A U.S. House-Senate conference bill on fiscal 2012 defense policy matters calls for a new government estimate of the costs to develop, build and operate a planned Navy ballistic-missile submarine that some experts warn could prove unaffordable. Within six months of the legislation's enactment, the Navy secretary and the military head of U.S. Strategic Command are to submit a joint report on the so-called SSBN(X) submarine, which is to replace today's 14 Ohio-class nuclear weapon-carrying boats. Gen. Robert Kehler, who commands the Omaha, Neb.-based military organization, would have operational control over submarine-loaded nuclear weapons if they were ever used in combat. The provision adapts an earlier demand in the House-passed version of 2012 defense authorization legislation; the Senate version had included no similar requirement. The new conference bill is the result of negotiations between Armed Services committee lawmakers from each chamber. The bill passed Congress in a 283-136 House vote on Wednesday evening and an 86-13 Senate vote on Thursday afternoon. Having withdrawn a veto threat over language on handling of detainees, the president was expected soon to sign the bill into law. The legislation omits earlier House language that the White House said could have tied its hands in setting the nation's nuclear-weapon policies and implementing the U.S.-Russian New START arms control agreement, which entered into force earlier this year (see GSN, Dec. 14). The Navy-Strategic Command report is to assess several options for the quantity of SSBN(X) submarines to be built and how many missiles each vessel should carry. Navy leaders have said that 12 planned Ohio-class replacement submarines are to initially be capable of carrying 16 of today's Trident D-5 ballistic missiles, but that a next-generation missile replacing the D-5 might later be fielded aboard the same submarines. Force structure alternatives to be considered in the upcoming report include a fleet of 10 or 12 submarines, with each boat containing 16 missile tubes; or a fleet of eight or 10 submarines, with each boat containing 20 missile tubes, the conference report states. The assessment could also include "any other options the secretary and the commander consider appropriate," according to the text. "The report would be required to assess the procurement cost and total life-cycle cost of each option, the ability for each option to meet Strategic Command's at-sea requirements that are in place as of the date of enactment of this act and any expected changes to such requirements, and the ability for each option to meet nuclear employment and planning guidance in place as of the date of enactment of this act and any expected changes to such guidance," the legislation reads. The Defense Department document "would also be required to include a description of the postulated threat and strategic environment used to inform selection of a final option, as well as how each option provides flexibility for responding to changes in the threat and strategic environment," according to the bill. The congressional mandate for an appraisal of the planned submarine's military requirements and specifications, as measured against anticipated threats, comes as the Pentagon is conducting a behind-closed-doors study on possible changes to nuclear targeting and strategy. The "NPR Implementation Study," based on a major Nuclear Posture Review that the Pentagon issued last year, is due for completion this month but not expected to be released publicly (see GSN, Nov. 8). The Congressional Budget Office projected in June that the cost to develop and build the new submarines would total roughly $100 billion. Of that figure, $86 billion would be required for submarine procurement alone. The Navy differs with this figure, estimating instead that acquisition costs for the new fleet would total less than $76 billion, according to an Arms Control Association fact sheet. A Defense Department decision memorandum on the SSBN(X) program, signed in February by then-Pentagon acquisition czar Ashton Carter, revealed a total cost estimate of $347.2 billion for the 12-submarine plan, the independent newsletter Inside the Pentagon reported that month. However, the figure cited by Carter -- now the deputy Defense secretary -- included anticipated expenditures not only for development and procurement but also operation of the new submarine fleet over its projected 50-year life span. The price tag was the Pentagon's first publicly known total cost estimate for the SSBN(X) and substantially exceeded earlier independent estimates, the publication reported at the time. Some critics see potential for lower expenditures if the objectives for the program are tailored back. "The United States can rightsize the current and future ballistic missile submarine fleet" to 10 submarines and "save $27 billion over 10 years, or "$120 billion over the life of the program," Tom Collina and Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association said in a recent issue paper. Going from 12 to 10 SSBN(X) submarines would still "allow the Pentagon to deploy the same number of sea-based warheads -- about 1,000 -- as planned under New START," the analysts said in the Dec. 2 piece. These and other nongovernmental number-crunchers have attracted some support in Congress. Led by Representative Edward Markey (D-Mass.), a group of 64 lawmakers in October wrote to the congressional deficit-reduction "super committee" to recommend that $200 billion be cut from the U.S. nuclear weapons budget over the next decade. "At any one time there are up to 12 Trident submarines cruising the world's seas," the letter stated. "Each submarine carries an estimated 96 nuclear warheads. Each submarine is capable of destroying all of Russia's and China's major cities. Why then do we need all of these weapons?" "There is no good reason," the correspondence continued. "America no longer needs, and cannot afford, this massive firepower." In a Nov. 14 letter to lawmakers, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned that if a deal could not be struck to avoid a budget sequester, he would be forced to take a number of "devastating" reductions to military budgets in coming years. Ramifications could include a delay in the SSBN(X) effort and a reduction to 10 of the submarines for an estimated savings of $7 billion, he said. Panetta also said a sequester -- which would force the federal government to reduce its budget by $1.2 trillion beginning in 2013 -- could result in the elimination of the entire U.S. fleet of 450 ICBMs and delay development of a next-generation, nuclear-capable bomber aircraft (see GSN, Nov. 15). The bipartisan super committee announced in late November that its members could not agree how to reduce the federal deficit, leaving open the possibility that a sequester will materialize. Even if sequestration is averted through a future political deal on Capitol Hill, the White House has told the Pentagon it must assess how it would trim its budget by $450 billion over the next 10 years. The spending-review process is pitting military services against one another for a share of the budget pie, and even within each branch bitter fights are emerging to determine which programs and line items will survive the cost-cutting axe, according to defense sources. The budget drills have led some sectors of the Navy to question whether the planned 12 new ballistic-missile submarines would place an undue burden on the service's ability to keep a modern fleet of surface ships afloat, some experts and officials said. "If they can't figure out how to get the Ohio-class submarines funded without destroying the Navy shipbuilding plan, then the rest of the Navy's going to kill the [Ohio-class] replacement program or dramatically reduce the number of boats," said one defense consultant who asked not to be named in discussing the ongoing Pentagon deliberations. In July, Kehler -- the top strategic military commander -- cited the new submarines among several military procurement efforts that he and other "fairly senior people" had determined might be too costly "to be able to go forward with." Under pressure from the Defense secretary's office and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Navy has been working to reduce its anticipated expenditures in the SSBN(X) effort. "Our commitment is to bring that cost down," aiming to drop the price to between $4 billion and $5 billion per submarine, Adm. Gary Roughead, then-chief of naval operations, in March told a House Appropriations subcommittee. "We have brought the price down from when we began that process." "Recognizing growing budget constraints, "we have already embarked on a program of aggressively challenging capability improvements and design and construction practices to identify means to deliver this important capability at least cost," Navy acquisition officials stated in written testimony to a Senate Armed Services subcommittee this past May. In the February decision memo, Carter reportedly acknowledged that last year's Nuclear Posture Review called for a possible reduction from today's 14 Ohio-class submarines to a 12-vessel fleet by the end of the decade. "I understand, however, that changes to the future security environment could create the possibility for a lower or higher required number of [Ohio replacement] submarines," stated the Carter memo, according to a review of the document by Inside the Pentagon. "Analysis of the potential to change the number of submarines will be made as the program progresses."