Submerged in Spending

Replacing the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine could strain other shipbuilding budgets.

The Obama administration has publicly stated its commitment to replacing the aging Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine, but Navy officials have been warned that the next nuclear-powered boat could threaten other shipbuilding programs if they let its price get out of control. The service, which requested $672.3 million in its fiscal 2011 request for the ballistic missile submarine, expects to invest billions of dollars in research and development on the boats during the next several years. It then plans to procure 12 at a cost that is estimated at $6 billion to $7 billion apiece, not including upfront R&D costs.

The Navy wants to buy the first vessel in fiscal 2019 and have it ready to enter service in fiscal 2028. The remaining 11 submarines would be procured between 2022 and 2033 and enter service between 2029 and 2040.

With an annual shipbuilding budget typically around $15 billion, procuring even one submarine could put a strain on the Navy's accounts and make it a lot more difficult to buy other ships without a significant uptick in its budget. "In the latter part of this decade, the new ballistic missile submarine alone would begin to eat up the lion's share of the Navy's shipbuilding resources," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a speech in May.

Gates said he did not "foresee any significant top-line increases in the shipbuilding budget beyond current assumptions," which he noted underscores the necessity of keeping costs under control on Navy programs across the board.

"At the end of the day, we have to ask whether the nation can really afford a Navy that relies on $3 billion to $6 billion destroyers, $7 billion submarines and $11 billion carriers," he said.

The Ohio-class replacement program was again targeted in late June by Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton B. Carter, who listed it among several new weapons systems whose costs the Defense Department cannot afford to let spiral out of control.

"Since we are embarking on some important new investments this year, I want to make sure that those kind of trade-offs, that affordability is built in from the beginning," Carter said during a news briefing at the Pentagon.

No contract has been awarded yet for the Ohio-class replacement program, but there are only two U.S. companies capable of building nuclear-powered submarines-General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton, Conn., and Quonset Point, R.I., and Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding in Newport News, Va. Electric Boat built the Ohio-class submarines.

The White House validated the need for a ballistic missile submarine in this year's Nuclear Posture Review, making the nuclear-powered submarine virtually an imperative despite its anticipated hefty costs.

The 72-page review of the country's current and future nuclear capabilities and requirements called strategic ballistic missile-carrying nuclear submarines the "most survivable leg of the U.S. nuclear triad."

The review acknowledged that by 2020, the Ohio-class submarines will be operating longer than any other submarines. The Navy, the review concluded, "must continue" with a replacement program.

The service plans to retire the first of the 14 Ohio-class submarines in 2027, after 42 years in service. The remaining 13 vessels will retire gradually between 2028 and 2040.

Megan Scully is the defense reporter for CongressDaily.

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CORRECTION: The original version of this story incorrectly stated the number of Ohio-class submarines in the fleet. The Navy has 14 of the submarines, with plans to retire the first one in 2027.

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