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Top U.S. Nuclear Commander Eyes More Trident Subs, Not Less

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

The nuclear-armed submarine USS Ohio, shown in 2008. The United States might opt to buy more replacements for the Ohio-class ballistic missile vessels than the 12 now planned, U.S. Strategic Command head Gen. Robert Kehler said last week (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon). The nuclear-armed submarine USS Ohio, shown in 2008. The United States might opt to buy more replacements for the Ohio-class ballistic missile vessels than the 12 now planned, U.S. Strategic Command head Gen. Robert Kehler said last week (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon).

WASHINGTON -- The top U.S. combat commander for nuclear arms last week said he would like to see the Navy buy more than its planned complement of 12 new ballistic missile submarines, despite mounting indications that even that number might be unaffordable.

The so-called SSBN(X) is set for initial fielding in 2031 and is to eventually replace all of today’s Ohio-class vessels, which carry nuclear-armed Trident D-5 missiles.

Gen. Robert Kehler, who heads U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha, Neb., said on Wednesday that despite Navy plans on the books to buy a dozen of the new-design submarines, each fitted with 16 ballistic missiles, no final decision on vessel quantity must be made in the near term.

However, in a surprise twist, he added that from his perspective, even more than 12 SSBN(X) submersibles could be needed.

“Do we have to make a decision today on how many we eventually buy, and as I would say selfishly, beyond 12?” the Air Force four-star general said at a breakfast event on Capitol Hill. “The answer is no, you don’t have to make a decision today.”

Kehler is not the first senior Defense official in recent days to talk up the idea of protecting from expected deep Pentagon budget cuts what is considered the nation’s most survivable leg of the nuclear triad -- sea-based warheads -- leaving atomic-armed bombers and ground-based ballistic missiles seemingly more vulnerable to the budget ax.

His words come, though, as the naval service itself has questioned the effort’s affordability.

Despite advocating for the new submarine effort, the Navy recently warned that it might lack sufficient funds to buy the vessels at an estimated total cost of $90 billion and, at the same time, meet its objective of retaining a 300-ship surface fleet.

In a May cover letter to Congress accompanying Navy shipbuilding plans, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel flagged the cost concerns, saying that in the long term “there will be resourcing challenges … largely due to investment requirements associated with the SSBN(X) program.”

Kehler, in testimony last month before a House panel, addressed lawmaker worries about an anticipated dip to just 10 operational ballistic missiles submarines for more than a decade -- mostly in the 2030s -- during the transition to 12 replacement vessels.

“I think the ultimate number of submarines that we procure is still an open question,” the general told the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee on May 9. “I think you have a lot of time here to decide how many submarines we eventually deploy.”

Some issue specialists warn that budget considerations could force either a smaller submarine fleet or a less ambitious ballistic-missile vessel design.

“As budgets tighten, speculation is growing that the Navy will not be able to afford” its current plans, Tom Collina of the Arms Control Association wrote in an analysis early this month..

He cited recent comments by Representative Randy Forbes (R-Va.) that the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan is “an exercise in wishful thinking” and by Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who called service blueprint “a fantasy.”

Kehler last week suggested that while the program of record may be to buy 12 submarines – and that this number appeared about right for planning purposes – evolving threats and military needs could alter that figure. However, he did not overtly account for a revision downward.

“Once we are replacing Ohio … then I believe the nation will have a number of decision points, at which the nation can decide if we need to purchase more than 12,” the strategic commander said.

“What that number looks like and why -- whether that’s reacting to a future world situation, whether that’s reacting to other decisions that might be made along the way -- that is not a decision you have to make immediately,” he told the event audience. “Nor do I believe that we should think upfront that 12 is all we would ever purchase.”

On Sunday, Collina -- who directs research at his organization -- cast skepticism on the general’s forecast.

“Given the downward trend for both defense dollars and the U.S. nuclear arsenal, I would doubt that 12 SSBN(X) subs will ever be built, and certainly no more than that unless you believe budgets and the arsenal will increase dramatically,” he told Global Security Newswire. “There is no need to have more than 10 subs in the 2030s, since the requirement is for 10 operational subs, and at that point they will all be operational. It’s only later, when some subs are in overhaul, that you would need 12 total. But that is a long way off.” 

Collina’s guess is that “if the Navy is forced to choose, it would rather have a 300-boat fleet than 12 SSBN(X)s,” he said. “If the president reduces the requirement for nuclear weapons in general, and subs in particular, then the Navy would be off the hook.”

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