September 11, 2013
Tomorrow, the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee will hold a hearing titled “Undersea Warfare Capabilities and Challenges.” As the Navy and Congress work to preserve the fleet amidst budget cuts and submarine buildups in China and Russia, here are some issues to consider.
The Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) fleet has served as America’s most survivable leg of the nuclear triad for three decades. These stealth submarines can remain at sea nearly constantly, providing critical deterrence to potential adversaries.
However, the SSBNs are nearing the end of their service lives, which has already been extended once. The Navy has considered replacements, but cost estimates and budget pressure have called into question the ability to maintain this capability. Even before sequestration was a factor, President Obama had requested to delay development of an Ohio-class replacement, which would cause the fleet to fall below its legally mandated 12-ship minimum.
If this capability is still a critical component of U.S. national security strategy, then Congress needs to strive to maintain it. One option is extending the Virginia-class attack submarine design to accommodate additional torpedo space. This and other options should be more urgently vetted as shipbuilding resources grow increasingly scarce.
Cruise Missile “SSGN” Submarines
In the 1990s, four of the SSBN Ohio-class submarines were converted into cruise missile “SSGN” submarines, which no longer have nuclear deterrent capabilities. However, they now serve as platforms for various critical missions, including deploying Navy SEALs, cruise missile strikes, and intelligence gathering.
As the SSBNs near the end of their service lives, Congress and the Navy need to assess how to continue performing operations that this platform provided in a stealthy, survivable capacity. As with the SSBNs, decision makers should analyze the Virginia-class platform to see if it can assume any of the SSGN’s unique responsibilities. If not, the Navy needs to assure that it can fulfill these capabilities on other platforms.
Furthermore, Congress needs to examine whether enough are in the fleet to assume the responsibilities that they shared with the SSGNs. Congress and the Navy may also want to look at diesel-powered submarines if certain capabilities can be achieved on these less expensive platforms.