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June 1, 2018
Pentagon Budget Delays New Nuclear Subs

Tom Z. Collina

Responding to budget pressures, the Department of Defense spending plan for fiscal year 2013 would delay the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine replacement program by two years.

Under the plan, the Pentagon would procure the first replacement submarine, called the SSBN(X), in 2021. The two-year shift would save $502 million in fiscal year 2013 and $4.3 billion in fiscal years 2013-2017, according to Obama administration budget documents. The total 2013 request for SSBN(X) research and development is $565 million, down 47 percent from fiscal year 2012.

This would be the only major program change in the department’s plans to maintain and replace the delivery systems for U.S. nuclear weapons, which could cost more than $100 billion over the next decade. The Obama administration submitted its fiscal year 2013 budget request to Congress on Feb. 13.

At a Jan. 26 budget preview briefing at the Pentagon, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said, “There are no cuts made in the nuclear force in this budget.” But the budget also makes no new commitments to modernize the nuclear triad—intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), strategic submarines, and long-range bombers.

Asked by reporters to explain why, given President Barack Obama’s public commitment to reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the budget does not make major reductions in this area, Carter said that the White House is in the process of reviewing “the size and shape of the nuclear arsenal in the future” as part of the Nuclear Posture Review implementation study. (See ACT, December 2011.) “So when those decisions come, we’ll factor them into our budget,” Carter said. According to a Jan. 26 Pentagon strategy paper, the White House review “will address the potential for maintaining our deterrent with a different nuclear force.”

The administration requested $525 billion in core defense funding. The request, which does not include $88 billion for deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, is $5.2 billion (1 percent) less than the approved fiscal year 2012 budget, representing an initial down payment on reductions of $487 billion from planned growth over the next decade, a change mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act. Even so, actual reductions will be short-lived; the administration plans to increase the Pentagon budget by almost 8 percent from 2014 to 2017.

Sub Costs ‘Unacceptably High’

At the Jan. 26 briefing, Carter described the new submarine delay as “a managerial decision made partly for budgetary reasons” that will place the program “on a more predictable and stable schedule.” He said the previous schedule “was an aggressive one, maybe even verging on optimistic.” The new submarines had been projected to cost more than $6 billion each for production alone, and the Pentagon estimated a fleet of 12 would cost almost $350 billion to build and operate over its lifetime.

Carter said that the initial cost estimates for the new submarine “came in quite high, unacceptably high,” and threatened to “consume a disproportionate share of the Navy shipbuilding budget.” The Navy is trying to bring costs down to “the neighborhood” of $5 billion per boat, he said.

Although described as a “managerial” decision, the submarine delay would have strategic implications. The current fleet of 14 Ohio-class submarines is scheduled to be phased out of service starting in 2027, one per year, and would drop to 10 boats in 2030. If replacements start entering service in 2031, as expected, at one per year, the fleet would remain at 10 subs throughout the 2030s (see figure). In prepared testimony for a Feb. 16 House Armed Services Committee hearing, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert said the two-year submarine delay will result in a strategic submarine fleet of “10 ships in the 2030s.”

The Navy has said that it must have a fleet of 12 submarines to meet the military requirement of keeping five submarines deployed at sea at all times. (See ACT, January/February 2012.)

Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), whose district includes the General Dynamics Electric Boat shipyard in Groton, questioned the new approach. In comments to Inside the Navy Feb. 13, he said 12 boats is “the requirement that I think people felt was adequate to maintain sea-based deterrence.”

The Jan. 26 Pentagon strategy paper acknowledged this situation, stating that the two-year delay will “create challenges in maintaining current at-sea presence requirements in the 2030s,” but that “we believe this risk can be managed.” One possibility, congressional staffers say, is for the White House to change the five-subs-at-sea requirement as part of its strategic review, which could eliminate the need for a 12-sub fleet. Another option is to extend the service lives of the Ohio-class submarines by two years.

‘Optionally Manned’ Bomber

The defense budget also would continue to support research on a new long-range bomber. The new bomber would carry precision-guided conventional weapons and nuclear weapons and would be “optionally manned,” meaning it could be piloted remotely with no crew on board. The average procurement cost for each plane is expected to be about $550 million (in 2010 dollars), or $44-55 billion for a fleet of 80 to 100 aircraft. The bomber funding level is $292 million in fiscal year 2013, $3.2 million less than in 2012, and totals $6.3 billion from 2013 to 2017. The budget does not say when production would start, but officials have mentioned the 2020s as a target. The existing fleet of B-52 and B-2 bombers is expected to operate into the 2040s.

Funding for other nuclear weapons projects in the budget includes $11.6 million to study options for a new ICBM; maintenance of the Air Force’s 450 existing Minuteman III ICBMs through 2030; $2.0 million to study the Long Range Stand-Off  missile, which is a replacement for the aging Air Launched Cruise Missile; and the Trident II D-5 submarine-launched missile life extension program. Pentagon funding for these “strategic deterrence” programs would be $2.7 billion in 2013 and $25 billion from 2013 to 2017.

Proposals for eliminating one leg of the triad, such as the bomber force, have been raised repeatedly over the last year, but appear to be off the table for now. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz told Pentagon reporters Jan. 27 that he “would certainly expect and will offer best military advice [on] recommending that we retain the triad even as we go to lower numbers.”