The first race of the 36th America’s Cup racing series starts on 5 March 2021 in Auckland, New Zealand. The defending Emirates Team New Zealand and the challenging Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli Team will be sailing (or rather flying) a radical new class of America’s Cup boats knows as the AC75, which is a foiling monohull that was designed from the ground up to “fly” on its foils. It isn’t clear if the AC75 is a flying boat or a sailing airplane.
The Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli Team won the right to challenge based on its performance in the Prada Cup match races held from 14 January thru 20 February 2021. The America’s Cup races are scheduled from 5 to 14 March 2021. You’ll find complete information on the races on the America’s Cup website at the following link: https://www.americascup.com
The New York Yacht Club American Magic entry, Patriot, was eliminated during the Prada Cup races, after recording no wins in the Round Robin series and no wins in the semi-final races against Luna Rossa. Patriot was damaged and in danger of sinking following a dramatic high-speed capsize following a tack in gusty wind conditions while leading Luna Rossa during Round Robin 2 Race 3 on 16 January 2021.
The AC75 operates with two completely different sets of boat dynamics:
Waterborne while accelerating at maximum power to quickly reach foiling speed at 12 – 14 knots
Flying on the foils to reach a top speed that can exceed 50 knots
Making a smooth transition from waterborne to flying on the foils can be a big challenge for the crew. As the transition is being made, the power demand drops rapidly (suddenly) as the hull emerges from the water and starts flying on the foils. The crew must quickly adjust sail power and trim to maintain control of the flying boat.
The AC75 is a very lightweight vessel, with a fully-loaded weight of 7,600 kg (16,800 lb). The empty weight, not including sails or crew, is limited to 6,520 kg (14,374 lbs.). Of that, 3,358.5 kg (7,403 lb) is supplied by, or specified by, the America’s Cup event organizer, and includes the following standard items for all teams.
Mast: A detailed specification; essentially a one-design mast with a D-shaped leading edge; teams can choose their manufacturer.
Rigging: Supplied to all teams.
Media equipment: Cameras, mounting hardware, power & controls supplied to all teams.
Foil cant arms and hydraulic control system: Standard system developed, tested and supplied to all teams by one manufacturer. The hydraulic system is powered manually by hand-operated grinders. The hydraulic system includes an interface to the trailing edge flaps on the foils supplied by each team.
Each team is responsible for designing and building the rest of the boat while remaining within an empty weight budget of 3,161.5 kg (6,968 lb). The primary areas for innovation by each team are the following:
Hull design: (maximum length 75 feet / 22.86 m), with the primary choice being a flat bottom or with skeg to provide a less sensitive transition between waterborne and foil borne modes.
Crew and hand-operated grinder placement
Twin-skin soft main sail: Forms a fabric 3-D airfoil
Single-skin soft head sails
Rudder + stern foil
Foil wings, fairing and active trailing edge flaps: These are mounted to the standard cant arms; foils must be symmetrical with a maximum span 4 meters; flaps control lift; total weight is limited to about 1/3rd the weight of the empty boat.
There are many AC75 videos available online, including many covering the exciting Prada America’s Cup World Series races in December 2020 and the Prada Cup races in January – February 2021. These boats are so fast that the races are short and action packed. I’ve listed several videos focusing more in boat technology below.
I hope you’ll enjoy a few of the AC75 videos and follow the America’s Cup Races. It’s not like any yacht racing you’ve seen before.
“Sea Wolves – The new America’s cup boat! AC75 Technology analysis/Deep dive special! Auckland 2021” (51:07 minutes), Sea wolves, (with an introductory review of Americas Cup history by Troy Sears, owner of the replica yacht America, which is home ported in San Diego, CA), 16 December 2020: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sjs76uHEqeM
The Challenger Deep, in the Mariana Trench in the middle of western Pacific Ocean, is the deepest known area in the world’s oceans. Its location, as shown in the following map, is 322 km (200 miles) southwest of Guam and 200 km (124 miles) off the coast of the Mariana Islands.
Since the first visit to the bottom of the Challenger Deep 60 years ago, on 23 January 1960, there have been only five other visits to that very remote and inhospitable location. In this post, we’ll take a look at the deep-submergence vehicles (DSVs) and the people who made these visits.
The following topographical map, created in 2019 by the Five Deeps Expedition, shows that the Challenger Deep is comprised of three deeper “pools.” The dive locations of the manned expeditions into the Challenger Deep are shown on this map.
1960: Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh and Swiss engineer Jacques Piccard, in the bathyscaphe Trieste, made the first manned descent into the Challenger Deep and reached the bottom at 10,916 meters (35,814 ft) in the “Western Pool.”
2012: Canadian filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence James Cameron, in the DSV Deepsea Challenger, reached the bottom at 10,908 meters (35,787 ft) the “Eastern Pool.”
2019: Businessman, explorer and retired naval officer Victor Vescovo, in the DSV Limiting Factor, made two dives in the “Eastern Pool” and reached a maximum depth of 10,925 meters (35,843 feet).
2019: Triton Submarine president, Patrick Lahey, in the DSV Limiting Factor, made two dives to the bottom, one in the Eastern Pool and one in the Central Pool.
What is there to see on the way down to the bottom?
The oceans can be divided into vertical zones based on water depth. This basic concept is shown in the following diagram.
The five vertical zones in the above diagram have the following general characteristics:
The Sunlight Zone: This is the shallow (upper 150 meters), sunlit upper layer of the ocean, extending above the continental shelf. Phytoplankton can photosynthesize in this zone.
The Twilight Zone: This is the medium-depth ocean where sunlight is still able to penetrate to a modest depth (a few hundred meters). There is enough light to see, but not enough for photosynthesis. This zone is bounded by the edges of the continental shelf and islands in the deep ocean.
The Midnight Zone: This is the deep ocean, which is bounded by the continental slope and the seamounts and islands rising above the ocean floor. No sunlight is able to reach this deep. There is no photosynthesis in this zone.
The Abyssal Zone: This zone includes the deep ocean plains and the deep cusp of the continental rise. The temperature here is near freezing and very few animals can survive the extreme pressure.
The Hadal Zone: This is the ocean realm in the deep ocean trenches. More people have been to the Moon than to the Hadal Zone.
The Challenger Deep is the deepest known Hadal Zone on our planet. On the way down through 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) of ocean, the few explorers who have reached the bottom have seen aquatic life throughout the water column and on the sea floor. You can take a look the varied and strange sea life by scrolling through the well done graphic, “The Deep Sea,” by Neal Agarwal, which is at the following link.
Now, let’s take a look at the few manned missions that have reached the bottom of the Challenger Deep.
1960: Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh in the bathyscaphe Trieste
Trieste was designed by Swiss scientist Auguste Piccard and was built in Italy. This deep-diving research bathyscaphe enabled the operators to make a free dive into the ocean, without support by cables from the surface. Trieste was launched in August 1953, operated initially by the French Navy and acquired by the U.S. Navy in 1958.
The design of the 15 meter (50 ft) bathyscaphe Trieste is analogous to a zeppelin that has been redesigned to operate underwater. On Trieste, the “gondola” is a 14-ton spherical steel pressure vessel for two crew members. The weight of this “gondola” is carried under a large, lightweight, cylindrical float chamber filled with gasoline for buoyancy (gasoline is less dense than water). There is no differential pressure between the float chamber and the open ocean.
The Trieste is positively buoyant when loaded with ballast and floating on the surface before a mission. To submerge, Trieste would take on seawater and fill its fore and aft water ballast tanks. If needed to achieve the desired negative buoyancy, Trieste also could release some gasoline from the main float chamber. To achieve positive buoyancy at the end of a mission and ascend back to the surface, the pellets in the two ballast hoppers would be released, and Trieste would slowly rise to the surface.
The propulsion system consists of five special General Electric 3-hp dc motors. These motors are designed to operate in inert fluid (silicone oil) and are subjected to full ambient pressure during diving operations. These modest propulsors gave Trieste only limited mobility.
After acquisition by the Navy, Trieste was transported to San Diego, CA, for extensive modifications by the Naval Electronics Laboratory.
After a series of local dives in Southern California waters, Trieste departed San Diego on 5 October 1959 aboard a freighter and was transported to Guam to conduct deep dives in the Pacific Ocean under Project Nekton. After arriving in Guam, record-setting dives to 18,000 and 24,000 feet were conducted in nearby waters by Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh and Swiss engineer Jacques Piccard (son of Auguste Piccard). Then Trieste was towed to the Mariana Trench dive site, where Walsh and Piccard began their mission into the Challenger Deep on 23 January 1960.
The mission took 8 hours and 22 minutes on the following timeline:
Descent to the ocean floor took 4 hours 47 minutes. They reached the bottom at a depth of 10,916 meters (35,814 ft).
Time on the bottom was 20 minutes.
Ascent took 3 hours and 15 minutes.
For much of the mission, cabin temperature was about 7° C (45° F). While on the bottom, Walsh and Piccard observed sea life, although the species observed are uncertain. They described the sea bottom as a “diatomaceous ooze.”
For a comprehensive review of this historic dive into the Challenger Deep, I recommend that you watch the following video, “Rolex presents: The Trieste’s Deepest Dive,” (22:38).
After successfully completing Project Nekton, Trieste underwent further modifications and was transferred to the East Coast in 1963 to assist in the search for the USS Thresher (SSN-593), which sank off the coast of New England. Trieste found the wreck of the nuclear submarine at a depth of 2,600 m (8,400 ft). Trieste was decommissioned in 1966 and went on display in 1980 at the National Museum of the U.S. Navy in Washington, D.C. Following are photos I took during my visit to that museum.
2012: James Cameron in the Deepsea Challenger
Almost a decade ago, filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence James Cameron led a team that designed and built the one-man, 11.8-ton DSV named Deepsea Challenger (DCV 1) for a mission to dive into the Challenger Deep and reach the deepest point in the ocean. The general arrangement of this novel submersible is shown in the following diagram.
In the water, the submersible floats vertically with the steel pilot’s chamber at the bottom of the vessel. When brought aboard its support vessel, the submersible sits horizontally in a cradle.
About 70% of the Deepsea Challenger’s volume is comprised of a specialized structural syntactic foam called Isofloat, which is composed of very small hollow glass spheres suspended in an epoxy resin.
The strength of this structural foam enabled the designers to incorporate 12 thrusters as part of the infrastructure mounted within the foam, but without the need for a steel skeleton to handle the loads from the various mechanisms. The lithium batteries are housed within the syntactic foam structure. The foam also provides buoyancy, like the gasoline-filled float chamber on the bathyscaphe Trieste.
The Deepsea Challenger is equipped with a sediment sampler, a robotic claw, temperature, salinity, and pressure gauges, multiple 3-D cameras and an 8-foot (2.5-meter) tower of LED lights. An underwater acoustic communication system provides the communications link with the support vessel during the dive. Mission endurance is 56 hours.
On March 26, 2012, more than 52 years after the Trieste’s dive into the Challenger Deep, Cameron plunged 10,908 meters (35,787 feet, 11 kilometers, 6.8 miles) below the ocean surface and became the first solo diver to reach such depths. After a two hour and 36 minute descent, he traveled along the bottom for about three hours and reported it being a flat plain with a soft, gelatinous sea floor. The thrusters enabled precise station keeping and a maximum speed of 3 knots.
A National Geographic film of his expedition, Deepsea Challenge 3D, was released to cinemas in 2012. You can watch the short movie trailer (2:44) here:
Cameron was awarded the 2013 Nierenberg Prize for Science in the Public Interest for his deep dive into the Challenger Deep. In the following long video (58:25) “Journey to the Deep,” he shares his experiences and perspectives from his record-setting dive.
The Deepsea Challenger is retired from diving.
2019: Victor Vescovo and the Five Deeps Expedition
In 2015, businessman and explorer Victor Vescovo partnered with Triton Submarines LLC to design and build the two-person, 14-ton, titanium hull, deep-submergence vehicle Limiting Factor to enable Vescovo to conduct the Five Deeps Expedition to visit the deepest points in the world’s five oceans. The Five Deeps Expedition website is here:
During this period, the expedition covered 87,000 km (47,000 nautical miles) in 10 months and the Limiting Factor submersible completed 39 dives.
The DSV Limiting Factor is a Triton 36000/2 submersible that is designed for dives to 11,000 m / 36,000 ft and pressure tested to 14,000 m / 45,991 ft. Like James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenger, the Limiting Factor is constructed with glass-bead based syntactic foam, which is very durable and able to withstand the enormous pressure placed on the submersible as it descends thousands of meters into the sea, and does so repeatedly without significant deformation or stress fractures developing over time.
The Limiting Factor has a Kraft Telerobotics “Raptor” hydraulic manipulator capable of functioning at full-ocean depth. Mission endurance is 16 hours plus 96 hours of emergency life support.
Using a Kongsberg EM124 multi-beam echo sounder mounted to the hull of the support vessel DSSV Pressure Drop, the Five Deeps Expedition team created detailed topographical maps of the Challenger Deep before the first of four dives. Dives 1 and 2 were conducted by Vescovo into the Eastern Pool. Dives 3 and 4 were conducted by Triton Submarines President, Patrick Lahey; Dive 3 was into the Eastern Pool and Dive 4 was into the Central Pool. Two days later, Dive 5 was conducted in the Sirena Deep. These five dives were accomplished in eight days. A synopsis of each dive follows:
Dive 2 (3 May 2019): Vescovo reached a depth of 10,927 meters. Time on the bottom was 217 minutes.
Dive 3 (3 May 2019): This was a commercial certification dive with Patrick Lahey piloting and Jonathan Struwe aboard as a specialist. A Five Deeps Expedition scientific lander that became stuck on bottom during Dive 2 was freed from the bottom and recovered from 10,927 meters by direct action of the manned submersible (deepest salvage operation ever). Time on the bottom was 163 minutes. The submarine passed all of its qualification tests and commercial certification by DNV GL was granted following this dive.
Dive 4 (5 May 1959): This was a scientific dive with Patrick Lahey piloting and John Ramsay (the submarine’s designer) in the second seat. Video surveys were conducted and biological samples were collected. Time on the bottom was 184 minutes.
Dive 5 (7 May 2019): While still in the Mariana Trench area, Lahey conducted the first ever dive into the Sirena Deep, 128 miles (206 km) northeast of the Challenger Deep. On this dive (Dive 5), he reached a depth of 10,714 meters (35,151 ft, 6.66 miles). Time on the bottom was 176 minutes.
You’ll find a good summary of the five dives in the Challenger Deep and Sirena Deep in the expedition’s press release dated 13 May 2019, “Deepest Submarine Dive in History, Five Deeps Expedition Conquers Challenger Deep,” which is available here:
The entire expedition was filmed by Atlantic Productions for a five-part Discovery Channel documentary series, “Deep Planet.”
Into the future
The Triton 36000/2 Limiting Factor is the only submersible that is commercially certified for repeated exploration to the deepest points in the ocean. It is the only insurable, full ocean depth (FOD) manned submersible in the world. The official certification of the vessel to FOD is overseen by an independent third party, the world-standard credentialer of maritime vessels DNV-GL (Det Norske Veritas Germanischer Lloyd).
The manufacturer, Triton Submarines LLC, located in Vero Beach, Florida reported:
“Designed and certified to make thousands of dives to Hadal depths, during decades of service, Triton is excited to offer the opportunity for a private individual, government or philanthropic organization or research institute to acquire this remarkable System and continue the adventure.”
“Available to purchase today for $48.7 million, the Triton 36,000/2 Hadal Exploration System will be ready for delivery in 2019, after its successful (Five Deeps) expedition. The System will be fully proven. It will have extended the boundaries of human endeavor and technology. And it will offer a unique deep-diving capability unmatched by any nation or organization in the world.”
In 2015, I compiled the first edition of a resource document to support a presentation I made in August 2015 to The Lyncean Group of San Diego (www.lynceans.org) commemorating the 60thanniversary of the world’s first “underway on nuclear power” by USS Nautilus on 17 January 1955. That presentation to the Lyncean Group, “60 years of Marine Nuclear Power: 1955 –2015,” was my attempt to tell a complex story, starting from the early origins of the US Navy’s interest in marine nuclear propulsion in 1939, resetting the clock on 17 January 1955 with USS Nautilus’ historic first voyage, and then tracing the development and exploitation of marine nuclear power over the next 60 years in a remarkable variety of military and civilian vessels created by eight nations.
Here’s a quick overview at worldwide marine nuclear in 2018.
Source: two charts by author
In July 2018, I finished a complete update of the resource document and changed the title to, “Marine Nuclear Power: 1939 –2018.” Due to its present size (over 2,100 pages), the resource document now consists of the following parts, all formatted as slide presentations:
Part 1: Introduction
Part 2A: United States – Submarines
Part 2B: United States – Surface Ships
Part 3A: Russia – Submarines
Part 3B: Russia – Surface Ships & Non-propulsion Marine Nuclear Applications
Part 4: Europe & Canada
Part 5: China, India, Japan and Other Nations
Part 6: Arctic Operations
The original 2015 resource document and this updated set of documents were compiled from unclassified, open sources in the public domain.
I acknowledge the great amount of work done by others who have published material in print or posted information on the internet pertaining to international marine nuclear propulsion programs, naval and civilian nuclear powered vessels, naval weapons systems, and other marine nuclear applications. My resource document contains a great deal of graphics from many sources. Throughout the document, I have identified the sources for these graphics.
You can access all parts of Marine Nuclear Power: 1939 – 2018 here:
The Main Directorate of Deep-Sea Research, also known as GUGI and Military Unit 40056, is an organizational structure within the Russian Ministry of Defense that is separate from the Russian Navy. The Head of GUGI is Vice-Admiral Aleksei Burilichev, Hero of Russia.
Source. Adapted from Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, http://eng.mil.ru/en/index.htm
Vice-Admiral Aleksei Burilichev at the commissioning of GUGI oceanographic research vessel Yantar. Source: http://eng.mil.ru/
GUGI is responsible for fielding specialized submarines, oceanographic research ships, undersea drones and autonomous vehicles, sensor systems, and other undersea systems. Today, GUGI operates the world’s largest fleet of covert manned deep-sea vessels. In mid-2018, that fleet consisted of eight very specialized nuclear-powered submarines.
There are six nuclear-powered, deep-diving, small submarines (“nuclear deep-sea stations”), each of which is capable of working at great depth (thousands of meters) for long periods of time. These subs are believed to have diver lockout facilities to deploy divers at shallower depths.
One Project 1851 / 18510 Nelma (aka X-Ray) sub delivered in 1986; Length: 44 m (144.4 ft.); displacement about 529 tons submerged. This is the first and smallest of the Russian special operations nuclear-powered submarines.
Two Project 18511 Halibut (aka Paltus) subs delivered between 1994 – 95; Length: 55 m (180.4 ft.); displacement about 730 tons submerged.
Three Project 1910 Kashalot (aka Uniform) subs delivered between 1986 – 1991, but only two are operational in 2018; Length: 69 m (226.4 ft.); displacement about 1,580 tons submerged.
One Project 09851 Losharik (aka NORSUB-5) sub delivered in about 2003; Length: 74 m (242.8 ft.); displacement about 2,100 tons submerged.
The trend clearly is toward larger, and certainly more capable deep diving special operations submarines. The larger subs have a crew complement of 25 – 35.
Kashalot notional cross-section diagram. Source: adapted from militaryrussia.ru
Kashalot notional diagram showing deployed positioning thrusters, landing legs and tools for working on the bottom. Source: http://nvs.rpf.ru/nvs/forum
The Russian small special operations subs may have been created in response to the U.S. Navy’s NR-1 small, deep-diving nuclear-powered submarine, which entered service in 1969. NR-1 had a length of 45 meters (147.7 ft.) and a displacement of about 400 tons submerged, making it roughly comparable to the Project 1851 / 18510 Nelma . NR-1 was retired in 2008, leaving the U.S. with no counterpart to the Russian fleet of small, nuclear-powered special operations subs.
GUGI operates two nuclear-powered “motherships” (PLA carriers) that can transport one of the smaller nuclear deep-sea stations to a distant site and provide support throughout the mission. The current two motherships started life as Delta III and Delta IV strategic ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). The original SSBN missile tubes were removed and the hulls were lengthened to create large midship special mission compartments with a docking facility on the bottom of the hull for one of the small, deep-diving submarines. These motherships probably have a test depth of about 250 to 300 meters (820 to 984 feet). They are believed to have diver lockout facilities for deploying divers.
General arrangement of a Russian mothership carrying a small special operations submarine. Source: http://gentleseas.blogspot.com/2015/08/russias-own-jimmy-carter-special-ops.html
The motherships also are believed capable of deploying and retrieving a variety of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), including the relatively large Harpsichord: Length: 6.5 m (21.3 ft.); Diameter 1 m (3.2 ft.); Weight: 3,700 kg (8,157 pounds).
These nuclear submarines are operated by the 29th Special Submarine Squadron, which is based along with other GUGI vessels at Olenya Bay, in the Kola Peninsula on the coast of the Barents Sea.
Olenya Bay is near Murmansk. Source: Google Maps
Russian naval facilities near Murmansk. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org
Mothership BS-136 Orenburg at Oleyna Bay. Source: Source: http://www.air-defense.net/
The GUGI fleet provides deep ocean and Arctic operating capabilities that greatly exceed those of any other nation. Potential missions include:
Conducting subsea surveys, mapping and sampling (i.e., to help validate Russia’s extended continental shelf claims in the Arctic; to map potential future targets such as seafloor cables)
Placing and/or retrieving items on the sea floor (i.e., retrieving military hardware, placing subsea power sources, power distribution systems and sonar arrays)
Maintaining military subsea equipment and systems
Conducting covert surveillance
Developing an operational capability to deploy the Poseidon strategic nuclear torpedo.
In time of war, attacking the subsea infrastructure of other nations in the open ocean or in the Arctic (i.e., cutting subsea internet cables, power cables or oil / gas pipelines)
Analysts at the firm Policy Exchange reported that the world’s undersea cable network comprises about 213 independent cable systems and 545,018 miles (877,121 km) of fiber-optic cable. These undersea cable networks carry an estimated 97% of global communications and $10 trillion in daily financial transactions are transmitted by cables under the ocean.
Since about 2015, NATO has observed Russian vessels stepping up activities around undersea data cables in the North Atlantic. None are known to have been tapped or cut. Selective attacks on this cable infrastructure could electronically isolate and severely damage the economy of individual countries or regions. You’ll find a more detailed assessment on this matter in the 15 December 2017 BBC article, “Russia a ‘risk’ to undersea cables, Defence chief warns.”
GUGI also is responsible for the development of the Poseidon (formerly known as Status-6 / Kanyon) strategic nuclear torpedo and the associated “carrier” submarines.
Poseidon, which was first revealed on Russian TV in November 2015, is a large, nuclear-powered, autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) that functionally is a giant, long-range torpedo.
The Russian TV “reveal” of the Oceanic Multipurpose System Status-6 November 2015. Source: https://russianmilitaryanalysis.wordpress.com/tag/9m730/
It is capable of delivering a very large nuclear warhead (perhaps up to 100 MT) underwater to the immediate proximity of an enemy’s key economic and military facilities in coastal areas. It is a weapon of unprecedented destructive power and it is not subject to any existing nuclear arms limitation treaties. However, its development would give Russia leverage in future nuclear arms limitation talks.
The immense physical size of the Poseidon strategic nuclear torpedo is evident in the size comparison chart below.
The Bulava is the Russian submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) carried on Russia’s modern Borei-class SSBNs. The UGST torpedo is representative of a typical torpedo launched from a 533 mm (21 inch) torpedo tube, which is found on the majority of submarines in the world. An experimental submarine, the B-90 Sarov, appears to be the current testbed for the Poseidon strategic torpedo. Russia is building other special submarines to carry several Poseidon strategic torpedoes. One is believed to be the giant, highly modified Oscar II submarine KC-139 Belogrod, which also will serve as a mothership for a small, special operations nuclear sub.The other is the smaller Project 09851 submarine Khabarovsk, which appears to be purpose-built for carrying the Poseidon.
For more information on GUGI, Russian special operations submarines and other covert underwater projects, refer to the Covert Shores website created by naval analyst H. I. Sutton, which you’ll find at the following link:
The latest U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), is the first of a new class (the Ford-class) of carriers that is intended to replace the already-retired USS Enterprise (CVN-65) and all 10 of the Nimitz-class carriers (CVN-68 to CVN-77) as they retire after 49 years of service between 2024 to 2058. Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS), a Division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, built all U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and is the prime contractor for the Ford-class carriers.
USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) was authorized in fiscal year 2008. Actual construction took almost four years from keel laying on 13 November 2009 to launching on 11 October 2013. NNS uses a modular construction process to build major subassemblies in industrial areas adjacent to the drydock and then move each modular unit into the drydock when it is ready to be joined to the rapidly growing structure of the ship.
Overview of the NNS shipyard and CVN-78 in January 2012. Source: Newport News Shipbuilding / Chris OxleyCVN-78 under construction in the NNS drydock. Source: Newport News Shipbuilding
NNS created a short video of an animated 3-D model of CVN-78 showing the arrival and placement of major modules during the 4-year construction period. Highlights are shown in the screenshots below, and the link to the NNS animated video is here:
In this video, you’ll see major subassemblies, like the entire bow structure and the island superstructure moved into place with heavy-lift cranes.
CVN-78 lower bow unit being moved into place in 2012. Source: Newport News Shipbuilding / Ricky ThompsonCVN-78 “island” superstructure being moved into place. Source: Newport News Shipbuilding
After launching, another 3-1/2 years were required for outfitting and testing the ship dockside, loading the two Bechtel A1B reactors, and then conducting sea trials before the ship was accepted by the Navy and commissioned in July 2017.
CVN-78 underway. Source: U.S. Navy
Since commissioning, the Navy has been conducting extensive operational tests all ship systems. Of particular interest are new ElectroMAgnetic Launch System (EMALS) and the electro-mechanical Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG) system that replace the traditional steam catapults and hydraulic arresting gear on Nimitz-class CVNs. If all tests go well, USS Gerald R. Ford is expected to be ready for its first deployment in late 2019 or early 2020.
So, how much did it cost to deliver the USS Gerald R. Ford to the Navy? About $12.9 B in then-year (2008) dollars, according Congressional Research Service (CRS) report RS-20643, “Navy Ford (CVN-78) Class Aircraft Carrier Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” dated 9 August 2017. You can download this CRS report here:
Milestones for the next two Ford-class carriers are summarized below:
CVN-79, USS John. F. Kennedy: Procured in FY 2013; scheduled for delivery in September 2024 at a cost of $11.4 B in then-year (2013) dollars.
CVN-80: USS Enterprise: To be procured in FY 2018; scheduled for delivery in September 2027 at a cost of about $13 B in then-year (2018) dollars.
To recapitalize the entire fleet of 10 Nimitz-class carriers will cost more than $130 B by the time the last Nimitz-class CVN, USS George H.W. Bush, is scheduled to retire in 2058 and be replaced by a new Ford-class CVN.
The current Congressional mandate is for an 11-ship nuclear-powered aircraft carrier fleet. On 15 December 2016, the Navy presented a new force structure assessment with a goal to increase the U.S. fleet size from the currently authorized limit of 308 vessels to 355 vessels. The Heritage Foundation’s 2017 Index of U.S. Military Strength reported that the Navy’s actual fleet size in early 2017 was 274 vessels, so the challenge of re-building to a 355 ship fleet is much bigger than it may sound, especially when you account for the many planned retirements of aging vessels in the following decades. The Navy’s Force Structure Assessment for a 355-ship fleet includes a requirement for 12 CVNs. The CRS provided their commentary on the 355-ship fleet plans in a report entitled, “Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress,” dated 22 September 2017. You can download that report here:
As the world’s political situation continues to change, there may be reasons to change the type of aircraft carrier that is procured by the Navy. Rand Corporation provided the most recent assessment of this issue in their 2017 report entitled, “ Future Aircraft Carrier Options.” The Assessment Division of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations sponsored this report. You can download this report at the following link:
The Arctic Council describes itself as, “….the leading intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States, Arctic indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues, in particular on issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic.” The council consists of representatives from the eight Arctic states:
Kingdom of Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands)
In addition, six international organizations representing Arctic indigenous people have permanent participant status. You’ll find the Arctic Council’s website at the following link:
One outcome of the Arctic Council’s 2004 Senior Arctic Officials (SAO) meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland was a call for the Council’s Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) working group to conduct a comprehensive Arctic marine shipping assessment as outlined in the AMSP. The key result of that effort was The Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment 2009 Report (AMSA), which you can download here:
This report provided a total of 17 summary recommendations for Arctic states in the following three areas:
I. Enhancing Arctic marine safety
A. Coordinating with international organizations to harmonize a regulatory framework for Arctic maritime safety.
B. Supporting International Maritime Organization (IMO) standards for vessels operating in the Arctic.
C. Developing uniform practices for Arctic shipping governance, including in areas of the central Arctic ocean that are beyond the jurisdiction of any Arctic state.
D. Strengthening passenger ship safety in Arctic waters
E. Supporting development of a multi-national Arctic search and rescue capability.
II. Protecting Arctic people and the environment
A. Conducting surveys of Arctic marine use by indigenous people
B. Ensuring effective engagement with Arctic coastal communities
C. Identifying and protecting areas of heightened ecological and cultural significance.
D. Where appropriate, designating “Special Areas” or “Particularly Sensitive Areas”
E. Protecting against introduction of invasive species
F. Preventing oil spills
G. Determining impacts on marine animals and take mitigating actions
H. Reducing air emissions (CO2, NOx, SO2 and black carbon particles)
III. Building the Arctic marine infrastructure
A. Improving the Arctic infrastructure to support development while enhancing safety and protecting the Arctic people and environment, including icebreakers to assist in response.
B. Developing a comprehensive Arctic marine traffic awareness system and cooperate in development of national monitoring systems.
C. Developing a circumpolar environmental response capability.
D. Investing in hydrographic, meteorological and oceanographic data needed to support safe navigation and voyage planning.
The AMSA 2009 Report is a useful resource, with thorough descriptions and findings related to the following:
Arctic marine geography, climate and sea ice
History of Arctic marine transport
Governance of Arctic shipping
Current marine use and the AMSA shipping database
Scenarios, futures and regional futures to 2020 (Bering Strait, Canadian Arctic, Northern Sea Route)
Human dimensions (for a total Arctic population of about 4 M)
Environmental considerations and impacts
Arctic marine infrastructure
Four status reports from 2011 to 2017 documented the progress by Arctic states in implementing the 17 summary recommendations in AMSA 2009. The fourth and final progress report entitled, “Status of Implementation of the AMSA 2009 Report Recommendations; May 2017,” is available at the following link:
Through PAME and other working groups, the Arctic Council will continue its important role in implementing the Arctic Marine Strategic Plan. You can download the current version of that plan, for the period from 2015 – 2025, here:
For example, on 6 November 2017, the Arctic Council will host a session entitled, “The global implications of a rapidly-changing Arctic,” at the UN Climate Change Conference COP23 meeting in Bonn, Germany. For more information on this event, use this link:
In my 9 September 2015 post, I reviewed the current state of the U.S. icebreaking fleet. My closing comments were:
“The U.S. is well behind the power curve for conducting operations in the Arctic that require icebreaker support. Even with a well-funded new U.S. icebreaker construction program, it will take a decade before the first new ship is ready for service, and by that time, it probably will be taking the place of Polar Star, which will be retiring or entering a more comprehensive refurbishment program.”
Alternatives for modernizing existing U.S. polar icebreakers to extend their operating lives and options for procuring new polar icebreakers were described in the Congressional Research Service report, “Coast Guard Polar icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress,” dated 2 September 2015. You can download that report here:
While the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2015 made funds available for “pre-acquisition” activities for a new polar icebreaker, little action has been taken to start procuring new polar icebreakers for the USCG. This Act required the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to engage the National Academies (ironically, not the Coast Guard) in “an assessment of alternative strategies for minimizing the costs incurred by the federal government in procuring and operating heavy polar icebreakers.”
The DHS and USCG issued the “Coast Guard Mission Needs Statement,” on 8 January 2016 as a report to Congress. This report briefly addressed polar ice operations in Section 11 and in Appendix B acknowledged two key roles for polar icebreakers:
The USCG provides surface access to polar regions for all Department of Defense (DoD) activities and logistical support for remote operating facilities.
The USCG supports the National Science Foundation’s research activities in Antarctica by providing heavy icebreaking support of the annual re-supply missions to McMurdo Sound. Additionally, USCG supports the annual NSF scientific mission in the Arctic.
This report to Congress failed to identify deficiencies in the USCG polar icebreaker “fleet” relative to these defined missions (i.e., the USCG has only one operational, aging heavy polar icebreaker) and was silent on the matter of procuring new polar icebreakers. You can download the 2016 “Coast Guard Mission Needs Statement” here:
On 22 February 2017, the USCG made some progress when it awarded five, one-year, firm fixed-price contracts with a combined value of $20 M for heavy polar icebreaker design studies and analysis. The USCG reported that, “The heavy polar icebreaker integrated program office, staffed by Coast Guard and U.S. Navy personnel, will use the results of the studies to refine and validate the draft heavy polar icebreaker system specifications.” The USCG press release regarding this modest design study procurement is here:
The National Academies finally issued their assessment of U.S. polar icebreaker needs in a letter report to the Secretary of Homeland Security dated 11 July 2017. The report, entitled, “Acquisition and Operation of Polar Icebreakers: Fulfilling the Nation’s Needs.” offered the following findings and recommendations:
Finding: The United States has insufficient assets to protect its interests, implement U.S. policy, execute its laws, and meet its obligations in the Arctic and Antarctic because it lacks adequate icebreaking capability.
Recommendation: The United States Congress should fund the construction of four polar icebreakers of common design that would be owned and operated by the United States Coast Guard (USCG).
Recommendation: USCG should follow an acquisition strategy that includes block buy contracting with a fixed price incentive fee contract and take other measures to ensure best value for investment of public funds.
Finding: In developing its independent concept design and cost estimates, the committee determined that the cost estimated by USCG for the heavy icebreakers are reasonable (average cost per ship of about $791 million for a 4-ship buy).
Finding: Operating costs of new polar icebreakers are expected to be lower than those of the vessels they replace.
Recommendation: USCG should ensure that the common polar icebreaker design is science ready and that one of the ships has full science capability. (This means that the design includes critical features and structures that cannot be cost-effectively retrofit after construction).
Finding: The nation is at risk of losing its heavy icebreaking capability – experiencing a critical capacity gap – as the Polar Star approaches the end of its extended service life, currently estimated to be 3 to 7 years (i.e., sometime between 2020 and 2024).
Recommendation: USCG should keep the Polar Star operational by implementing an enhanced maintenance program (EMP) until at least two new polar icebreakers are commissioned.
You can download this National Academies letter report here:
There has been a long history of studies that have shown the need for additional U.S. polar icebreakers. This National Academies letter report provides a clear message to DHS and Congress that action is needed now.
In the meantime, in Russia:
To help put the call to action to modernize and expand the U.S. polar icebreaking capability in perspective, let’s take a look at what’s happening in Russia.
The Russian state-owned nuclear icebreaker fleet operator, Rosatomflot, is scheduled to commission the world’s largest nuclear-powered icebreaker in 2019. The Arktika is the first of the new Project 22220 LK-60Ya class of nuclear-powered polar icebreakers being built to replace Russia’s existing, aging fleet of nuclear icebreakers. The LK-60Ya is a dual-draught design that enables these ships to operate as heavy polar icebreakers in Arctic waters and also operate in the shallower mouths of polar rivers. Vessel displacement is about 37,000 tons (33,540 tonnes) with water ballast and about 28,050 tons (25,450 tonnes) without water ballast. When ballasted, LK-60Ya icebreakers will be able to operate in Arctic ice of any thickness up to 4.5 meters (15 feet).
The principal task for the new LK-60Ya icebreakers will be to clear passages for ship traffic on the Northern Sea route, which runs along the Russian Arctic coast from the Kara Sea to the Bering Strait. The second and third ships in this class, Sibir and Ural, are under construction at the Baltic Shipyard in St. Petersburg and are expected to enter service in 2020 and 2021, respectively.
Arktika (on right), Akademik Lomonosov floating nuclear power plant (center), and Sibir (on left) dockside at Baltic Shipyard, St. Petersburg, Russia, October 2017: Source: Charles Diggers / maritime-executive.com
In June 2016, Russia launched the first of four diesel-electric powered 6,000 ton Project 21180 icebreakers at the Admiralty Shipyard in St. Petersburg. The Ilya Muromets, which is expected to be delivered in November 2017, will be the Russian Navy’s first new military icebreaker in about 50 years. It is designed to be capable of breaking ice with a thickness up to 1 meter (3.3 feet). The Project 21180 icebreaker’s primary mission is to provide icebreaking services for the Russian naval forces deployed in the Arctic region and the Far East. The U.S. has no counterpart to this class of Arctic vessel.
Project 21180 military icebreaker Ilya Muromets. Source: The Baltic Post
You’ll find more information on Russia’s Project 21180-class icebreakers here:
Russia’s 7,000 – 8,500 ton diesel-electric Project 23550 military icebreaking patrol vessels (corvettes) will be armed combatant vessels capable of breaking ice with a thickness up to 1.7 meters (5.6 feet). The keel for the lead ship, Ivan Papanin, was laid down at the Admiralty Shipyard in St. Petersburg on 19 April 2017. Construction time is expected to be about 36 month, with Ivan Papanin being commissioned in 2020. The second ship in this class should enter service about one year later. Both corvettes are expected to be armed with a mid-size naval gun (76 mm to 100 mm have been reported), containerized cruise missiles, and an anti-submarine capable helicopter (i.e., Kamov Ka-27 type). The U.S. has no counterpart to this class of Arctic vessel.
It appears to me that Russia and the U.S. have very different visions for how they will conduct and support future civilian and military operations that require surface access in the Arctic region. The Russians currently have a strong polar icebreaking capability to support its plans for Arctic development and operation, and that capability is being modernized with a new fleet of the world’s largest nuclear-powered icebreakers. In addition, two smaller icebreaking vessel classes, including an icebreaking combatant vessel, soon will be deployed to support Russia’s military in the Arctic and Far East.
In comparison, the U.S. polar icebreaking capability continues to hang by a thread (i.e., the Polar Star) and our nation has to decide if it is even going to show up for polar icebreaking duty in the Arctic in the near future. The U.S. also is a no-show in the area of dedicated military icebreakers, including Arctic-capable armed combatant surface vessels.
Where do you think this Arctic imbalance is headed?
Update: 4 January 2019
In September 2018, the Coast Guard renamed its New Icebreaker Program ‘Polar Security Cutter.’ The hull designation will be WMSP. W is the standard prefix for Coast Guard vessels, and MSP stands for Maritime Security-Polar. However, the revised designation does not alter how the vessel is funded.
10 December 2018 report by the Congressional Research Service, “Coast Guard Polar Security Cutter (Polar Icebreaker) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” which you’ll find at the following link: https://fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL34391.pdf
With the heavy polar icebreaker Polar Star (WAGB-10) used exclusively to support Antarctic operations, the medium-size cutter Healy (WAGB-20) is the only Coast Guard polar icebreaker serving the Arctic region. Healy was built in 2000 primarily as an Arctic research vessel for the national Academy of Sciences.
“HEALY is designed to conduct a wide range of research activities, providing more than 4,200 square feet of scientific laboratory space, numerous electronic sensor systems, oceanographic winches, and accommodations for up to 50 scientists. HEALY is designed to break 4.5 feet of ice continuously at three knots and can operate in temperatures as low as -50 degrees F. The science community provided invaluable input on lab layouts and science capabilities during design and construction of the ship. At a time when scientific interest in the Arctic Ocean basin is intensifying, HEALY substantially enhances the United States Arctic research capability.
As a Coast Guard cutter, HEALY is also a capable platform for supporting other potential missions in the polar regions, including logistics, search and rescue, ship escort, environmental protection, and enforcement of laws and treaties.”
The first ship in the new LK-60 class of nuclear powered icebreakers, named Arktika, was launched on 16 June 2016 at the Baltic Shipyard in St. Petersburg, Russia. LK-60 class icebreakers are powered by two RITM-200 integral pressurized water reactors (PWR), each rated at 175 MWt, and together delivering 60 MW (80,460 hp) to an electric motor propulsion system driving three shafts.
LK-60 class icebreakers are the most powerful icebreakers in the world. Contracts for two additional LK-60 icebreakers were placed in May 2014. They are scheduled for delivery in 2020 (Sibr) & 2021 (Ural).
The general arrangement of the nuclear reactors in these ships is shown in the following two diagrams.
Two RITM-200 reactors installed on an LK-60 class icebreaker. Source: Atomenergomash
The basic design of the RITM-200 integral primary system is shown in the following diagram. The reactor and steam generators are in the same vessel. The four primary pumps are connected directly to the reactor vessel, creating a very compact primary system unit.
The two reactor vessels were installed in Arktika in September 2016, which is scheduled to be service-ready in mid-2019, and will operate from the Atomflot icebreaker port in Murmansk. Manufacturing of the reactor vessels for the second LK-60 icebreaker, Sibr, is in progress.
Above: Second integral reactor vessel for Arktika, with the primary pump housings installed. Source: Rosatom
Below: Integral reactor vessel at an earlier stage of manufacturing for Sibr. Source: Atomenergomash
Below: Complete RITM-200 integral reactor vessel. Source: Atomenergomash
You can watch an Atomenergomash video (in Russian) showing how the RITM-200 reactor vessel is manufactured at the following link:
The U.S. has no nuclear powered icebreakers and only one, older polar-class icebreaker. See my 3 September 2015, “The Sad State of Affairs of the U.S. Icebreaking Fleet and Implications for Future U.S. Arctic Operations,” for more information on the U.S. icebreaker fleet.
On 14 December, 2016, the Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, announced that the new class of U.S. fleet ballistic missile (FBM) submarines will be known as the Columbia-class, named after the lead ship, USS Columbia, SSBN-826 and the District of Columbia. Formerly, this submarine class was known simply as the “Ohio Replacement Program”.
Columbia-class SSBN. Source: U.S. Navy
There will be 12 Columbia-class SSBNs replacing 14 Ohio-class SSBNs. The Navy has designated this as its top priority program. All of the Columbia-class SSBNs will be built at the General Dynamics Electric Boat shipyard in Groton, CT.
Background – Ohio-class SSBNs
Ohio-class SSBNs make up the current fleet of U.S. FBM submarines, all of which were delivered to the Navy between 1981 and 1997. Here are some key points on the Ohio-class SSBNs:
Electric Boat’s FY89 original contract for construction of the lead ship, USS Ohio, was for about $1.1 billion. In 1996, the Navy estimated that constructing the original fleet of 18 Ohio-class SSBNs and outfitting them with the Trident weapons system cost $34.8 billion. That’s an average cost of about $1.9 billion per sub.
On average, each SSBN spend 77 days at sea, followed by 35 days in-port for maintenance.
Each crew consists of about 155 sailors.
The Ohio-class SSBNs will reach the ends of their service lives at a rate of about one per year between 2029 and 2040.
The Ohio SSBN fleet currently is carrying about 50% of the total U.S. active inventory of strategic nuclear warheads on Trident II submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). In 2018, when the New START nuclear force reduction treaty is fully implemented, the Ohio SSBN fleet will be carrying approximately 70% of that active inventory, increasing the strategic importance of the U.S. SSBN fleet.
It is notable that the Trident II missile initial operating capability (IOC) occurred in March 1990. The Trident D5LE (life-extension) version is expected to remain in service until 2042.
Columbia basic design features
Features of the new Columbia-class SSBN include:
42 year ship operational life
Life-of-the-ship reactor core (no refueling)
16 missile tubes vs. 24 on the Ohio-class
43’ (13.1 m) beam vs. 42’ (13 m) on the Ohio-class
560’ (170.7 m) long, same as Ohio-class
Slightly higher displacement (likely > 20,000 tons) than the Ohio class
Electric drive vs. mechanical drive on the Ohio-class
X-stern planes vs. cruciform stern planes on the Ohio-class
Accommodations for 155 sailors, same as Ohio
Design collaboration with the UK
The U.S. Navy and the UK’s Royal Navy are collaborating on design features that will be common between the Columbia-class and the UK’s Dreadnought-class SSBNs (formerly named “Successor” class). These features include:
Common Missile Compartment (CMC)
Common SLBM fire control system
The CMC is being designed as a structural “quad-pack”, with integrated missile tubes and submarine hull section. Each tube measures 86” (2.18 m) in diameter and 36’ (10.97 m) in length and can accommodate a Trident II SLBM, which is the type currently deployed on both the U.S. and UK FBM submarine fleets. In October 2016, General Dynamics received a $101.3 million contract to build the first set of CMCs.
CMC “quad-pack.” Source: General Dynamics via U.S. Navy
The “Submarine Shaftless Drive” (SDD) concept that the UK is believed to be planning for their Dreadnought SSBN has been examined by the U.S. Navy, but there is no information on the choice of propulsor for the Columbia-class SSBN.
Design & construction cost
In the early 2000s, the Navy kicked off their future SSBN program with a “Material Solution Analysis” phase that included defining initial capabilities and development strategies, analyzing alternatives, and preparing cost estimates. The “Milestone A” decision point reached in 2011 allowed the program to move into the “Technology Maturation & Risk Reduction” phase, which focused on refining capability definitions and developing various strategies and plans needed for later phases. Low-rate initial production and testing of certain subsystems also is permitted in this phase. Work in these two “pre-acquisition” phases is funded from the Navy’s research & development (R&D) budget.
On 4 January 2017, the Navy announced that the Columbia-class submarine program passed its “Milestone B” decision review. The Acquisition Decision Memorandum (ADM) was signed by the Navy’s acquisition chief Frank Kendall. This means that the program legally can move into the Engineering & Manufacturing Development Phase, which is the first of two systems acquisition phases funded from the Navy’s shipbuilding budget. Detailed design is performed in this phase. In parallel, certain continuing technology development / risk reduction tasks are funded from the Navy’s R&D budget.
The Navy’s proposed FY2017 budget for the Columbia SSBN program includes $773.1 million in the shipbuilding budget for the first boat in the class, and $1,091.1 million in the R&D budget.
The total budget for the Columbia SSBN program is a bit elusive. In terms of 2010 dollars, the Navy had estimated that lead ship would cost $10.4 billion ($4.2 billion for detailed design and non-recurring engineering work, plus $6.2 billion for construction) and the 11 follow-on SSBNs will cost $5.2 billion each. Based on these cost estimates, construction of the new fleet of 12 SSBNs would cost $67.6 billion in 2010 dollars. Frank Kendall’s ADM provided a cost estimate in terms of 2017 dollars in which the detailed design and non-recurring engineering work was amortized across the fleet of 12 SSBNs. In this case, the “Average Procurement Unit Cost” was $8 billion per SSBN. The total program cost is expected to be about $100 billion in 2017 dollars for a fleet of 12 SSBNs. There’s quite a bit if inflation between the 2010 estimate and new 2017 estimate, and that doesn’t account for future inflation during the planned construction program that won’t start until 2021 and is expected to continue at a rate of one SSBN authorized per year.
The UK is contributing financially to common portions of the Columbia SSBN program. I have not yet found a source for details on the UK’s contributions and how they add to the estimate for total program cost.
Operation & support (O&S) cost
The estimated average O&S cost target of each Columbia-class SSBN is $110 million per year in constant FY2010 dollars. For the fleet of 12 SSBNs, that puts the annual total O&S cost at $1.32 billion in constant FY2010 dollars.
An updated schedule for Columbia-class SSBN program was not included in the recent Navy announcements. Previously, the Navy identified the following milestones for the lead ship:
FY2017: Start advance procurement for lead ship
FY2021: Milestone C decision, which will enable the program to move into the Production and Deployment Phase and start construction of the lead ship
2027: Deliver lead ship to the Navy
2031: Lead ship ready to conduct 1st strategic deterrence patrol
Keeping the Columbia-class SSBN construction program on schedule is important to the nation’s, strategic deterrence capability. The first Ohio-class SSBNs are expected start retiring in 2029, two years before the first Columbia-class SSBN is delivered to the fleet. The net result of this poor timing will be a 6 – 7 year decline in the number of U.S. SSBNs from the current level of 14 SSBNs to 10 SSBNs in about 2032. The SSBN fleet will remain at this level for almost a decade while the last Ohio-class SSBNs are retiring and are being replaced one-for-one by new Columbia-class SSBNs. Finally, the U.S. SSBN fleet will reach its authorized level of 12 Columbia-class SSBNs in about 2042. This is about the same time when the Trident D5LE SLBMs arming the entire Columbia-class fleet will need to be replaced by a modern SLBM.
You can see the fleet size projections for all classes of Navy submarines in the following chart. The SSBN fleet is represented by the middle trend line.
Source: U.S. Navy 30-year Submarine Shipbuilding Plan 2017
Based on the Navy’s recent poor performance in other major new shipbuilding programs (Ford-class aircraft carrier, Nimitz-class destroyer, Littoral Combat Ship), their ability to meet the projected delivery schedule for the Columbia-class SSBN’s must be regarded with some skepticism. However, the Navy’s Virginia-class attack submarine (SSN) construction program has been performing very well, with some new SSNs being delivered ahead of schedule and below budget. Hopefully, the submarine community can maintain the good record of the Virginia-class SSNs program and deliver a similarly successful, on-time Columbia-class SSBN program.
For more information, refer to the 25 October 2016 report by the Congressional Research Service, “Navy Columbia Class (Ohio Replacement) Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN[X]) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” which you can download at the following link:
The LCS program consists of two different, but operationally comparable ship designs:
LCS-1 Freedom-class monohull built by Marinette Marine
LCS-2 Independence-class trimaran built by Austal USA.
These relatively small surface combatants have full load displacements in the 3,400 – 3,900 ton range, making them smaller than most destroyer and frigate-class ships in the world’s navies.
LCS-2 in foreground & LCS-1 in background. Source: U.S. NavyLCS-1 on left & LCS-2 on right. Source: U.S. Navy
Originally LCS was conceived as a fleet of 52 small, fast, multi-mission ships designed to fight in littoral (shallow, coastal) waters, with roll-on / roll-off mission packages intended to give these ships unprecedented operational flexibility. In concept, it was expected that mission module changes could be conducted in any port in a matter of hours. In a 2010 Department of Defense (DoD) Selected Acquisition Report, the primary missions for the LCS were described as:
“…littoral surface warfare operations emphasizing prosecution of small boats, mine warfare, and littoral anti-submarine warfare. Its high speed and ability to operate at economical loiter speeds will enable fast and calculated response to small boat threats, mine laying and quiet diesel submarines. LCS employment of networked sensors for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) in support of Special Operations Forces (SOF) will directly enhance littoral mobility. Its shallow draft will allow easier excursions into shallower areas for both mine countermeasures and small boat prosecution. Using LCS against these asymmetrical threats will enable Joint Commanders to concentrate multi-mission combatants on primary missions such as precision strike, battle group escort and theater air defense.”
Both competing firms met a Congressionally-mandated cost target of $460 million per unit, and, in December 2010, Congress gave the Navy authority to split the procurement rather than declare a single winner. Another unique aspect of the LCS program was that the Defense Acquisition Board split the procurement further into the following two separate and distinct programs with separate reporting requirements:
The two “Seaframe” programs (for the two basic ship designs, LCS-1 and LCS-2)
The Mission Module programs (for the different mission modules needed to enable an LCS seaframe to perform specific missions)
When the end product is intended to be an integrated combatant vessel, you don’t need to be a systems analyst to know that trouble is brewing in the interfaces between the seaframes and the mission modules somewhere along the critical path to LCS deployment.
There are three LCS mission modules:
Surface warfare (SUW)
Mine countermeasures (MCM)
These mission modules are described briefly below:
Surface warfare (SUW)
Each LCS is lightly armed since its design basis surface threat is an individual small, armed boat or a swarm of such boats. The basic anti-surface armament on an LCS seaframe includes a single 57 mm main gun in a bow turret and everal small (.50 cal) machine guns. The SUW module adds twin 30mm Bushmaster cannons, an aviation unit, a maritime security module (small boats), and relatively short-range surface-to-surface missiles.
Each LCS has a hanger bay for its embarked aviation unit, which is comprised of one manned MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter and one MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV, a small helicopter). As part of the SUW module, these aviation assets are intended to be used to identify, track, and help prosecute surface targets.
That original short-range missile collaboration with the Army failed when the Army withdrew from the program. As of December 2016, the Navy is continuing to conduct operational tests of a different Army short-range missile, the Longbow Hellfire, to fill the gap in the SUW module and improve the LCS’s capability to defend against fast inshore attack craft.
In addition to the elements of the SUW module described above, each LCS has a RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) system or a SeaRAM system intended primarily for anti-air point defense (range 5 – 6 miles) against cruise missiles. A modified version of the RAM has limited capabilities for use against helicopters and nearby small surface targets.
In 2015, the Navy redefined the first increment of the LCS SUW capability as comprising the Navy’s Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS) teams. This limited “surface warfare” function is comparable to the mission of a Coast Guard cutter.
While the LCS was not originally designed to have a long-range (over the horizon) strike capability, the Navy is seeking to remedy this oversight and is operationally testing two existing missile systems to determine their suitability for installation on the LCS fleet. These missiles are the Boeing Harpoon and the Norwegian Konigsberg Naval Strike Missile (NSM). Both can be employed against sea and land targets.
The LCS does not yet have an operational anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability because of ongoing delays in developing this mission module.
The sonar suite is comprised of a continuously active variable depth sonar, a multi-function towed array sonar, and a torpedo defense sonar. For the ASW mission, the MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter will be equipped with sonobuoys, dipping sonar and torpedoes for prosecuting submarines. The MQ-8B Fire Scout UAV also can support the ASW mission.
Use of these ASW mission elements is shown in the following diagram (click on the graphic to enlarge):
Source: U.S. Navy
In 2015, the Navy asked for significant weight reduction in the 105 ton ASW module.
Originally, initial operational capability (IOC) was expected to be 2016. It appears that the ASW mission package is on track for an IOC in late 2018, after completing development testing and initial operational test & evaluation.
Mine Countermeasures (MCM)
The LCS does not yet have an operational mine countermeasures capability. The original complex deployment plan included three different unmanned vehicles that were to be deployed in increments.
Lockheed Martin Remote Multi-mission Vehicle (RMMV) would tow a sonar system for conducting “volume searches” for mines
Textron Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle (CUSV) would tow minesweeping hardware.
General Dynamics Knifefish unmanned underwater vehicle would hunt for buried mines
For the MCM mission, the MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter will be equipped with an airborne laser mine detection system and will be capable of operating an airborne mine neutralization system. The MQ-8B Fire Scout UAV also supports the MCM mission.
Use of these MCM mission elements is shown in the following diagram (click on the graphic to enlarge):
Source: U.S. Navy
Original IOC was expected to be 2014. The unreliable RMMV was cancelled in 2015, leaving the Navy still trying in late 2016 to define how an LCS will perform “volume searches.” CUSV and Knifefish development are in progress.
It appears the Navy is not planning to conduct initial operational test & evaluation of a complete MCM module before late 2019 or 2020.
By January 2012, the Navy acknowledged that mission module change-out could take days or weeks instead of hours. Therefore, each LCS will be assigned a single mission, making module changes a rare occurrence. So much for operational flexibility.
LCS has become the poster child for a major Navy ship acquisition program that has gone terribly wrong.
The mission statement for the LCS is still evolving, in spite of the fact that 26 already have been ordered.
There has been significant per-unit cost growth, which is actually difficult to calculate because of the separate programmatic costs of the seaframe and the mission modules.
FY 2009 budget documents showed that the cost of the two lead ships had risen to $637 million for LCS-1 Freedom and $704 million for LCS-2
In 2009, Lockheed Martin’s LCS-5 seaframe had a contractual price of $437 million and Austal’s LCS-6’s seaframe contractual price was $432 million, each for a block of 10 ships.
In March 2016, General Accounting Office (GAO) reported the total procurement cost of the first 32 LCSs, which worked out to an average unit cost of $655 million just for the basic seaframes.
GAO also reported the total cost for production of 64 LCS mission modules, which worked out to an average unit cost of $108 million per module.
Based on these GAO estimates, a mission-configured LCS (with one mission module) has a total unit cost of about $763 million.
In 2016, the GAO found that, “the ship would be less capable of operating independently in higher threat environments than expected and would play a more limited role in major combat operations.”
The flexible mission module concept has failed. Each ship will be configured for only one mission.
Individual mission modules are still under development, leaving deployed LCSs without key operational capabilities.
The ships are unreliable. In 2016, the GAO noted the inability of an LCS to operate for 30 consecutive days underway without a critical failure of one or more essential subsystems.
Both LCS designs are overweight and are not meeting original performance goals.
There was no cathodic corrosion protection system on LCS-1 and LCS-2. This design oversight led to serious early corrosion damage and high cost to repair the ships.
Crew training time is long.
The original maintenance plans were unrealistic.
The original crew complement was inadequate to support the complex ship systems and an installed mission module.
To address some of these issues, the LCS crew complement has been increased, an unusual crew rotation process has been implemented, and the first four LCSs have been withdrawn from operational service for use instead as training ships.
To address some of the LCS warfighting limitations, the Navy, in February 2014, directed the LCS vendors to submit proposals for a more capable vessel (originally called “small surface combatant”, now called “frigate” or FF) that could operate in all regions during conflict conditions. Key features of this new frigate include:
Built-in (not modular) anti-submarine and surface warfare mission systems on each FF
Over-the-horizon strike capability
Same purely defensive (point defense) anti-air capability as the LCS. Larger destroyers or cruisers will provide fleet air defense.
Lower top speed and less range
As you would expect, the new frigate proposals look a lot like the existing LCS designs. In 2016, the GAO noted that the Navy prioritized cost and schedule considerations over the fact that a “minor modified LCS” (i.e., the new frigate) was the least capable option considered.” The competing designs for the new frigate are shown below (click on the graphic to enlarge):
Source: U.S. NavySource: U.S. Navy
GAO reported the following estimates for the cost of the new multi-mission frigate and its mission equipment:
Lead ship: $732 – 754 million
Average ship: $613 – 631 million
Average annual per-ship operating cost over a 25 year lifetime: $59 – 62 million
Note that the frigate lead ship cost estimate is less than the GAO’s estimated actual cost of an average LCS plus one mission module. Based on the vendor’s actual LCS cost control history, I’ll bet that the GAO’s frigate cost estimates are just the starting point for the cost growth curve.
To make room for the new frigate in the budget and in the current 308-ship fleet headcount limit, the Navy reduced the LCS buy to 32 vessels, and planed to order 20 new frigates from a single vendor. In December 2015, the Navy reduced the total quantity of LCS and frigates from 52 to 40. By mid-2016, Navy plans included only 26 LCS and 12 frigates.
2016 Top Ten Most Powerful Frigates in the World
To see what international counterparts the LCS and FF are up against, check out the January 2016 article, “Top Ten Most Powerful Frigates in the World,” which includes frigates typically in the 4,000 to 6,900 ton range (larger than LCS). You’ll find this at the following link:
Are the single-mission LCSs really worth the Navy’s great investment in the LCS program?
Will the two-mission FFs give the Navy a world-class frigate that can operate independently in contested waters?
Would you want to serve aboard an LCS or FF when the fighting breaks out, or would you choose one of the more capable multi-mission international frigates?
Update: 9 January 2020
A 5 April 2019 article in The National Interest reported:
“The Pentagon Operational Test & Evaluation office’s review of the LCS fleet published back in January 2018 revealed alarming problems with both Freedom and Independence variants of the line, including: concerning issues with combat system elements like radar, limited anti-ship missile self-defense capabilities, and a distinct lack of redundancies for vital systems necessary to reduce the chance that “a single hit will result in loss of propulsion, combat capability, and the ability to control damage and restore system operation…..Neither LCS variant is survivable in high-intensity combat,” according to the report.”
I’d chalk the LCS program up as a huge failure, delivering unreliable, poorly-armed ships that do not yet have a meaningful, operational role in the U.S. Navy and have not been integrated as an element of a battle group. I think others agree. The defense bill signed by President Trump in December 2019 limits LCS fleet size and states that none of the authorized funds can be used to exceed “the total procurement quantity of 35 Littoral Combat Ships.” Do I hear an Amen?
For more information:
A lot of other resources are available on the Internet describing the LCS program, early LCS operations, the LCS-derived frigate program, and other international frigates programs. For more information, I recommend the following resources dating from 2016 to 2019: