Navy $5 billion boost for Electric Boat Columbia submarine construction to bring jobs

An artist rendering of the future US Navy Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines. (U.S. Navy illustration)

(Tribune News Service) — The US Navy has given another $5.1 billion boost to its high-priority Columbia class submarine program and its designer and lead contractor on the new class of ballistic missile subs, the Electric Boat division of General Dynamics at Groton.

EB, with shipyards in Groton and Quonset Point, RI, has started building the first two boats in what is to be a fleet of 12 Columbia class ships that will replace the Navy’s aging, Ohio class missile submarines. The $5.1 billion announced by the Pentagon this week enables EB to acquire parts, material and other long lead-time items for the next five boats in the class.

“This award enhances Electric Boat’s efforts to maintain the Columbia-class production and delivery schedule,” said EB President Kevin Graney. “Advance procurement of long lead-time materials and component construction is critical to the program, and the strategic investments in the development and expansion of the Submarine Industrial Base will help stabilize and grow the supply chain, which increases manufacturing capacity, reduces risk and ultimately drives timely delivery of submarines to the Navy.”

The Navy has designated construction of the Columbia fleet its highest priority, meaning that it intends to build the boats, even if — in the event of defense spending cuts — it means sacrificing other naval shipbuilding programs, according to a Congressional research report.

That promises to be a boon to southern New England employment. One of EB’s challenges is finding and training qualified shipbuilders. It now employs about 19,000 in Connecticut and Rhode Island where, in addition to starting to build the Columbia fleet, it is continuing to build the Navy’s Virginia class of nuclear powered attack submarines.

The company has said it won’t hit peak workforce until the late 2020s and, even then, expects to continue to hire about 2,000 a year to maintain it.

At 560 feet long and displacing 21,000 tons, ships in the Columbia class, named for the lead boat, will be the biggest submarines ever built by the United States. They have been designed with cutting edge technology, with an emphasis on improvements in quietening that will allow them to move silently, avoiding detection by enemy sonar.

They will be fitted with nuclear reactors that, it has been reported, produce less noise than a 20 watt light bulb and have 42-year service life, twice that of earlier designs. Longer service life eliminates the need to extended in-port time for refueling, which allows the Navy to fulfill the fleet’s mission with fewer ships.

An anechoic hull coating is designed to reduce threats from hostile active sonar. An X-shaped, rather than vertical tail fin structure is expected to allow higher speeds at greater depths. Nuclear-generated electric power will replace the steam turbines installed in earlier submarine classes. Propulsion will be by a closely guarded turbo-electric drive, pump jet.

Speed ​​and dive capabilities of US submarines are secret.

Reports of the estimated cost of the first Columbia have run from about $5 to 9 billion. A recent congressional estimate has the cost of the entire fleet of 12 at about $112 billion, making it the Pentagon’s second most expensive weapons system. EB plans to deliver the first boat in the class to the Navy in 2027.

Columbia class submarines and the Ohio class boats they will replace, known as SSBNs or “Boomers,” are part of the US Strategic nuclear deterrent. They will be built with 14 large-diameter vertical missile tubes capable of the undersea launch of long range ballistic missiles armed with varying numbers of independently targeted nuclear warheads.

The Columbia’s mission is to sit quietly, deep within the ocean and deter a nuclear strike by demonstrating to the world that the United States has an assured second-strike capability, meaning a survivable system for carrying out a retaliatory nuclear attack. They will form one leg — and perhaps the most important — of the US deterrent “triad,” which also includes land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and land-based long-range bombers.

In a 2018 review of the US nuclear posture, the Department of Defense called ballistic missile submarines the most survivable leg of the deterrent triad because, when on patrol, their undersea stealth technology makes them virtually undetectable — meaning they do not, at least at present , face credible threats.

Unlike other classes of naval submarines, the Boomers have two crews so they can be at sea, on patrol, continuously. When one crew is in port after a patrol, the second is at sea.

The importance of ballistic missiles as a deterrent is behind the Navy’s prioritization of Columbia class construction. The first of the predecessor Ohio class submarines was launched at EB in 1980 and the fleet is almost approaching the end of its active service life. Beginning in 2027, Ohio class boats are scheduled to be taken out of service at a rate of one a year.

The Navy is pressing the Columbia shipbuilding program with a goal of keeping at least 10 missile subs on patrol at all times.

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