U.S. Navy to grapple with dip in deployed subs for more than a decade

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Navy will field fewer than its objective 12 nuclear-armed submarines for more than a decade, due to a recently announced two-year delay in building its first Ohio-class replacement vessel.

The service plans to operate for 14 years -- mostly in the 2030s -- without a full complement of Navy ballistic missile submarines. That is a longer time span than was widely known until this week, when congressional testimony and a service shipbuilding report offered new specifics.

"We will have a period of time essentially through the 30s when we will be at that 10-minimum number in order to sustain the warfighting requirement that will impose additional risk on the Navy," Rear Adm. Terry Benedict, who directs Navy Strategic Systems Programs, told lawmakers on Wednesday. "We believe that is manageable."

The Navy had earlier stated in a February 2010 shipbuilding report that there was "no leeway" in its plans to field the first Ohio-class replacement vessel, also known as SSBN(X), by fiscal 2029.

However, President Obama's fiscal 2013 budget request, submitted to Congress last month, included a two-year delay in developing and building the new submerged craft, with the initial submarine now unavailable until 2031.

Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in January attributed the program delay to a desire to reduce risk in an acquisition effort that appeared to be moving too quickly from development into production.

That program stretch-out will ultimately trigger a dip below 12 ballistic missile submarines available for use at sea, Navy brass has publicly acknowledged. Service leaders have told lawmakers they planned to make adjustments -- likely to deployment schedules and warhead loading -- so that the number of submarine-based nuclear arms on alert at any given time would remain largely unaffected.

Operational workarounds, however, could put a strain on naval forces, according to some experts. Moreover, if fielding just 10 ballistic missile submarines throughout the 2030 time frame becomes the Navy's new normal, political will and budget dollars to bring the SSBN fleet back up to 12 vessels might simply never materialize.

"If you can go four years with 11 [submarines] and nine years with 10 [subs] -- why do you need 12 [subs]?" said one nuclear weapons consultant who asked not to be named in discussing sensitive operational plans.

Today the Navy fields 14 Ohio-class SSBN submarines, each of which is capable of carrying 24 Trident D-5 ballistic missiles. Each missile currently carries an average of four nuclear warheads, though loading is expected grow slightly as the service reduces to 12 Ohio-class submarines by the end of this decade, according to experts Robert Norris and Hans Kristensen.

After the two-year SSBN(X) program delay was announced earlier this year, many experts assumed that the Navy would have to employ compensatory measures for just a couple of years when fielded submarines would drop to just 10 or 11 vessels.

However, the extended dip in fleet size is now expected because the Navy must begin pulling Ohio-class submarines out of service at the end of the next decade, as they reach retirement age. Ships in a given class retire in staggered fashion, typically in the same order in which the vessels were built.

"As the Trident submarine class retired -- and they will start to retire in 2029 -- we were going to bring in the SSBN(X)," Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the Navy's top officer, said in a Feb. 16 appearance before the House Armed Services Committee. "When you retire those [first] two, we'll go from 12 to 10 operational SSBNs out there. That is close to what we provide today."

One longtime Defense Department adviser on naval issues said the operational gap was unavoidable once the decision was made to extend the SSBN(X) developmental effort for a full two years.

"When you delay [the replacement vessels], the numbers available go down because the older boats have to be retired," Norman Polmar said in a Thursday interview. "They get worn out."

"Essentially all Ohio class [submarines] will be -- give or take a number of months or within -- about 42 years of age at their retirement," said Benedict, testifying on Wednesday at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee.

In Thursday testimony before a House Armed Services subcommittee, Navy officials indicated there was no consideration of extending the service lives of the aging Ohio-class boats -- a hugely expensive endeavor relative to the operational workarounds that could be done instead.

"The [SSBN(X) procurement] delay results in a temporary reduction to 10 available SSBNs in the 2030s during the transition period between Ohio and Ohio-replacement SSBNs," a three-person Navy panel -- led by Assistant Secretary for Research, Development and Acquisition Sean Stackley -- stated in written testimony.

Of a total 12 submarines, 10 vessels could be at sea at any one time, according to this week's Navy testimony. At any given time, the service typically keeps four of its current 14 nuclear-armed submarines at sea and on alert -- two in the Atlantic Ocean and two in the Pacific -- along with four more in transit or in training, and another four in port, according to experts.

Two additional submarines are typically in major overhaul, when the ships' nuclear reactor is refueled and key systems are repaired and updated.

However, the Navy will stop performing these midlife overhauls on Ohio-class submarines that are nearing retirement in the coming decades. The SSBN(X) will not require a midlife refueling, because its design includes "a nuclear fuel core that is sufficient to power the ship for its entire expected service life," according to a Congressional Research Service report issued last year.

"Because there are no major SSBN overhauls planned during this period, an available force of 10 ships will be able to meet the current U.S. Strategic Command's at-sea presence requirements, albeit with increased operational risk that stems from the reduced force levels," Stackley and his colleagues said in their written testimony for the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, referring to the 14-year gap in a 12-sub fleet.

During the verbal question-and-answer session with lawmakers, the service officials said the ballistic missile submarine fleet must be back up to the desired 12-boat level by the 2050s, because at that point the Navy will begin taking two SSBN(X) subs off line for major maintenance. That will once again leave the service with just 10 of the vessels operationally available, Stackley said.

"Eventually we would have to go back to the 12 boats," said Vice Adm. John Terence Blake, the deputy chief of naval operations for integration of capabilities and resources. "Because when those 10 boats start going through their refit periods, that's when ... the number has to go back up to 12 in order to maintain the requirement for the continuous number of boats at sea."

"We've evaluated it," Greenert, the chief of naval operations, testified last month. "And it is equivalent to ... the operational availability of SSBNs that we provide today."

He said the Navy would continue to assess the impact of its adjusted plans.

"We see that to be OK right now," Greenert said. "We'll watch it very closely."

According to the newly released Navy shipbuilding plan, the ballistic missile submarine fleet will:

-- Drop from 14 to 13 SSBN submarines in fiscal 2027 and to 12 vessels a year later. However, a major Pentagon policy paper, the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, stated that the nation would "consider reducing from 14 to 12 Ohio-class submarines in the second half of this decade" -- that is, by 2020 -- without affecting the number of deployed warheads aboard the vessels;

-- Dip down to a level of 11 fielded submarines in 2029, 2030 and 2031, and then to 10 such vessels from 2032 through 2040;

-- Begin building back up again in 2041, once the introduction of new SSBN(X) submarines into the fleet can compensate for the steady losses of retiring Ohio-class vessels; and

-- Return to the desired force level of 12 fielded SSBN(X) boats by 2042.

The length of the delay in returning to a 12-submarine force for the nation's sea-based nuclear deterrent is prompting some head-scratching.

"It doesn't make sense that a two-year slip at the beginning of the R&D program ... will result in a 14-year shortfall in the required [submarine] force level," said the nuclear weapons consultant.

This defense expert said that mounting pressure on the federal government to further reduce its defense spending in coming years would likely prompt the Pentagon to draft some backup plans to its desired modernization blueprint.

"Until the [submarine-fielding] schedule is certain, I would be surprised if the White House decided to take irreversible reductions in other nuclear forces, like ICBMs or bombers," the consultant said. "What is going to stop them from delaying the [SSBN(X)] program again next year?"

In fact, the new Navy report for Congress said the "high cost for replacing the nation's secure, second-strike nuclear deterrent force will have a disproportionate impact" on the service's overall shipbuilding budget.

The Government Accountability Office this month estimated the Pentagon will spend $90.4 billion on developing and building the nuclear-armed underwater craft, based on Defense documents.

The Pentagon has allotted $565 million in its 2013 budget for research and development on the Ohio-class replacement submarines, according to a Navy spending outline released last month.

"To cover both the SSBN(X) program as well as other shipbuilding programs, yearly shipbuilding expenditures" for a decade beginning in fiscal 2023 will require, on average, $19.5 billion per year, this week's naval shipbuilding report states. "This is over $4 billion more per year than in the near-term planning period."

The Navy is "doing everything in its power to reduce projected yearly shipbuilding costs," including "trying to reduce" the average SSBN(X) procurement cost "to $5.3 billion, down from a projected $6 billion," according to the document, which called adhering to the shipbuilding budget plan "the key challenge" for the Defense Department for the next 30 years.

In seeking ways to cut SSBN(X) expenditures, "the question is, what [capabilities] do you give up?" Polmar said. The number of missiles each vessel is able to accommodate might be reduced below the currently anticipated 16, he said.

"And secondly, my understanding [is that] they're giving up certain nonacoustic stealth features -- and that could be critical," Polmar told Global Security Newswire. "[This] borders on the criminal if you consider these submarines will be around in the next 50 years or so."

If the service is unable to sustain the $19.5 billion-a-year average cap on shipbuilding, "plans to recapitalize the nation's secure second-strike nuclear deterrent and the Navy's conventional battle force will have to be dramatically changed, and the overall size of the battle force will drop below the levels needed to meet all naval presence and warfighting requirements," the Navy report warns.