The Navy is at the brink of its own fiscal crisis and is looking for a bailout. A proposed fleet of 12 new ballistic missile submarines — costing $100 billion total — could bust the Navy’s shipbuilding budget and force cuts to the surface fleet.
So the Navy has asked the cash-strapped Pentagon to pay for the nuclear-armed subs. Throwing money at this problem will not make it affordable. Instead, the Pentagon needs to resize the sub program with the understanding that the U.S. can meet today’s security challenges with fewer nuclear weapons at less cost.
The new Ohio-replacement submarines are expected to deploy the majority of the United States’ nuclear arsenal through the end of the century. Under current plans, however, the Navy has warned that the cost of building these subs will “take away from construction of other ships in the battle force such as attack submarines, destroyers, aircraft carriers and amphibious warfare ships.” That means the future of a global, flexible Navy would be scuttled by an oversized fleet of Cold War behemoths.
To keep its future plans afloat, the Navy wants a bailout. They have requested that Congress create a supplemental fund for the subs, dishing out an additional $4 billion each year for 15 years from 2019 onward. This is the Navy’s way of saying to the Pentagon, “You want that many subs? How about you pay for them.” The Navy would control the program and buy 12 new subs, but the Pentagon would provide the extra $60 billion.
A Navy bailout would be a raw deal for the rest of the military. With defense budgets flattening, this additional money would have to come from someone else. If the Navy gets $4 billion annually to rebuild its Cold War sub fleet, it means another military need goes unfunded. Maybe it was $4 billion needed for preserving Army force levels. Or perhaps it was $4 billion needed to keep Air Force fighters maintained and pilots ready. Bottom line, the other services will be forced to cut back to pick up the Navy’s tab.
There’s a simpler solution: Cut excessive nuclear requirements. America doesn’t need 12 ballistic missile submarines to deter our modern-day adversaries. In fact, we could deploy more than 1,000 nuclear warheads on submarines with a fleet of only eight new subs.
The president and his military advisers have signaled America is prepared to bring the nuclear arsenal down further, meaning the Navy would need even fewer submarines to meet modern post-Cold War deterrence requirements.
The problem is that the Pentagon’s plan to reshape the nuclear force has slowed, while the contract to buy the Navy’s subs has raced ahead. If this policy-procurement gap persists, the Navy is going to go broke buying a sub fleet that exceeds any rational security strategy.
It happened before. When procuring the original Ohio-class submarine in the 1970s and 1980s, the Pentagon could not decide how many it wanted to buy in total. So the Navy simply added an additional sub to the program each year until told to stop — after buying 18 subs. By the time the Pentagon updated its nuclear plans, the Navy already had a glut of nuclear firepower.
The Navy needs relief from its nuclear burden — but not in the form of an annual $4 billion bailout. Instead, the Pentagon needs to better integrate its plans for a smaller nuclear force with the Navy plans for its future battle force. Buying fewer subs would save billions of dollars, allow the Navy to modernize its surface fleet and avoid overinvesting in weapons that have — by explicit national policy — a diminishing role in U.S. national security strategy.
Benjamin Loehrke is a senior policy analyst at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation.