(Above)Artist’s conception of a possible
design for theOhio-class replacement.
U.S. Navy Graphic.
by Capt. Dave Kriete
2010 will mark the first year of research and development funding for the nation’s follow-on sea based strategic deterrent. In his May 14, 2009 hearing with the House Armed Services Committee, Adm. Gary Roughead, Chief of Naval Operations, stated “Our Navy supports the nation’s nuclear deterrence capability with a credible and survivable fleet of 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines. Originally designed for a 30-year service life, this class will start retiring in 2027 after over 40 years of service life. As long as we live in a world with nuclear weapons, the United States will need a reliable and survivable sea based strategic deterrent. Our FY 2010 budget requests research and development funds for the Ohio-class replacement, to enable the start of construction of the first ship in FY 2019. The United States will achieve significant program benefits by aligning our efforts with those of the United Kingdom’s Vanguard SSBN replacement program. The US and UK are finalizing a cost share agreement.”
SSBNs are Required Today
In addition to Adm. Roughead, many military and political leaders over the last few decades have stated that as long as potential adversaries possess nuclear weapons the United States will need a reliable and survivable nuclear force. Since the mid 1960’s, the U.S. Navy’s fleet of ballistic missile submarines has met this need. As the fleet has evolved from the Lafayette-class to the Benjamin Franklin-class to the Ohio-class, SSBNs have remained the most survivable and secure element of our nation’s nuclear arsenal, providing the strategic deterrence that has been a core element of our national security and defense strategies which have also evolved over time. In addition, because it employs a dual crew, the Ohio-class SSBN gives our nation a high return on investment, only entering port for maintenance. While each leg of the nuclear triad represents a set of unique attributes, only the SSBN force provides a continuously available, secure and survivable deterrence capability, the “on-call force.”
SSBNs are Required for the Future
The service the SSBN Force provides in support of our national defense strategy today represents a requirement that must be met well into the latter half of this century. A board of three and four star officers from the joint branches of our military forces validated this continued requirement last year. Further, defense leadership has affirmed the commitment to meet the requirement for a sea based strategic deterrent beyond the horizon of any of our currently in-service platforms.
Our Current Fleet of SSBNs
Will Not Last Forever
The service life of Ohio-class SSBNs has been extended to the max possible limit. When these SSBNs retire after more than 40 years of operation, they will be the longest serving of any submarines the U.S. has ever operated.
The Time to Begin the Process of Replacing the Ohio-class is Today
The defense establishment has begun to examine what it will take to replace the Ohio-class SSBNs when the first one retires in 2027 and the remaining boats are retired at the rate of one per year through 2040. This planning is occurring at just the right time—not too soon, not too late. The eighteen years between now and 2027 represent the typical amount of time it takes to design and build a replacement class of submarines. The design and construction standard has been validated by our three most recent classes: Ohio, Seawolf and Virginia. But unlike the Ohio-class, which has an extended life of 40 years, the replacement to the Ohio will be designed and constructed up front initially for 40 years of operation.
Over the last year or so, much work has been done to lay the groundwork for the Ohio replacement. In June 2007, Commander, United States Strategic Command wrote the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Chief of Naval Operations that “Allowing Ohio-class SSBNs and the TRIDENT Strategic Weapons System to reach end of life without replacement will create an unacceptable gap in the nation’s Sea Based Strategic Deterrent (SBSD) capabilities.” This letter set into motion a series of studies, assessments and reviews to define the initial set of attributes for the Ohio replacement. Not surprisingly, the characteristics of our next SSBN will be very similar to those of our current SSBN fleet... stealthy, survivable, persistently present, adaptable, capable… attributes that are in concert with the Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower.
We will have the Right Sized Strategic Deterrence Force
While the future inventory of nuclear weapons and the makeup of our future nuclear deterrent force will be shaped in the coming months as part of the Nuclear Posture Review, the need to sustain our strategic nuclear capability will remain for the foreseeable future. Even those who advocate a future world without nuclear weapons acknowledge that the path to zero simply takes time. Sustainment of our capability is necessary to prevent an unacceptable strategic posture. As long as we will need a credible nuclear deterrent capability, SSBNs will be a required element for providing that capability. By starting the research and development work this year, we will meet the nation’s need to replace the Ohio-class SSBNs without any capability gap while preserving the ability to tailor our future nuclear force structure.
Cost Effective and Timely Development of a Survivable Ohio Replacement SSBN is Underway
Research and development, or R&D, is one of the first activities to take place once the concepts for the submarine are formulated. Although the initial design characteristics continue to be defined, R&D efforts must start this year so that technological and engineering needs and capabilities are matched when the heavy work of detailed design and construction begin. While the basic characteristics of the next SSBN are likely to be similar to the Ohio, significant technological effort will be necessary to counter threats throughout the ship’s expected lifetime through 2080. The Navy is mindful and responsive to recent Department of Defense concerns over “exquisite technology” and resulting excessive acquisition costs. Accordingly, R&D work will be confined to those areas considered essential to ensure the ship meets the country’s needs. This includes the capability to operate securely in ASW environments in order to maintain the level of supremacy that today’s SSBN fleet enjoys. NAVSEA [Naval Sea Systems Command] is also committed to leveraging the R&D work and acquisition cost reduction lessons that were achieved in recent years on the Virginia-class SSNs. In fact, all of the initial Ohio replacement concepts accommodate a maximum level of fleet commonality to help reduce costs throughout the submarine force, including communication suites, sonar, fire control and sensor systems. The next SSBN will provide our nation with the best possible value while getting the deterrence job done and done well.
As we study the options for how the Ohio-class replacement can best meet the nation’s need for a sea based strategic deterrent, we are initially focusing on some of the most important attributes, like size, speed, and payload capacity. Since these steps are in the early part of the requirements process, they focus on design characteristics that will have the greatest impact on the platform’s ability to execute its mission, the effectiveness of the concept of operations, the ability to adapt to changing environments and the costs associated with each. As these initial studies wrap up later this year and the program heads through its first major milestone in 2010, the focus of the work will shift from conceptual to detailed design.
Leveraging Parallel UK SSBN Development Investments will Further Enhance Affordability and U.S.-UK Strategic Cooperation
As the U.S. embarks on the path to replace our SSBN fleet, our closest ally, the United Kingdom, is undergoing planning efforts to replace their SSBN fleet of four Vanguard-class submarines. Our two countries are continuing a decades-old partnership in the development and design of the strategic weapon system that will be commonly hosted by these ships. This partnership began in the 1960’s with the Polaris program, continued through the TRIDENT program, and has been reinforced over the past year as we work together to develop future capability. Like our ships, the UK Successor class will continue to host the TRIDENT II D-5 missile when it goes to sea in the 2020’s. While sharing national intellectual and engineering design resources, our collaboration with the UK will reduce the overall cost of both classes of submarines.
Maintaining a Winning Team
The number of officers, enlisted and civilians working on the Ohio replacement is growing steadily as we undertake this challenge. Initial R&D efforts will leverage the exceptional talent of the Virginia-class SSN design team. The replacement timeline capitalizes on the submarine design industrial base and the proven skills of the Virginia-class SSN acquisition and life-cycle cost reduction efforts.
The commanding officers of these first few ships are most likely serving at sea today as division officers in our current submarine fleet. The Sailors who man our submarines today and those who will man our submarines of the future are truly our most important asset. Without them, ships like the Ohio replacement will never be able to achieve the potential for which it is designed.
In February of this year, USS Rhode Island (SSBN-740) completed our 1000th TRIDENT patrol, a phenomenal accomplishment, earned over many years by a team of many outstanding and dedicated Americans... Sailors, designers, engineers, craftsman, and countless others who have served in or for the Submarine Force. We will build on this legacy of continuous and reliable strategic deterrence as we safeguard the future through this next class of SSBNs.
Captain Dave Kriete works at OPNAV N87 as the SBSD/Ohio Replacement Section Head and representative to the Nuclear Posture Review.