My colleague Mike Fabey had a piece up yesterday about a new Congressional Research Service report that lays out some inconvenient facts about the future of the U.S. Navy’s submarine fleet.
In short, the Navy doesn’t seem to have figured out a way to align its stated need for 48 submarines with its build schedule for new Virginia class nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs), or its yearly shipbuilding budget.
The Navy’s so-called 30-year shipbuilding plan, as updated for Fiscal 2009 and earlier years, showed the SSN force recovering to 48 boats by the early 2030s, the CRS pointed out. But the latest update indicated that benchmark may not be made after all. “The Navy’s new Fiscal 2011 30-year (fiscal years 2011-2040) plan shows the SSN remaining below 48 boats through 2040. The change is due to a reduction in planned SSN procurements,” CRS reported. “The Fiscal 2009 plan included procurement of 53 SSNs over 30 years, while the Fiscal 2011 plan includes procurement of 44 SSNs over 30 years.”
The reduction in SSN procurements in the Fiscal 2011 plan, the CRS reported, may be due in large part to the planned procurement of 12 next-generation SSBNs (nuclear-powered strategic ballistic-missile submarines) in Fiscal 2019-2033. “The Fiscal 2009 plan did not account for the cost of these 12 SSBNs, while the Fiscal 2011 does, apparently causing reductions in planned procurement rates for SSNs and other types of ships during that period,” the CRS reported.
And what about those 12 Ohio class SSBN’s? The Congressional Budget Office estimated earlier this year that “the lead ship of the Ohio replacement class in 2019 will cost $13 billion,” with each successive ship coming in at about the $6 billion to $ 7 billion range, bringing the cost of the twelve-ship replacement up to about $99 billion. That doesn't leave a lot of room for other shipbuilding initatives in the Navy’s budge, since.that $6 -$7 billion price tag, one must remember, comes out to about half of the Navy’s annual $15 billion shipbuilding budget, which means that during the 15-year period (FY2019-FY2033) when the Navy plans on building these ships, it would severely restrict its ability to build other ships.
I recently spoke with Craig Hooper, a San Francisco-based national security expert who has written widely on Naval and Pacific Basin security issues, and he expressed skepticism over the Navy’s submarine plans. “With no viable means for our submarine builders to compete and drive down costs,” he says, “I expect the SSBN(X) build schedule to slide right, go over-budget, and ultimately shrink to maybe a 10-boat buy.” Given the current budget situation, Hooper says that the Navy might start looking for ways to allow future Virginia Class subs to serve different roles. “It would be a very interesting world if future Virginia Class SSNs had the flexibility to serve in either the conventional SSN, SSGN or strategic SSBN roles. That would be both a massive force multiplier and a boon for the bottom line.”
But the thing about trying to predict the future is that it always changes. “Strategic deterrent is also changing,” Hooper said. “As conventional weapons get increasingly accurate, America might be able to really reduce the number of submarines slated to serve in the traditional nuclear deterrent role.”
U.S. Navy photo