Why The U.S. Navy Is Building A New, Technologically-Advanced Nuclear Submarine

In May 2020, the United States Navy revealed the construction of a new submarine. This submarine, which will introduce new stealth and missile technology, will cost around $6 billion each. But why is the United States spending so much on a submarine? And what will this new vessel do? Discover everything you need to know about the new Columbia-class SSN(X) here.

The U.S. Navy Is Building A New Submarine

A Los-Angeles class submarine departs from San Diego.
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Adam K. Thomas/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

In May 2021, the U.S. Navy received $1 million from Congress to begin building a new class of submarines. Their current Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines will be decommissioned to make way for the Next-Generation Attack Submarine, or SSN(X).

Although this might seem sudden, the Navy has been working on these designs for several years. But why are they getting rid of reliable submarines? The answer requires more knowledge about foreign navies and submarine warfare.

Russian Submarines Are Some Of The World’s Best

A Russian K-322 Kashalot submarine is sailing in the ocean.
Ho-hum/Wikipedia Commons
Ho-hum/Wikipedia Commons

Currently, Russia is slated to have the best military submarines in the world. In the 1970s, the Soviet Union created the Alfa-class of nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) as a part of Project 705 Lira. These submarines were and still are, considered some of the best in the world.

But in the 1990s, Russia upped their game. Engineers began working on Yasen-class submarines that would blow Alfa class ones out of the water. The United States Navy fears that it cannot handle it.

The U.S. Fears Yasen-Class Nuclear Submarines

Russia launches the Kazan, a Project 885M Yasen-class nuclear-powered multipurpose attack submarine, from a shipyard.
Alexander RyuminTASS via Getty Images
Alexander RyuminTASS via Getty Images

Yasen-class submarines are top notch. They include land-attack cruise missiles, anti-ship missiles, and anti-submarine missiles. On top of that, they are also designed to be quiet, speedy, and stealthy.

Russia’s newest model, the 545 Laika class, is projected to dive at 35 miles per hour. For perspective, the world’s fastest submarine (also Russian–the Soviet submarine K-222) is 51 miles per hour. While that might seem like a large difference, Yasens are still much quicker than most nations’ war submarines.

Russia Has Built A New Terrifying Weapon, Too

A missile launches from Russia's nuclear-powered submarine.
Vladimir IvashchenkoTASS via Getty Images
Vladimir IvashchenkoTASS via Getty Images

As if the upgraded submarines weren’t enough, Russia is also including a new weapon. The 3M22 Zircon Hypersonic, which began construction in 2016, will be designed to hit vessels on both land and sea.

The Zircon will be a hypersonic cruise missile that can shoot missiles at Mach 9. That’s 6,800 miles per hour! While this weapon is still in development, many worry that it can penetrate even the toughest armor on current submarines. This encouraged the United States to respond.

The U.S.’s Current Submarines Fall Short

Crew members are seen on the USS Indiana, a nuclear powered United States Navy Virginia-class fast attack submarine.
Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images

What about America’s vessels? Currently, the nation’s best submarines are the Virginia-class, also called the SSN-774 class. They contain state-of-the-art sonar, anti-submarine warfare missiles, and a high-energy laser weapon.

However, Virginia vessels are still not as fast or stealthy as Yasen’s. Plus, they are more expensive. Every Virginia submarine costs $3.4 billion, while a Yasen is only $2 billion. As a result, Russia can produce many more submarines that have better technology than America’s current inventions.

The Navy Wants To Replace An Entire Class Of Submarines

The USS Pennsylvania  Nuclear Powered Ohio-Class Ballistic Missile Submarine cruises across the ocean surface.
L Smith/Classicstock/Getty Images
L Smith/Classicstock/Getty Images

Instead of sticking with their current vessels, the U.S. Navy has been working on a new submarine. In October 2020, engineers began building the the Ohio Replacement Submarine. These vessels were designed to replace the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, which will be decommissioned.

Later on, the project developed into a nuclear submarine that they now call the Columbia class, or SSN(X). The Navy plans to build 12 boats sometime in 2021. But why are they creating a new class?

Studies Proved That A New Class Of Submarines Is Cheaper

Sailors help work on an Ohio-class submarine.
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Initially, the Navy considered boosting their current submarines. But then they conducted studies on cost-effectiveness. They explored the options of upgrading the Ohio-class designs or adding missile tubes to Virginia vessels.

In the end, the Navy found that it will be less expensive to design an entirely new class. Not only will this allow America to produce more submarines, but it will also give them an opportunity to update their current technology. But even this plan can become too expensive.

Why Do They Want To Model The Ohio-Class?

In 2003, an Ohio-class submarine sails off the coast of Florida.
David Nagle/U.S. Navy/Getty Images
David Nagle/U.S. Navy/Getty Images

If the Virginia-class is America’s pride, why isn’t the Navy upgrading that? That’s because the Ohio is a Submersible Ship Ballistic Missile Nuclear, or SSBN. These submarines are designed to fire ballistic and nuclear missiles.

While SSNs are designed to strike down SSBNs, they are also used for intelligence missions. The Navy is not focusing on intelligence; it wants a submarine with enough firepower to combat the Yasens. As a compromise, they are designing an SSN with SSBN firepower.

The SSN(X) Will Be Faster And Stealthier

An artist depicts what the Columbia-class submarine might look like.
U.S. Navy/Wikipedia
U.S. Navy/Wikipedia

According to Naval News, the SSN(X) is projected to be faster and stealthier than the Virginia submarines. Not only will it store more missiles than Virginias, but it will also have launch tubes that are the same size as the Ohio-class.

The Columbia-class will also be a “Large Payload Submarine.” This means that it will host a wide variety of weapons: cruise missiles, hypersonic weapons, underwater drones, and more. Many of these technologies were just built or upgraded within the past few years.

Why Columbia?

A Navy submarine with an American flag on top coasts across the ocean.
Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Adam K. Thomas/U.S. Navy via Getty Images
Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Adam K. Thomas/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

Naval vessels are usually named after locations in the United States. The Columbia-class was named after the nation’s capital, the District of Columbia. The first submarine will be named the USS Columbia, or SSBN-826.

The second submarine will also be named at the capitol: the USS Washington. Besides a letter, each one will be assigned a number code. But the Navy will not release official names until the vessel has been constructed. Even the USS Columbia is still being built.

But The SSN(X) Will Have Fewer Missiles Than The Ohio

In this diagram, the Columbia-class submarine launches a missile.
United States Navy/Wikipedia
United States Navy/Wikipedia

Although the SSN(X) will be more dangerous than the Ohio, they will also have fewer missiles. Ohio-class vessels had 24 missiles, while the Columbia’s will have 16. Why the downgrade?

According to U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Johnny Wolfe, it’s not a downgrade. “There was an assumption that the reliability of this weapon system way out in the 2070s and 2080s will be just as reliable and supportable as it is today with the current Trident,” he said. In other words, the 16 missiles–which are two tons heavier–will cause much more damage.

But Its Missiles Will Be An Enhanced Trident D-5

Missiles launch out of a submarine that's underwater.
TASSTASS via Getty Images
H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Along with a new submarine, the U.S. Navy is creating new missiles. They want to upgrade its UGM-133 Trident II, better known as the Trident D-5. These ballistic missiles, which are currently on Ohio vessels, can fly 18,030 miles per hour.

The new missiles, called the Trident D-5 Life Extension 2, should roll out soon. “It won’t look like the D-5 that we’ve got today,” explains Vice Admiral Johnny Wolfe. “It won’t be completely new; it will be somewhere in the middle.”

The X-Shaped Stern Will Make It More Maneuverable

A YouTuber assembles a model of a Japanese Soryu Class RC Submarine with an X-rudder.
RC Shipyard/YouTube
RC Shipyard/YouTube

One of the SSN(X)’s novel features is the X-shaped stern. Most submarines have two rudder planes and need four control surfaces to maneuver it. But with an X-shape, a pilot can use all four controls at once.

This greatly improves maneuverability, according to Navy officials. In turn, the X-shaped stern is much quieter than rudder planes, making the Columbia stealthier. Everything from the steering to the missiles will be never-before-seen on this new Navy submarine.

It Will Also Be Quieter With Electric Propulsion

A diagram explains details of the SSN(X) submarine.
reddit/u/skippythemoonrock
reddit/u/skippythemoonrock

The Columbia SSN(X) will have one major change: an electric-drive propulsion train instead of a mechanical-drive one found in other Navy submarines. “The electric-drive system is expected to be quieter (i.e., stealthier) than a mechanical-drive system,” explained a Congressional Research Service report on the Columbia-class.

The submarine will contain a reactor plant that generates steam. The steam then pushes the turbines, which produces electricity to jolt the vessel forward. Currently, only Ohio-class submarines have electric-drive propulsion.

Expect A “Seawolf-Like Submarine”

In 1958, Navy recruits stand on top of a the USS Seawolf, and atomic submarine.
Marka/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Marka/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

According to The National Interest, the Navy wants to make the SSN(X) a “Seawolf-like submarine.) The Seawolf-class is a collection of nuclear-powered attack submarines. They tend to be larger than other SSNs, which means that the Columbia will be bigger, too.

Like the Seawolf, the Columbia will have three hauls and might displace 9,000 tons of water. But it will also be more sturdy than other vessels, able to withstand intense firepower, making them ideal in combat.

The SSN(X) Will Become The Third Leg Of The Nuclear Triad

The USS Minnesota is on land and preparing to launch.
reddit/u/digruesome
reddit/u/digruesome

The Columbia SSN(X) will become the third leg of the nuclear triad. A nuclear triad is a three-part system designed to deter nuclear threats. In other words, it is how countries can fire nukes from land, air, and sea.

Currently, the Ohio ships are the sea component of the triad, but they will be replaced by the Columbia. So far, only the United States, Russia, China, and India have confirmed triad powers. Hopefully, nobody will have to use them.

Construction Will Take A Decade

A submarine is docked for repairs.
Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images
PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP via Getty Images

The Columbia-class SSN(X) is slated to release in 2031. That might seem like too long, but engineers are working as quickly as possible. The vessel contains a lot of new technology that requires constant testing and tweaking.

The process will not only be long, but it will also require a lot of employees. Thousands of experts will be hired for the project, and they will need millions to billions of dollars of material for the ships.

It Will Be Much Bigger Than The Virginia

A Virginia-class submarine approaches a shipyard.
Mike Heffner/Getty Images
Getty Images

Along with being faster and more powerful, the Columbia will also be larger than the Virginia. Virginia SSNs are around 377 feet long and weigh 7,800. Meanwhile, the future Columbia will be 560 feet long and weight 23,000 tons.

Because SSNs are designed for stealth and intelligence, they tend to be smaller. But the Columbia is being modeled after the SSBN Ohio, a larger combat submarine. Its large size should still make it faster and more nimble.

It Will Be Larger Than America’s Largest Warship

An artist's rendition of the Migaloo M-Series Private Submersible Yacht is seen on water.
Darrius/Pinterest
Darrius/Pinterest

The SSN(X) won’t just be bigger than the Virginia; it’ll break and American record. As a comparison, the Zumwalt-class destroyer–America’s largest warship–will only be two-thirds the size of the Columbia.

One of America’s largest submarines is also a luxury yacht: the Migaloo M-Series Private Submersible Yacht, which is 443 feet long. The SSN(X) will be over 100 feet longer than that. In other words, the SSN(X) won’t just be a submarine; it’ll be a supersized battleship that can cruise beneath the ocean.

Due To A Treaty With Russia, The Fleet Cannot Be Too Large

Boats escort the Soviet Union's first nuclear submarine.
Lev FedoseyevTASS via Getty Images
Lev FedoseyevTASS via Getty Images

How many SSN(X)s will the Navy make? The Nuclear Posture Review calls for 12 submarines, but this number is flexible. Because of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START Treaty) with Russia, the U.S. cannot create too many war submarines.

This is another reason why Columbia-class vessels have 16 tubes instead of 24. The treaty does not just limit ships; it also limits missile tubes. If they install fewer tubes, then they might get away with constructing more submarines.

But The Treaty Won’t Last Forever

A Russian naval submarine glides across a bay.
Sergei BobylevTASS via Getty Images
Sergei BobylevTASS via Getty Images

The New START Treaty might limit naval construction now, but it will eventually end. Currently, the treaty is scheduled to end in 2026. If the U.S. and Russia do not revise a new arms-limiting treaty, then the Navy can make as many SSN(X)s as they want.

Considering that the Columbia-class fleet will not be released until 2030, the Navy may be able to create more. But this isn’t the only thing limiting the amount of Columbia submarines. Creating super-submarines costs a lot of money, and the Navy is not guaranteed enough funds.

The SSN(X) Is More Expensive Than You Might Expect

A Virginia-class submarine is being worked on in a Navy dock.
reddit/u/RyanSmith
reddit/u/RyanSmith

The Navy estimates that each SSN(X) will cost $5.8 billion, but the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) lists even higher: $6.2 billion. This is not counting the amount of research that goes into each submarine. For the first vessel alone, the Navy was allotted $9.47 billion.

Currently, the Navy aims to create 12 Columbia-class boats by 2036. But if we add up the years of research and design, the entire fleet could cost near $110 billion. Where will the Navy get that much money?

American Ships Are Much More Expensive Than Other Nations’

A Japanese submarine rises from the ocean.
TORU YAMANAKA/AFP via Getty Images
TORU YAMANAKA/AFP via Getty Images

The high costs are not only bad for the American Navy; they benefit other nations’ navies. In Japan, a Taigei-class submarine costs $722.23 million to make. That means that Japan can create four Taigei‘s for the price of one Virginia.

Although the Columbia-class SSN(X) will be powerful, many have raised concern over its high cost. Creating them will significantly decrease the amount of American naval vessels. Compared to countries like China and Japan, this might become a disadvantage.

The Navy Struggles To Reduce Costs

A diagram shows the parts of a Columbia-class submarine.
All In One A-1/Youtube
All In One A-1/Youtube

The Navy has struggled to lower expenses for the SSN(X). They started ordering cheaper parts early, such as pre-fabricated Common Missile Compartment sections. Building fewer, more reliable tubes for missiles will also lower expenses.

The Navy will also be repurposing some compartments from Virginia-class ships, essentially recycling some of their materials. This will also reduce the risk of mistakes since they know that these parts are reliable. But the Navy still cannot predict any setbacks or failures that may occur.

A Single Control Problem Cost $27 Million

The hatches of 12 Tomahawk missile tubes on a submarine are open.
© CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
© CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Believe it or not, construction has already cost more than anticipated. In August 2018, a quality control mistake damaged several submarine tubes. The Navy spent $27 million to repair the mistake.

What does this have to do with the SSN(X)? Well, it requires tubes just as the other submarines do. And by examining and replacing all broken tubes, the Navy’s production has significantly slowed. Even construction errors outside of Columbia-class ships can influence production and drain more money.

Who Is Building The SSN(X)?

Members of the General Dynamics Electric Boat work on constructing a submarine.
Getty Images
Getty Images

General Dynamics Electric Boat will be building the SSN(X). The company has been building submarines for the U.S. Navy for over 100 years, and it constructed 18 Ohio-class submarines. Not only is the company reliable, but its engineers also have decades of experience.

General Dynamics will be assisted by Huntington Ingalls Industries Newport News Shipbuilding, which is America’s largest shipbuilding company. They will contribute a little over 20 percent of the work, mainly aiding with the design and construction.

Thousands Of Engineers On Deck

Navy and construction workers develop a periscope.
Don Tormey/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Don Tormey/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Hiring began long before the project went public–back in early 2016. Over 3,000 people worked on the SSN(X) in General Dynamics alone. It would not be surprising to see several more thousands of employees work on it throughout the next decade.

Initially, the SSN(X) was going to release in 2021. But engineering, budget, and construction setbacks delayed the project, along with the COVID-19 pandemic. If all goes well, some Columbia-class submarines will be sailing by 2030.

The More Columbia‘s Built, The Better

When it comes to naval vessels, the more ships made, the better. The Navy is expected to drastically decrease within the next decade. Cold War-era submarines, such as the Los Angeles-class boats, will steadily go out of commission.

The Navy wants to replace these vessels with not only the Columbia, but also unmanned vessels and drones. But the Columbia-class submarines are priority, and the more those cost, the smaller American naval fleets will be in the future.

If The Navy Can’t Make Enough, They Have A Back-Up Plan

A single U.S. submarine sails away from a fleet.
Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Adam K. Thomas/U.S Navy via Getty Images
Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Adam K. Thomas/U.S Navy via Getty Images

If the Navy cannot make enough Columbia-class vessels, for cost reasons or otherwise, they already have a back-up plan. “If STRATCOM doesn’t need more than 12, then we’re looking at what we call the Large-Volume Host Platform, explained Navy Rear Admiral John Tammen.

“We haven’t nailed down the concept, but there will be the ability to host vehicles on board inside that center section.” In other words, an SSN(X) will be designed to carry other naval crafts as well.

The SSN(X) Might Act As A Mothership

Navy Seals drop from a helicopter onto a submarine during joint training.
U.S. Navy/Getty Images
U.S. Navy/Getty Images

If need be, the Columbia-class SSN(X) can act as a mothership. It can store and launch other naval vessels, namely unmanned undersea vehicles, or UUVs. These vessels can do many things, such as hunting for minds, gathering intelligence, and ultrasonic imaging.

The new submarine might also hold large underwater drones. Although underwater drones have been in use since the 1950s, these new models will have state-of-the-art technology to gather information on nuclear-powered torpedos and submersibles.

Many Secret Technologies Have Yet To Be Revealed

Navy Vice Admiral Fritz Roegge speaks at the Pentagon.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It might sound like the Navy is releasing a lot of information about the new SSN(X). In reality, they are concealing most information about it. According to Insider, the SSN(X) will include “a number of not-yet-seen technologies” that nobody outside the Navy will know about.

Considering that this submarine is designed to deter threats, it is imperative that other countries know little about it. Both the Navy and Pentagram consider this project to be urgent as international tensions escalate.

The U.S. Will Keep It For Decades

A full-length Ohio-class submarine is seen above the water.
Getty Images
Getty Images

Although Columbia-class submarines will take a decade to complete, they will last much longer. The Navy expects them to remain in commission for 42 years, with each carrying out 124 patrols.

The Navy is making this project a top priority, because a multi-use submarine can transform how the Army operates. And as the U.S. scrambles to catch up to international submarines, other countries are also advancing their technology–accelerating a race that continues across the sea, even in peaceful times.