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3 Questions: America’s next nuclear-missile submarine

PUGET SOUND, Wash. (Feb. 13, 2017) The Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine USS Henry M. Jackson (SSBN 730) transits the Hood Canal as it returns to its homeport following a strategic deterrent patrol. Henry M. Jackson is one of eight ballistic missile submarines stationed onboard Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor providing the most survivable leg of the strategic deterrence triad for the United States. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Cmdr. Michael Smith/Released)
October 02, 2017
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The United States military has four kinds of submarines. Only one is nuclear-armed.

The ballistic missile submarines currently slipping about under the ocean have about 10 years of life left. One by one, each will need to be replaced. But with what, and at what cost? That’s what we’re going to find out.

Q1. Why is it time for a new submarine?

The Trident submarine fleet — named for the nuclear missiles they carry — is what the Pentagon calls “the most survivable leg of the U.S. nuclear triad.”

The Trident subs — formally, the Ohio class of fleet ballistic missile submarines — are enormous: at 560 feet, each one is nearly two football fields long. Some 155 sailors and other personnel call them home for months at a time. On any given day, several of these 14 “boomers” are at sea. The idea: keep a portion of the nuclear arsenal safe, ready to strike back if the U.S. comes under nuclear attack. Each missile can deliver its multiple warheads more than 4,000 nautical miles. Each boomer carries the equivalent of roughly 600 Hiroshimas.

But the fleet is getting along in years. The oldest — USS Henry M. Jackson (SSBN 730) — was launched in 1983, the same year ABC aired its made-for-TV nuclear armageddon film, “The Day After.”

Thirteen other Ohio subs have entered service since then, with the last arriving in 1997. Built to serve for 30 years, the Ohios have since received upgrades that will allow them to serve a half century. But even that deadline is nearing. The Jackson is due to retire in about a decade, with the rest following, one by one, until 2040.

So the U.S. Navy is developing a replacement. Even if it comes in on time and on budget, it will be the country’s third most-expensive weapon system ever.

Q2. What is this new sub?

It’s known as the Columbia-class submarine, the fifth type of U.S. ballistic missile submarine since the Navy started building them in 1959. Its designs were finished just three years ago; so far, it still only exists on paper.

It is named for the District of Columbia, that capital city who license plates read “Taxation Without Representation.” It’s a joint program with the Brits, who call theirs the “Dreadnought class.”

Officials promise that it will be stealthy, the least detectable sub ever. It will ply the underwater seas with a magnet-motor electric drive designed to be quieter than a mechanical drive system.

The Columbias will be as long as the Ohio class, and one foot wider. They will displace almost 21,000 tons, not just almost-19,000 displaced by the Ohios.

Like the Navy’s fast attack subs of the Virginia class, the new Trident subs will feature jet propulsion and use a joystick control system — along with new sonar systems, and an innovative twist on the periscope: mast-mounted cameras, eliminating the need for long tubes that descend through a break in the hull.

Columbia’s missile tubes are each 44 feet long, about a meter deeper than the Ohio-class, with a diameter that exceeds seven feet, all to accommodate the larger ICBMs of the future. Each sub will carry 16 of them. Contrast that with the Ohios, a Cold War product designed to carry 24 nuclear missiles.

Russia is keeping a close eye on the evolution of U.S. subs. Recall that in May, a Russian navy spy ship traveled within 30 miles of the U.S. Naval Submarine Base in Connecticut, before cruising around the east coast to around 20 miles of Kings Bay, Georgia, another of America’s submarine bases.

Who else is out there under the ocean? More than three dozen navies have submarines — but only six nations arm them with ballistic missiles: the U.S., Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, and India.

Production for America (and Britain’s) new Trident will be handled by General Dynamics and subcontractor Huntington Ingalls Industries. Production will be spread across dozens of states, as well as Britain.

Contracts are beginning to go out — about a dozen have been signed since February.

Which raises the question…

Q3. What will it cost?

In all, $122.3 billion. Production costs alone will run about $8.2 billion for the first sub, slated to arrive in 2028, and about $6.5 billion for the remaining 11.

The Navy says it needs the first of these on patrol by 2031. So if you’re counting, that’s about four years of one less Trident out on patrol. The Navy says: Fine, as long as the program stays on schedule and the service can maintain at least 10 operational SSBNs.

One big hiccup: building the Columbia-class “would consume about half of the shipbuilding funding available in a given year,” the U.S. Navy said in 2016. That could be a problem. The Navy, with President Trump’s blessing, has set its sights on boosting its fleet to 355 ships and subs, up from the current 274 total.

On top of all this, the Navy has a habit of underestimating the cost of first-of-a-kind ships by 27 percent, the Congressional Budget Office found in 2015. The Ohio class, for example, came in at 50 percent over budget and two and a half years behind.

The only programs more expensive:

  • The F-35 at $379 billion;
  • And America’s ballistic missile-defense network at $143 billion.

Which leads critics to ask: Could the money be better spent elsewhere — like shifting the ballistic missiles to the Virginia-class subs? Others argue this is where you spend the money first — then branch out from nuclear deterrence to more conventional naval deterrence like attack subs and aircraft carriers.

But another question that’s getting more attention: Who should really be paying for these expensive things — the Navy or the wider Defense Department, since Strategic Command is actually in charge of the ballistic missile submarine force?

As long as other countries — North Korea, in particular, nowadays — possess nuclear weapons, you can expect the U.S. Navy will want its Trident submarine fleet up-to-date.

Already this year, development for the Columbia-class program has been delayed a few months— $843 million for “advanced procurement” beginning October 1 — thanks to the standard budgetary tug of war between Congress and the White House. So whether or not the program looks exactly the same six months or six years from now is still up in the air.

But down beneath the surface, for the Navy boomer fleet anyway, the clock is ticking.

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© 2017 By National Journal Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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