Among the three legs of the triad, the U.S. Navy’s ballistic missile submarines are the most survivable and the hardest to detect. Their advanced nuclear propulsion and sound-dampening technology allow them to sail silently anywhere in the world. However, the current fleet of Ohio Class submarines is nearing the end of its lifespan, and the new Columbia Class is in the works to begin replacing Ohio Class submarines as early as 2031 and serve into the 2080s. The Cipher Brief spoke to retired Admiral Jonathan Greenert, former chief of naval operations, about why the Navy’s ballistic missile submarines remain crucial to U.S. national security and what makes the Columbia Class the quietest and most versatile submarine in the world.
The Cipher Brief: What will be the role of the Columbia-class submarines for U.S. national security?
Admiral Jonathan Greenert: The Columbia Class submarine is a part of the U.S. nuclear triad, along with long-range bombers and land-based ICBMs. It is the maritime leg. The Columbia Class will deploy the current and upgraded TRIDENT D-5 ballistic missile, and its replacement; will replace the current 14 Ohio Class nuclear-powered strategic ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) with 12 Columbia Class SSBNs; is planned for completion and ready for operation (first hull) by the end of the next decade; is planned to enter operational service in sequence (one-for-one) with the retirement of the last 12 Ohio Class SSBNs; and is a national program – accordingly, its mission, function and tasking are a function of the White House strategic nuclear strategy, defined by the most current Nuclear Posture Review (2012), and the SIOP-Single Integrated Operation Plan. Columbia submarines will be organized, trained, and equipped by the Navy; operationally tasked by Strategic Command (delegated by the president of the United States/National Security Council via the Department of Defense).
TCB: The nuclear triad was a solution to a Cold War defense problem and ballistic missile submarines were integral to the triad. Looking into the future, why do we still need ballistic missile submarines?
Greenert: The nuclear triad provided a solution – nuclear deterrence – to an existential national threat, instigated during, but not unique to, the Cold War. This threat remains. The consequences are the same; the likelihood has decreased. The U.S. lost its status as the world’s sole nuclear power in the late forties. By the 1970s there were five nuclear powers. Accordingly, the nuclear triad is an instrument of global nuclear deterrence and supports the philosophy of “mutual assured destruction.” If a Nuclear Posture Review or presidential national security policy determines a nuclear triad is no longer relevant, it could be amended or terminated.
Within the nuclear triad, SSBNs, operating undetected anywhere around the world, provide stealth, survivability, reliability, endurance, and flexibility. The SSBN, designed for a nominal 30-year life, has proven to be modular and transformational. Its large missile tubes can be modified to carry several cruise missiles each, or special operations equipment and/or unmanned underwater vehicles and systems. Further, its extensive electronics and communications suite make it a candidate to transform to a “stealthy underwater” joint operations headquarters.
TCB: What are some of the technical improvements of the Columbia over the Ohio class it will replace?
Greenert: The Columbia Class SSBN is designed to be quieter than any submarine the Intelligence Community projects into the 2030s. Further, there is an acoustic superiority program underway to assure its continued acoustic advantage throughout its life (approximately into the 2080s). Columbia’s propulsion, environmental control, and nuclear power plant are state-of-the-art. As a cost savings measure, relevant components used in the Virginia Class submarine program have been repurposed and engineered for increased capacity in the much larger Columbia Class submarine. Finally, the Columbia’s reactor will not need refueling for the life of the ship.
TCB: The Navy will begin building the Columbia submarines at the same time that it is trying to phase in the Ford aircraft carriers – another very expensive program – and expand the fleet. Is the budget sufficient to accommodate these goals? What will it take to keep the Columbia program on track?
Greenert: The Columbia Class is within the Navy’s shipbuilding plan and budget. Pending a dramatic change, there will not be sufficient funds in projected shipbuilding budgets to support Navy’s Long-Range Shipbuilding Plan. Given that the Columbia Class SSBN is a national program, it is the No. 1 priority program in the shipbuilding budget, and will not have to compete for funds. The NSC and White House, not DoD, define the nuclear triad force structure requirements through the Nuclear Posture Review.
When preparing previous shipbuilding programs and budgets to accommodate SSBN class submarine construction, the Navy (DoD) has been provided the requisite funding from outside Navy (DoD) budgets, to accommodate the additional requirement. This will be a funding challenge for the 2020s shipbuilding industrial base and ship programs, and it will likely take White House or congressional interest and intervention to preclude major perturbation (potential closure of one to two shipyards due to loss of business) of the shipbuilding plan and industrial base. Pending the assistance of “outside” funding, programs at risk would likely be other shipbuilding programs (frigates, amphibious ships, destroyers, submarines and auxiliary ships).