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An artist’s rendering of the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine expected to start patrols in 2031. Photo: US Navy

US Navy building its ‘largest, most advanced’ nuclear sub, as Chinese fleet expands

  • The USS District of Columbia heralds the introduction of a new SSBN fleet to be commissioned in 2027
  • The 12 Columbia-class subs will replace the ageing Ohio-class SSBNs and carry ‘70 per cent of America’s deployed nuclear arsenal’
The US has begun building its most advanced Columbia-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), as the country’s military tries to maintain its edge over rivals including a fast-expanding Chinese navy.

A keel-laying ceremony for the USS District of Columbia (SSBN 826) took place on June 4, according to the US Naval Institute’s USNI News website. The event marked the ceremonial start to the construction of the first in a new class of ballistic missile submarines expected to be commissioned in 2027, the report said.

“The Columbia-class will be the largest, most capable and most advanced submarine produced by our nation,” congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton was quoted as saying during the ceremony.

Building the 12 Columbia-class subs has been the US Navy’s top priority for the last decade, with preliminary design work starting in 2007 for what will be the largest submarines ever built by the US.

The fleet will replace the Ohio-class SSBNs as the US Navy’s number one strategic deterrent, starting with District of Columbia’s first patrol in 2031.

The Columbia class would carry “70 per cent of America’s deployed nuclear arsenal”, Navy secretary Carlos Del Toro said at the ceremony in Rhode Island, calling the subs “the smartest investment we can make” to secure the American public, USNI reported.

The US Navy operates 14 ageing Ohio class SSBNs built between 1976 and 1997. In addition, four of the oldest subs of the class were converted to cruise missile submarines (SSGN) as part of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia.

China may seek to close nuclear gap as US and Russia extend treaty

The Columbia class will be equipped with 16 SLBM tubes or nuclear missiles, compared to 24 on the Ohio class SSBNs, according to media reports. But the 520 foot (158 metres), 20,000 ton (18,000 tonnes) Columbia will be longer, heavier, and feature a complex electric drive propulsion system and associated technology.

The Columbia is key for the US to maintain its competitive advantage, especially with China now operating the world’s largest naval force.

“If you look at the US Navy, submarines are its top priority and the Columbia in particular,” head of US defence giant General Dynamics Phebe Novakovic said earlier this year. “And why is that? It’s because submarines remain a singular competitive advantage, a critical competitive advantage for the United States with near-peer competitors and peer competitors.”

General Dynamics signed more than US$10 billion in contracts last year for the first two Columbia-class boats.

Last month, satellite photos revealed China is building a new and bigger nuclear submarine with a more advanced propulsion system than its active Type 093 variants.

China’s active Type 093 nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) is able to launch its YJ-18 anti-ship cruise missiles, while an upgraded Type 094A is armed with the vertically launched JL-3 ballistic missile with a range of over 10,000km (6,200 miles) – capable of hitting the US mainland.

China has built 12 nuclear submarines over the past 15 years, including six Type 093 SSNs and its upgraded variants, as well as a further six Type 094 SSBNs, according to a Pentagon report last year.


China and Russia conduct joint naval drills in Sea of Japan

China and Russia conduct joint naval drills in Sea of Japan

America’s other big rival, Russia’s Pacific Fleet, is expected to receive two nuclear submarines and one diesel-electric attack submarine this year. These will include the first nuclear strategic submarine of the Borei-A class, the Knyaz Oleg, and the first nuclear submarine of the Yasen-M class, the Novosibirsk, according to Tass.

The Knyaz Oleg will be equipped with Bulava ballistic missiles, which have a range of more than 8,000km. The Novosibirsk is a multipurpose nuclear submarine, armed with Kalibr and Onyx cruise missiles.