Could New SSBN Program “Sink” U.S. Navy?

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Could New SSBN Program “Sink” U.S. Navy?

Could the purchase of new SSBN’s reduce the size of America’s fleet to dangerously small numbers?

The immense cost of the Ohio-class replacement program to build the United States’ next generation ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) threatens to jeopardize the rest of the fleet, Navy leaders and lawmakers are warning.

The program envisions replacing the current 14 Ohio-class submarines with 12 new SSBNs that will have reactor cores that will last the entire service life of the vessels, meaning each submarine will spend less time in maintenance.

Still at a cost of anywhere between US$4-6 billion a ship, the expense of this program will be an immense burden on the Navy’s shipbuilding budget. Indeed, although the procurement phase of the program isn’t scheduled to begin until FY 2021, the Pentagon’s proposal for its FY 2014 budget already calls for appropriating US$1 billion for R&D purposes.

At an industry breakfast last week, Vice Adm. William Burke, the outgoing deputy chief of Naval Operations Warfare Systems, said the cost of the program would undermine the Navy’s ability to field a 300-ship fleet during the procurement phase that stretches from FY2021 through FY2035.

“If we buy the SSBN [the planned 12 replacement strategic submarines for the current 14 Ohio class now in service] within existing funds, we will not reach 300 ships. In fact, we’ll find ourselves closer to 250. At these numbers, our global presence will be reduced such that we’ll only be able to visit some areas of the world episodically,” Vice Adm. Burke said, the Washington Post reported.

Vice Adm. Allen Myers, deputy chief of naval operations for integration of capabilities and resources echoed Burke during a Congressional hearing on April 24: "It's an understatement to say that that's going to challenge us…. It challenges our shipbuilding account, and it challenges us when you look at that time frame."

At the same hearing Sean Stackley, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, went into greater detail when, in reference to the Ohio-replacement program, Stackley said, “Clearly, that program, which in then-year dollars, when you consider the R&D [research and development] investment and procurement dollars, we’re talking about $100 billion, roughly, over about a 12- to 15-year period.”

While Stackley assured lawmakers the service was seeking to further reduce the costs of the submarines, he warned them that “all of our efforts to improve affordability of that boat program will not be sufficient to bring our shipbuilding requirement during that period down to within our historical budget.”

The U.S. is not the only country struggling with the enormous costs of maintaining a nuclear arsenal, of course. Still, this strikes at the very core of the USN’s twin missions of being both the holder of the most survivable leg of the U.S. nuclear triad, and a global navy capable of projecting force across the world.

In light of this, some lawmakers are proposing that the nuclear submarines be funded at least in part outside the Navy’s normal shipbuilding fund, while the Navy is considering purchasing some ships earlier than currently scheduled to leave the shipbuilding fund open during the Ohio-replacement program’s procurement period.

But some, like Hans M. Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, questions whether there is even a need to build so many SSBNs at all. As he recently pointed out on his Strategic Security Blog:

“The number of deterrent patrols the U.S. SSBN fleet conducts each year has declined by more than 56 percent from 64 patrols in 1999 to 28 in 2012. The decline has reduced the number of annual patrols to the lowest level since 1962.”

Kirstensen also notes: “Each SSBN now spends less than half of the year on deterrent patrol – the purpose for which it was built – compared with 60-70 percent a decade ago. The decline means that each submarine today conducts an average of 2.3 deterrence patrols per year, down from 4.1 a decade ago. In fact, today’s patrol rate is the lowest ever for the Ohio-class SSBNs.”

Whether the Navy can reduce the number of SSBNs all depends on the outcome of the nuclear policy review the Obama administration is reportedly conducting.