Navy Eyeing Life Extension Of Nine Ohio Class Submarines

The U.S. Navy is considering tacking a few more operational years onto a number of its aging Ohio class submarines.

byEmma HelfrichMay 18, 2022 12:45 PM
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Up to five Ohio class ballistic missile submarines, or SSBNs, as well as four others that were previously converted into guided-missile submarines, or SSGNs, are currently under evaluation by the U.S. Navy for possible short-term life extensions. The motivation behind the evaluations stems from the Navy's inclination to maintain these aging submarines' critical capabilities even if the development of future submarines, namely the Columbia class SSBNs, is delayed.

During an Advanced Nuclear Weapons Alliance Deterrence Center online event held on May 12, Rear Adm. Scott Pappano, Program Executive Officer for Strategic Submarines confirmed that the nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and additional SSGNs will be examined for "short-repair availability."

The Ohio class ballistic missile submarine USS Rhode Island (SSBN 740) returns to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay after three months at sea. Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber/U.S. Navy

The Navy’s Ohio class is made up of 18 submarines. The fleet consists of 14 SSBNs that were originally engineered to hold 24 Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles, although four of these tubes have been permanently sealed in response to armed control treaty obligations. It should also be noted that each one of the missiles is capable of carrying multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) — nuclear warheads — that can hit their own specific targets.

The remainder of the fleet is comprised of four of the oldest SSGNs that were converted into cruise missile and special operations platforms beginning in the 2000s, concluding in 2007. The SSGNs no longer participate in nuclear deterrent patrols, but can carry up to 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles. The SSGNs are also used to deploy teams of Navy SEALs and other special operators, as well as their mini-submarines. Intelligence-gathering operations and command-and-control work, which can be helped by unmanned systems, round out the remarkable mission set of the SSGNs. They are among the most elite, highly tasked, and in-demand, boats in the U.S. Navy's entire submarine fleet. You can read all about their origins and capabilities in this past War Zone special feature.

The Ohio class guided-missile submarine USS Georgia transits the Saint Marys River. You can see the dry deck shelter attached behind its sail. The Ohio class SSGN can carry two of them. Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber/U.S. Navy

According to Defense Daily, the Navy had been looking into extending some of the Ohio class submarines' lifespans since late 2020, but it was never made clear how many could be included in such an initiative.

The latest information about the potential life extension comes after the scheduling of the first new Columbia class SSBN delivery to the Navy, which is slated for 2027, with its first patrol to take place by FY2031. It is within this timeline that the Navy hopes to eventually start replacing the Ohio class SSBNs with the Columbia class SSBNs, but the individual life extensions that the Navy is presently evaluating are intended to address any risk presented by gaps in the schedule. 

This is because the current timeline offers a very limited margin for error if the Columbia class — a massively complex new design — were to be delayed. The Ohio class SSBNs were initially built to last 30 years, but their lifecycles were since extended to 42 years, and service lives were set to expire between 2027 and 2040. That may change if the Columbia delivery isn’t carried out on time.

“It is very hard to get past 42 years, we’re going to at least evaluate that in the background and say, okay the first time we’d have to actually start thinking about doing that, actually do one, would be in about the FY ‘29 timeframe,” Pappano said. “So we’re doing the evaluations right now on what it would take to do a short repair availability, short-ish repair availability to extend those ships for a couple of years as a risk mitigator if need be.”

An artist rendering of the future Columbia class ballistic missile submarines. U.S. Navy

The converted SSGN life cycle extension evaluations are supported by reasoning similar to the scheduling overlap currently facing the Ohio class and the Columbia class. However, in this instance, it's Block V Virginia class nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs), which are themselves designed to be highly capable multi-purpose boats, that are poised to begin gradually replacing, at least to some degree, the converted Ohio class SSGNs. The converted Ohios are on track to retire from FY2026-2028, but again, that may also change if the Block V Virginias aren’t delivered on schedule. 

Block V Virginia class SSNs also feature a Virginia Payload Module (VPM), which will augment the amount of Tomahawk cruise missiles each vessel can hold from the current 27 to approximately 65. Concurrently, the VPM will be capable of accommodating other larger payloads, like the Navy's future Intermediate-Range Conventional Prompt Strike hypersonic missile. If the four Ohio class SSGNs' lifecycles are to be extended, it would be because the Navy wants to make sure that the vertical launch cell capacity offered by the SSGNs isn't lost from the fleet, as well as some of their other capabilities.

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During the virtual event, Pappano insisted that the evaluations will only be carried out in an attempt to understand the opportunities and risks that could be presented by the life extensions. He explained that while the Navy may not even pursue this course of action pending the results of the evaluations, it will still be important information to have in case the life extensions become necessary further on down the line as retirement years approach.

Because of the sheer amount of capability that the SSGNs possess, they are heavily tasked and forward-deployed, and Pappano himself implied that the submarines have been worked to the bone as a result. While the Block V Virginia class with its VPM will be able to take up some of the slack for the SSGNs, they cannot fully replace the incredible capability these boats provide, especially in terms of special operations and command and control capacity.

There has already been real talk of using the Columbia class design, or a derivative thereof, as the basis for a future multi-purpose SSGN sub-variant, which would provide capabilities unlike any submarine on earth. This would not happen anytime soon though and the cost of producing them would be very large and the SSBNs are slated to be replaced first, with 12 Columbia class SSBNs planned. New SSGNs would have to be mixed into that schedule, which would likely be problematic, or they would have to come after the 12 SSBN variants are fielded. So, no matter what, there will be an SSGN gap for a substantial number of years once the first four converted Ohios finally get retired. How much that gap could be mitigated by further life extensions is yet to be seen, but the Navy will find out. Extending the SSGNs even a few years could keep their highly valued capabilities a bit longer while also taking the pressure off the Block V Virginia class and VPM timeline.

The Ohio class guided-missile submarine USS Florida departs Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay. Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber/U.S. Navy

“As part of [the initiative], we’ll also evaluate the SSGNs right now,” Said Pappano. “That’s a bit more of a challenge because those ships are operated a little bit more vigorously than the SSBNs are in the current roles they have right now, but we will continue to look forward to doing that.”

Both the Ohio class SSBNs and SSGNs have received many upgrades in the course of their service lives and, according to Pappano, are said to be performing well. With no room for fielding delays, the Navy hopes it can rely on these seasoned submarines to hold down the fort while the new Columbia class SSBNs and Block V Virginia class SSNs are prepared for service. Just how long they can do that, in a pinch, remains to be understood, but with this new initiative, hopefully, that won't be for long.

Contact the author: Emma@thewarzone.com

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