Nuclear Weapons

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

07.24.13 | 7 min read | Text by Hans Kristensen

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.