The Submarine That Might Save America
Jun. 20 2011
Posted by Loren Thompson
Imagine that the survival of America depended on a handful of fighting machines operated by an elite group of military personnel. If they succeed, the nation is secure. If they fail, it will be utterly destroyed. Sounds like another improbable action-movie plot from Hollywood, doesn’t it? It isn’t. It may very well be the future of U.S. nuclear strategy.
As I wrote last week, the specter of nuclear war will remain the single greatest military threat to America for the foreseeable future. The Obama Administration therefore has embarked on a costly effort to refurbish and replace a nuclear-weapons arsenal that has seen little modernization since the Cold War ended 20 years ago. The president remains committed to reducing and eventually eliminating nuclear weapons, but until there is some assured means of verifying other countries have done the same, the nation is stuck maintaining a potent arsenal to deter attacks.
However, that doesn’t mean the arsenal will continue to be organized the way it is today, with three distinctly different types of delivery systems. Back when Russia had over 10,000 nuclear warheads aimed at America, strategists believed that a “triad” of manned bombers, land-based missiles and submarine-based missiles would be so tough to take out in a surprise attack that it guaranteed the secure retaliatory capability needed for stable deterrence. But as threats evolve and the number of weapons are limited by arms control agreements, the triad may become a dyad, or even a so-called “monad” — in other words, a single type of highly survivable weapon.
That isn’t the plan set forth in the Nuclear Posture Review completed by the administration last year, but let’s be realistic — how much of a deterrent can 60 nuclear-capable bombers located at a handful of bases be? They’re so vulnerable that they could easily be wiped out in a first strike, and even if they weren’t their ability to reach targets in a real nuclear exchange is problematic. As for the 450 Minuteman missiles that make up the other land-based leg of the arsenal, their locations are well known and the number of warheads they carry has dwindled to a small portion of the nuclear arsenal, so their future contribution to deterrence is uncertain too. A clever attacker might be able to collapse the communications links to both land-based parts of the triad, leaving them without the authority to launch.
That leaves submarines carrying ballistic missiles as the most survivable and reliable component of the deterrent force. Today, about half of the warheads in the nuclear arsenal are carried on 14 Ohio-class submarines that are nearly impossible to find much less target, making them — in the words of the U.S. Navy — “the nation’s only day-to-day assured nuclear response capability.” Each Ohio boat has 24 missile tubes, and the vast majority of them contain missiles with multiple warheads that can each hit a different target. In other words, a single Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine can wipe out an entire medium-size country.
Critics call this overkill, but the reason each sub needs to be so fearsome is that deterrence depends on what’s left after an enemy attacks, since the threat of retaliation is what deters the attack in the first place. In a carefully timed attack, up to a third of the Ohios might be caught in port, leaving only nine or ten as the backbone of the retaliatory force, and several of those might be thousands of miles from where they needed to be to conduct a prompt response. It’s all hypothetical, not to mention borderline crazy, but when you face the prospect of mad dictators controlling nuclear forces, it’s something that needs to be thought through very carefully.
That brings me to the most expensive program in the “Obama nuclear buildup,” the Ohio replacement program. Ohio subs began joining the fleet in 1981, so if Navy planners had stuck with their original 30-year design life, the first ship in the class would be retiring this year. What they did instead was introduce a mid-life refueling of the sub’s nuclear reactor that extended the life of each hull by a dozen years. They also converted the first four vessels in the class to cruise-missile launchers with no nuclear role after the Cold War ended, which is why there are only 14 Ohios carrying ballistic missiles today rather than the 18 that were built. The net effect of these two changes was to delay the day when a new sub would be needed in the deterrence mission.
The year the oldest Ohio-class ballistic-missile sub completes its final nuclear patrol is now expected to be 2027, which sounds a long way off until you realize it takes nearly two decades to design, develop, build and test the lead ship in a successor class. The Navy has put together a tightly-wound schedule for developing that successor that requires design work to commence in the fiscal year beginning this October, with a seven-year construction phase for the lead ship starting in 2019. That is followed by three years of testing at sea from 2026-2028, and then an initial operational patrol in 2029. As congressional naval expert Ronald O’Rourke noted in an April report, any delay in executing the development schedule would result in a smaller force of submarines at sea than is currently deemed necessary two decades hence.
The Ohio replacement is referred to in naval nomenclature as SSBN(X), with “SS” referring to the fact that it’s a submarine, “B” referring to the ballistic missiles it carries, “N” referring to its nuclear propulsion, and “X” designating it as experimental — in other words, still in development. Most people prefer to call it the “Ohio replacement.” Whatever you call it, though, it looks likely to carry the preponderance of U.S. nuclear warheads during the middle portion of the century, roughly from 2030 to 2080, and therefore to be the most important part of the deterrent force. Given the uncertain fate of land-based nuclear forces, timely deployment of the new class of ballistic-missile subs could have a material impact on the durability of American civilization in the current century.
SSBN(X) will not be just a warmed over remake of the Ohio class. Each boat will host a third fewer launch tubes — 16 versus 24 — and therefore far fewer missiles (how many warheads each missile will carry isn’t clear yet). It will also have a life-of-ship nuclear core for its propulsion system designed to last 40 years, which means no mid-life refueling will be required. Because ships will not be out of commission for refueling, each SSBN(X) will be more productive — which is one reason why plans call for buying only a dozen of the new vessels to replace 14 Ohio subs. And the successor class will need to be even stealthier than the very quiet Ohios, as a hedge against the danger that future breakthroughs in sensors and information processing might make it easier for adversaries to track undersea warships.
One thing that won’t change, at least initially, is the missiles the Ohio replacement will carry. The Navy plans to continue using the extremely reliable Lockheed Martin D-5 ballistic missile, which has seen 135 consecutive test launches without mishap. That track record is especially impressive in light of the fact that D-5 missiles are designed to be ejected into the air by pressurized steam from submerged vessels, and only ignite once they are clear of the water. Lockheed Martin received a contract in 2007 to extend the life of the missiles until at least 2040, with additional contracts doled out to upgrade the guidance system and refurbish the nuclear warheads the missile carries. The Navy continues to buy a small number of rocket motors each year to maintain a warm industrial base, but the government is reluctant to engage in any purchases that would signal production of new nuclear weapons.
If President Obama’s dream of nuclear disarmament fails to come to fruition, then Navy planners will eventually have to give further thought to what weapons and other equipment is carried on future ballistic-missile subs. For now, though, they are mainly focused on making sure the new sub is ready on time. That quest is already creating budgetary challenges, because the $80 billion program needs to be shoehorned into a naval shipbuilding program that the Congressional Budget Office says is woefully underfunded. Construction of the new sub will cost over $5 billion annually in the next decade at a time when the Navy will need to replace other types of warships built in the Reagan era that are approaching retirement. Construction of cruisers, destroyers and attack subs (which don’t carry ballistic missiles) will all need to be funded at the same time SSBN(X) is, creating a huge budget crunch in naval shipbuilding.
Members of the Obama defense team have been pressing the Navy to reduce the operational requirements for the Ohio replacement as a way of holding down costs, with a goal of keeping the construction cost of each boat after the lead vessel under $5 billion. However, there are dangers in limiting the performance of warships that will comprise the core of the U.S. nuclear deterrent, and Congress will likely impose cost-increasing measures on the new class’s construction plan. For instance, legislators may force the Navy to split production of the boats between General Dynamics shipyards in New England and Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Virginia shipyard, even though the latter yard hasn’t delivered a ballistic-missile sub since the 1960s.
Beyond the tight schedule and the budgetary issues, you have to wonder how geopolitical changes might impact on the Navy’s plans. The current nuclear force is an inheritance from the Cold War, and every facet of global security has changed since that 40-year standoff ended. The Obama Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review displaced strategic deterrence from its top position in the nation’s nuclear agenda, substituting a focus on proliferation and terrorism — a clear signal that the fears motivating construction of the Ohio class have waned. But the nuclear weapons are still out there, and nobody can guarantee the leaders of countries like Russia and China will remain as reasonable as they seem today. The day may well come when America and its enemies are once again angrily brandishing their nuclear weapons in a high stakes rivalry for global dominance. If that happens, a dozen submarines conceived during the Obama years may make the difference between national survival and nuclear annihilation.
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|FORBES.COM DAILY NEWSLETTER JUNE 21, 2011|
|SSBN(X): The Nuclear Sub That Could Save America
About half of the warheads in the U.S. nuclear arsenal are carried on 14 aging submarines. Timely deployment of their replacements could be critical to maintaining a credible deterrent.