Columbia-class Program ‘Is on Schedule and on Track’ for 2028 Launch
By OTTO KREISHER, Seapower Correspondent
WASHINGTON — Every key component of the massively complex and expensive effort to produce a new ballistic-missile submarine as part of the nuclear deterrence modernization program “is on schedule and on track to support that 2028” launch of the first Columbia-class sub, the director of the Navy’s Strategic Systems Program (SSP) said April 13.
The first-in-class USS Columbia will be ready to go on its first deterrence patrol in 2031, and to serve through 2084, SSP director Vice Adm. Terry J. Benedict said.
Meeting that first patrol date is critical because the current Ohio-class ballistic-missile boats (SSBNs) will be at the absolute limit of their ability to submerge for a patrol, Benedict and other Navy officials have said.
But in what will be his last public appearance before retiring in May, after eight years as head of SSP, Benedict was completely positive on the status of the Navy’s top acquisition program.
The agencies responsible for executing the Columbia project — SSP, Naval Reactors and the Submarine program office — “have scrubbed the various pieces … to ensure it will remain a viable asset through that  time, as we look, to the extent we can, for threats, for vulnerabilities and for capabilities,” Benedict told a breakfast session of the Mitchell Nuclear Deterrence series.
The missile tubes, which will go into a common missile compartment for both the Columbia boats and the HMS Dreadnaught, which will replace the U.K. Royal Navy’s Vanguard boomers, are in production, he said.
And General Dynamics Electric Boat, the prime contractor for Columbia, “is now gearing up for production” of the hull and assembly of the components produced by others, such as the advanced nuclear power plant from Naval Reactors.
“I do believe the hull will be ready,” Benedict said. “All the fixtures for the common control compartment have been purchased, have been installed or going through their certification process.”
He reminded the audience that the common missile compartment will be built in “quad packs,” with four to be installed in each Columbia-class boats for a total of 16 Trident II D5 missiles.
The Navy plans to build 12 of the new boats to replace the 14 Ohio-class SSBNs.
Last year, the Navy estimated that Columbia would cost $7.3 billion, but that price would drop for the subsequent boats. That would take up a major part of the annual shipbuilding budget, which this year hit a high of $21 billion.
Benedict said the major features of the Columbia hull, mechanical and electrical components are “leveraging, to the maximum extent possible, what we have done on Virginia,” the current line of attack submarines. Where we can get commonality … it’s prudent to do that, not only to reduce risk, but also cost,” he said.
“So I think that will put Electric Boat and PEO Submarines on the right foot moving forward,” he added.
Although the first Columbia boats will be armed with the Trident II D5 missiles, which are going through a service life extension program, the Navy is researching a possible replacement missile. It is collaborating in that effort with the Air Force, which is working on a replacement for its Minuteman III missiles.
Benedict said he has been “probably the strongest advocate for commonalty between the Navy and the Air Force”
Benedict said his replacement as director will be Vice Adm.-select Johnny R. Wolfe, who has worked 22 years in SSP, including time as Benedict’s deputy.