Navy Weighs New Build Plan for Nuclear-Armed Subs

The Navy will need an additional $60 billion to complete its plan build of Columbia-class nuclear-armed ballistic missiles submarines.

The Navy's new deal to produce the first 22 missile tubes for it new Columbia-class nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines comes at time when the service is considering new build strategies for the submarines to address a massive funding shortfall for the top-priority program, Congressional and Navy officials explained. 

General Dynamics Electric Boat recently received a new $101.3 million contract to build the new U.S.-U.K. Common Missile Compartment for the new submarines, slated to ultimately replace the existing Ohio-class fleet. 

However, a newly released Congressional Research Service Report, called "Navy Columbia Class (Ohio Replacement) Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN[X]) Program: Background and issues for Congress," addresses substantial funding concerns expressed by senior Navy leaders. The primary concern, among other things, is that the Navy will need a substantial top-line budget increase in order to fund the new Columbia-class without massively depleting resources needed for other service platforms.  

"Navy officials testified that the service is seeking about $4 billion per year over 15 years in supplemental funding—a total of about $60 billion—for the Columbia class program," the report states. 

The report suggests a number of strategic avenues through which the Navy might seek to ameliorate this funding shortfall; the suggestions include an increased use of "block" buys and "multi-year" contracts which can both increase volume and lower costs due to longer-range planning. Varying the schedule of production to allow for incremental funding over the years was also proposed by the report. Another recommendation was to reduce the amount of Columbia-class submarines built, an option not likely to be favored given the priority placed on undersea deterrence. 

Congressional researchers credit Navy planners for investigating the possibility of using a single, joint-class block buy contract that would cover both Columbia-class boats and Virginia-class attack submarines.

"Such a contract, which could be viewed as precedent-setting in its scope, could offer savings beyond what would be possible using separate block buy or MYP contracts for the two submarine programs," the report says. 

The Congressional report also says the Navy could work on leveraging results from a specially-created National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund established in 2015.The fund was created by members of Congress as a way to allocate specific acquisition dollars to pay for the new submarines. 

Production for the lead ship in a planned fleet of 12 Ohio Replacement submarines is expected to cost $12.4 billion — $4.8 billion in non-recurring engineering or development costs and $7.6 billion in ship construction, Navy officials have said. 

The Navy hopes to build Ohio Replacement submarine numbers two through 12 for $4.9 billion each in 2010 dollars.

Early Submarine Construction Underway

The Navy has begun early construction and prototyping on a new class of nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines designed to help ensure global peace by deploying massive destructive power under the sea.

The Columbia-class program, previously called the Ohio Replacement Program, is scheduled to begin construction by 2021. Requirements work, technical specifications and early prototyping have already been underway at General Dynamics Electric Boat.

Designed to be 560-feet– long and house 16 Trident II D5 missiles fired from 44-foot-long missile tubes, ORP will be engineered as a stealthy, high-tech nuclear deterrent able to quietly patrol the global undersea domain. 

“This platform is being designed for 42 years of service life. It has to survive into the 2080s and it has to provide a survivable, credible deterrent threat,” Capt. David Goggins, Ohio Replacement Program Manager, told Scout Warrior in an interview earlier this year. 

Construction on the first submarine in this new class is slated to be finished up by 2028, with initial combat patrols beginning in 2031, he added.

Ultimately, the Navy hopes to build and operate as many as 12 new nuclear-armed submarines, to be in service by the early 2040s and serve well into the 2080s. The ship specifications have been completed and the program is preparing for a detailed design phase and initial production contract, Goggins explained.

“I have to make sure I have a detailed manufacturing plan that is executable. Now I’m working on the detailed construction plan,” Goggins said.

 Strategic Nuclear Deterrence

Navy officials explain that the Ohio Replacement submarines’ mission is one of nuclear deterrence.

Detailed design for the first Ohio Replacement Program is slated for 2017. The new submarines are being engineered to quietly patrol the undersea domain and function as a crucial strategic deterrent, assuring a second strike or retaliatory nuclear capability in the event of nuclear attack.

The Navy is only building 12 Ohio Replacement submarines to replace 14 existing Ohio-class nuclear-armed boats because the new submarines are being built with an improved nuclear core reactor that will better sustain the submarines, Navy officials have said.

As a result, the Ohio Replacement submarines will be able to serve a greater number of deployments than the ships they are replacing and not need a mid-life refueling in order to complete 42 years of service.

“With the life of ship reactor core, you don’t have a mid-life refueling. This allows our 12 SSBNs to have the same at sea presence as our current 14. That alone is a 40 billion savings in acquisition and life-cycle cost because you don’t have those two additional platforms,” Goggins said.

Electric Boat and the Navy are already progressing on early prototype work connecting missile tubes to portions of the hull, officials said.  Called integrated tube and hull forging, the effort is designed to weld parts of the boat together and assess the ability to manufacture key parts of the submarine before final integration.

 In 2012, General Dynamics Electric Boat was awarded a five-year research and development deal for the Ohio Replacement submarines with a value up to $1.85 billion.  The contract contains specific incentives for lowering cost and increasing manufacturing efficiency, Navy and Electric Boat officials said. 

The U.S. and U.K. are together immersed in a common missile compartment effort for ORP.  In fact, the U.S. and U.K. are buying parts together for the common missile compartment and working on a $770 million contract with General Dynamics’ Electric Boat.  The U.S. plans to build 12 ORPs, each with 16 missile tubes, and the U.K. plans to build four nuclear-armed ballistic submarines, each with 12 missile tubes.

Next-Generation Technology

The ORP is being designed with a series of next-generation technologies, many of them from the Virginia-Class attack submarine.  Leveraging existing systems from current attack submarines allows the ORP program to integrate the most current technologies and systems while, at the same time, saving the developmental costs of beginning a new effort, Goggins explained.

 In particular, the ORP will utilize Virginia-class’s fly-by-wire joystick control system and large-aperture bow array sonar.

Sonar technology work by sending out an acoustic ping and then analyzing the return signal in order to discern shape, location or dimensions of an undersea threat. 

“The large aperture bow array is water backed. There is no dome and it has very small hydrophones. It is a better performing array, but more importantly it is not air backed. When you have an air-backed array, you have transducers that need to be replaced every 10 years,” Goggins explained.

Previous sonar technologies present higher maintenance costs, whereas large aperture bow arrays can bring both higher performance as well as lower life-cycle costs, he added.

“This enables lower operations and sustainment costs because these transducers and hydrophones last for the life of the ship,” Goggins explained.

The submarines combat systems from Virginia-class attack submarines are also being integrated into the new Ohio Replacement Program submarines. The subs combat systems consist of “electronic surveillance measures,” the periscope, radios and computer systems, Goggins explained.

The new ORP subs will also utilize an automated control fly-by-wire navigation system, a technology that is also on the Virginia-Class attack submarines.

“The ship’s control system allows the operator to put information into a computer about the course and depth for the submarine. A computer algorithm maintains that course and depth by sending a signal to the rudder and the stern,” Goggins said.

Goggins also explained that the shafts of the new submarines are being built to last up to 10 or 12 years in order to synchronize with the ships maintenance schedule. Existing shafts only last six to eight years, he explained.

The ORP will also use Virginia-class’s next-generation communications system, antennas and mast.   For instance, what used to be a periscope is now a camera mast connected to fiber-optic cable, enabling crew members in the submarine to see images without needing to stand beneath the periscope.  This allows designers to move command and control areas to larger parts of the ship and still have access to images from the camera mast, Electric Boat and Navy officials said.

The Ohio Replacement Program is also engineering a new electric motor for the submarine which will turn the shaft and the rotor for the propulsion system. The new motor will make propulsion more efficient and potentially bring tactical advantages as well such as quieting technologies, Goggins explained.

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