is scheduled in service in 2031. The last of class should enter service in 2042. In 2019, the Government Accountability Office reported that the program will have an expected cost of $267 billion over its life cycle, including procurement.

Speaking of the award, James Geurts, assistant secretary of the Navy for research development and acquisition, said:

“I applaud the efforts of the Navy and industry team who worked aggressively on this contract. Columbia is the Navy’s number one acquisition priority program – awarding this contract on time is vital to keeping the program on track.”

The signing of the contract is a significant step in confirming that the program is still on schedule. American submarine procurement has had serious problems recently due to construction and political issues, as was reported by Overt Defense last year.

The Virginia-class attack submarine South Dakota (SSN 790) transits the Thames River at Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton, Connecticut. (Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Steven Hoskins/US Navy)

Additionally, the US Navy’s next-generation SSN(X) attack boat is also under development. It has been reported that SSN(X) will build off of the new Columbia-class SSBNs. The new attack boats are set to be larger than the current Virginia class.

The company which provides the US Navy’s nuclear reactors, BWX Technologies, Inc., has spoken about the future SSNs. BWXT’s Rex Geveden said:

We do expect it will be a larger type of submarine, probably in the size class of the Columbia, but there’s not much more to tell than that. But we’re working with our Navy customer in what that would look like and how we could take that into production… there’s some thought, discussion and analysis. It would be the follow-on to the Virginia fast-attack submarine, and it would feather in sometime in the late 2030s.

The Columbia Class is anticipated to displace around 20,000 tons, about twice as heavy as the Virginia. Its likely that SSN(X) will have larger dimensions like the Columbias but a smaller displacement. Development of the SSN(X) continues but the aims appear to be for a faster, more heavily armed boat than the current Virginias.

$5.1 billion has been already spent on development costs for the Columbia class and with the impending retirement of the Ohios, the need for this critical element in America’s nuclear triad to enter service on time is paramount.

Additional reporting on SSN(X) by Matthew Moss