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US Navy wants to avoid a shortage of nuclear submarines in the 2030s

US Navy wants to avoid a shortage of nuclear submarines in the 2030s
US Navy wants to avoid a shortage of nuclear submarines in the 2030s

ARLINGTON, Va. — U.S. Navy officials worry the service in the 2030s will have just enough nuclear submarines to meet operational needs — but no extras in case one becomes unavailable.

Thus, the maritime service is considering measures to both extend the life of some outgoing Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines and expedite the delivery of new Columbia-class submarines.

Rear Admiral Scott Pappano, director of the strategic submarine program, said the submarine force must have 10 SSBNs ready to go to sea at all times. These submarines make long deployments, tasked with hiding undetected in the depths of the oceans and carrying the nuclear missiles the United States hopes will never launch.

However, as Ohio ages out of the fleet and new Columbias come online, there are times when the fleet should have 10 or fewer boats available, Pappano said Nov. 1 at the annual conference. of the Naval Submarine League here.

To address this issue, Pappano said the Navy is working to expedite the delivery of new submarines.

The navy has developed an integrated business plan with industry, Rear Admiral Doug Perry, director of submarine warfare for the chief of staff of naval operations, told the conference. The plan, which requires buy-in from the Department of Defense, shipyards and lower-tier suppliers, could speed up the delivery schedule for Boats 2-12 by up to six months, Perry said.

Pappano added that the Navy hopes to purchase Boats 3 through 7 under a bulk purchase agreement, intended to allow the Navy and prime contractor General Dynamics Electric Boat to purchase equipment in a more profitable. While global supply chain issues have slowed the delivery of long-lead parts, Pappano said bulk buying would get those parts under contract earlier in the process.

Pappano said accelerating ship construction timelines by six months would eliminate any instances of the available SSBN inventory falling below 10 in future force projections.

Yet this leaves no additional submarines in case of unforeseen incidents. So up to five SSBNs from Ohio can go through an 18-month maintenance and modernization period to give them an additional three years of operations at sea – giving the fleet more flexibility, Pappano said. .

Mining Ohios Even Longer

The Navy has already extended the life of the entire Ohio class to 42 years, and the class can no longer be extended. But the navy can assess each individual hull as it nears the end of its life and look for those that still have plenty of nuclear fuel and whose hulls are in good condition.

Submarines that meet these criteria could be placed in a so-called restricted pre-inactivation readiness, where targeted maintenance work would be carried out to keep the boats and their combat systems in top condition for three years of service life. additional lives.

Submarines that are not good candidates for this life extension would be used for the benefit of the rest of the fleet, either by undergoing destructive tests to learn more about the condition of the boats, or by being cannibalized in order to that their parts can be used on boats that are extended.

Navy officials first publicly discussed the idea of ​​extending the life of some Ohio boats at the sub-league’s 2020 conference. In commentary then and since, executives have expressed a decision to view these life extensions as a hedge against any problems with Columbia’s construction. The Navy purchased its first SSBN Columbia in fiscal year 2021, will purchase the second in fiscal year 24, and then purchase the remaining ships on an annual basis from fiscal year 26 through fiscal year 35, requesting the industry to build at a pace not seen since the cold. War.

But Pappano raised a number of other concerns about the inventory of ships the Navy plans for the next decade.

“The riskiest period of the transition is in the 2030s, as the Columbias go online and Ohio goes offline,” he told Defense News during the conference.

Just like with cars, he said, submarines are most prone to problems at two times, when they’re new and can reveal production line errors, and when they’re old and components begin to fail. The 2030s will be “a critical period with only new ships and only old ships”.

And, he said, the Navy will modernize its nuclear-tipped missiles in the 2030s, transitioning to the Trident D5 Life Extension II payload. In the period from 2036 to 2039, Pappano said, the Navy will have to use both an Ohio-class submarine and a Columbia-class submarine to test the new missile and ensure that they are interoperable with the two classes of ships, i.e. one or two submarines. will be withdrawn from operations to participate in sea trials.

When asked how much it would cost to fix a handful of Ohios, Pappano didn’t provide a dollar amount, but said it was “not prohibitively expensive to go and do it” and would be on par with any other 18-month maintenance and modernization availability for a submarine.

Perry added that cost would be a factor in deciding how many ships to put through life extension work. Shipyard availability would be another; Navy shipyards are already struggling to improve performance and get boats out of maintenance on time, and Perry said he doesn’t want this life extension project to disrupt work already. In progress.

Pappano said he thinks the service will extend at least two or three boats, and up to five.

For the potential first ship, USS Alaska in 2029, Pappano said he is considering a decision in fiscal year 2026 to ensure enough time to purchase long-term equipment, allow the shipyard to plan and develop. Build the availability of modernization into the budget.

Megan Eckstein is a naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on US Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported on four geographic fleets and is happiest when recording stories from a ship. Megan is an alumnus of the University of Maryland.

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