The Navy Hunts for Its Next-Generation Nuclear Submarine
Policy + Politics

The Navy Hunts for Its Next-Generation Nuclear Submarine

Wikimedia Commons/US Navy

The Defense Department has given the U.S. Navy the green light to begin entertaining proposals for the service’s next ballistic missile submarine, an effort that could cost nearly $350 billion over its lifetime.

A Pentagon spokeswoman told Bloomberg on Tuesday that Frank Kendall, the agency’s top weapons buyer, told the Navy it could release a request for proposals for the development phase of 12 Ohio-class replacement subs.

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The service wants to buy 12 boats to replace the current force of 14 Trident Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, which entered into service in the early 1980s. Navy officials have pegged the cost of the Ohio replacement program, also known as the SSBN(X), at around $139 billion dollars. The effort’s lifetime cost will come in at roughly $347 billion.

The Navy budgeted $1.4 billion for research and design in fiscal year 2016, and the development phase, which will last for years, has an estimated cost of $15 billion. The Congressional Budget Office says first submarine could cost $13 billion.

The service has put a premium on the shipbuilding effort, which officials argue is essential for maintaining the country’s nuclear triad and keep up with aggressive naval pushes by Russia and China.

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On Tuesday, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson released his first strategic guidance document since taking the service’s top job and singled out the submarine modernization effort as a way the U.S. can maintain its maritime superiority.

“This is foundational to our survival as a nation,” he writes.


Capitol Hill lawmakers, some with major shipyards in their districts or home states, have heard the service’s pleas and responded in kind.

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The fiscal 2015 defense policy bill authorized a special account for the SSBN(X) effort, dubbed the “National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund.” The thinking goes that the sub effort is so large and so expensive that it should be considered a “national” program and therefore funded from accounts throughout the Pentagon, rather than strictly from Navy coffers, thus avoiding painful budget cuts to other shipbuilding programs.

However, congressional appropriators have resisted the move, countering that a special account for the boats would set a bad precedent and that the “national” tag could easily be applied to other expensive weapon platforms, such as the Air Force’s $400 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and have left the account empty.

Kendall has also derided the deterrence fund as a gimmick that does nothing to alleviate the budget pressures the department has been under the last several years.

The first submarine is expected to be purchased in 2021, with an initial fund request coming in fiscal 2017.

Who will bid on the program is less mysterious, since General Dynamics and Huntington Ingalls Industries are the country’s only submarine builders.