FALLS CHURCH, Va. — U.S. Navy submarine fleet admirals are continuing the clarion call for the proposed replacement of aging Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), touting the intended vessel advancements and emphasizing the need for the ships to meet the nation’s strategic nuclear plans.

Speaking at the 2012 Naval Submarine League Symposium Oct. 17, the admirals made it clear the proposed replacement fleet would be newly designed boats — not simply upgraded Ohio-class vessels – that would leverage technological and programmatic pushes made by the Virginia-class attack subs, but go beyond redesigned or reconfigured Virginias.

The admirals also made it clear that the Ohio-class replacement boats represent the most important and vital shipbuilding program for the Navy and nation because of the strategic need for nuclear deterrence.

“Our number one priority is the Ohio-class replacement program,” says Adm. Kirk Donald, the director of naval reactors. No budget, political or related issues should hold up the program, he says: “There can be no excuses.”

Acknowledging that detractors continue to hound the program for cost issues and perceived technological risk of developing the subs, he says, “We shouldn’t be talking about them as a burden. It is our solemn responsibility.”

Rear Adm. Frank Caldwell, commander of the Navy’s Pacific submarine fleet, says, “It is not a submarine force problem. It’s a Navy force problem.”

The Navy has relied on 14 Ohio-class subs to perform the mission, notes Rear Adm. Barry Bruner, director of submarine warfare. But thanks to material and other improvements, as well as a modified maintenance and overhaul schedule, the service will be able to do the job with a dozen of the proposed replacement subs. But, he says, “We have to have 12 submarines.”

And there is no way the new sub can simply be a modified Ohio. “Absolutely not,” he says, citing such improvements as an electric drive, new stern and improved, larger Virginia-like propulsor.

In a recent blog about the proposed replacement fleet, Bruner says the Navy and Pentagon are keeping a lid on proposed costs. “The Department of Defense set an aggressive cost goal of $4.9 billion per hull (calendar year 2010) as an average cost for hulls 2-12,” he writes. “To date, the Navy has reduced costs by reducing specifications to the minimum necessary to meet national strategic deterrent requirements, implementing modular construction design, reusing the Trident II D5 Strategic Weapons System, and reusing Virginia- and Ohio-class components where feasible. The Virginia-class construction program, through aggressive management and collaboration between government and industry, has developed into a model shipbuilding program, continually coming in under budget and ahead of schedule. Ohio Replacement design and construction will build on this success.”

U.S. Navy leaders acknowledge that if they don’t maintain cost and schedule for the Ohio-class replacement and Virginia-class sub programs, they will have to cut purchases of new attack submarines. But they say they are willing to make that move if necessary, due to the importance of the Ohio replacement program.