By Elaine M. Grossman - Global Security Newswire, Monday, Sept. 27, 2010
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Navy's emerging plans for a new nuclear-armed submarine are slated to undergo a pivotal Defense Department review in November, with the initial backing of a key congressional committee in hand.
The Senate Appropriations Committee on Sept. 14 said it fully supported the fiscal 2011 plans to perform design, engineering and prototyping work on the next-generation ballistic-missile submarine.
Lawmakers noted, though, that they had imposed a 10 percent reduction in funds on the Obama administration request for $493 million because program delays this past year would prevent the Navy from completing all its earlier anticipated work for 2011. The partial funding would leave the effort with $444.7 million for the coming year.
The Senate panel's counterpart committee in the House has not yet acted on an unreleased subcommittee version of the defense appropriations bill. However, according to one Washington insider, the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee offered full funding for the proposed submarine, dubbed the "SSBN(X)."
With the new fiscal year beginning on Oct. 1, Congress is expected to pass a continuing resolution that would allow the Defense Department to maintain operations temporarily until the appropriations legislation is enacted. For the more formal legislation, defense appropriations would likely be consolidated with other funding bills into an omnibus spending package, sources said.
Meanwhile, the Navy this summer reportedly submitted to Ashton Carter, the Pentagon acquisition czar, its major design recommendations for the new submarine, which is to replace today's Ohio-class vessels.
Carter earlier this month said that to cut costs, the Defense Department would limit the replacement submarine's "size and speed," though he indicated that design details remained classified.
An "emphasis on affordability is already being applied to the next-generation ballistic missile submarine, where we are trimming [design] requirements without compromising critical capability," said Defense Secretary Robert Gates, appearing alongside Carter at a Sept. 14 press briefing.
"The per-unit estimated cost had risen as high as $7 billion. It is now roughly $5 billion," Gates said. "The goal is a reduction of fully 27 percent in a program where total cost is expected to be more than $100 billion."
Design features to be decided during the Defense Acquisition Board meeting, led by Carter, will include how many launch tubes each boat will contain, which could affect the number of weapons the vessel can carry, according to defense sources. Today's Ohio-class submarines feature 24 launch tubes, each of which can shoot a single Trident 2 D-5 ballistic missile.
Another detail on the drawing boards is the size of each launch tube, which could affect the types of future missile the submarine might field.
Like today's nuclear-armed submarines, the replacement vessels will initially carry the Trident D-5. The new boats are also expected to be capable of carrying a next generation of nuclear-armed missiles. They might be fitted with a small number of conventionally armed weapons, as well, according to Navy officials.
Retaining D-5 missile capability in the new submarine will help maintain continuity during a 13-year period between 2029 and 2042, when the Ohio-class boats gradually retire and their replacements are introduced into the force, Rear Adm. Terry Benedict, director of the Navy Strategic Systems Planning office, said in July on Capitol Hill.
Under the "New START" nuclear arms control agreement, signed by the United States and Russia in April, the Pentagon anticipates reducing its Ohio-class vessels from 14 to 12 and capping its Trident D-5 missile force at 240.
Today the fleet carries 288 deployed D-5s, armed with a total 1,152 nuclear warheads, according to Robert Norris and Hans Kristensen. The reduction in two vessels by the end of this decade is not, in itself, expected to affect the number of D-5 warheads fielded at that time, the two nuclear force analysts reported. The numbers would allow for a slightly higher average warhead loading on each missile, if the Pentagon so desired.
If Carter's review board approves Navy plans, the SSBN(X) effort will move into its first major phase as a Pentagon acquisition program, called "Milestone A."
Leading up to the November gathering, the Navy in May 2009 completed an analysis that explored various alternatives for meeting a continued military requirement for a portion of the nation's nuclear stockpile to be deployed on submarines, according to service budget documents. The Pentagon has not released the results of the classified study.
A final report on the Navy's review of options was completed last September and, in December 2009, the Pentagon's Program Analysis and Evaluation Office certified the service's assessment, the Navy documents state.
However, the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year told the Defense Department it was dissatisfied with the process thus far. It admonished the Pentagon for not sharing with Capitol Hill more information about its analysis of alternatives, in advance of the Milestone A decision and the administration's request for hundreds of millions of dollars in new program spending.
The lawmakers said in May that although they support the continuation of a "robust sea-based strategic deterrent force" after the Ohio-class submarines retire, the Defense Department has moved too hastily on deciding what capabilities the new boats must have.
"First," the panel stated in its report on the fiscal 2011 defense authorization bill, "the basic requirement of how much and what type of deterrent capability is sufficient for the national military strategy has not been communicated to the committee."
Second, the lawmakers complained, the House panel "has not been afforded the opportunity to review the analysis of alternatives conducted by the Navy, which determined that a submarine large enough to support the Trident 2 D-5 missile weapons system is the preferred vessel to continue deterrent capability."
Finally, the committee said it "has concerns that the decision to proceed with a submarine program of similar size as the Ohio-class ships was made prior to the analysis of alternatives, and that a potential use of a modified Virginia-class submarine, in production today, was discounted in favor of maintaining the Trident 2 D-5 weapons system."
Using the smaller Virginia-class attack submarine as a basis for the new SSBN(X) could help the Navy avoid billions of dollars in spending on a new design, according to advocates. The drawback, detractors say, is that without a major redesign, a submarine smaller than the Ohio-class design would likely be limited to carrying shorter-range ballistic missiles.
If the Trident D-5 were required to fit inside a Virginia-class design, the service would have to modify the submarine with a "humpback" silhouette to make it capable of housing the weapon's long missile tubes, Kristensen said last month.
In an e-mailed response to questions last week, he said the time has come to reassess whether such long-range missiles -- and a correspondingly large submarine to accommodate them -- are still required in the post-Cold War era.
"For the foreseeable future, it simply makes no sense to design an SSBN with a capability similar to what was needed to evade Soviet attack submarines, equip it with long-range SLBMs [submarine-launched ballistic missiles] to maximize patrol areas, and deploy these SSBNs with two crews at an operational tempo that is similar to what we did during the height of the Cold War," said Kristensen, who directs the Nuclear Information Program at the Federation of American Scientists.
"Given the enormous price tag, Russia's problems in fielding its next SSBN and SLBM, China's slow SSBN program and recent SLBM development problems, Britain's inability to afford a new SSBN, and India's growing SSBN plans, I think it is time to think about how to limit deployment and operations of nuclear weapons at sea, rather than continuing business as usual but with more [international] players," he said.
However, one retired submarine officer said it is imperative that the Navy effort embrace new technologies and avoid getting mired in delays. The source asked not to be named in this article because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
"We need to move forward with the new submarine. There is no plausible future where it isn't required," he told Global Security Newswire last week. "The last ships of the [new] class will still be in service 60 to 70 years from now. That puts a great premium on building in flexibility and adaptability and using the best technology available. That costs money."
The former officer said Gates should move cautiously in his effort to trim costs on the next-generation vessel.
"Balancing the need for building such a ship with the equally important need to control costs is a real challenge for DOD and the Navy, [but] like so many public policy decisions, it isn't a choice between right and wrong but a balance between competing-but-incompatible goals," the retired submariner said.
By contrast, Kristensen suggested that SSBN(X) costs could be more significantly reduced as part of a fundamental reassessment of how strategic security requirements translate into military hardware.
"I'm all for Defense Secretary Gates' effort to trim the SSBN requirements," he said. "But it should not just be about saving money, but also about changing the nuclear posture and [reducing] the role of nuclear weapons."
Kristensen was referring to President Barack Obama's April 2009 pledge in Prague to "reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same." A year later, the Pentagon committed itself to implementing that objective as part of its Nuclear Posture Review, a 49-page report on strategy, forces and readiness.
The administration announced some limited changes to nuclear targeting policy in the posture review and has continued Bush-era investments in long-range, conventionally armed "prompt global strike" weapons as a niche alternative to atomic arms.
However, some critics grumble that the administration could take additional substantial steps to bring its warhead and delivery-system investments more in line with the goal of limiting the role of nuclear weapons.
At a July hearing, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) asked whether the Navy had "done any studies on whether a replacement such as the Virginia-class submarine can perform the same [nuclear deterrence] duties, with obviously an alteration in the missiles and the ship somewhat."
Navy Undersecretary Robert Work responded that his service had indeed considered that option in its analysis of alternatives.
However, Work said, "the judgment is that because we have elected to go with the D-5 missile, that using the Virginia is not the right way to go, that it is a much better and more efficient thing to exploit our existing infrastructure on a 42- or 43-foot diameter hull."
Skelton scolded Work for what he said appeared to be a Navy failure to consider the use of a smaller missile in the next-generation boat, which might make the Virginia-class design more feasible as an alternative. Any need to design a larger replacement submarine "might well eat into your attempt" to field a 313-ship Navy, he said.
"I think you ought to ask the engineers about a missile that might fit in the smaller submarine rather than the multibillion dollars you might have to sink into a replacement for the Ohio-class submarine," the committee chairman said.
Skelton's panel stated in its May defense spending document that it would "withhold authority" for the Pentagon to obligate more than half of the $493 million in fiscal 2011 funds requested for the SSBN(X) development program, "until the secretary of defense certifies to the committee the necessity to continue sea-based deterrence with the Trident 2 D-5 weapons system."
This defense-secretary report is also expected to spell out the guidance the Navy used in crafting its list of alternatives, projected costs and schedules for any alternatives, and the "reasoning" the Navy used in opting to require that the new boat carry the D-5 missile.
No similar language was advanced by the committee's counterpart panel in the Senate.
Clarification: An earlier version of this article should have stated that while a reduction in Ohio-class boats from 14 to 12 by the end of this decade is not expected to affect the number of Trident D-5 nuclear warheads deployed at that time, limits set by a U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control deal would likely result by 2018 in fewer than the 1,152 warheads deployed aboard submarines today.