As was first revealed in its January 26 strategy paper titled “Defense Budget Priorities and Choices,” the Pentagon plans to delay the Ohio-Class replacement program (also known as the SSBN(X)) by two years. The document stated that the two-year delay will “create challenges in maintaining current at-sea presence requirements in the 2030s,” but that “we believe this risk can be managed.”
At a briefing previewing the new strategy paper, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter classified the delay as “a managerial decision made partly for budgetary reasons” that will place the program “on a more predictable and stable schedule.” The Navy currently plans to procure 12 SSBN(X)s to replace the current fleet of Ohio-Class SSBNs, the first of which is scheduled to be retired in 2027. The Pentagon estimates the total cost of building and operating the new subs at nearly $350 billion over the next 50 years. The need for 12 new submarines is based on an existing requirement to maintain a certain number of boats (most likely five) “on station” at any given time.
In its FY 2013 budget request released on February 14, the Pentagon stated that the two-year delay would save $502 million in fiscal year 2013 and $4.3 billion in fiscal years 2013-2017. The total 2013 request for SSBN(X) research and development is $565 million, a decrease of 47 percent from last year’s appropriation.
For more background on the sea-based leg of the U.S. nuclear triad, see our fact sheet here.
Since the formal FY 2013 budget release, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert has been telling Congress that the two-year delay to the SSBN(X) program will result in a strategic submarine fleet of “10 ships in the 2030s.” This is due to the fact that the procurement of new submarines will not keep pace with the retirement of older Ohio-Class SSBNs. According to the post-delay schedule, the current fleet of SSBNs will dip to 10 in 2030, but the Navy won’t be able to put the twelfth SSBN(X) in service until 2041.
At a March 15 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the FY 2013 Navy budget request, Admiral Greenert suggested that the fleet of strategic submarines could actually dip to 9 at points during the 2030s…
ADM. GREENERT: Today, Senator, we have 14 Ohio class submarines. Two are in overhaul. So that leaves us with 12, really operational.
And with that, there are 10 or nine available at any given time for Strategic Command. We feel, due to this delay, we will ride a period where we’ll have 10 operational, sometimes nine. So we’ll have a similar risk there.
We have to watch it very closely because, at that time frame, in that future — and I’m talking about the late ’20s and the ’30s, we’ll have older Ohios. So we have to watch it very carefully.
But right now, we think that we can mitigate that risk.
It remains to be seen how this plays out. Some observers note that the Navy could avoid the dip to 10 or 9 subs by delaying the retirement of the current fleet of Ohio-Class SSBNs by two years. One way to do this would be for each boat to conduct fewer patrols.
On the other hand, by letting it slip that there may be times in the 2030s when only 9 boats are available, perhaps Greenert doesn’t want to bet all his chips that there won’t be any additional unplanned delays in the SSBN(X) or a need to speed up the planned retirements of the Ohio-Class subs.
In any event, I think it’s unlikely that the Navy will build twelve new subs for the following reasons:
- If the Navy thinks it can get through the first few years of the 2030s with 9 or 10 boats, its seems unlikely that it would build two or three additional SSBN(X)s, especially in light of their enormous financial costs and opportunity costs on the rest of the Navy’s shipbuilding budget. (UPDATE 3/29: For a stark illustration of the opportunity costs, check out the Navy’s FY 2013 30 year shipbuilding plan, released on March 28. The pressure the SSBN(X) is putting on the shipbuilding budget, especially in the 2020s, is enormous.)
- Speaking of costs, the Pentagon must decide how, on a tight budget, to replace the land-based missiles, submarines, and bombers that make up the nuclear triad, all of which are nearing the end of their service lives at roughly the same time. Gen. James Cartwright, outgoing vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in July: “The challenge here is that we have to recapitalize all three legs [of the nuclear triad], and we don’t have the money to do it.” If the Pentagon wants a new bomber, to say nothing about a new ICBM or Air-Launched Cruise Missile, it might have to scale back its current plans for the SSBN(X). (UPDATE 3/26: I’m reminded that in a letter to Senators McCain and Graham last November, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta wrote that sequestration would “Delay next generation ballistic missile submarine; cut force to 10 subs.” Even though the Pentagon says it not planning for sequestration, perhaps its planning to follow this playbook for the SSBN(X) regardless?)
- As Amy Woolf recently noted, “at one point in time, we were going to buy….24 Ohio-class submarines; dropped to 21; dropped to 18. We did buy 18, took four out, made them conventional cruise missile carriers; now at 14, dropping the next submarine to 12. It does seem that the longer you wait, the less you need.” A similar fate may await the SSBN(X).
- Finally, the administration is currently reviewing future deterrence requirements, which will ultimately revise existing presidential guidance regarding the targeting of nuclear weapons, appropriate force levels, and more. Given that policy and budgetary forces appear to suggest a smaller nuclear arsenal, all three legs of the triad are likely to shrink, including the sea-based leg.
The fewer SSBN(X)s, the better. As I’ve explained previously, the U.S. can maintain a lethal deterrent and save billions with less than twelve strategic submarines patrolling the oceans.