The U.S. Navy has suddenly discovered it has a must-pay bill of some $80 billion for a next-generation ballistic missile submarine or SSBN. Even with an extension to the service life of the Ohio-class SSBN from 30 to 40 years, the first of these ships will begin to be decommissioned starting in 2027. That may seem like a long time, but it is not when the design and development time for a new ballistic missile submarine is added to the several years it takes to build each one of them. If a replacement is to be ready by the time the first Ohio’s are decommissioned, the design effort must begin now. This means the Navy’s current shipbuilding plan needs to reflect the reality that the United States will require a secure, credible nuclear deterrent for the foreseeable future and the centerpiece of that deterrent is likely to be the SSBN force.
In the meantime, the nation must execute the D-5 Trident Missile Life Extension Program in order to ensure that it has the missiles needed to meet the nation’s strategic deterrence requirements. The Life Extension Program involves refurbishing rocket motors and upgrading guidance systems, among other measures.
The reason that the next-generation SSBN program is so expensive is that it will require a new design. The Department of Defense (DoD) conducted an extensive analysis of alternatives that examined the full spectrum of options for a follow-on system. This included using the hull from the very successful Virginia-class attack submarine (SSN) program, perhaps with a new missile. In the end it was concluded that the most cost-effective solution was to build a new submarine while continuing to produce the existing D-5 Trident missiles. The missile tubes for the new submarine will be designed to hold other payloads that could include ballistic missile defense weapons or even a rapid satellite launch capability.
The new submarine program will look for savings through design commonality opportunities with other programs. The missile compartment for the Ohio Replacement Program will also be the one being designed and built to support the United Kingdom’s SSBN replacement program. They also use the D-5 Trident missile. The UK needs the missile compartment design for a 2014 start of construction on its first follow-on SSBN. The cost to design the future SSBN’s missile compartment as well as that to produce D-5 missiles is being shared with our ally.
In addition, the replacement SSBN will have to use many of the tactical systems developed for the Virginia-class SSN. These include communications, sonar and fire control. A common radio room is planned for both classes of submarine. By standardizing systems wherever possible, the Navy can reduce training costs and logistics requirements, thereby lowering overall life cycle costs.
Whatever success the Obama Administration may achieve in reducing this nation’s reliance on nuclear weapons, there is no question that a robust strategic deterrent will be required for decades to come. That deterrent will be based, at least in part, on the SSBN fleet. To maintain that force, a replacement for the Ohio class SSBN will be required. The Navy needs to ensure that funds are available to design, develop and build the next-generation SSBN.
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