There have been recent claims that today’s ballistic missile submarine force is operating with excess capacity and, therefore, force reductions to save resources may be in order. As I have noted in response to a recent op-ed, this supposition is untrue – in fact, our lean SSBN force is providing the cornerstone of our national security at a pace that has remained essentially constant since the late 1990s. Even so, questions about the size and capability of our future at-sea deterrence are appropriate to consider as we recapitalize this national asset.
Given past force structure reductions from the “41 for Freedom” SSBN force of the 1960s and 1970s, to the 18 Ohio-class SSBNs of the 1980s and 1990s, to our current force of 14 SSBNs, one might wonder, “What is the minimum number needed for strategic deterrence?” Given advances in technology and the changing scope and complexity of post-Cold War deterrence, is there a way to “do more with less” as we field the next class of SSBNs?
The Mission: Delivering survivable nuclear deterrence from large open-ocean areas
The purpose of the SSBN force is to deter nuclear attack against the United States and against our friends and allies. Our “boomers” do this as part of a nuclear triad. The SSBN role is to provide an assured response capability that is survivable, reliable and robust enough to act as compelling deterrent against a nuclear strike from a foreign power. To make sure our SSBNs are survivable, they are operated from bases giving them access to the broad ocean areas in both the Atlantic and the Pacific. They are stealthy – both in transit and on station. They are operated in a manner that makes their locations unpredictable, while still ensuring that our adversaries know that we have the ability to hold them at risk. This enduring, certain deterrent force acts as an important stabilizer; it is always there and always at the ready.
Our Current and Future SSBN Force: A case study in system optimization
Our SSBN force has been “optimized for leanness” based on more than 50 years and 4,000 patrols of proven performance. The deterrent value we provided with 41 SSBNs we now provide with 14 Ohio-class SSBNs. This 65 percent force reduction is a result of two impressive technological developments – the extended range of the D5 missile and quieting technologies that make our SSBNs that much harder to find, even by a persistent and determined adversary. Our boomers are able to exploit the vast reaches of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to patrol silently while within range of key targets to hold an aggressor at risk.
As we return to our question of the leanest force capable of providing this credible and persuasive deterrent, our answer simply comes down to world geography 101 principles. Because the Pacific Ocean is larger, we operate two additional SSBNs in the Pacific to accommodate range and survivability considerations. Six SSBNs in the Pacific and four in the Atlantic is the bare minimum required to provide uninterrupted alert coverage for the combatant commander.
So if 10 SSBNs is our absolute minimum, why do we need 14 today? The reason hinges on the three-year refueling overhaul at the mid-life of each SSBN removing them from strategic service. Today, of our 14 SSBNs, we operate on average 11 to provide vital nuclear deterrence. Based upon other electronic system modernizations, this minimum force level occasionally dips to 10 operational SSBNs. One important historical note is relevant to the refueling overhaul discussion. The Ohio-class core life exceeded the design estimates of 15 years and the Navy was able to postpone mid-life refueling by six years. Naval Sea Systems Command engineers then conducted detailed technical analysis of all other shipboard systems and extended the service life of our Ohio class from 30 to 42 years – a mind-staggering 40 percent life extension. This technological feat saved the country substantial budgetary resources, reaping a greater return from the initial investment in this SSBN class; essentially four less SSBNs will be procured during this century as a result of this achievement.
The good news is that this legacy of lean success is being imprinted in the DNA of the new Ohio replacement SSBN. The engineers at NAVSEA and our partners in industry are designing a new boomer with a 42-year service life and a reactor core that will not require refueling throughout the life of the ship. This will reduce the class mid-life overhaul by one-third and we will be able to deploy our 10 operational SSBNs with a force of just 12 total SSBNs.