America Needs Its Underwater Nukes. Delaying New Subs Would Be a Disaster.

Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine USS Henry M. Jackson. Flickr/U.S. Navy

Basic nuclear triad math: twelve Columbia-class SSBNs must replace fourteen Ohio-class SSBNs.

The Trump administration directed the secretary of defense to conduct a thirty-day Readiness Review of the military in a January 27 presidential memorandum on rebuilding the U.S. armed forces. One of the items this review will find is the vital need to build the replacement to the Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine (SSBN). The Ohio-class SSBN is the only platform in the sea-based leg of the nuclear triad and has been conducting strategic deterrent patrols since 1980. Under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) this leg of the triad will have 70 percent of the nation’s deployed nuclear warheads. Therefore, this review and the defense budgets it informs must make replacing this SSBN a national priority.

The Navy maintains fourteen nuclear-powered Ohio-class SSBNs built to carry a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and operates them out of bases at Kings Bay, Georgia and Bangor, Washington. These ships and their missiles make up the sea-based leg of the nation’s nuclear triad. The sea-based leg of the triad along with the Air Force’s land-based strategic bombers and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) deters the nation’s adversaries from starting a nuclear war. The Ohio class has conducted strategic-deterrent patrols since October 1980 and will continue to do so until the late 2030s when the final Ohio-class is decommissioned. Getting almost sixty years of service out of a nuclear-powered warship class made the Ohio class an excellent investment when Congress and the military conceived it in the 1970s, and now is the time to make a similarly wise investment.

The Navy determined twelve Columbia-class SSBNs can replace the fourteen Ohio-class SSBNs. The Congressional Budget Office projected the cost of this program in 2016 dollars to be $100–104 billion, with the first ship in the class costing $13.3 billion and the subsequent ships costing $6.7 billion each. The cost of the first ship in a class is more expensive because it includes the nonrecurring research and development costs. The Navy plans to leverage technology used in Virginia-class fast-attack submarines (SSN) to maintain the cost of each ship near or below the $6.7 billion figure.

Additionally, the Navy continues working with Congress to pay for Columbia-class out of the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund (NSBDF) rather than using money from the Navy’s annual shipbuilding budget. This fund, created in 2015, was designed to show the priority of this shipbuilding program to not just the Navy, but the entire nation and give funding flexibility outside of the military’s normal acquisition processes. To date, the required amount to fund the Columbia class each year has not been placed into the NSBDF as it was designed, but Congress can correct this in the future. Fully funding the NSBDF is a wise move for two reasons. First, utilizing the NSBDF does not force the Navy and lawmakers to choose funding this vital strategic deterrent asset over other priority conventional shipbuilding programs, like Ford-class aircraft carriers, Virginia-class SSNs, or the littoral combat ships. Second, it allows the Navy to receive 10 percent savings by purchasing several of the SSBNs at once over several years. This allows shipbuilders to take advantage of economies of scale through buying and building critical components in bulk. The Navy has been able to achieve similar cost savings with multiyear block buys in the normal shipbuilding budgetary process, but utilizing the NSBDF as it was designed streamlines the process.

What does the nation receive for the $100 billion price tag? First, and most importantly, the SSBN offers the most survivable portion of the triad due to the submarine’s stealth and ability to operate for long periods of time in the wide expanses of the ocean. The world’s oceans are not transparent, and a competitor must search large portions of both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans trying to find the SSBN and then eliminate the ship. Therefore, even if every ICBM and strategic bomber were destroyed, the nation would still have nuclear weapons available to the president. Would-be adversaries of the United States understand this truth and therefore take pause when contemplating nuclear action against the nation.