ARLINGTON, Va. — The head of the joint Navy-Department of Energy naval reactors program said Wednesday construction on the first Columbia-class ballistic submarine will begin in 2021, but warned that “there will be problems” and that the Navy will “have to work hard to get her on patrol in 2031.”
“We need Columbia boats,” Adm. James Caldwell, director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, said in a speech here at the Naval Submarine League’s annual symposium. “We have deferred this investment for as long as we possibly can. We cannot defer it any longer.”
General Dynamics Electric Boat, of Groton, Conn., is the prime contractor for the submarine program, working on design and development under a roughly $5-billion contract awarded last year by Naval Sea Systems Command.
The Navy estimates it will cost about $130 billion to build 12 Columbia-class submarines to replace the 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines active today. The life-cycle cost is projected in excess of $267 billion.
Ballistic missile submarines are designed to be an undetectable, globe-canvassing force that guarantee an unstoppable nuclear counterstrike to any target on the Earth’s surface. Columbia-class subs will carry 16 carry Trident II-D5 missiles tipped with W76 nuclear warheads maintained by the Department of Energy. Ohio subs carry up to 24.
Politically, support for the submarine leg of the U.S. nuclear Triad — submarines, silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, and nuclear-armed bomber aircraft — has been strong during the first two Republican-controlled years of the Donald Trump administration. However, Democrats retook control of the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday, setting the stage for debates in a divided Congress over the ongoing U.S. nuclear deterrent modernization, which includes Columbia.
When General Dynamics starts building Columbia-class boats at its Groton shipyard in 2021, the Navy and its contractors will be churning out three submarines a year: one Columbia-class missile submarine and two Virginia-class attack subs. From 2008 through 2011, the Navy was building only one submarine a year: a Virginia-class. The service ramped up to two Virginia-class subs a year at Congress’ behest during then-President Barack Obama’s first term.