The US Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Mike Gilday this week said that the Columbia-Class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) was the navy’s top acquisition priority.

Gilday made the comments while touring a General Dynamics Electric Boat facility on a visit following the signing of the largest shipbuilding contract in US Navy history for the Block V Virginia-Class submarine contract.

General Dynamics Electric Boat is leading the programmes to build both the Columbia and Virginia class submarines, with the construction of the Columbia-Class expected to begin ahead of schedule in late 2020.

Gilday said: “The navy’s first acquisition priority is recapitalising our Strategic Nuclear Deterrent — Electric Boat is helping us do just that.

“Together, we will continue to drive affordability, technology development, and integration efforts to support Columbia’s fleet introduction on time or earlier.”

The US Navy expects the Columbia-Class boats to enter into service starting in 2031, with a total of 12 submarines planned. All 12 boats should be completed and in service by 2042. Each vessel will host 16 missile tubes and carry the Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).

The Columbia-class submarines were originally expected to begin construction in 2021; in November 2019, General Dynamics CEO Phebe Novakovic said the company has finished designing them for the US Navy. Speaking at Baird Global Industrial Conference in Chicago, Novakovic said that General Dynamics Electric Boat is ‘far ahead’ with Columbia and are ‘really ready’ to build the new submarines, building on lessons learnt from the Virginia programme.

Despite being a priority, the Columbia programme will not come cheap, with the US Navy fiscal year 2020 budget estimating the total cost of the 12 submarines to be around $109bn. The lead boat in the class is expected to cost at least $6.2bn.

The Virginia-Class contract handed to General Dynamics Electric Boat last week covers the construction of nine submarines, at a cost of $22.2bn. Eight of the boats will include the Virginia Payload Module (VPM) which expands the submarines tomahawk missile capacity from 12 to 40 per boat. The first Block V submarine is slated for delivery in 2025.