By Tom Z. Collina
In these days of high-stakes budget battles on Capitol Hill, it is typical for budget managers to point at someone else’s program as the problem. But when everyone starts pointing at the same program, you know it’s in trouble.
And everyone—including the Navy—seems to be pointing their fingers at the Navy’s $100 billion program to build 12 new nuclear-armed submarines, known as the Ohio Replacement or the SSBN(X).
On May 10, the Navy sent its much-anticipated FY2014 long-range shipbuilding plan to Congress. The plan lays bare why the new sub is in hot water. In his cover letter to the report, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel wrote, in an understatement, that “there will be resourcing challenges…largely due to investment requirements associated with the SSBN(X) program.”
The report itself is more blunt. It says that if the Navy funds the SSBN(X) “from within its own resources,” the program will “take away from construction of other ships in the battle force such as attack submarines, destroyers, aircraft carriers and amphibious warfare ships. The resulting battle force will not meet the requirements of the [2012 Navy Force Structure Assessment] and will therefore not be sufficient to implement the [Defense Strategic Guidance]. In addition, there will be significant impact to the shipbuilding industrial base.”
Under the heading “Major Risks,” the report says that if the Navy is unable to essentially double its shipbuilding budget, “plans to recapitalize the Nation’s nuclear deterrent and the Navy’s conventional battle force will have to be dramatically changed…”
And the Navy is not yet factoring sequestration into its budget. As Vice Adm. William Burke, deputy chief of Naval Operations Warfare Systems, said April 30, sequestration would cause the Navy “to both reduce procurement as well as retire existing ships, leaving us with a Navy in the vicinity of 200 ships, at which point we may not be considered a global navy.”
Do We Need 12 New Subs?
Each SSBN(X) will cost about $6 billion. During procurement and construction of 12 boats from FY2021 to FY2035, the Navy would need on average $19.2 billion per year for shipbuilding. The FY2014 pre-sequester request is $10.9 billion. Where will the extra $8 billion per year come from? No ones knows.
The Navy would like the money to come from outside “its own resources” to pay for “the Nation’s nuclear deterrent.” This is wishful thinking, and may help explain why the administration is backing away from the 12-boat requirement. STRATCOM Commander Gen. Robert Kehler testified at a May 9 House Strategic Forces Subcommittee hearing that “I think the ultimate number of submarines that we procure is still an open question.”
The Navy’s ability to reduce the number of SSBN(X)s it needs to buy is limited by the current nuclear policy guidance, which determines how many targets must be held at risk by U.S. nuclear weapons, and thus how many submarines must be on station at all times.
The Obama administration has all but completed a revised nuclear policy, which will hopefully solve the problem. By reducing the number of submarines that need to be on patrol, the Navy can buy fewer of them and save an estimated $15 billion over the next decade alone. This would be a win-win for the Navy, allowing it to meet its nuclear deterrent requirements and still maintain a global fleet.