Last week, STRATCOM Commander Gen. Robert Kehler provided further confirmation of what we've been suggesting for some time: The current plan to build twelve new Ohio-class replacement ballistic missile submarines (also known as the SSBN(X)) probably isn't going to happen.
In response to a question from Rep. Richard Nugent (R-FL) at the House Strategic Forces Subcommittee's May 9 hearing on the FY 2014 budget request for DoE and DoD nuclear weapons programs, Gen. Kehler would not commit to a 12 boat replacement program:
REP. NUGENT: And General, you hit on the triad, I think, which is an important part of our nuclear deterrence.
But last year, there was a slip in the schedule of the number of Ohio-class replacement submarines that we're only going to have 10 of those operational ballistic missile submarines for much of the 2030s. Is that number of submarines sufficient to keep that triad in place?
GEN. KEHLER: Sir, I believe that number is certainly sufficient to keep the triad in place. I think the ultimate number of submarines that we procure is still an open question. I think you're referring to an issue about how do we manage the transition from the current Ohio class to the new submarine, and that's a time period that we're going to have to watch very carefully, which I would suggest argues for why you want to have a viable triad. If in fact we are going to put fewer submarines at sea, then we'd like to be able to compensate for that in other ways.
But we're still in a time period here where that transition we're looking at very carefully to see if we can manage that differently.
REP. NUGENT: Does that number of submarines meet STRATCOM's need?
GEN. KEHLER: Well, the need that we put on the table was for 12. And it remains to be seen -- the biggest issue right now, from my perspective, is commit to a submarine, a replacement submarine for Ohio. We will get to a date certain that the current class of Ohio submarines -- (audio break) -- due to metallurgy issues, we will have to retire them. And so it's important for us to commit to the program.
I think you have a lot of time here to decide how many submarines we eventually deploy. [emphasis mine.]
The program's immense cost (currently estimated to be over $100 billion to design and build 12 boats) is proving to be its own worst enemy.
The SSBN(X) is slated to put enormous pressure on the Navy's shipbuilding budget in the 2020s - so much strain that the Navy is at a loss to explain how it will be able to afford it. The budget busting impact of the program was on full display at the Senate Seapower Subcommittee's hearing last week on the Navy's shipbuilding programs.
In response to a question from Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), Sean Stackley, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition, noted that the Navy is trying to get the average cost of boats 2-12 of the replacement program down from the current estimate of $5.6 billion per boat to $4.9 billion per boat. But, he continued, that alone "does not bring the shipbuilding plan within the reach of affordability....[Y]ou have to go back to the period of the 80s, when we were building up the 600-ship Navy to see those type of shipbuilding budget levels [to accommodate the SSBN(X)] that are projected for the force that is laid out in the shipbuilding plan."
The Navy's FY 2014 request for shipbuilding is $10.4 billion. The annual shipbuilding budget will need to increase to $19.4 billion during the period of SSBN(X) procurement in the 2020s - or nearly double (!) what it is now. If the Navy doesn't get the dramatic increase it's counting on, the enormous burden imposed by the SSBN(X) will not allow the Navy to meet its goal of approximately 300 ships.
And we haven't even mentioned sequestration yet and the impact it would have if implemented for the rest of the decade, which would be to likely delay the Ohio class replacement program by more than the two years it has already been delayed. But the Navy has a big problem in the 2020s with our without sequestration.
And on top of all this there's the small matter of the Pentagon's plans to modernize and perhaps replace the other two legs of the triad - at basically the same time. If the Air Force acquires a new ICBM, procurement would likely begin in fiscal year 2025 and would overlap, according to current plans, with the SSBN(X) program, and also the Air Force's new long range strike bomber program.
Given this perfect storm, Gen. Kehler is right in noting that there is still time to figure out exactly how many SSBN(X)s we need in the future. While the rest of the Pentagon continues to sing a 12 boat tune, such a buy is unaffordable, unrealistic, and unnecessary. "Only" building 8 subs could save $18 billion over the next decade alone, and still allow the United States to maintain a devastating sea-based deterrent. And for the Navy, this could relieve some of the pressure the SSBN(X) will put on the rest of its fleet.