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At-sea nuclear deterrent submarines top priority for US Navy

Artist rendering of the future US Navy Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine (Source US Naval Sea Systems Command)

As Russia, China and the UK all embark on a modernisation of the seaborne leg of their nuclear arsenals, the US Navy’s planned Columbia Class ballistic missile submarines have emerged as the “top priority” for the US as it seeks to maintain its qualitative and deterrent edge over potential adversaries – drawing resources from other programs.

As Russia, China and the UK all embark on a modernisation of the seaborne leg of their nuclear arsenals, the US Navy’s planned Columbia Class ballistic missile submarines have emerged as the “top priority” for the US as it seeks to maintain its qualitative and deterrent edge over potential adversaries – drawing resources from other programs.

While aircraft carriers may serve as some of the most visible and potent symbols of great power force projection and national prestige in the growing arms race between the US and emerging peer and near-peer competitors China and Russia, submarines are the ultimate predators of the sea.

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The highly successful campaigns of terror conducted by the German Navy’s “wolf packs” of submarines during the Second World War to the tactical and strategic brinkmanship between ever more deadly American and Soviet nuclear submarines during the Cold War have set the stage for the 21st centurys race for strategic undersea dominance. 

Modern combat submarines are typically broken down by role and either conventional or nuclear propulsion into three different classes, namely: 

  • Attack submarines (SSK/SSN): These vessels are designed specifically to hunt and kill enemy submarines, surface combatants and merchant vessels. These submarines also serve a protective role, escorting major naval strike groups, logistics and troop convoys and merchant vessels. Recent advances in propulsion, power generation and weapons systems have also enabled these vessels to conduct long-range land strikes using torpedo or vertically launched cruise missiles. 
  • Ballistic missile submarines (SSBN): Significantly larger than their smaller, more nimble hunter-killer focused cousins, ballistic missile submarines serve as the seaborne leg of a traditional nuclear deterrence triangle, armed with submarine-launched ballistic missiles – these submarines, often termed “boomers”, serve as the ultimate in strategic insurance for great powers like the US and China. 
  • Cruise missile submarines (SSG/SSGN): Often modified ballistic missile submarines, cruise missile submarines leverage the unlimited range of nuclear-powered vessels combined with advances in weapons technology to pack vast numbers of land attack and anti-ship cruise missiles into specially modified vertical launch systems to provide immense levels of conventional strike capabilities.

Each of these different vessels are designed to serve fundamentally different roles within a force structure and a nation’s tactical and strategic doctrines – with ballistic missile submarine platforms forming the pinnacle of what is termed a “continuous at-sea deterrence” doctrine. 

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For the US Navy, the Cold War-era Ohio Class SSBNs are reaching the end of their operational life, with the first vessel commissioned in 1981 at the height of renewed tensions between the US and Soviet Union, prompting greater emphasis on the necessity of a credible, sea-based nuclear deterrent. 

Further compounding the age of the Ohio Class is the increasing quality and quantity of Chinese and Russian hunter-killer submarines, designed to stalk enemy SSBNs, which has prompted the development of a replacement, with the Columbia Class ballistic missile submarines emerging as the top priority for the US Navy. 

US Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Michael Gilday explained the importance the US Navy places on the acquisition of the Columbia Class: “The Navy’s first acquisition priority is recapitalizing our Strategic Nuclear Deterrent – Electric Boat is helping us do just that. Together, we will continue to drive affordability, technology development and integration efforts to support Columbia’s fleet introduction on time or earlier.”

Quantum leap in capability but its going to cost

The US Navy has recognised the need to get more out of its major capital acquisitions. The Columbia Class is no different, with the fleet of 12 vessels expected to have a 42-year service life (with each submarine conducting 124 deterrent patrols). 

With an estimated unit cost of approximately US$4.9 billion (FY2010 dollars) the vessels will draw on experience learned throughout the design and development of the Virginia Class fast attack submarines and will see a number of key capability improvements, combined with a smaller nuclear weapons payload over the previous Ohio Class vessels.

The Columbia Class incorporates a through-life nuclear fuel core – designed to minimise through-life support costs and the necessity for a costly, time-consuming mid-life nuclear refueling procedure – advanced sonar systems, optronics and stealth technologies developed for the Virginia Class to cut research and development and acquisition costs. 

Further spreading the development costs is a renewed collaboration with the British Royal Navy on their own Dreadnought Class ballistic missile submarine program, which, like its American counterpart, will use common launch systems to accommodate D-5 Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles as well as the potential for shared integrated electric propulsion systems. 

Despite this, it is expected that the Columbia Class vessels will still account for an estimated 38-40 per cent of the US Navy’s shipbuilding budget – at a time when the President and America’s global commitments are calling for a larger, more diverse fleet to counter emerging peer and near-peer threats. 

ADM Gilday said, “If you go back to the ’80s when we were building Ohio, it was about 35 percent of the shipbuilding budget. Columbia will be about 38-40 percent of the shipbuilding budget.

“The seaborne leg of the triad is absolutely critical. By the time we get the Columbia into the water, the Ohio Class is going to be about 40 years old. And so we have to replace that strategic leg, and it has to come out of our budget right now. Those are the facts,” ADM Gilday articulated. 

Expanding on this, ADM Gilday cited the need for the US Navy to get creative when it comes to funding the broader shipbuilding requirements, particularly as the latest round of US Congressional Research revealing the fleet of 12 Columbia Class is expected to cost US$109 billion:

“I have to account for that at the same time as I’m trying to make precise investments in other platforms. Some of them will look like what we are buying today, like [destroyer] DDG Flight IIIs, but there is also an unmanned aspect to this. And I do remain fairly agnostic as to what that looks like, but I know we need to change the way we are thinking,” ADM Gilday stated. 

Too few ships and too few weapons to win the fight 

While discussion about the size of the US Navy has been a contentious issue for some time, recent efforts to get the force to 355 ships has seen growing support, particularly as China continues to exert its own influence and presence throughout the Indo-Pacific. 

Despite concerns about a small number of increasingly expensive platforms – think the troubled Zumwalt and Ford Classes – ADM Gilday remains optimistic about the US Navy’s capacity to adapt and win the fight. 

“Our fleet is too small, and our capabilities are stacked on too few ships that are too big. And that needs to change over time. [But] we have made significant investments in aircraft carriers, and we’re going to have those for a long time,” ADM Gilday said. 

“Look, people don’t give us enough credit for the gray matter between our ears, and there are some very smart people we have thinking about how we fight better. The fleet that we have today, 75 per cent of it, will be the fleet we have in 2030. So, we have to think about how we get more out of it.”

This push is something that the acting US Secretary of the Navy, Thomas Modly, has reinforced, stating: “It was also the President’s goal during the election. We have a goal of 355, we don’t have a plan for 355. We need to have a plan, and if it’s not 355, what’s it going to be and what’s it going to look like?”

Building on this, acting Secretary Modly raised the important question around next-generation weapons systems, including hypersonics, unmanned and autonomous systems and new operational concepts to support the objectives of the US Navy. 

“How many more hypersonics are we going to need? Where are we going to put them? These are long-term investments that we will have to make, but we have to get our story straight first. So, I’m going to focus a lot on that this year,” he said.

Maintaining the regional and global order 

However, the question now becomes: given the geographic area of responsibility Australia will become increasingly responsible for and dependent on, is the RAN and the recapitalisation and modernisation programs currently underway enough for Australia to maintain its qualitative and quantitative lead over regional peers?

It is clear that Australias region is going to be increasingly congested as both great and emerging powers continue to invest heavily in their own submarine capabilities.

The growing proliferation of steadily more capable platforms across the nations northern approaches presents significant challenges for the nations existing Collins Class submarines in the short-to-medium term and the future submarine force of the future. 

Australia is defined by its relationship and access to the ocean, with strategic sea lines of communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.

Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.

The Indian Ocean and its critical global sea lines of communication are responsible for more than 80 per cent of the worlds seaborne trade in critical energy supplies, namely, oil and natural gas, which serve as the lifeblood of any advanced economy.

Traditionally, Australia has focused on a platform-for-platform acquisition program – focused on replacing, modernising or upgrading key capabilities on a like-for-like basis without a guiding policy, doctrine or strategy, limiting the overall effectiveness, survivability and capability of the RAN.

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At-sea nuclear deterrent submarines top priority for US Navy
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