Build Strategic Fast Attack Submarines

By Commander Stephen J. Ilteris, U.S. Navy

SSBN(X) advocates lean on the fact that the nuclear triad has been the bedrock of the nation’s strategic deterrent for nearly 60 years. The concept of the nuclear triad, however, was not the result of some grand strategic vision devised by the nation’s most brilliant minds. Instead, it was the product of happenstance, service parochialism, and a fear of service irrelevance in the post-World War II era. Each leg of the triad was developed as a way for the services to secure a piece of the nation’s nuclear delivery capability, thereby securing their future relevance. The strategic redundancy created by service-driven development of delivery systems has taken on a life of its own, and the reasoning behind maintaining the triad has become self-sustaining. In today’s fiscally constrained environment, the nation cannot afford duplicative, single-use multibillion dollar weapon system such as the SSBN(X) that are driven by blind adherence to this outdated strategic thinking.

An Impending Shipbuilding Apocalypse

The current plan for the next-generation SSBN(X) is to build 12 completely new submarines to replace the 14 Ohio (SSBN-726)-class boats now in service. The reduction in hulls is nested within the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, which reduced the number of submarines, missiles, and warheads required to meet the strategic deterrence mission. The Navy’s bottom line of 12 is based on having 10 operational submarines available at any given time, allowing for hull nonavailability during routine maintenance or longer overhauls. 2

According to Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates, 12 SSBN(X) hulls will cost between $98 billion and $103 billion. 3 The expectation that the SSBN(X) program will come in under $103 billion appears optimistic given historic trends in major shipbuilding program performance. Recent ship programs such as the Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) aircraft carrier, the San Antonio (LPD-17)-class amphibious ship, and the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), all have proved to be substantially more expensive to build than the original estimates. The first ship of the San Antonio-class program, for instance, experienced cost growth of about 70 percent, with a final procurement cost of more than $2 billion per hull. 4 The San Antonio is an amphibious transport, not a technically complex nuclear submarine designed to launch ballistic missiles thousands of miles with pinpoint accuracy. A 70 percent cost growth on the SSBN(X) program would bankrupt the Navy’s shipbuilding budget.

Not included in the SSBN(X) program is the additional cost of a new missile. The Trident II submarine-launched ballistic-missile (SLBM) is at the end of its service life and is undergoing a Life Extension Program that will allow it to stay in service until the Ohios retire. A new heavy-weight SLBM, more than likely a clean-sheet design because of the advances in materials and technology, will be required for the new SSBN.

With significant differences between program cost estimates and the historical performance of major shipbuilding programs, the SSBN(X) has significant cost risk. On 26 February 2015, then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert testified: “In the long term beyond 2020, I am increasingly concerned about our ability to fund the Ohio replacement ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) program—our highest priority program—within our current and projected resources. The Navy cannot procure the Ohio replacement in the 2020s within historical shipbuilding funding levels without severely impacting other Navy programs.” Modernizing the Navy’s strategic delivery platform clearly is necessary. Replacing it with another single-mission SSBN at the cost of gutting the conventional Navy, however, is a luxury the country cannot afford.

Toward a Strategic Fast Attack

The Navy no longer needs to justify its existence and should abandon the traditional high-cost, single-mission strategic submarine for providing nuclear deterrence. The alternative should be a multimission platform that will contribute on a daily basis to national security on multiple levels, not just provide strategic deterrence. By discarding the standing paradigm of how sea-based deterrence is performed and adjusting the way it is provided, the Navy’s 30-Year Shipbuilding and Force Structure Assessment goals can be achieved. Cancellation of the SSBN(X) would not be a disaster for the nation’s security or the Navy but quite the opposite—it is an opportunity to pursue a new option that ensures a credible strategic deterrent and the fiscal survival of an adequately sized fleet to confront the demands of this new century.

The Block V Virginia (SSN-774)-class nuclear-powered attack submarine could be modified and redesignated as a “strategic fast sttack submarine” capable of delivering SLBMs from its Virginia Payload Module (VPM). The Block V Virginia is one hull capable of performing both conventional and strategic missions simultaneously. The VPM large-diameter tubes are equivalent in size to the Trident I, C4 SLBM. The VPM could accommodate a modern, more survivable SLBM designed to fit the VPM tubes and provide strategic deterrence effect in a lower-cost, multimission platform while contributing to national security on multiple levels.

Strategic fast attack submarines would offer operational flexibility that traditional SSBNs cannot match. Block V Virginia submarines can be armed with conventional Tomahawk missiles in the forward weapons tubes, SLBMs in two VPM tubes, and unmanned aerial system (UAS) or Navy Special Warfare payloads in the remaining tubes. Each submarine would carry fewer missiles than a traditional SSBN, but there are advantages to spreading the deterrence mission over a greater number of hulls.

If one of the ten operational SSBN(X) submarines were to suffer an equipment casualty or unplanned maintenance, the loss would sideline 10 percent of the available deterrent force. If a Virginia Block V submarine were unexpectedly taken out of the deployment cycle for similar reasons, the loss could be absorbed by or transferred to the greater number of submarines already at sea. Strategic fast attack submarines also would add a new dimension of strategic ambiguity to sea-based deterrence. With our deterrent capability distributed over a larger number of submarines, every time a submarine goes to sea—armed or not with nuclear weapons—our adversaries would need to treat it as a strategic threat.

This low-risk alternative would take advantage of a proven submarine hull. The Virginia’s hull is designed to be modular and the Block V upgrade is already planned. According to the Congressional Research Service, the current Virginia class costs about $2.7 billion per submarine, with an additional $340 million for the Block V with VPM. The October 2015 CBO report on SSBN(X) estimates that the first Ohio-class replacement will cost $13.2 billion in 2015 dollars and follow-on submarines will cost $7.3 billion each. To put this into perspective, the cost of one SSBN(X) could pay for 2.4 Block V Virginia submarines. The Navy would reap the procurement, life-cycle, and training savings inherent in building larger numbers of Virginia-class submarines. Further, over the program’s life span, the cost of producing the Virginia class has dropped significantly, making it increasingly affordable with every hull that is built.

The Virginia-class attack submarine and its capabilities are in high demand by fleet and combatant commanders. A wave-top list of its missions includes antisurface warfare, antisubmarine warfare, strike warfare, covert intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, covert insertion and recovery of special operations forces, and covert offensive and defensive mine warfare. The current 30-year shipbuilding program calls for a force of 48 attack submarines, despite an earlier CJCS Attack Submarine Study calling for 76 SSNs by 2025.5 But the Navy is not sufficiently funded even to maintain a force of 48 SSNs. In fact, the Navy will fall below 48 boats starting in Fiscal Year (FY) 2025, reaching a minimum of 41 boats by FY 2028-FY 2030, and remaining below 48 boats through FY 2036. 6 Add the acquisition of the SSBN(X) to the 30-year plan and the number of SSNs likely would drop even more. This increased risk to war plans, combatant commander requirements, and sea control will put our national security in more jeopardy than overhauling our sea-based deterrent programs and concepts of operation.

How large a sea-based deterrent is necessary to keep the nation safe? The SSBN(X) is designed to deploy 16 SLBMs, a reduction from the 24 SLBMs initially deployed by the Ohio class. The strategic fast attack submarine would be able to deploy four SLBMs in the current Virginia Block V configuration. This is a significant difference in deliverable warheads. However, the SSBN(X) is planned to have 16 missiles with reduced Trident II payloads of three to four warheads, each in keeping with START limitations. 7 It is a matter of simple math. Sixteen missiles with four warheads each, equals 64 warheads per submarine. Four missiles of reduced size—approximately the size of the Trident I—could fit without difficulty inside the VPM carrying six warheads each, equaling 24 warheads per submarine. This math suggests that 2.67 Block V Virginia boats could replace the capability of an SSBN(X). Based on CBO estimates for SSBN(X) costs and the actual cost of two Block V Virginias, the nation would get the same number of warheads, on multimission hulls, for the same money.

To place this into perspective, the Navy is planning to build 20 Block V Virginia-class submarines. If those submarines were deployed as strategic fast attacks with mixed VPM loads—half strategic and half multimission—they could launch 40 SLBMs carrying six 475-kiloton W-88 warheads on each missile, capable of delivering 114,000 kilotons of destruction to an adversary. This would be equivalent to 7,600 Hiroshima-size detonations.

Virginia-class submarines are affordable, adaptable, and versatile platforms capable of being armed with a mix of conventional and nuclear weapons to present a potent, flexible, and versatile threat to any adversary. Building strategic fast attack submarines would maintain our overwhelming strategic deterrent capability and expand our undersea warfighting advantage. The alternative is to accept the exorbitant cost to build a redundant single-mission SSBN, withdraw our overseas presence, and gut our conventional wartime capabilities.

1. Ronald O’Rourke, Navy Ohio Replacement (SSBN(X): Background and Issues for Congress (Washington DC: U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, 20 May 2016), 25.

2. Ibid., 5.

3. Ibid., 22.

4. Ronald O’Rourke, Navy LPD-17 Amphibious Ship Procurement: Background and issues for Congress (Washington DC: U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, 21 January 2011), 5-6.

5. Ronald O’Rourke, Navy Virginia Class Attack Submarine Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress (Washington, DC: U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, 20 MAY 2016). The JCS Submarine Force Structure Study, (November 1999)

6. O’Rourke, Navy Virginia Class Attack Submarine Procurement.

7. Amy F. Woolf, U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces: Background, Development and Issues (Washington, DC: U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, 10 March 2016), 27.

8. Ronald O’Rourke, Navy Ohio Replacement (SSBN(X): Background and Issues for Congress, 3-4.

Commander Ilteris is an instructor at Surface Warfare Officer’s School (SWOS) and former commanding officer of USS Harpers Ferry (LSD-49).


The Fleet Ballistic-Missile Submarine Is Born

After the end of World War II, the Navy and the rest of the armed forces were subjected to foundational changes, including the creation of a separate Air Force and the unification of all the branches under a single department in 1947. The end of World War II, as with all wars before it, brought with it heated service competition for diminishing resources. The difference this time was the perception that nuclear weapons—not the slow methodical march across the Pacific—brought about the surrender of the (already defeated and broken) Japanese Empire.

Nuclear weapons, and the U.S. monopoly on such weapons, appeared to revolutionize warfare. Then-Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson did not see a reason to fund the Navy or the Marine Corps in the nuclear age. He, like many others, thought the nature of war had changed. In this tumultuous economic environment, the Navy’s panic for its future was justified, especially after the cancellation in April 1949 of the United States (CVA-58), the Navy’s first “super carrier,” in favor of the Air Force’s new B-36. The message was loud and clear, the survival of the Navy depended on its ability to deliver nuclear weapons.

In February 1957, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke directed the development of submarines that could deliver strategic nuclear weapons at long range. In 1958, construction began on the first three fleet ballistic-missile submarines, and the completion of the USS George Washington (SSBN-598) solidified the triad as we know it. The first two classes, the George Washington-class and the Ethan Allen (SSBN-608)-class, consisted of 10 submarines armed with variants of the Polaris missile. The next 31 submarines were of the Lafayette (SSBN-616)-class constructed to carry Polaris but later converted to carry Poseidon C3 missiles. Twelve James Madison (SSBN-627) and Benjamin Franklin (SSBN-640)-class submarines followed—all originally fitted with Poseidon and later modified to carry Trident I.

Procurement of the Ohio-class submarine began in 1981, with the last of 18 submarines delivered in 1997, each with a 30-year service life that was later extended to 42 years. Each Ohio was designed with a complement of 24 SLBMs, although by 2018, four launch tubes on each boat are to be deactivated, and the number of SLBMs that can be carried by each boat will be reduced to 20 along with fewer warheads carried by each missile to conform with nuclear arms control limits. The USS Henry M. Jackson (SSBN-730) will be the first of the Ohio-class SSBNs to reach the end of her 42-year service life in 2027, with the remainder retiring at a rate of roughly one boat per year, with all being decommissioned by 2040. 8



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