Act Now to Preserve Our Strategic Deterrent
Walking through our nation’s two Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) bases, it is easy to become awestruck and overwhelmed by everything that goes into keeping our nuclear deterrent forces ready around the globe. Unlike our Navy’s surface ships, each submarine (affectionately called a “boat”) rotates two crews: one at sea and the other training for its next patrol. This high operations tempo turns the quays into hives of highly efficient activity during the short periods these boats are at home port for top-to-bottom refitting.
All this energy is devoted to maintaining our country’s most survivable nuclear forces. Unlike intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), which must be launched from known locations in the American heartland, our ballistic missile submarines operate stealthily undersea at closer range to their targets. Each SSBN is capable of launching 24 Trident nuclear missiles – each with multiple warheads – in mere minutes.
As a result, the missiles from these boomers will always get through, giving the United States its assured second-strike capability. Such a robust force is in large part the primary reason for the absence of great-power conflict for more than 70 years – the longest such period in the history of the modern state system.
Fully leveraging our SSBNs’ unequaled strategic deterrence requires having enough platforms to execute this critical mission, especially as they account for fully 70 percent of all U.S. strategic nuclear warheads. Unfortunately, the available number of SSBNs is set to decrease, even as the challenges to global security and proliferation of nuclear-capable actors will increase the demands placed upon them.
Nuclear weapons are increasingly important to our adversaries, many of whom are becoming more emboldened and risk-acceptant as the United States draws down its global force presence and leadership. In its drive to become a superpower, China is projected to more than double the number of warheads on missiles capable of reaching the United States over the next decade. Russia views its nuclear arsenal as the sine qua non for returning to superpower status, and talks openly about first-use of nuclear weapons to “de-escalate” conflicts. North Korea routinely tests new nuclear weapons and longer-range delivery vehicles, and the nuclear agreement with Iran opens its path to nuclear weapons capability over the medium term.
Meanwhile, our Ohio-class SSBN fleet is approaching the end of its service life. Conceived in the 1950s, designed in the 1960s and first procured in the 1970s, most boats are already past or nearing their initial 30-year lifespan. Even with service-life extension to 42 years, the number of serviceable Ohio-class boats will begin declining in a decade. Furthermore, thanks to sequestration, progress on the replacement class is already two years delayed.
To meet the U.S. military’s nuclear deterrent force requirements, it is critical to begin advanced procurement of the Ohio-class replacement starting this year; there is no room left for delay. This will enable construction of the lead ship beginning 2021, and the first strategic patrol in 2030 – coincidentally, the year before all meaningful restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program expire.
This necessitates top-line relief today, in the form of a $5-7 billion increase in shipbuilding funds similar to that provided for Ohio-class procurement in the 1980s. Otherwise the Navy will have to rob Peter to pay Paul, sloughing resources from other programs that will adversely affect overall Navy readiness. This top-line relief represents less than one percent of the Defense Department’s budget, at a time when defense spending as a share of national wealth is low compared to when the Ohio class was procured.
This is a practical long-term investment. The new SSBNs’ mission will remain of critical importance to national security, and will continue to form the most important leg of our nuclear triad into the 2080s. The Navy has already shown itself to be a good steward for procurement under sequestration, as it is currently producing Virginia-class fast attack submarines ahead of schedule and under budget.
The burden of procurement cannot be allowed yet again to fall on the next generation. Our country’s handful of SSBNs, and the two bustling bases they call home, represent a unique capability at the core of our national defenses. We must act now to preserve our best guarantor of peace, not only for that next generation, but also for our own.