The importance of the ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) is addressed in “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower,” the Navy’s most recent maritime strategy. This document states: “The Navy’s top priority is to ensure that the most survivable leg of our Nation’s strategic nuclear triad remains fully resourced and ready through the existing SSBN force and continued development of the Ohio Replacement Program.” In 2016, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral John Richardson echoed this perspective in “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” in which he calls to “maintain and modernize the undersea leg . . . as the foundation of our survival as a nation.” This, of course, refers specifically to the Columbia (SSBN-826) class, the replacement for the Ohio SSBNs.
Placing the Columbia before all else requires serious reconsideration. First, it is generally accepted that the cost of the Columbia program could break the Navy’s other shipbuilding plans into the 2030s if the National Sea-based Deterrence Fund fails to be fully funded by Congress. Second, the conviction that Columbia remains the Navy’s top priority seems both a misinterpretation of the “Cooperative Strategy” and out of step with a growing international competition for sea control. Third, in the long term, the Navy’s continued contribution to the nuclear triad should be questioned.
In 2015, then-CNO Admiral Jonathan Greenert testified to Congress, “In the long term beyond 2020, I am increasingly concerned about our ability to fund the Ohio Replacement ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) 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.”
Having the Columbia program as the Navy’s “top priority” seems out of sync with the strategy. While the strategy did address the SSBN, its main thrust clearly spoke to the need to maintain safe, global commerce operations across the seas and the role of both global cooperation and forward-positioned maritime forces in support of this effort. It seems unlikely the strategy could sensibly shrink to “prepare for Armageddon at any cost.”
Finally, the Navy’s position is that the SSBN, owing to its stealthy nature, provides the guaranteed second-strike capability necessary for the U.S. nuclear strategy. Given the pace of advances in technology, we have a responsibility to constantly question whether submarines will remain undetectable. If not, this would obviate much of their utility.
Curiously, in his May white paper, “The Future Navy” (see pp. 62-64 in this issue), Admiral Richardson seemed to recognize a growing disparity between fleet size and strategic requirements. In this paper, he calls for an increase in fleet numbers from the current 275 to 355 total ships, including the Columbia. The Congressional Budget Office subsequently reported that the funds required for this growth would average about $11-$23 billion more per year than represented in the existing budget.
Evidently, the CNO anticipated a very large shipbuilding plus-up. Unfortunately, and despite the President’s rhetoric, the administration actually cut the shipbuilding account by more than $1 billion in 2018. In short, there will be no fleet growth for the foreseeable future, and the concerns of the two most recent CNOs remain valid. The Navy lacks the wherewithal to support even the current shipbuilding plan.
In 2016, Admiral Philip Davidson, who as U.S. Fleet Forces Command is responsible for sourcing forces to the combatant commanders, stated, “I’m a Darwinist. . . . If you have everything that’s too tilted, without enough diversity and you have a disruption, you are in an extraordinarily bad place.”
Clearly the Navy has arrived at this bad place. Both the strategy and the fleet will be broken on the wheel of the Columbia if the Deterrence Fund fails to underwrite the new SSBN program. How is it that more Navy leaders are not questioning these shipbuilding priorities?
Captain Eyer served in seven cruisers, commanding three: the USS Thomas S. Gates (CG-51), Shiloh (CG-67), and Chancellorsville (CG-62).