The Value of Sea Based Strategic Deterrence

By Rear Adm. Joseph Tofalo
Director, Undersea Warfare Division (OPNAV N97)

In response to the recent release of the Navy’s 30-year ship building plan, there have been a number of articles in the media highlighting the impact of procuring the Ohio Replacement (OR) SSBN on other Navy shipbuilding programs. These articles bring up a series of important points, and in light of this, I’d like to respond to some of these points and provide additional context.

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I want to begin with a discussion of the shipbuilding budget, and its relationship to the OR SSBN. While it will no doubt be impossible to procure OR along with all the other ships in the shipbuilding plan under “average” Navy Shipbuilding and Conversion (SCN) appropriation, the issue is not the need for these ships but a narrow and often misunderstood characterization of what historical SCN funding levels are. For instance, most media articles have referenced numbers between $12B and $13B as being roughly consistent for “historical” SCN levels. This is true; but only if that period extends for the last 20 years; a period during which we procured no SSBNs. Thus it should come as no surprise that when we add in the cost of a new SSBN into an average period during which none were procured, the historical average is exceeded.  The ship building plan notes that annual average shipbuilding expenditures will exceed historical funding levels by about $6 billion from FY 2025 to FY 2034. Although a different era, this is consistent with ship building budgeting and appropriations during the two previous SSBN procurement periods.

The Ohio-class ballistic missle submarine USS Wyoming (SSBN 742) returns to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay following routine operations, June 28, 2014. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Rex Nelson/Released)

The Ohio-class ballistic missle submarine USS Wyoming (SSBN 742) returns to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay following routine operations, June 28, 2014. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Rex Nelson/Released)

The fact remains that the Navy can no longer wait to replace our SSBN force, which is why this remains the CNO’s and my top priority. Originally, the Ohio class SSBN, our current platform, was designed to last only 30 years. However due to Ohio’s robust design, quality construction, and prudent employment, it will be able to remain in strategic service for 42 years, a 40 percent increase in service life. In addition, because of a life-of-ship reactor core, lessons learned by extending the Ohio class from 30 to 42 years of service life, and improved operational availability on OR, 12 OR SSBNs will be able to provide the same at sea presence of the current 14 Ohio class SSBNs, saving more than $40 billion in life cycle costs.

Recapitalization of our SSBN force is an infrequent but critical responsibility for our country in order to ensure our nuclear triad retains its most survivable leg. It also ensures the “strategic stability” directed in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and reiterated in the 2013 Nuclear Employment Strategy. The NPR report stated, “As long as these (Nuclear) weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure, and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies.”

It is worth expanding a bit on why this directive is so important. At least one country possesses the capability to destroy the U.S. within a few hours. Several countries pose similar threats to our allies and partners. Nine countries possess nuclear weapons and many of these have sufficient nuclear forces to disrupt our way of life.

Nuclear deterrence is the only effective method to counter these threats.

Few people can assess the international trends in nuclear aspirations and see a future in which countries will not possess nuclear capability. Additionally, further proliferation of these weapons seems much more likely than any current power giving them up.

Consequently one might ask “How do we put a price tag on our nuclear deterrent – systems that ensure our very existence?” While it might be reasonable to say ensuring our continued existence is priceless, in a budget climate such as this that approach is no longer sufficient.

To put this spending in perspective, less than 1 percent of all federal outlays, were spent on nuclear deterrence last year. The share of nuclear weapons spending in the defense budget has declined since the end of the Cold War, which makes sense as we decommissioned weapons, but given the investments of other potential adversaries, this trend cannot continue unabated. The fact of the matter is that nuclear weapons remain as relevant today as they have every day since the start of the Cold War, and they need to be resourced properly to ensure their continued effectiveness.

Despite its critical need, the OR Program is working to lower costs without sacrificing warfighting capability. Since the research and development contract was signed in December 2012, the OR team has identified reductions of $800 million to the non-recurring engineering cost estimate. Additional efforts have identified a 12-ship class cost estimate reduction of $500 million in construction and $130 million in Operation and Sustainment costs. These reductions will factor into the next update to the Navy cost position and demonstrate the Navy commitment to reduce overall program cost. This cost commitment has resulted in decisions to:

  • Implement modular construction build practices into the design.
  • Re-use the Trident II D5 Life Extended missile and Strategic Weapons System.
  • Re-use Virginia and Ohio class designs and components where feasible. 
The Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine USS Pennsylvania (SSBN 735) returns to its homeport of Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor following sea trials, Sept. 19, 2012. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Ahron Arendes/Released)

The Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine USS Pennsylvania (SSBN 735) returns to its homeport of Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor following sea trials, Sept. 19, 2012. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Ahron Arendes/Released)

None of these efforts have come at the expense of ensuring that the OR SSBN will provide survivable Sea Based Strategic Deterrence in to the 2080s.

There are two cost issues that need to be clarified following the release of the 2014 Ship Building Report to Congress. First, the estimated cost of the lead ship has not changed since the 2013 report to Congress. The estimated cost has remained constant in calendar year 2010 dollars, which is used as a basis for all OR program comparisons. The ship building report lists estimated cost in current year dollars. This subtlety is important to understand, and may have been the reason why some members of the press misunderstood what seemed to be (but ultimately are not) cost increases for the lead ship. Second, the ship building report noted that OR lead ship cost is $12.4 billion, but it is important to note that approximately $4.8 billion of this figure are non-recurring engineering costs for the entire class but levied on the first ship.

On a day-to-day basis, and for the foreseeable future, the SSBN force provides the nation a survivable, assured response capability. We must preserve this capability to retain our influence with both our adversaries and our allies. The construction of new SSBNs has been delayed by more than 20 years from the original expected replacement date through a combination of Ohio class life extensions and OR efficiencies, and there is no more room for further delays without impacting mission performance.

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. The Navy is committed to providing an SSBN force with the right number of ships and capabilities necessary to meet our strategic objectives in a responsible, cost-conscious manner. This force is not inexpensive but is a national imperative. As we debate the merits of various defense and non defense spending over coming years, we must not lose sight of those forces that guarantee our very existence and deter our potential adversaries from developing or using these weapons that could have unimaginable consequences.

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