With several defense analysts calling for the U.S. Navy to abandon its efforts to develop a new design for its SSBN(X) Ohio-class submarine replacements, the service’s undersea warfare director is defending the current course.
“Recently, a variety of writers have speculated that the required survivable deterrence could be achieved more cost effectively with the Virginia-based option or by restarting the Ohio-class SSBN production line,” says Rear Adm. Richard Breckenridge, in a recent blog. “Both of these ideas make sense at face value—which is why they were included among the alternatives assessed—but the devil is in the details. When we examined the particulars, each of these options came up short in both military effectiveness and cost efficiency.”
A Virginia-based SSBN design with a Trident II D5 missile, Breckenridge says, was “rejected due to a wide range of shortfalls.” The concept, he says, was not stealthy enough due to poor hull streamlining and lack of a drivetrain able to quietly propel a much larger ship; would have had longer refit times and a longer mid-life overhaul; would carry fewer missiles and warheads; would have exceeded cost targets because of the required extensive redesign of Virginia systems to work with the large missile compartment; and would have required a larger fleet of submarines.
“Some have encouraged the development of a new, smaller missile to go with a Virginia-based SSBN,” Breckenridge says. “This would carry forward many of the shortfalls of a Virginia-based SSBN, and add to it a long list of new issues. Developing a new nuclear missile from scratch with an industrial base that last produced a new design more than 20 years ago would be challenging, costly and require extensive testing. We deliberately decided to extend the life of the current missile to de-couple and de-risk the complex (and costly) missile development program from the new replacement submarine program.
“A smaller missile means a shorter employment range requiring longer SSBN patrol transits. This would compromise survivability, require more submarines at sea and ultimately weaken our deterrence effectiveness.”
Some have argued, he notes, that the Navy should reopen the Ohio production line and resume building the Ohio design SSBNs.
“This simply cannot be done because there is no Ohio production line,” Breckenridge says. “It has long since been retooled and modernized to build state-of-the-art Virginia-class SSNs using computerized designs and modular, automated construction techniques.”
Simply redesigning the Ohio-class subs to be built using new production methods and machinery would be a mistake, he says, since some of the newer technology would not carry over to the old design and building the ship to existing missile specifications could lead to some treaty issues.