With its ballistic-missile submarine replacement program anchored by milestone authority and a fiscal 2012 request for about $1.1 billion in R&D funding, the U.S. Navy is set to develop and build SSBN(X) boats without sinking the rest of its shipbuilding plan.
While it is apparent the Navy plans to use the Virginia-class attack submarine program as a template for the SSBN(X), there is uncertainty about whether the new boomers will resemble a modified Virginia, improved version of the current SSBN model or a hybrid of both.
What is certain, though, is that the Navy is committed to developing and deploying the new submarines.
The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review emphasized the need to replace the SSBNs—the most survivable and capable of the strategic deterrence legs of the nuclear triad, according to the 2009 Final Report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States.
The U.K. uses the same D5 submarine missiles and is working with the U.S. on developing and building a common missile compartment.
While the U.K. plans to replace its ballistic submarine fleet a few years behind the U.S. schedule—despite a split between factions within the British government over whether the procurement should go ahead—U.K. funding has carried the compartment development thus far and the British remain on board, for now.
There’s no uncertainty about SSBN(X)’s high price. As the Congressional Research Service (CRS) recently noted, only a new nuclear-powered aircraft carrier rivals a boomer’s shipbuilding cost.
Including the fiscal 2012 budget request, the Navy R&D investment for the new sub class amounts to a bit more than $2 billion. Some estimates put R&D as high as $7 billion.
CRS and Congressional Budget Office reports suggest individual sub price tags of $5-7 billion, with fleet acquisition costs running between $69 billion and more than $110 billion.
To put that in perspective, the Navy has spent at least $15.5 billion for submarine expenses—excluding nuclear reactor procurement—since 1999, according to a DTI analysis of contracting data provided by the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting.
The Navy plans to start building the lead SSBN(X) in fiscal 2019, making sub buys concurrent with wholesale end-of-service-life retirements of SSN 688 submarines, CG-47 guided missile cruisers, DDG-51 guided missile destroyers and LSD 41/49 dock landing ships.
“While the SSBN(X) is being procured, the Navy will be limited in its ability to procure other ship classes,” the service acknowledged in a 30-year shipbuilding plan.
The CRS notes the service may fall short of the number of attack submarines it needs because of resources required to build the SSBN(X).
A lot has to happen before the SSBN(X)-buying bonanza starts. The program received Pentagon Milestone Authority this year, providing Defense Department approval to develop technology and refine requirements.
The Navy says it will focus on the propulsion plant, missile compartment development and platform development technologies such as the propulsor, electric actuation, maneuvering and ship control.
The service says it wants to use “the successful Virginia-class acquisition program” as a template for new boomers.
The Navy is buying two Virginia-class subs a year under a multiyear contract with Electric Boat and Northrop Grumman. “The Ohio replacement will leverage the latest Virginia-class design tools, equipment and manufacturing techniques” with an eye toward finding common development areas and reducing design costs, Naval Sea Systems Command acquisition officials said in a statement. “Basically, it would be an improved SSBN version, using Virginia-class technology,” Rear Adm. Joe Mulloy, deputy assistant Navy secretary for budget, says. “The initial plan is for 16 (missile-launch) tubes, a new-design reactor plant, and similar antennas and design to the Trident and Virginia-class submarine.”
There would be no advanced torpedo room, he adds, but the Navy wants to improve stealth. While the Virginia is perhaps the stealthiest sub the Navy has, service officials tell lawmakers that a simple modified design of the attack sub would likely not work for the SSBN(X)
The Navy won’t comment on whether it will pursue a dual-team SSBN(X) contract.
Northrop Grumman representative Jerri Dickseski says, “We have a successful relationship with Electric Boat and the Navy on the Virginia-class submarine program and envision continuing this partnership . . . in producing future submarines.”
General Dynamics Electric Boat built the existing Ohio-class fleet, and its president, John Casey, doubts any other company could match such work.