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U.S. Navy Rejected Key Command's Specs for Next Nuclear-Armed Sub

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

(Feb. 4) -U.S. Navy personnel perform maintenance on the Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarineUSS Alabamain 2009. The Navy last year called for a next-generation submarine to include four fewer missile tubes than the number recommended by U.S. Strategic Command, military insiders said (U.S. Navy photo). (Feb. 4) -U.S. Navy personnel perform maintenance on the Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarineUSS Alabamain 2009. The Navy last year called for a next-generation submarine to include four fewer missile tubes than the number recommended by U.S. Strategic Command, military insiders said (U.S. Navy photo).

WASHINGTON -- Adm. Gary Roughead, the U.S. Navy's top officer, last June nixed a key combatant command's recommendation for the missile-carrying capacity of the nation's next-generation, nuclear-armed submarine, according to military sources (see GSN, Dec. 21, 2010).

Whether his determination on the so-called "SSBN(X)" submarine -- which is to begin replacing today's ballistic-missile-carrying vessels in about two decades -- will ultimately carry the day is unclear.

The service in September told the Congressional Research Service that "as part of its effort to reduce" procurement costs, "the Navy is focusing on an SSBN(X) design with 16 [missile] tubes, rather than 20," according to a CRS report published last fall.

What has not surfaced publicly, until now, is that U.S. Strategic Command -- the military organization responsible for determining the nation's nuclear combat requirements -- had advocated that each of the future submarines be armed with the higher loading level of 20 ballistic missiles.

Strategic Command officials briefed their recommendation as recently as late April in secret, behind-closed-doors Defense Department meetings, Global Security Newswire has confirmed with military sources who spoke on condition of anonymity in discussing sensitive nuclear matters.

A command spokeswoman would not discuss specifics, acknowledging only that Strategic Command and the Navy are working together to develop detailed design expectations for the future submarine.

The difference between the Navy and Strategic Command perspectives on how many long-range, nuclear-armed missiles should be fielded at sea is significant.

Across the 12 ballistic missile submarines anticipated to be deployed in the decades to come, a fleet composed of 16-missile SSBN(X) submarines would carry 48 total fewer missiles than would a fleet comprising 20-missile vessels. It could also cost significantly less at a time of growing fiscal austerity, Navy officials are arguing.

After Roughead initially telegraphed his view throughout the service in early June, Navy leaders are widely believed to have presented their backing for the leaner and cheaper 16-missile version of SSBN(X) at a pivotal Defense Department meeting late last year.

The service on December 9 took the program before the Pentagon's top-level Defense Acquisition Board for a major briefing and review. However, the Defense Department has not released any information about SSBN(X) carrying capacity or any of the other design features that might have been considered during the meeting, which was to usher the program into an early development stage called "Milestone A."

The vessel is to replace the nation's current 14 Ohio-class submarines, which can launch 24 Trident ballistic missiles apiece. With the first submarine expected to become operational in 2029, the SSBN(X) would ultimately represent the sea leg of the nation's strategic nuclear triad through its projected retirement in 2080, alongside bomber aircraft and ICBMs.

The Navy has not released a cost projection for the new craft, but one outside estimate pegged its price tag at roughly $7 billion each. Fitting the submarine with long-range missiles would involve additional investment. Cost concerns are said to dominate Roughead's thinking on the matter.

The chief of naval operations, whose military career has spanned 37 years, determined last year that his service's budget could support only a 16-missile version of the SSBN(X), to prevent this one procurement program from jeopardizing other important spending priorities, according to military sources.

The finding by Roughead -- pronounced RUF-head -- also is said to be based on an assumption that the world's largest nuclear powers will continue the trend toward reducing their arsenals in the years ahead. The new submarine will be operating well after the time period addressed by last year's Nuclear Posture Review, a Pentagon-led assessment of strategy and forces that focused principally on the next five to 10 years.

"Twenty [missiles] makes the submarine larger," said Norman Polmar, a longtime Defense Department consultant on naval issues. "So it's primarily cost, but also how many warheads do we want on submarines?"

The U.S.-Russian New START arms control pact mandates that reductions on each side to 800 strategic delivery vehicles and 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads be completed within the next seven years. The agreement will be in force through early 2021, with the possibility of a five-year extension. Both Washington and Moscow have expressed interest in discussing next steps that might involve further reductions to their nuclear stockpiles.

A gradual transition to carrying fewer missiles on each of its ballistic missile submarines is expected to begin well before SSBN(X) enters the fleet.

To implement the nuclear treaty -- which was recently ratified by both nations and is to enter into force this weekend -- the Navy will fill just 20 of the 24 missile-launch tubes on each of its Ohio-class submarines (see GSN, Sept. 30, 2010).

The Navy will "inactivate" the remaining four tubes per boat, allowing a total fleet capacity of 240 submarine-launched ballistic missiles under the treaty, down from today's 288, according to figures compiled by nuclear experts Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris for a forthcoming essay.

If each of the future submarines carry just 16 missiles, there would be no more than 192 missiles overall in the sea-based deterrent. Interviewed this week, Kristensen found the figure curious because it is nearly 50 missiles short of the 240 that the White House has said it could field under New START.

Each of today's Trident D-5 ballistic missiles -- which the Navy intends to field initially on SSBN(X) but is likely to replace later on with a new weapon -- can be armed with as many as eight nuclear warheads. However, just half that number of warheads is typically deployed today on the 4,000-nautical-mile range missiles, according to Kristensen, who directs the Federation of American Scientists' Nuclear Information Project.

If the current load-out of an average four warheads per missile continues when SSBN(X) is fielded, the nation would have 768 total warheads aboard its anticipated 12 submarines.

Perhaps most significantly, a 16-missile version of the SSBN(X) would at least theoretically allow Washington to "upload" to as many 1,536 warheads aboard its submarines from hedge warheads kept in reserve, given the Trident's extra capacity, Kristensen said.

Such drastic action is difficult to imagine because it would suggest the nation's submarine-based warheads would constitute all but 14 of the 1,550 deployed U.S. strategic warheads allowed under New START.

Still, this type of math exercise figures into the Pentagon's worst-case scenario planning -- for example, if a resurgent or new nuclear threat emerges that prompts Washington to abandon New START, or if a serious technical problem is discovered in another leg of the nuclear triad.

Kristensen argued that the excess loading capacity of a 16-missile SSBN(X) would still be sufficient to allow the nation enormous fielding flexibility, even if the submarine is smaller than the 20-missile vessel earlier sought by Strategic Command.

The analysis does not end there, though. By the end of this year, the Navy and Strategic Command are expected to complete an 18-month, detailed assessment of the military requirements for the future nuclear-armed submarine, to include exactly what capabilities are required to meet anticipated global threats 20 to 70 years into the future, defense sources said.

Once finalized, the assessment is intended to embody a consensus view between the two organizations, military sources said. The Pentagon's top review body for military hardware needs -- the Joint Requirements Oversight Council -- is slated to consider the results of the Navy-Strategic Command analysis in late 2011 or early 2012, GSN has learned.

Asked to describe the perspective that Roughead brings to the matter, the Navy directed a reporter to the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

"The Navy and the combatant command do not make decisions in isolation from the national strategy and the other components of the Department of Defense," Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. April Cunningham said yesterday in an e-mailed response to questions. She added that major weapon platforms such as SSBN(X) undergo "rigorous processes" in which each design feature is carefully vetted.

The development of warfighting capabilities for SSBN(X) and its detailed design "is a multiyear process led by DOD civilian leadership with all stakeholders as active and engaged participants," Cunningham said.

She did not comment directly on the specific differences that emerged last year between the Navy and Strategic Command on how many missiles the future submarine should carry.

A Strategic Command spokeswoman said, though, that dialogue on the submarine's combat requirements continues between her organization and the Navy.

"USSTRATCOM has been, and continues to be, involved in the design and development of the Ohio-class replacement SSBN," said Col. Kathleen Cook, the command's public affairs chief, using military shorthand for her organization's name. "STRATCOM and the Navy are working closely together to ensure this important asset will meet the nation's strategic deterrent requirements in a wide range of future environments."

Last year, the level of 20 missiles per submarine was "the recommendation that moved through the [Strategic Command] staff, and no one challenged it," said one former nuclear force commander tracking the issue.

Yet, because a recommendation for 20 would necessitate buying a larger submarine and more missiles than the Navy believes it could afford, Roughead and other cost-minded Pentagon brass found the Strategic Command position "just totally and completely unrealistic," this source said.

On the other hand, Strategic Command might not be at liberty to support a design for SSBN(X) that has fewer than 20 missiles because the command does not appear to have received new guidance from President Obama that would allow a dip below the 240 sea-based missiles embraced under the Nuclear Posture Review and New START, Kristensen said.

Such guidance could come in the form of a secret presidential directive that would spell out the kinds of potential adversaries the United States could face, and the associated military, industrial or other targets against which U.S. nuclear strikes might be launched. It would then be up to the Defense secretary, Joint Chiefs of Staff and combatant organizations including Strategic Command to determine exactly how many and what types of nuclear weapons are needed to carry out wartime scenarios.

"STRATCOM's argument could be [that] unless we have that in the bag, it would be irresponsible to commit ourselves to a force structure that is that much lower," according to Kristensen.

The latest publicly known guidance on nuclear weapons employment dates back to 2002, when then-President George W. Bush issued National Security Presidential Directive 14, he said. It extended the possible use of Washington's nuclear weapons to regional adversaries that field weapons of mass destruction, he said.

Washington has some potential in coming years to boost warhead capabilities so that they are more capable of damaging "hardened" underground targets, essentially giving the Navy a bigger bang for the buck with a numerically smaller arsenal of sea-based missiles, the FAS analyst noted.

However, technology upgrades of this kind would be unlikely to fully compensate for the destructive power lost by fielding nearly 50 fewer missiles on the future submarines, Kristensen said.

For his part, Roughead has told colleagues it would be "prudent" to use the 16-missile-per-boat figure as a working assumption as the in-depth analyses continue, according to defense sources.

His reasoning might not just be based on projected acquisition costs and future threats, Kristensen said.

"If you're in the Navy, one of the advantages of having fewer missiles on each submarine is that, under a future force structure, you could operate more submarines than you might otherwise have," he said.

Scattering the missile arsenal more broadly could allow the service to maintain its anticipated 12-vessel SSBN(X) fleet farther out into the future, with enough boats to continue patrols in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, Kristensen explained. Conversely, that many ships with 20 missiles apiece could prove unsustainable well into the future, as pressure mounts to reduce nuclear arsenals and save money.

Polmar agreed. To accommodate the severe belt-tightening that all the services are anticipated to perform in the years to come, the Navy should trim back even further on the number of missiles it carries aboard submarines, he said.

"There's no rationale at this stage for more missiles than 144" across the fleet, said Polmar, citing the latitude under New START to increase warhead loading up to eight per missile, if necessary.

Last year's divergence between Navy and Strategic Command views has observers differing over the possibility that one or the other organization has overstepped its authority.

Under U.S. law, combatant commands are charged with laying out exactly what capabilities are required to carry out their operational missions. Specifically, one of Strategic Command's responsibilities is to state what it needs to be able to disable or destroy aim points in its nuclear targeting plans.

Roughead might be seen as having inappropriately vetoed a combatant command's requirement for the new submarine's capabilities, according to Kristensen and other defense experts.

On the other hand, the law gives the military services -- the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps -- the responsibility to "organize, train and equip" forces to carry out the combatant command missions.

Strategic Command might open itself to criticism if it dictated to a military service exactly how it should equip its forces to meet warfighter needs. Some Pentagon leaders have voiced that concern, seeing the Omaha, Neb.-based command as having "butted in" on the Navy's responsibilities, said the retired nuclear force commander.

The Pentagon's Joint Staff, which has traditionally sorted out roles and missions among U.S. military organizations, declined comment for this article.

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