How Many Nuclear-Armed Subs Do We Really Need?

By Tom Z. Collina

If you need proof that outdated, Cold War thinking is blocking smart budget decisions and progress to trim nuclear excess, read on.

Open warfare has broken out between the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Navy over how many nuclear-armed submarines the nation needs for the future. As reported at, OMB is challenging the Navy’s claim that it needs 12 new subs to carry more than 1,000 nuclear weapons into the 2080s. Over its 50 year lifetime, a 12 sub fleet is expected to costs about $350 billion, a hefty price tag even in good economic times.

Ohio class ballistic missile submarine USS West Virginia (SSBN 736) transits the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway as it returns to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Ga. from a patrol mission. (Image Source: Herald Dispatch - U.S. Navy photo Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kimberly Clifford/Released)

The Arms Control Association and Brookings Institution have recently published analyses finding that eight subs with 16 missiles each would be enough to deploy approximately 1,000 nuclear warheads, the same number as the Pentagon plans to have at sea under the New START treaty. This could be achieved by fully loading the sub-based missiles with eight warheads each. Such a move would save $27 billion over ten years and $120 billion total. This is real money.

The Navy, however, would rather load each missile with only four to six warheads, thus having to buy more missiles and submarines in order to deploy the same number of warheads. Not very efficient, in our view.

OMB is in the middle, pushing for ten submarines with 20 missiles each.

The Navy is digging in its heels, reportedly claiming that 10 subs are not enough for it to meet current “requirements” to keep five subs “on station” at all times.

Let’s take a closer look at the Navy’s position. The Navy reportedly wants 12 subs total so it can keep five subs “on station,” meaning that they are forward-deployed far off the U.S. coasts and ready to launch on a moment’s notice. Operationally this would require the Navy to have five subs in the Atlantic, with two on station and the rest in port or in transit. In the Pacific, which is bigger, the Navy wants seven subs, with three on station.

The requirement for 12 subs, then, has more to do with where the warheads are deployed and how promptly they could be launched than with the number of warheads. An eight sub-fleet can carry 1,000 warheads, but it can’t support five subs that are forward deployed near Europe and Asia, ready for quick launch. This capability is presumably so important that the Pentagon is willing to pay over $100 billion to get it.

But wait. This “requirement” stems from nuclear policy and targeting assumptions that have changed little since the Cold War ended 20 years ago. It does not make sense today. Instead of forward-deploying our subs ready for prompt launch, they should be kept out of harm’s way, as an assured retaliatory force if ever needed. If prompt launch is still required, land-based missiles can serve that mission.

Fortunately, the Obama administration is in the middle of a strategic review of nuclear weapons policy, called the “NPR Implementation Study,” that is looking at these very questions of how many nuclear weapons do we need and why. If that study finds–as it should–that we don’t need to hold so many targets in Russia and China at risk with a “prompt” attack, then the current requirement for as many as 12 subs goes away. And if the administration were to change its New START deployment plan, or achieve additional bilateral arsenal reductions with Russia, the “requirement” for deploying as many as 1,000 sea-based warheads could go away too.

Pentagon procurement decisions worth hundreds of billions of dollars should not be based on obsolete nuclear strategy. By the time the first new submarine is launched twenty years from now, it could be sailing into a very different world.

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6 Responses to How Many Nuclear-Armed Subs Do We Really Need?

  1. David Matos says:

    You should call it “Eight Is Enough”!

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  3. bobbymike says:

    So if you take the the estimated total output of the US economy over the 2030 to 2080 timeframe to see how costly this program is:

    you have to spend $350 billion over 50 years with total economic output (just taking today’s $15 trillion economy with no growth multiplied by 50) of $750 TRILLION. So to insure a sea based nuclear deterrent for 50 years would cost about 0.046% – roughly 5/100ths of one percent of the nations wealth seems like a bargain to me.

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  5. Dan says:

    Each sub carries enough nuclear weapons to vaporize a Continent … Think about that for a Moment then ask your self’s, How many do we need?

  6. Mastro says:

    No mention of having some flexibility with arms control or growth.

    If arms control fails- we can always put more warheads on a missile – a lot easier than building more subs with more missiles.

    Also- these subs are meant to last until 2080 (?) – so we might have a multipolar world- a Mexican standoff if you like- where we point missiles at China, Russia, India, and Iran. No guarantee that we are friendly with these nations in 2070-2080 (I think we won’t be in an arm’s race with Europe- but that’s about it)

    Also- you have to think about attrition- if we only have 8 subs- what happens if one catches fire (recently happened to the USS Miami- completely ruined)?

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