Congress Wants Options on Nuclear Subs

Tom Z. Collina and Kelsey Davenport

In the latest sign of political problems for the planned replacement of the United States’ nuclear-armed submarines, Congress has required the Navy and U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) to prepare a report on options for replacing the fleet.

The directive was included in the fiscal year 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama on Dec. 31. It comes at a time of increasing pressure to reduce defense spending in general and questions about the submarine replacement in particular.

The Navy currently deploys 12 Ohio-class strategic submarines, which will start to reach the end of their operational lives in 2027. The Navy wants to have a replacement submarine ready by 2029. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected in June 2011 that the new submarine will cost $6 billion to $7 billion per boat. The Department of Defense has said that it will cost nearly $350 billion to develop, build, and operate a fleet of 12 new submarines through 2075, making it the most expensive part of the Pentagon’s plan to rebuild the triad of nuclear weapons delivery systems, which also includes a new long-range bomber and intercontinental ballistic missile.

In July, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) proposed to reduce nuclear weapons spending by $79 billion over 10 years, in part by curtailing and delaying the new submarine program. In October, 65 Democratic House members called for major reductions to nuclear weapons programs, including the new submarine. They suggested the program be delayed and scaled back from 12 to eight submarines, saying this would save $27 billion over the next 10 years. (See ACT, November 2011.)

STRATCOM Commander Gen. Robert Kehler testified at a Nov. 2 House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee hearing that although the country needs to replace the current Ohio-class submarine, “affordability has to be an issue here” and that Congress did not have to make a decision now on “what the ultimate number of submarines is that we might have to deploy.” The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has recommended that the number of new submarines be reduced to 10, although the Navy reportedly is objecting that 10 submarines are not enough to support five submarines “on station” at all times. (See ACT, December 2011.)

According to congressional staffers, the defense authorization law’s reporting requirement on the new submarine is intended to provide an in-depth review of the various options that have been suggested. It calls for an assessment of procurement and life-cycle costs associated with five options: a fleet of 12 submarines with 16 missile tubes each, as proposed by the Navy; 10 submarines with 20 missile tubes each, as proposed by OMB; 10 submarines with 16 missile tubes each; eight submarines with 20 missile tubes each, which is similar to the House Democratic proposal; and any “other options the [Navy] secretary and the [STRATCOM] commander consider appropriate.”

The report, due by the end of June, must include an assessment of each option’s ability to meet the current “at-sea requirements” and any expected changes in such requirements. This refers to the Pentagon’s policy that five strategic submarines must be at sea and deployed near potential targets at all times to allow for prompt launch of their nuclear-armed missiles. According to the Navy, supporting five forward-deployed submarines requires a total fleet of 12 operational boats, given the current rotation schedule. However, the Obama administration is now reviewing such policies as part of its Nuclear Posture Review implementation study that is expected to provide new guidance to Pentagon war planners.

The report also must assess each option’s ability to meet “the nuclear employment and planning guidance” currently in place and any expected changes in the guidance. This refers to the requirement that a certain number of nuclear warheads be deployed at sea (there are currently about 1,000) and that they be located close enough to potential targets to launch within hours. Changing these requirements would affect the number of submarines at sea and the number of missiles and warheads they need to carry.

Under the act, the Pentagon’s research and development work on the new submarine program would receive $1.1 billion, the amount the Obama administration requested.

In general, authorization bills for defense and other discretionary spending are supposed to provide guidance for appropriations bills, which set the actual spending levels.

Strategic Weapons Appropriations

On other strategic weapons, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012, which Obama signed on Dec. 23, funded research and development for the Air Force’s new nuclear-capable bomber, called the Next Generation Bomber, at $297 million, $100 million more than the administration’s request. The act fully funded the $9.9 million request for developing a new air-launched cruise missile.

Missile defense programs generally received full funding. For example, the appropriations act included the $565 million the administration had requested for procurement of the Aegis ballistic missile defense system. However, several programs were funded at levels below the administration’s request.

The law approved $390 million for the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS), $17 million below the requested amount. Earlier in the year, the program seemed to be headed for deeper cuts after the Army had announced plans to kill it. In the House version of the bill to fund the Defense Department, MEADS received $257 million; in the Senate Appropriations Committee’s version, the program was fully funded.

The system, jointly funded by the United States, Germany, and Italy to replace the Patriot interceptor, has faced years of delays and cost overruns. Congress reportedly funded MEADS primarily to avoid contract penalties of $800 million.

The appropriations act also provides $80 million, half of the administration request, for research and development funding for the Precision Tracking Space System, a new satellite system for tracking ballistic missiles in flight. The CBO has found that this program may not be cost effective because of the other missile-tracking capabilities the United States already has. The House’s version of the defense appropriations act provided no funding for this program while the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended full funding.

The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system received $709 million of the $833 million request.

NNSA Funding

The appropriations act provided $7.2 billion for “weapons activities” in the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). That figure is $355 million below the administration’s budget request, but represents a 4.9 percent increase over the fiscal year 2011 appropriation.

Within the “weapons activities” category, the spending legislation fully funded the $224 million request for the B61 bomb’s life extension program (LEP). However, in the report accompanying the bill, Congress expressed concern over the NNSA’s “ability to execute its planned scope for the B61” under an “affordable” LEP and stipulated that only $89 million could be used until the NNSA submits to Congress the results of the so-called Phase 6.2/2A study. The Senate Appropriations Committee recommended funding the B61 LEP request at $180 million in its consideration of the fiscal year 2012 Energy Department appropriation. The report stated that enhanced security measures for the warhead should “not come at the expense of long-term weapon reliability.”

As with the defense appropriations bill, the full Senate never voted on the energy and water appropriations bill.

The legislation also provided less funding than requested for the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) Project at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The CMRR Project is designed to assist in manufacturing plutonium warhead cores, or “pits.” Congress provided $200 million, $100 million less than the administration request, and said that no “construction activities” for the CMRR Project would be funded for fiscal year 2012. The $160 million request for the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee was fully funded.

As part of its negotiations with the Senate over ratification of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the administration committed itself to specific funding levels for modernizing the nuclear weapons complex, including construction of the CMRR Project and UPF.