SSBNX Under Pressure: Submarine Chief Says Navy Can’t Reduce

The head of the SSBN fleet, Rear Admiral Richard Breckenridge, says the size of the fleet is really about geography.

By Hans M. Kristensen

In a blog and video on the U.S. Navy web site Navy Live, the head of the U.S. submarine force Rear Admiral Richard Breckenridge claims that the United States cannot reduce its fleet of nuclear ballistic missile submarines further.

This is the third time in three months that Breckenridge has seen a need to go online to defend the size of the SSBN fleet. The first time was in May in reaction to my article about declining SSBN patrols. The second time was in June when he argued that the design chosen for the next-generation SSBN was the only option.

Now Breckenridge argues that the number of operational SSBNs cannot be reduced further if the U.S. Navy is to be able to conduct continuous deployments in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

Three public interventions in as many months shows that the plan to spend $70 billion-plus to build a new class of 12 SSBNs is under pressure, and Breckenridge acknowledges that much: “The heat inside the Pentagon right now is probably just as bad” as the summer heat outside and “with sequestration and the fiscal crisis and the budgetary impacts on the DOD topline, there’s a lot of folks looking at how low we can go with the SSBN force.”

But the 12 planned next-generation SSBNs “is the floor,” Breckenridge claims. 

A Matter of Geography

It is not the first time that the navy has argued that what it has or plans to build is the absolute minimum and that anything less would undermine U.S. national security. But why does the navy plan to build 12 new SSBNs?

The answer, Breckenridge says, “really is a matter of geography.”

“For us to be able to conduct two-oceans strategic deterrence requires a bare minimum number of SSBNs of a force of twelve,” he claims. To get to that number, Breckenridge begins with a series of broad assumptions and claims about deterrence and SSBN operations.

“There are two important points for you to know for how strategic deterrence works. The first is those SSBNs have to invincible. They have to be survivable at sea. The adversary can’t find them. Hidden and unable to be detected. And second, they have to be within range of targets that matter to the adversary, that we can hold at risk to deter or dissuade them from ever considering attacking our homeland.”

“Geography requires that 60-40 split of our SSBN force,” he says. “A few more in the Pacific than in the Atlantic to be able to meet those two criteria for our nation’s defense.”

I May Not Know Much About Geography, But…

That explanation might work well for a public relations sound bite, but I hope the Pentagon folks examining the SSBN force level probe a little deeper.

First of all, why does two-oceans strategic deterrence require 12 SSBNs? Three decades ago it required 41. Two decades ago it required 33. One decade ago it required 18. Now it requires 14. And in two decades it will still require 12 SSBNs, according to the navy.

Breckenridge explains that out of 14 SSBNs currently in the fleet, 11 are on average operational but it sometimes drops to 10, with the rest undergoing maintenance (see here for article about SSBN operations). Those 10 operational SSBNs (six in the Pacific and four in the Atlantic) “is the bare minimum required to provide uninterrupted alert coverage for the combatant commander,” according to Breckenridge.

He says that the current SSBN fleet is a “lean” force. But there is nothing lean about it: the fleet is bigger than that of any other country; each Ohio-class SSBN carries more missiles than any SSBN of any other country can carry; each Trident II D5 missile can be loaded with more warheads than SLBMs of any other country; each missile is more accurate, lethal, and reliable than any other country’s SLBM; and the U.S. SSBN fleet conducts three times more deterrent patrols than any other country. The force is bloated both in terms of size, loadout, capability, and operations.

Britain and France both manage to ensure their security each with four SSBNs operating from a single base. In contrast, the “bare minimum” force that Breckenridge advocates of 10 deployable next-generation SSBNs will be able to carry 160 SLBMs with up to 1,280 warheads – more than Britain, France, China, Pakistan, India and Israel have in their total stockpiles, combined! In fact, that 10-SSBN force would be able to carry more than the entire deployed strategic warhead level proposed by President Obama in his recent Berlin speech.

Like Russia’s future SSBN fleet, the U.S. Navy could easily operate eight SSBNs from two bases. That would ensure that six next-generation SSBNs would always be deployed or ready to deploy on short notice. Combined they would be armed with nearly 100 long-range missiles capable of carrying up to 760 warheads that can hold a risk the full range of targets. Try to put 760 Xs – even 100 – on a map of Russia or China and tell me why that would be insufficient for deterrence in this day and age.

Equally important, where does the requirement to provide “uninterrupted alert coverage” on such a scale come from? What is the scenario? And why is it necessary – more than two decades after the end of the Cold War – “to provide uninterrupted alert coverage for the combatant commander”?

The requirement comes from the nuclear strategists that create the objectives and tasks that military planners translate into a “family” of nuclear strike plans against half a dozen adversaries. Those requirements are what Breckenridge is trying to meet with his 12 SSBNs.

But there is nothing in the strategic threat environment of today’s world that requires U.S. SSBNs to “provide uninterrupted alert coverage” under normal circumstances. Indeed, the new nuclear weapons employment policy issued by the White House last month concluded that “the potential for a surprise, disarming nuclear attack is exceedingly remote” and ordered DOD to “reduce the role of launch under attack” in nuclear planning.

Consequently, the SSBNs could be taken off alert and their readiness level significantly reduced while still providing basic operational training to the crews. The annual number of SSBN deterrent patrols has already declined by more than half over past decade and may drop further in the next years.

The Pentagon is already so confident in the capability of the SSBN fleet that it has concluded that Russia “would not be able to achieve a militarily significant advantage by any plausible expansion of its nuclear forces” because it would have “little to no effect” on the U.S. ability to retaliate with a devastating strike.

Despite Russian modernizations, the size of its strategic force is declining and will continue to decline over the next decade with or without a new arms reduction agreement. And there is no indication that China, despite its own modernizations, is planning to increase the size of its strategic nuclear force to anything remotely comparable to the force level proposed by President Obama.

Yet for the next two decades, until 2031 when the first next-generation SSBN is scheduled to sail on patrol, the navy plans to continue to operate all 14 Ohio-class SSBNs. Of those, the 12 operational boats currently carry 288 Trident II D5 missiles, which will be reduced to no more than 240 deployed missiles by 2018 under the New START Treaty. But that is 80 missiles (50 percent) more than the 160 missiles that will be deployed on the 10 operational next-generation SSBNs.

Why does the navy plan to sail for two decades with 50 percent more missiles than it has already decided it can do with on the next-generation SSBN?

This is even more puzzling because the plan for 12 SSBNs with 16 missiles each “did not assume any specific changes to targeting or employment guidance,” STRATCOM commander Robert Kehler testified before Congress in November 2011.

Read that again: the significant reduction planned for deployed sea-launched ballistic missiles did not require any specific changes to targeting or employment guidance!

That statement indicates that there is significant excess capacity on the SSBN fleet. And it is mind-boggling that Congress did not even notice it.

Conclusions and Recommendations

I may not know much about geography but it appears the SSBN force is significantly in excess of what is required now or planned for later. A force of 8-10 SSBNs with six operational boats would provide more than enough capacity to perform adequate deterrence deployments in Pacific and Atlantic.

Shedding the excess SSBN capacity now would save billions of dollars in construction and operational costs and make it easier to persuade Russia to reduce it forces as well. That seems to be a double win.

Part of the problem with debating SSBN operations and the war plans they are tasked under is that everything is so secret that there essentially is no way to independently verify Breckenridge’s claims. All we have are bits a pieces and common sense.

And because of this secrecy, and the almost religious aura of legitimacy that the SSBN force enjoys, many lawmakers blindly accept the claims and do not question the size of the force or the assumptions for its operations. That ends up costing the U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars.

The issue facing us is not whether the SSBN force provides an important contribution to U.S. national security or not. It does. The issue is what composition it needs to have and how it needs to operate to provide sufficient security at an affordable price.

18 thoughts on “SSBNX Under Pressure: Submarine Chief Says Navy Can’t Reduce

  1. “Britain and France both manage to ensure their security each with four SSBNs operating from a single base.”

    As usual your analysis of SSBN force structure levels and their place in deterrence is overly simplistic and ignores the wider role of the US nuclear force to not only deter our potential adversaries but also to assure our allies and partners around the globe.

    Of the nuclear powers in existence today only the US has explicitly promised to use its nuclear weapons on behalf of its allies. Even NATO acknowledges that while the independent nuclear arsenals of the UK and France contribute to the security of the alliance it is the US arsenal in particular that provides for the ultimate security of the alliance (bullet #9

    This commitment to our allies is particularly important in the Pacific where South Korea, Japan, and Australia face a growing threat from China and a potentially unstable North Korea. Add in the continued tensions from Pakistan – never mind the ambitions of Iran – and you have a situation that requires a larger force than someone merely interested in defending their own nation.

    America could save a lot of money by returning to isolationism. We could reduce our nuclear forces, close our international bases, and no longer send our Navy out to maintain the world’s sea lines of communication – and save billions of dollars a year. But I don’t really think very many people would want to live in that world. America’s growing energy independence for the first time could allow us to wash our hands of the entire Middle East and the sea routes that are currently used to transport that oil – but what would the ultimate cost of that decision be? If America were to abandon her security commitments to Japan, South Korea, Israel, Australia, Saudi Arabia, and NATO do you really think none of them would turn to nuclear weapons to protect themselves?

  2. Hans Kristensen

    After a careful review of your conclusions, I must agree. The stated US Navy goal of twelve SSBNX Trident replacement submarines is clearly wrong.

    It’s too low. Your comments have convinced me that Trident must be replace on a one-for-one basis and that fourteen boats need to be procured. Whether the US orders twelve SSBNX submarines or fourteen (or ten), the cost, outside of a little steel, will be the same. Fourteen submarines will allow the US Navy to continue to have 28 different trained crews to support the strategic submarine fleet. Fourteen submarines will give the future National Command Authority, in the 2035 or so timeline, the flexibility to replace Minuteman with a sea-based deterrent and eliminating the need to build a costly new ICBM. Building fourteen SSBNX submarines will decrease the number and types of nuclear warheads the US needs to maintain in its arsenal saving untold billions of dollars in future cost if those ICBM warheads are no longer needed. Fourteen SSBNX submarines will continue to allow the most efficient use of both American strategic submarine bases (Kings Bay and Bangor) and the shipyard infrastructure of the industries that build and support the SLBM fleet. So, actually, it is geography.

    Frank Shuler


  3. Hans Kristensen

    Quite an interesting article with amplifying links.

    Not to quibble, however, I find your arguments seriously flawed as follows:

    1 – As individual states of the “united” states of America are often much larger in populace, land areas and stste economies than individual European nations, including France, your comparison is the probably the most blatant case of “apples and oranges” I have yet to read in a serious opinion.

    2 – During both World Wars and the Cold War the U.S. did more than promise defense of its allies; the U.S. spent blood and treasure to assure their democratic continuity.

    3 – re: your “Declining Deterrent Patrols Indicate Too Many SSBNs” …

    Perhaps (I was a Cold War submariner) the decline reflects a balance necessitated more by dedication of SSN to the Middle East, etc. Not only have SSBNs been reduced in number since their peak levels, so have SSNs ‘scouts’.

    4 – Finally, and perhaps most alarming, you do neither mentioned Russia’s intended departures from START nor dare to state or criticize their unpublicized FBM goals.

  4. Brakenridge is not the head of the US Submarine force. Poor editing. You should fact check articles that are so politically charged.

  5. Hans,

    Just a note on the maths in your blog. The UK and France each feel the need to have 4 subs in total, which *includes* the mid-life refuelling in their calculation of 4 for CASD… though the debate in UK hints there may be a possibility of having CASD with three (with some push-back from MoD on that just coming out). But that four is IN TOTAL. Breckenridge appears to be double counting when he talks of the need for 4 plus 6, and then the 3 or so for mid-life refuelling plus one for flexibility. 4 in total already has plenty of flexibility to ensure high confidence CASD, and 4+4 would be extremely high confidence double CASD.

    In the state of a close ally of the US I’m tired of being rolled out by people in the U.S. to justify a bloated nuclear weapons arsenal to assure me of US ability to provide an extended nuclear deterrent when, even if it were needed today, would simply require the capability of delivering a small number of warheads globally with high confidence. At present, that should require no more than a total fleet of four SSBNs with a small number of warheads… something akin to the British minimum deterrent. Anything more is about fighting yesterday’s Cold War that many people still appear to be trapped in.

    Paul Ingram



  6. Paul Ingram

    I’m curious to your opinion. Why do you think the UK needs nuclear weapons today? Who exactly are the British Trident missiles targeting when out on patrol? Who are the “enemies” that hold British cities hostage? Couldn’t the billions of £‘s needed for a Trident Replacement be better spent? Isn’t this really more about prestige than practicality? Of course, I would never attempt to lecture you on how to best defend your country, but; again, just curious to your mindset.

    Frank Shuler


  7. Well Frank Shuler,

    You ask a good question. Ultimately, maintaining an independent CASD British deterrent is an expensive expression of a lack of confidence in the long-term relationship with the US and NATO. It’s justified on the grounds of ‘insurance’ against a future uncertainty. What we haven’t quite got to grips with is how that lack of confidence fits in choosing to invest in a system that is so heavily reliant upon our ongoing technical relationship with the United States in cooperation over the most sensitive of technologies.

    The British do not target their nuclear weapons, and I personally don’t think we ever will. If we are purchasing new systems for prestige it’s a strange way of going about it, since most of the world resent us for the action, and places at the top table are more closely related to size of economy and other factors. You can draw your own conclusions about where that places me.

    On the issue of U.S. extended deterrence, that surely relies upon the ability and willingness to deliver a punishing threat large enough to force an adversary to back off. With their range and firepower, a single Trident submarine out on patrol should be perfectly adequate for deterrence and extended deterrence, in terms of hardware, though I can see that it would be helpful to have the capacity to launch a Trident submarine in the other ocean if things start to get hot. Of course the question of assurance is all about signalling, and that’s a complex thing, but shouldn’t require massive unnecessary spending and escalatory postures if the logic is sound and well communicated. That was my primary point.

    Paul Ingram



  8. No one has mentioned survivability. Part of the reason why we need 50% more bullets now than we will have with SSBNX is because SSBNX will be more survivable than our current Ohios. Keep in mind that deterrence is the threat of a retaliation in the event of a first strike against us. Part of such a first strike would almost certainly include the destruction of any deployed SSBNs being tracked by enemy forces. We’re good, but I’m not convinced we’re 100% good. The question then, on both sides, is how many boats would survive the opening round to retaliate. That’s a major factor in the equation.


  9. Paul Ingram

    Your phrase, “It’s justified on the grounds of ‘insurance’ against a future uncertainty.” sums up my feeling about the current Trident system and the future SSBNX. For deterrence to work, any adversary must know that a nuclear attack on the United States will face retaliation; a retaliation so massive in size and scope that renders the thought of such a “first-strike” unimaginable. No nation on earth wants to lose 20 of its largest cities in “victory”. I support the “Global Zero Initiative”, with the caveat, I want to see more strategic submarines in the mix as “insurance against a future uncertainty”.

    I’ll settle for twelve; prefer fourteen.

    Frank Shuler


  10. Hans, you seem to be applying a bare-minimum needed approach to nuclear deterrence and national security more broadly.

    That’s not a viable approach and your apparent political bias is causing you to fudge the numbers. For some reason this is an emotional issue for you, what with your exclamation marks and all. This isn’t the kind of analysis you want to corrupt with textbook political biases and emotions.

    D5s don’t all carry multiple warheads. How can you not know this? Some carry only one, since some scenarios will call for only one target. This means your warhead count is incorrect and should be updated.

    Your scenario with 6 boats deployed or ready to be deployed should be amended to just the deployed, on alert boats. You’re counting ‘”ready to be deployed”, but you need to scratch those because they’re gone in any serious surprise strike scenario. After all, there are only two bases, trivially easy to take out.

    As others have noted, the UK and French forces exist in a universe where the US also exists. If you’re going to be serious about analysis, you have to take context into account and model all the variables that change if you gut US forces. Never move one variable without accounting for how it changes others.

    The surplus you see in current deployments, which for some reason angers you, is a feature not a bug. Shooting for the bare minimum on something like nuclear deterrence is incredibly reckless, and might get millions of people killed.

    Assume that one of the boats is lost to a mouse-quiet electric sub. Or to an Akula catching the captain on a bad day.

    Assume one of the boats doesn’t launch because the captain has a nervous breakdown.

    Assume 2 of the 16 missiles fail in flight.

    Assume 1 out of every 5 warheads fails or misses by miles.

    Assume 1 out of 3 warheads is shot down by ABM.

    Assume one or two boats are sunk or nuked midway through their sequence, getting off only half their missiles. After all, as soon as they launch the first missile, their location is blown.

    Assume that the leaders of a nation of 1.1 billion people don’t care if they lose 50 million people in a strategic victory.

    Your numbers assume perfection at every stage, and poor planning by adversaries. War simply doesn’t work that way, and serious analysis must take that into account.

  11. As a retired Navy Nuke who did 6 deterrent patrols in the early 80’s on SSN626 I got to ask the question that is most crucial to this. Just why do we need to maintain constant patrols in both oceans? And, exactly who are we deterring? The cold war is long over. The threat to the US is not ICBM’s and Mutual Assured Destruction. It is small rogue groups of disenfranchised people. God forbid the set off a dirty weapon anywhere or even a tactical nuke, just who are we going to retaliate against?


  12. Having lived the reality of patrols as a nuclear trained Machinist Mate I find the writer to really be drinking the Kool Aid served by the White House . This is the attitude the Navy had to deal with during Carter . I will never forget firemen and other snipes coming to my boat and asking how to start up or fix something on their ship . I was blessed having had a Master Chief teach me at the destroer plant at Glakes all he could get into my thick skull . The complexity of an overhaul or refit is staggering even with the quality men I worked with in the seventies . When at a reunion I visited a Trident in Kings Bay where I was on the second boat to pull in , I was shocked at how the Nukes on board were treated in continuing education . They didnt fix things as there were subcontractors who came on board . How could they learn and have confidence? Now I see women coming on board and have yet to have some one to tell me how to clear the air of pheromes or protect the possible yet born children of the women from radiation damage . I fully believe that there has been a permeation and weakening of our society . The attitude carried by the writer is contagious . Rather than seeing reality about us , the lemmings in the White House rush on .

  13. Being a member of the US Navy submarine service myself I find it obvious that this person has little to no knowledge of military strategy or has any idea of the threat level the we still face. Regardless of what the general public is exposed to I can tell you that we still face a significant threat based on my personal experience and SSBNs are the number one priority of any other nation’s navy when looking at HVUs to destroy. This is one of the reasons SSBNs have to be top of the line boats with top notch crews (there is a reason so many allied countries send their submarine commanders to the United States to be trained), long term survivability, ultimate stealth, and the biggest nuclear payload we could possibly give them to unleash in the event we are attacked. Also, the author isn’t factoring in that submarine deployments aren’t like the Army or USMC deployments where individuals can still contact home. Boats are gone for 3-6 months without warning to family and with no communication, they come back to swap crews for another time period and are gone again until they come back for maintenance upkeep. It is very taxing on families. In my opinion 12 is about the right number and of course there are going to be additional boats and missiles during the transition period (although I doubt they will create more, more likely just shift missiles from one boat to another to save money) because while a crew is being trained on the new boat there still has to be an operational crew. There are a lot of logistical and strategic points the author does not understand. And just for my closing statement, I’m a fast attack boat (SSN) guy. We do the “real” deployments (6-9 months) haha. Just have to take jab at the boomer guys (boomer is slang for SSBNs).

  14. I must agree with Hans here. I to some degree accept the arguments offered that one must take “pre-launch” losses to account, and that the second strike capability must be of a quality which pursuades any would-be first striker that he will suffer unacceptable losses.

    With a yield of some 500kt, a W88 warhead can do a lot of damage. Would “a nation of” accept having its 20 largest cities struck by just one of these each? I doubt it. It is not just a matter of lives lost, but also of economic damage, political consequences etc. And lets not forget the rest of the US arsenal..? Do we assume it has been wiped out as well?

  15. Hans, would it be more useful to analyze the factors that have already driven down the number of SSBNs and the number of strategic patrols? if these factors persistent into the future, you will have fewer boats and fewer patrols no matter who argues for or against it. You like plots. It would be great if you can plot the number of patrols against the US/World GDP ratio or other factors (defense budget/GDP, etc).

  16. Frank Shuler and Joe: OK, we actually need current SSBN/D5/warhead numbers to deter potential aggression, or perhaps even more, “just to be safe”.

    Fine. At what price?

    And I’m not just counting dollars here, although God knows we’re already talking what the late Everett Dirksen used to call “real money”.

    There is also the cost in U.S. prestige and reputation globally, as we continue to modernize and threaten to enlarge a nuclear arsenal that can already end life as we know it on Earth, while Russia’s military economy continues to deflate like a beach ball with a slow puncture, China modernizes a tiny force, and everyone else plays around in the low hundreds of nukes, except for the DPRK which has, possibly, nearly 30 (or fewer than 5 — we just don’t know), and Iran, which has — none.

    What’s that? You don’t care about our global reputation? That sounds downright…isolationist!

  17. Ted Seay

    I’m at a loss. How does the decision to replace the current Trident system, submarines and ballistic missiles, in the post-2030 timeframe harm our “global reputation”? What exactly is our “global reputation” now and how would that be impacted by our decision to continue maintaining a nuclear deterrence in the future?

    Frank Shuler


  18. 4 East coast boats: 1 in ERP, 1 in refit, 1 on alert, 1 on inspection. Alert boat suffers fault or emergency which requires coming off alert. Inspection boat cannot go alert before disembarking, so who picks up the package? Current policies cannot be implemented with 4 east coast boats.

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