Replacing the Boomers & Naval Soul-Searching: I

October 22, 2013

In testimony to the House Armed Services Committee on September 18, 2013, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Jonathan Greenert declared that the program to replace the aging Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine fleet “is the top priority program for the Navy.” But Greenert’s commitment to maintaining the very expensive ballistic missile submarine fleet through most of this century is creating a dire threat to the long-term viability of the rest of the U.S. Navy. This dilemma has led to some deep soul-searching inside the Navy and on Capitol Hill.

On the Hill, a few days earlier, Rear Admiral Richard Breckenridge, director of the Navy’s Undersea Warfare Division, made Greenert’s point even more definitively, stating:

[I]f there’s only one thing that we do with our ship building account, we—we are committed to sustaining a two ocean national strategic deterrent that protects our homeland from nuclear attack, from other major war aggression and also access and extended deterrent for our allies [emphasis added].

The Navy’s plan is to replace its current fleet of 14 ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) with 12 new submarines, beginning in 2021.  It won’t be cheap. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the research and acquisition costs for the fleet could total over $100 billion through the mid-2030s. This expense threatens the rest of the Navy’s long-term shipbuilding plan. Viewing the SSBN fleet as a national strategic asset and not merely another line of Navy ships, the Navy has requested that the Pentagon and Congress top up its shipbuilding account with an extra $60 billion over 15 years to pay for the new SSBNs.

According to Navy officials, failure to provide this top-up funding will have dire consequences. They claim that re-directing $60 billion from other shipbuilding to the replacement SSBNs would result in the cancellation of 32 ships in the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan. What would be cut? These officials speculated that the losses could amount to eight Virginia-class attack submarines, eight destroyers, and 16 other ships such as Littoral Combat Ships and amphibious ships.

Vice Admiral William Burke, the recently retired Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Warfare Systems, explained the consequences for the future of U.S. naval power should the Navy not receive the additional $60 billion:

“If we buy the [the 12 planned Ohio replacement (SSBNX) ballistic missilesubmarines] within existing [Navy] funds, we will not reach 300 ships. In fact, we’ll find ourselves closer to 250. At these numbers, our global presence will be reduced such that we’ll only be able to visit some areas of the world episodically.”

Sequestration will only make the situation worse. Burke said it would cause the Navy “to both reduce procurement as well as retire existing ships, leaving us with a Navy in the vicinity of 200 ships, at which point we may not be considered a global navy.” (O’Rourke, page 22)

Bryan McGrath, Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group, primary author of the Navy’s 2007 Maritime Strategy, and fellow War on the Rocks contributor, has deemed Burke’s predicted course to be intolerable. McGrath, pessimistic about the future of the Navy’s shipbuilding budget, argues that the Navy should cancel the SSBN replacement program and leave nuclear deterrence to the bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) of the Air Force. He reasons that gutting the conventional Navy in favor of SSBNs would actually increase the risk of war with Russia or China since conventional naval deterrence would be demolished. According to McGrath, if the goal is to prevent nuclear war with a major nuclear power, the U.S. should fund its conventional naval forces first.

Christopher Preble and Matt Fay make the opposite case.  They want the Air Force’s bombers and ICBMs sacrificed to pay for the replacement SSBNs. The Navy’s leg of the strategic triad is, according to them, the most survivable and flexible. Therefore, if sacrifices must be made in the strategic nuclear budget, the Air Force’s less worthy programs should be the ones to go.

Needless to say, no one should expect the Air Force to willingly exit the nuclear deterrence business. Indeed, it is likely that a new nuclear-capable bomber will soon be the Air Force’s top priority, like the SSBN is for the Navy.  By the next decade, the bomber’s long range conventional capabilities will be crucial for U.S. planning in the Asia-Pacific region, given the F-35A’s relatively short range and vulnerable forward bases. As such, it should be no surprise to find the new bomber eventually rising above the F-35A as the Air Force’s top priority. Adding nuclear strike capability to the bomber, an important but secondary role, adds only a few percent to the total cost of the aircraft. Thus, contrary to what Preble and Fay recommend, the bomber’s future place in nuclear deterrence seems safe.

As for the Air Force’s 450 Minuteman III ICBMs, recent upgrades to that missile’s propulsion, guidance, targeting software, and warheads has extended the service life of the fleet through 2030. With that investment already made, the ongoing operations and maintenance costs of the force are minimal. Meanwhile, the ICBMs provide valuable “first strike deterrence:” an adversary seeking to destroy the U.S. strategic nuclear capability has to strike the ICBM bases on the U.S. homeland, an act that would guarantee retaliation. By comparison, the sinking of a U.S. submarine or the shoot-down of a bomber would not so assuredly trigger a response, since the attack would not be on American soil. Although the presence of ICBMs on U.S. soil exposes the homeland to risk, it also greatly enhances deterrence, and at a minimal cost over the next decade and a half.

So we end up back at submarines. Despite the daunting price tag of the SSBN replacement program, submarines appear to be the best way to maintain the U.S. nuclear deterrent, which will remain a strategic necessity for the foreseeable future. In spite of a succession of strategic arms limitation treaties negotiated with Russia (the latest reducing the number of deployed strategic warheads on each side to 1,550 by 2018), strategic nuclear weapons are still a major interest for potential U.S. adversaries. Nuclear weapons and long range missiles remain top investment priorities in Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, as well as in allied and partner nations such as Great Britain, France, India, and Pakistan. Around the world, strategic nuclear forces are still very much in fashion.

The new SSBN fleet is meant to hedge against unwelcome developments in this realm well into the second half of the century. Planners at U.S. Strategic Command and elsewhere have calculated the minimum number of warheads that need to be on constant patrol somewhere in the depths of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The Navy, in turn, has concluded that it requires 12 new SSBNs to continuously maintain the necessary patrols. Fielding this capability is thought to ensure national survival no matter what the future leaders of Russia, China, Iran, or others may decide in decades ahead.

Greenert and his Navy colleagues have declared the new fleet the Navy’s top priority in part because the submarines provide this deterrent value, and are the most survivable, and thus most valuable component of the overall strategic nuclear force. Moreover, though, maintaining an SSBN force keeps the Navy at the top table at U.S. Strategic Command and in the inner circles on the most consequential questions of national survival. And those positions would seem to ensure a substantial annuity of funding for the Navy regardless of the Pentagon’s budgetary future. Finally, the new fleet of SSBNs sustains the submarine and nuclear ship industrial base for three or more decades, a very important consideration from Greenert’s perspective.

Yet these benefits come at a steep price, namely the risk that the rest of the Navy – its carrier strike groups, attack submarines, amphibious ships, and more – will be impoverished for funds, jeopardizing the Navy’s status as a global force providing forward presence and security. Greenert and his colleagues at the Navy seem to be betting that such a future will appear so horrible to policymakers that the Navy will ultimately get its top-up money for the SSBNs. If this sounds similar to the theory behind “sequestration,” well, it is. But remember, that act of brinkmanship actually went over the brink.

With that recent precedent in mind, Greenert and Navy planners have to reckon with the possibility that the money they want may never arrive. Part II of this essay will discuss how that eventuality, combined with the arrival of new maritime threats, may result in dramatic changes for the Navy.


Robert Haddick is an independent contractor at U.S. Special Operations Command. He writes here in a personal capacity. In 2014, Naval Institute Press will publish Haddick’s book on the rise of China’s military power and U.S. strategy in East Asia.


U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber