Navy Seeks More Money for Nuclear Subs

Tom Z. Collina

Warning that ongoing defense spending cuts will have a “devastating impact” on its plans to build new ships, the Navy is asking Congress for an additional $60 billion over 15 years to pay for a dozen new nuclear-armed submarines.

Testifying Sept. 12 before the House Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee, Rear Adm. Richard Breckenridge, the Navy's director of undersea warfare, said that the Navy’s projected shipbuilding budget cannot afford to pay for the 12 new submarines, known as the SSBN(X). These new boats are to replace the existing fleet of nuclear-armed Ohio-class subs, which the Navy plans to start retiring in 2027.

“Congress must look at a way to provide an annual supplement to the Navy” during the time that construction costs will peak, Breckenridge said. The Navy is seeking $4 billion per year over the 15-year period that the new subs would be built, starting in 2021. Breckenridge said that the SSBN(X) should be looked at as “a requirement above the Navy” that should be insulated from “the pressures of sequestration.”

Pentagon Has Not Signed Off

A Pentagon spokesman told Arms Control Today on Sept. 24 that the Defense Department has not approved nor has the Navy officially requested additional SSBN(X) procurement funding because “such a request would not be required for several years.”

The SSBN(X) program, a central part of U.S. plans to modernize the nuclear “triad” of sea-launched missiles, ground-based missiles, and bombers, has strong congressional support. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, which would have to vote on a future Navy request for supplemental funding, said in a Sept. 20 statement to Arms Control Today that “[a]s the Pentagon reviews and reprioritizes defense spending, I encourage the Administration to request the necessary resources in the shipbuilding accounts or by some other means.”

But others say the Navy’s plans should be revised in the face of major budget pressures. A Sept. 23 report, authored by the Stimson Center’s Defense Advisory Committee, made up of retired generals, admirals, and budget experts, found that “the administration and Congress should recognize budgetary realities and make the tough choices now.” The report recommends buying 10 new subs instead of 12, which would delay the need for procurement and save $1 billion per year in the near term, according to the panel’s estimates.

Acknowledging that $60 billion is “a lot of money,” Breckenridge warned that if no additional funding is approved, the Navy would forgo 32 other ships it is planning to build, including attack submarines and destroyers, to make sure the SSBN(X) program stays on track. The SSBN(X) “will trump all of the other vitally important requirements within our Navy,” he said.

The Navy first raised the alarm in May that the budget was not big enough to build the 12 submarines and maintain a fleet of 300 ships. The 12 planned submarines, each to be loaded with 16 Trident ballistic missiles and around 80 nuclear warheads, would cost a total of about $90 billion to develop and build. From 2021 to 2035, the Navy would need $19.2 billion per year on average for all shipbuilding, which is almost twice the Navy’s fiscal year 2014 request of $10.9 billion for shipbuilding. That figure does not take sequestration into account. (See ACT, June 2013.)

The short-term budget outlook is also tight. The fiscal 2014 request for SSNB(X) development is $1.1 billion, which would double the current budget of $565 million. But the Navy might not get this increase. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert testified before the House Armed Services Committee on Sept. 18 that budget cuts due to sequestration expected in fiscal year 2014, which began Oct. 1, will “compel” the Navy to delay the planned start of construction of the first submarine from 2021 to 2022. “This would cause us to be unable to meet U.S. Strategic Command [deployment] requirements when the Ohio-class SSBN retires,” he said.

Fewer Subs on the Horizon?

Current military requirements call for 12 nuclear-armed subs, with 10 to be operational at any given time and with another two out of service for repairs after a decade or more of operation. If the Navy sticks to its plan to begin phasing out the current fleet of 14 Ohio-class subs in 2027, with one submarine dropping out each year, nine will be left in service by 2031. Therefore, unless the first SSBN(X) is deployed in 2031, the fleet would drop below 10 operational boats. The Navy says that, for the first sub to be operational in 2031, it must be procured for construction in 2021. The planned start of SSBN(X) construction already has slipped by two years, from 2019 to 2021. It may slip again if, as the Stimson advisory committee suggests, the military reduces the sub requirement.

President Barack Obama finalized new nuclear policy guidance in June, which could affect the decisions of Congress and the Pentagon. Obama found that the 1,550 limit on deployed strategic warheads under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is “more than adequate” to meet U.S. national security objectives and that the force can be reduced by up to one-third. The new guidance did not call for any immediate changes to currently deployed nuclear forces. That will have to wait a year or so, until the Defense Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff translate the new guidance into more-specific directives. (See ACT, July/August 2013.)

Once U.S. Strategic Command drafts new plans for using nuclear weapons, the administration can make changes to the way in which the United States deploys those weapons. For example, some in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill say they are expecting the new policy to reduce the requirement for nuclear-armed submarines at sea. If the 12-sub requirement is cut to 10, the first SSBN(X) would not need to be procured until 2023 for deployment in 2033, according to Navy schedules.

But for now, the Navy says the military requirement is unchanged. “It is mandatory that we sustain our survivable sea-based nuclear deterrent with about the same level of at-sea presence as today,” Breckenridge testified at the Sept. 12 hearing. “There is no allowance for any further delay.”