By Rear Adm. Barry L. Bruner
Director, Undersea Warfare Division (N97)
As our nation debates future defense spending, a healthy dialogue concerning future capabilities, size and value of the nation’s nuclear weapons and the Navy’s ballistic missile submarine force continues to grow. As long as nuclear weapons remain in the hands of potential adversaries, our nuclear forces must provide a safe, secure and credible deterrent to prevent the United States, our allies and partners from being coerced by the threat of nuclear attack. As part of this credible deterrent, the Navy’s continuous at-sea deployment of SSBNs provides the ability to mount an assured response and impose unacceptable costs on potential adversaries.
The current SSBN fleet and the future 12 Ohio replacement class SSBNs support our nation’s deterrent mission by ensuring survivability. In fact, there is little debate that they are the most survivable leg of our nuclear triad. What is often lost in translation is the major roles stealth and the size of the SSBN force play in our sea-based deterrent survivability. In addition to allowing operational flexibility, numbers matter when it comes to survivability. With a large enough SSBN force, adversary planning becomes complicated. SSBN operations are less predictable and operational intervals (time between underway and return to port events) can be varied as well as the nature of at-sea patrols. Simply said, a sufficient number of SSBNs allows their dispersal across wide ocean areas, making it exceedingly difficult to locate and destroy them. In this case, it is the number of ships, not warheads that preserves the deterrent value. As we reduce our operating warhead numbers to comply with the New START Treaty, our SSBNs are scheduled to assume a larger role in our nation’s nuclear deterrent capability. Reducing our SSBN force structure potentially invites adversaries to consider the likelihood, e.g. the risk, associated with attempting to hold that smaller force – at risk.
We have already significantly reduced our SSBN force size – from the 41 for Freedom boats of Cold War fame, to 18 Ohios taking us through the end of the Cold War to the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom – to 14 Ohios (after we converted the four oldest SSBNs to guided missile submarines) to the planned fleet of 12 Ohio replacements. The number of Ohio replacements will be less than a fourth the size of the SSBN fleet of the 1970s.
To ensure the survivability of the SSBN force it must be stealthy, which is almost exclusively a function of its as-built characteristics. This means that an appropriate amount of research and development effort must be expended early in the design phase to ensure the SSBN’s ability to remain undetectable for the entire 42-year hull life. The credibility and effectiveness of our deterrent are undermined if we make the mistake of accepting degradation in stealth that an adversary can in the future exploit.
The Ohio replacement class SSBN is an essential investment for our nation and will continue to be a national imperative that will ensure stability and security for our country and our allies. We cannot slide this program any further to the right. We must invest in designing and building the class now. The commitment that the Ohio replacement team makes is that they will do everything available to design and build this critical ship in a responsible way. They will drive down costs at every logical opportunity – of that, you can be sure. But, we must resource this program appropriately – we cannot hesitate or delay any further.
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