In New Fleet, U.S. May Field Nuclear and Conventional Ballistic Missiles on Separate Submarines

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Navy might field two versions of its next-generation strategic submarine that would carry ballistic missiles with different payloads, according to the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (see GSN, Nov. 29, 2007).

"It could be that … one has nuclear weapons and one has conventional," Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright told Global Security Newswire in an April 14 interview.

The new naval platform could host future conventional ballistic missiles, in addition to nuclear weapons, once the first such "prompt global strike" capability has been built on land, the general said.  The new mission area calls for conventional weapons capable of hitting targets anywhere around the world on short notice.

Lawmakers have raised concerns about the risk of dangerous international misperceptions if a conventional ballistic missile were launched from a submarine that carries identical weapons with nuclear warheads (see GSN, April 22).

In response to such worries, the Navy might design two variants of the future ballistic missile submarine or adopt "some other mitigation that people would be more comfortable with," Cartwright said.

The service has drafted an official document outlining the military capabilities it seeks in a new nuclear weapons submarine that could be introduced into the fleet in 2028, according to defense sources.  The Defense Department's Joint Requirements Oversight Council is expected to review the Navy document for approval this year.

The vessel would ultimately replace the service's 14 Ohio-class submarines.  Ten of these, the so-called "SSBNs," are capable of launching Trident D-5 nuclear-armed missiles.  The other four submarines, dubbed "SSGNs," carry conventional cruise missiles and special operations forces.

Navy officials have not yet said publicly whether they would replace the SSGN vessels with similar conventional-only submarines.

Each of the submarine replacements would cost roughly $7 billion, measured in 2009 dollars, senior analyst Eric Labs of the Congressional Budget Office said in House testimony last month. 

The service has not offered its own cost estimate for the program, saying a price tag is nearly impossible to pin down before additional design details have been determined.  However, this is a departure from past practice in which the Navy has offered early estimates for other future ships, naval affairs specialist Ronald O'Rourke of the Congressional Research Service testified alongside Labs.

Given the competition for resources in the defense budget and an already costly long-term shipbuilding budget, it could be that the Navy "just didn't want to scare the bejesus out of us" with a huge price tag, one congressional staffer said this week.

By 2030, the Navy plans to sail just 12 strategic submarines, down two from its current fleet, Labs noted in his testimony.  The chief of naval operations explained last year that fewer nuclear-capable submarines would be required because future vessels would be powered by life-of-the-ship reactors.  That relieves "the need for additional force structure to accommodate long refueling overhauls," Navy spokeswoman Lt. Karen Eifert said today in response to e-mailed questions.

As it stands, two of the current 14 Ohio-class submarines are out for nuclear refueling at any given time.

Under the service's emerging plans, the last of today's nuclear-weapons submarines would retire in 2040 and give way to a fully modernized force.  The new underwater boat would be introduced into the fleet over a 12-year period, according to defense officials.

Once the joint council approves the Navy's "interim capabilities document," which lays out the features it expects the SSBN replacement to offer, the service would embark on an 18-month "analysis of alternatives," defense officials said.  The review -- to be concluded in fiscal 2010 -- would assess the costs and benefits of various design approaches.

A Nuclear Posture Review performed by the Defense Department in 2002 stated that a Trident submarine replacement would likely be needed around 2029, assuming the nation still requires a sea-based strategic nuclear force (see GSN, Jan. 7, 2002).

The review laid out two possible design options:  a dedicated nuclear-armed submarine, like today's Ohio-class vessels; or a variant of the Virginia-class attack submarine, which could be modified to take on the SSBN mission.  A replacement for the Ohio-class submarine might be a new design or derived from current Trident specifications, the posture review stated.

The Navy intends to take more than eight years to design the next-generation sub, culminating in a detailed blueprint by the end of fiscal 2018, defense officials told GSN.  Construction of the first vessel would commence in 2019 and continue for seven years, with another three years allotted for fielding the initial two submarines.  Initial operating capability could be achieved by the end of 2028, according to service plans.

Concern about maintaining jobs in the shipbuilding industry appears to be driving much of the effort to get the future-SSBN design work started, according to defense experts and officials.

A RAND Corp. study last year urged the Navy to hasten its preliminary work on the submarine and stretch out the design period to prevent the loss of skilled submarine designers and engineers.

Amid calls by the Submarine Industrial Base Council -- a consortium of contractors -- to begin research and development, the Bush administration included funds in its fiscal 2009 budget request for the analysis of design alternatives.  Eifert said the Navy has budgeted $10 million next year for an "Underwater Launched Missile Study."

To date, there has been little debate about whether a new submarine should be developed and built, according to experts.

"I have seen no indications that anyone would oppose this next-generation SSBN," one congressional staffer said this week.  Instead, the source said, discussion has been focused on one question: "When are we going to get started?"

April 24, 2008
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WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Navy might field two versions of its next-generation strategic submarine that would carry ballistic missiles with different payloads, according to the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (see GSN, Nov. 29, 2007).