By Rear Adm. Charles A. “Chas” Richard
Director, Undersea Warfare Division (N97)
I’m an Alabama alum. I recognize that the director of Undersea Warfare advocating for strategic deterrence on Navy Live is a lot like going to Tuscaloosa and yelling “Roll Tide!” –You’re not going to find many people to argue with you. It’s already been laid out by military leadership how important a Triad is to maintaining an effective strategic deterrent. This position has been endorsed in every important policy document produced by our administration. Ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), by virtue of their survivability, are an essential part of maintaining the Triad and the Navy has made the sea based strategic deterrent our highest priority, recognizing it as foundational to our survival as a nation. I want to offer some information that will be useful as you consider this very important subject.
Our safety (and security) is no accident.
It’s easy to take for granted that this daily commitment to the nuclear mission is what has helped to give our nation 70 years of nuclear non-use and takes major power war off the table as a way for world powers to resolve political differences. Think back to the days of “duck-and-cover” drills, where Americans would practice jumping under desks at school when the air-raid siren went off. Most people reading this blog have probably never had to do this – that’s the point. It never crosses our minds. It’s true that the global nuclear weapons stockpile is considerably smaller than the 1986 Cold War high of ~70,000 warheads, but in that same period, the number of nuclear-armed states has grown from three to about nine and there are still thousands of warheads in the world. So, why does “duck and cover” never cross our minds? It’s not because the weapons went away. It’s because the people with the weapons (more now than in the Cold War) are deterred on a daily basis because of our nation’s Triad. Our allies benefit from extended deterrence and choose not to pursue their own nuclear ambitions. This reduces the number of nuclear weapons in existence, but it doesn’t change the fact that more than one state can now threaten our way of life with a direct attack on the homeland. Those years of nuclear non-use have lasted well beyond the Cold War and the effectiveness of our deterrent remains ironclad in the minds of our adversaries and allies. In the last large scale, major power war (WWII) more than a million people on this planet died every month for 4.5 years. The fact that our nuclear deterrent has helped to prevent major power war for over 70 years is no accident.
We’re really good at what we do.
If you think about it, the entire mission revolves around the idea of keeping SSBNs at sea… survivable.
With weapons onboard that allow us to strike from almost anywhere in the world, the stealth design of our submarines makes finding an SSBN an almost impossible task. Our regular and routine missile flight tests provide reassurance to our allies and warning to our potential adversaries that our weapons will do their job if ever called to do so.
We do this for two oceans, twenty-four-seven, three-hundred and sixty-five days a year. We’ve done over 4,000 patrols without skipping a beat. This is one of the items on my list that makes me proud to be an American. On patrol for months at a time, our SSBNs ensure no country will ever threaten our survival. Potential adversaries will not strike, because they know we will respond at the time and place of the President’s choosing with credible, devastating combat power.
Planning “heel-to-toe” capability – no gaps in our commitment.
We’ve executed this around the clock mission with only 14 Ohio-class SSBNs, and the Ohio replacement SSBN will meet the same mission requirements with only 12 submarines. You’ll hear the questions, “Why not eight?” and “Why not less?” What surprises me is that no one ever asks “Why not 14?” Given the need for strategic deterrence, I’m surprised no one asks “Are you defending us well enough?” “Do you understand the consequences of failure in this mission?” “You understand that Ohio replacement has to last thru the 2080s, right?” “Are you really sure you don’t need 14?” You might ask those questions if you really thought about the world we live in and the consequences of failure.
The point is we can do the job with 12 Ohio replacement SSBNs – but no less.
The first step… maintaining Ohio thru end-of-life.
It matters more now than ever before for Ohio to remain at sea until the Ohio replacement is on patrol in 2030. The Ohio class will have patrolled the world’s oceans for almost 60 years when USS Louisiana (SSBN 743) retires in 2040. A 42 instead of 30 year service life presents challenges in planning and executing the maintenance required to keep these boats at sea. Like owning a classic car, everything doesn’t fit nicely into a 5,000 mile maintenance schedule. Our Sailors know much more than the “model, year built and horsepower.” They really know what they’re talking about when it comes to the details of their boat. We have prioritized the funding needed to maintain our SSBNs for the rest of their extended service life. Last year, the Navy added $2.2 billion to the budget to build margin into our force. Additional workers have been hired to match shipyard workforce size to actual workload. There were focused efforts to sustain and recapitalize the shipyards and strategic weapons facilities as well as improving the capacity of our Trident training facilities to keep crew’s proficient. This year, we’ve maintained those additions and added more funding for additional capabilities to better ensure survivability through the rest of the ship’s service life. We understand, care, and remain deeply committed to this mission of keeping Ohio-class SSBNs at sea.
The next step… delivering the Ohio replacement on time.
This is not the first time we’ve recapitalized the sea based strategic deterrent. They say history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. We replaced “41 for Freedom” SSBNs during the late-seventies and early eighties when we built the Ohio class for just under one-percent of the DoD budget. Today, we’re at the point where we can no longer wait to replace the Ohio class. While the world has changed, some still argue that even with a growing threat, that recapitalization is unaffordable. At about the same relative cost, it is affordable and simply a matter of priority. Relative to all other things this nation buys, given the benefits and the small fraction of the budget needed (<1% of the DoD budget), this is an easy decision.
So here we are, at a different verse. The Ohio replacement is in the budget and contains the first part of an incremental funding plan. That initial funding is promising, but additional funding consistent with historic precedent is needed to prevent gaps in strategic deterrence while minimizing impacts to the Navy shipbuilding plan that provides capabilities to respond to global events at the time and place of our choosing. Since before his days as SECDEF, Secretary Carter has stated that eliminating nuclear weapons are “not the answer to our budget problem. They’re just not that expensive.”
Moving ahead – The significance of history.
We are at risk of forgetting the lessons of history and how we achieved 70 years of nuclear non-use and no major power war since World War II. The Cold War is over, but the lesson here is that strategic deterrence is still important and will be more important in the future. A future where we continue to use these weapons every day, defending the nation against more than just one nuclear-capable adversary.
We must remain committed to America’s strategic forces and the men and women that carry out vital deterrent missions on a daily basis. Only then will we continue to enjoy the same benefits we have enjoyed for the last 70+ years.