March 2, 2010
Cost Of Nuclear Subs Could Sink Navy Budget
By John M. Donnelly, CQ Staff
Replacing aging nuclear-missile submarines is expected to cost so much that it could imperil the Navy’s ability to fund the rest of the fleet, according to lawmakers and defense experts.
The Navy is waiting until fiscal 2019 to start building the first of at least 12 new SSBN(X) subs to replace its Ohio-class “boomer” vessels, which are also known as Tridents for the nuclear-tipped missiles they carry. But even though construction is not expected to start until the end of this decade, the issue is a pressing one now on Capitol Hill.
The service is requesting $672 million in fiscal 2011 to design the new subs. Under the Navy’s plan, that spending would grow to $955 million in fiscal 2015. And with each new sub projected to cost more than $7 billion — amounting to a full $85 billion for the whole program — it would devour a substantial portion of the Navy’s annual shipbuilding budget.
The submarine program also could end up crowding out funding needed for aircraft carriers, destroyers, attack submarines and supply ships, officials acknowledge.
Lawmakers say it is crucial that the Navy meet its shipbuilding cost targets before, during and after the period when spending on the new SSBN(X) subs is highest. But escalating ship prices continually threaten the Navy’s ability to pay for the warships it requires.
The rising costs are all but certain to come up at a Wednesday hearing on Navy shipbuilding by the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Expeditionary Forces, as it did at Navy budget hearings last week in the House and Senate Armed Services committees.
Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said the SSBN(X) was likely to cost more than projected and “could decimate the shipbuilding program” in about 10 years.
In the coming weeks, the Obama administration is set to unveil the results of both a review of nuclear weapons policy and its negotiations with Russia on a new strategic arms reduction treaty. The upshot is expected to be a reduction in the future size of the U.S. nuclear inventory.
But nuclear-missile submarines, which now carry about half the deployed U.S. nuclear weapons, are expected to retain a central — and perhaps proportionally even more important — role in a downsized U.S. nuclear arsenal, in part because they are less vulnerable to attack than land-based missiles and bombers, independent Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut said at the Senate Armed Services hearing. The Ohio-class subs were built at the General Dynamics Electric Boat facility in Connecticut, and the successor class could be built there as well.
The Ohio-class nuclear-missile subs are nearing the end of their useful lives. The first of them will need to be retired starting in 2027, after more than 42 years of service, the chief of naval operations, Adm. Gary Roughead, told both Armed Services committees last week.
To fund construction of the SSBN(X) replacements, the Navy’s average annual shipbuilding budget will need to go up $2 billion per year — to a projected $17.9 billion — between 2021 and 2030, according to the 30-year shipbuilding plan the Navy submitted to Congress earlier this year.
Despite the higher projected spending level in those years, the Navy says it will still have to sacrifice spending on other vital warships in this period, although it hopes to make up the difference in the following decade.
“Even at this elevated funding level, however, the total number of ships built per year will inevitably fall because of the percentage of the shipbuilding account which must be allocated for the procurement of the SSBN,” the shipbuilding report said.
Roughead said one of his biggest worries about the Navy a decade from now is the budget.
“As I look to the future and think about the issues my successors will deal with, that’s what I think about,” he told the House Armed Services Committee last week.
House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., asked Roughead if there was a chance the new sub could be deferred to allow funding for other ships. But Roughead said the sub program had to continue apace this fiscal year and beyond in order to replace the Ohio-class subs when they begin to be retired.
McKeon and other lawmakers, as well as many defense experts, worry that it will be difficult for the Navy to meet its goals.
The Navy has 285 ships today, far short of the official goal of a 313-ship battle force. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus testified before the Armed Services committees last week that the service will reach 320 ships by 2024.
But the Congressional Budget Office has “cast doubt on whether the funding in the future year defense plan is adequate to meet” even the 313-ship goal, said Republican Susan Collins of Maine, whose state is home to a large shipbuilding facility, at the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Navy hearing last week.
PAX ORBIS PER ARMA AERIA