The U.S. Navy, which has said for years that it wants to buy 12 Columbia-class, nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines to replace its aging Ohio-class fleet, is leaving open the possibility that it will end up acquiring more than that, a service official said April 11.

“That’s a decision that will be made and a recommendation made by leadership as we approach the end of production,” said Vice Adm. Terry Benedict, director of the Navy’s Strategic Systems Programs. “But I think given the current changing world dynamic, we want to reserve the right to revisit that at some point.” 

An artist's rendering of the U.S. Navy's future Columbia-class submarine. (Navy photo)
An artist’s rendering of the U.S. Navy’s future Columbia-class submarine. (Navy photo)

While Benedict did not elaborate on the “changing world dynamic,” the Pentagon’s new national defense strategy expresses concern about growing military threats posed by China and Russia.

Benedict’s comments, which he made at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces panel, came in response to a question from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who noted that the Pentagon’s recently completed nuclear posture review calls for the Navy to field at least 12 Columbia submarines. Cotton welcomed the at-least language, saying that previous statements simply called for 12 submarines.

“I think that’s something we should entertain as well,” Cotton told Benedict. “I was glad to see that in the review.”

How the Navy would pay for more submarines is unclear. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that current plans to modernize, operate and sustain U.S. nuclear forces will cost an eye-popping $1.2 trillion over the next three decades, and that figure does not include the Trump administration’s new initiatives to develop low-yield nuclear warheads and a sea-launched nuclear cruise missile.

The Navy currently intends to spend $128 billion to develop and buy 12 Columbia submarines. In January 2017, the program received approval to enter its detail design phase. Construction of the lead submarine is slated to begin in fiscal year 2021.

General Dynamics [GD] Electric Boat is Columbia’s prime contractor and Huntington Ingalls Industries [HII] Newport News Shipbuilding has a secondary role.