The Navy’s top officer for procuring and sustaining the Navy’s nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) last week confirmed the service is currently evaluating short-term service life extensions of up to five Ohio-class submarines and some converted guided-missile submarines (SSGNs).

The first new Columbia-class SSBN is expected to be delivered to the Navy in 2027 and be on its first patrol by FY ‘31 to start succeeding the Ohio-class SSBNs, but the available margin in the schedule for any issues with Columbia is small.

“For the Ohio-class right now, so we have a plan right now – because it is the prudent thing to do, we are evaluating potential, not class extensions, but individual hull extensions for up to five of our Ohio-class SSBNs,” Rear Adm. Scott Pappano, Program Executive Officer for Strategic Submarines, said during a May 12 Advanced Nuclear Weapons Alliance Deterrence Center virtual event.

The Ohio-class SSBNs were originally built to last for 30 years but were previously extended as a class to have 42-year service lives. The first of the 14 Ohio-class submarines is expected to reach the end of that service life in 2027, with the rest reaching their ends at a rate of about one per year, with the last one reaching its expected service life in 2040.

The Ohio-class guided-missile submarine USS Michigan (SSGN-727) arrives in Busan for a regularly scheduled port visit in 2017. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jermaine Ralliford)
The Ohio-class guided-missile submarine USS Michigan (SSGN-727) arrives in Busan for a regularly scheduled port visit in 2017. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jermaine Ralliford)

In 2020, Navy officials revealed they were looking at extending the lives of the Ohio-class SSBNs as much as they technically can, but did not disclose how many vessels it might include (Defense Daily, Nov. 19, 2020)

“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. 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,” Pappano continued.

He said his goal is to not have to extend the SSBNs, “but we want to understand the opportunities and risks associated with that short life extension for the Ohios if we need to go do that, depending on what the world situation looks like, at the end of the ‘20s and into the ‘30s.”

Pappano revealed that as part of this effort, the Navy is also evaluating possibly extending the four Ohio-class submarines converted into SSGN guided-missile submarines, but that may be more difficult. Conversions occurred in the 2000s, concluding in 2007. The vessels do not carry nuclear weapons.

He said the SSGN conversion is “a bit more of a challenge because those ships are operated a little bit more vigorously, I’ll say, than the SSBNs are in their current roles that they have right now. But we’ll continue to look forward to go do that.”

Most Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) procured after FY 2019 will include an additional mid-body section called the Virginia Payload Module  (VPM) that will increase the submarine’s ability to hold cruise missiles or other payloads. It will increase the number of Tomahawk cruise missiles each vessel can hold from the current 27 to about 65. 

VPM-equipped submarines are meant to help compensate for the SSGNs that are expected to retire from FY 2026-’28. Each SSGN holds about 154 Tomahawks and collectively they can field 616 missiles over four boats. 22 Virginia-class submarines that have the VPM can carry the same number of missiles.

Pappano said until those VPM-equipped SSNs come online to supplant the SSGNs, “we want to make sure we have the missile shooter capability in the SSGNs for as long as we can.”

However, he noted it will be a “delicate balancing act” of maintaining the current SSBN fleet versus extending the four-vessel SSGN fleet.