Despite what was a seeming commitment to ever-increasing funding for the US Navy’s top strategic force multiplier, the Columbia Class ballistic missile submarine program, President Donald Trump is battling with Congress to ensure that the program doesn’t fall victim to budget cuts and ensuing delays.
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.
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 century’s 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.
Next-generation submarines are emerging as another battleground for the competing superpowers, with both the US and China seeking to develop and introduce ever more deadly, silent and persistent submarines to sea.
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 recapitalising 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.”
However, despite the strategic importance of such platforms, political jockeying within the halls of power in Washington has finally begun to impact the Columbia Class program, with the potential for major impacts upon the capacity of the US 'at sea deterrence' force to provide a consistent, global nuclear deterrence force.
Explaining this, David Larter and Joe Gould, writing for DefenseNews, have revealed the potential for program disruption, cost overruns and capability impact the political brinkmanship in Washington could have upon the US Navy's most important strategic acquisition program:
"The White House is asking Congress to keep budget chaos from upending the Navy’s plans to begin detailed design and construction work on two Columbia Class ballistic missile submarines, according to a document obtained by DefenseNews.
"Barring congressional intervention, the Navy would not have the money or authorisation to begin work on the boats the Navy announced in June as part of a planned $10.4 billion contract with General Dynamics Electric Boat.
"The two-boat buy constitutes a 'new start', and thus would not be authorised under a stopgap spending measure if Congress fails to pass a budget.
"But the White House has asked Congress for an exemption for the Columbia Class and dozens of other items from the normal restrictions on a stopgap funding measure. Those restrictions bar new starts and freeze 2020 funding levels."
Quantum leap in capability but its going to cost
The US Navy has long 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 per cent of the shipbuilding budget. Columbia will be about 38-40 per cent 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.”
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.
Nuclear modernisation is a 'joint force' mission
However, the battle to deliver the Columbia Class, despite efforts to drive down cost, are part of a broader battle currently being waged within the US political and defence establishments to modernise the nation's nuclear arsenal and incorporate these capabilities into the broader US joint force concept.
Larter and Gould add, "Beyond Columbia, the White House is also seeking flexibility for the nuclear weapons and new Space Force accounts, as well as authority to start the new submarine-launched nuclear warhead known as the W93 — along with select agriculture, homeland security and other federal programs.
"The House and Senate have authorised W93, which would be launched from the Columbia, but House appropriators voted to block early development of the W93, which suggests lawmakers may not agree to the anomaly. The W93 is the first new American warhead design in decades.
"The White House also asked to set up several accounts for the new Space Force — with US$2.6 billion for operations and maintenance; US$10.3 for research, development, test and evaluation; and US$2.2 billion for procurement — by tapping into corresponding Air Force accounts. The White House argued that moving the money by other means would burden the new service with administrative work.
"The White House is asking for the ability to move funding between nuclear weapons accounts: the Los Alamos Plutonium Pit Production Project, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Emergency Operations Center; the 138kV project to replace power lines at the Nevada National Security Site, and the W87-1 program to modernize intercontinental ballistic missile warheads."
Competitors narrowing the gap, means no room for delays
As previously mentioned by the CNO, ADM Gilday, Columbia and the associated nuclear modernisation program represent the highest priority for the US Navy, despite it's plethora of modernisation, acquisition and research and development programs currently underway.
Larter and Gould explain this stating, "For Columbia, congressional inaction on a budget could drive delays into a program that the Defense Department and Congress have pushed off to the point where if almost everything doesn’t go right and happen on time, the US might not have enough boats to meet its continuous strategic deterrent mission.
"The Navy’s June announcement of the two-ship contract detailed an award of $869 million to Electric Boat to complete design work on the subs as part of a contract modification. The announcement also established the Navy’s intent to award an additional $9.5 billion for the first two hulls, but the contract is waiting on Congress to pass an FY21 budget.
"The Columbia, the Navy’s first new class of ballistic missile submarine since the 1970s, is slated for delivery in 2028 and its first patrol in 2031, which is a tight turnaround for such a complicated ship with several new technologies. The Navy plans to buy 12 ships all together.
"The Navy has repeatedly said the Columbia is the service’s top acquisition priority and that keeping it on track is non-negotiable. In comments last year, the Navy’s top officer said the current Ohio-class subs must be replaced on time."
Concerningly, the survivability of the US nuclear deterrence force spells major challenges for allies like Australia, Japan and South Korea, who rely on the extended deterrence and the survivability of the US nuclear force for their broader tactical and strategic mobility.
Maintaining the regional and global order
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 Australia’s 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 nation’s northern approaches presents significant challenges for the nation’s 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 world’s 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.