Ohio-class SSBN – On watch for 50 years. The USS Ohio ballistic missile submarine submerged into the icy waters of the Puget Sound on its first deterrent patrol in 1981. Five decades later, in 2031, the first Ohio replacement SSBN will deploy on its inaugural patrol. Think of that: As a nation, we provided 50 years of sea based strategic deterrence with one class of SSBNs. Two words come to mind, versatility and cost efficiency. On top of this phenomenal success of Ohio class SSBN strategic deterrence, the first four ships continue to provide vital undersea presence around the globe as guided missile submarines (SSGNs). Most notable of these SSGN missions was the launching of nearly 100 tomahawk cruise missiles in the Libya campaign.
It is mind-staggering to think that this class of submarines was so well designed, built, maintained and operated that it will provide more than 50 years of deterrence as well as multi mission capability that enables the U.S. Navy to dominate the undersea domain like no other nation.
The success story represented by the Ohio class begs the questions, “How have we achieved this performance, and what must we do to sustain this outstanding record on Ohio and to improve upon it for the Ohio replacement class?”
Achieving the success that is the Ohio-class SSBN. Ohio was built robustly and to very tight technical standards exploiting all of the lessons we could extract from our previous experience operating the fleet ballistic missile submarine force. The 18 ships in the Ohio class replaced the 41 FBMs, taking advantage of their increased stealth, increased payload volume, improved operating and maintenance profile, and improved missile performance. This optimized model provides the greatest deterrent value with the leanest force structure, saving billions of dollars in ship construction and operating costs.
The 1994 Nuclear Posture Review recommended reducing the SSBN force structure from 18 to 14 SSBNs. As fiscally responsible stewards of these highly versatile and adaptable platforms, the Navy converted four Ohio SSBNs into SSGNs, the ultimate arsenal ship designed to conduct covert strike and Special Operation Forces operations. As the remaining 14 SSBNs aged, the design engineers sharpened their pencils and went to work reanalyzing the life expectancy of these national assets. Because of their stellar design and meticulous operation and maintenance and, following this analysis, it was determined that the ships could be extended to 42 years; instead of needing a replacement SSBN at the 30-year point in 2011, we could delay recapitalization until 2023. This was an outstanding return on our initial investment.
Ohio-Replacement SSBN – Survivable, flexible and responsive. As the Navy began analyzing the requirements for the Ohio replacement SSBN, we found opportunities for even greater efficiency and cost savings. By taking advantage of modular systems and commercial off-the-shelf technologies, we can reduce the time Ohio replacement will spend in modernization. Although later modernized, Ohio was not initially designed and built with this flexibility but this is an attribute that will be part of Ohio replacement from the start. In addition, the Ohio replacement will host a nuclear reactor that will never need to be refueled for the entire 42-year life of the ship, reducing the duration of its mid-life overhaul.
Together, these two efficiencies will enable 12 Ohio replacement SSBNs to provide the same 10-operational SSBNs as 14 Ohio SSBNs do today.
This two-ship reduction saves nearly $40B in construction and life cycle operating costs and effectively enables the Navy to further delay the first patrol of the new SSBN by two additional years, from 2027 to 2029. Finally, as a result of the extraordinary fiscal pressure of the last two years and the desire to lower near term Ohio replacement cost as much as practical, the Department of Defense chose to slip the first patrol by two years to 2031. This step was taken with careful consideration and will require us to accept additional risk in the SSBN transition. Any degradation in the at-sea availability of Ohio SSBNs as they age or in the delivery schedule of Ohio replacement SSBNs will impact the ability of the Navy to provide the required at sea presence provided by to operational SSBNs.
Sea based Strategic Deterrence Recapitalization. By all rights, we should have delivered a replacement Ohio class in 2011 but Ohio replacement will submerge on its first patrol in 2031. As the nation’s leaders, we have been incredibly responsible stewards of our national treasure as we have extended recapitalization, and thus avoiding cost, by 20 years. Each SSBN generation requires special, national attention. We must now apply that attention to Ohio replacement. Based on historical ship building averages and capitalizing on very successful Virginia construction lessons, we must begin Ohio replacement construction in 2021 to make the first patrol in 2031. The 84-month construction time frame (prior to 3 years of operational testing and shakedown) is more aggressive than the 86 months to build the lead Virginia and is predicated on achieving a mature design by 2021. In order to achieve this mature design, we must maintain required funding for the Ohio replacement design process that is well on its way as we speak. 2014 is the key year for both technology development and design yard progress as both of these efforts ramp up to achieve the required progress prior to 2021 construction start.
As bold, innovative Americans, we have optimized our SSBN model to the point where we have no further margin for delay. In order provide the requisite sea based deterrence for the next three generations, we have several obligations to fulfill. We must continue to invest sufficiently in the Ohio class maintenance lifecycle to ensure they remain reliable throughout their extended 42-year service life. For the Ohio replacement SSBNs, we cannot allow further delays or economizing; we must ensure that the Ohio replacement is ready for patrol in 2031.
Our sea based strategic deterrent force must remain survivable, flexible and responsive, posing an insurmountable challenge to our enemies.
This is the basic tenet of deterrence that has been executed by the men, women and platforms that have comprised our force for more than 50 years and will be hallmark of our force throughout the 21st century.
By Rear Adm. Richard Breckenridge
Director, Undersea Warfare, OPNAV N97 Navy Life Blog