No way, no how … not a chance.
This time, the US Navy is not backing down.
It may face budgetary constraints and other Covid-related shipbuilding challenges, but the service will do whatever it takes to keep its Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine program on track, according to a report by Jon Harper of National Defense.
With the growing peer threat of China and Russia looming large on the horizon, the Navy is eyeing at least 12 vessels over the life of the program, at an estimated cost of US$109.8 billion.
The new nuclear-armed subs will eventually replace the aging Ohio-class boats, and plans call for procuring the lead ship in fiscal year 2021, so that it can be on patrol by 2031, National Defense reported.
However, potential problems on the horizon include the risk of a delay in designing and building the lead Columbia-class boat due to the Covid-19 pandemic or funding-related issues, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report titled, “Navy Columbia (SSBN-826) Class Ballistic Missile Submarine Program: Background and Issues for Congress.”
That “could put at risk the Navy’s ability to have the boat ready for its first scheduled deterrent patrol in 2031,” the study said.
The estimated procurement cost of the first boat is US$14.4 billion. The Navy has already received US$6.2 billion in prior-year advanced procurement funding. The 2021 budget request includes US$2.9 billion in procurement funding, with the remaining amount to be requested in 2022 and 2023, National Defense reported.
The Navy aims to procure the second boat in 2024, and has asked for about US$1 billion in advanced procurement funding in 2021.
The service has already negotiated a contract for the first two ships with prime contractor General Dynamics Electric Boat, according to Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition James “Hondo” Geurts.
“We’ll be able to award that as soon as it is authorized and appropriated,” he told reporters during a recent teleconference.
However, fiscal year 2021, which starts Oct. 1, is expected to begin with a continuing resolution — perhaps for several months, National Defense reported. That could throw a wrench in the Navy’s plans.
“In terms of budget I have been fairly vocal … in our discussions with members [of Congress] that if there were a CR we would need an anomaly to be able to execute Columbia on schedule,” Geurts said.
An “anomaly” granted by lawmakers would allow the program to move forward even while other programs are restricted at fiscal year 2020 funding levels until a full-year appropriations bill is passed.
Beyond 2021, defense spending cuts could be on the table due to the economic fallout from Covid-19, analysts say. That could threaten Navy plans to ramp up the size of the fleet and introduce a variety of next-generation systems, Defense News reported.
If resources are constrained, the service knows where it wants its money to go.
“Columbia is still our top priority program and it will be a program that we ensure is resourced to be successful,” Geurts said. “It provides the strategic deterrent for our nation, and that’s not a mission that we can afford to take risk on or put at risk. And so it will be prioritized above all others as we go forward.”
In today’s Ohio-class submarines, a reactor plant generates heat which creates steam, The National Interest reported.
The steam then turns turbines which produce electricity and also propel the ship forward through “reduction gears” which are able to translate the high-speed energy from a turbine into the shaft RPMs needed to move a boat propeller.
“The electric-drive system is expected to be quieter (i.e., stealthier) than a mechanical-drive system,” a Congressional Research Service report on Columbia-Class submarines from earlier this year states.
Designed to be 560-feet long and house sixteen Trident II D5 missiles fired from forty-four-foot-long missile tubes, Columbia-Class submarines will use a quieting X-shaped stern configuration, National Interest reported.
The “X”-shaped stern will restore maneuverability to submarines; as submarine designs progressed from using a propeller to using a propulsor to improve quieting, submarines lost some surface maneuverability, Navy officials say.
Navy developers explain that electric-drive propulsion technology still relies on a nuclear reactor to generate heat and create steam to power turbines. However, the electricity produced is transferred to an electric motor rather than so-called reduction gears to spin the boat’s propellers, National Interest reported.
Using an electric motor optimizes use of installed reactor power in a more efficient way, making more on-board power available for other uses, according to an essay by Joel Harbour, called “Evaluation and Comparison of Electric Propulsion Motors for Submarines.”
Harbour says that on mechanical drive submarines, 80% of the total reactor power is used exclusively for propulsion.
“With an electric drive submarine, the installed reactor power of the submarine is first converted into electrical power and then delivered to an electric propulsion motor,” he writes.
“The now available electrical potential not being used for propulsion could easily be tapped into for other uses.”