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Friday, December 3, 2010

Navy SSBN(X) Ballistic Missile Submarine Program: Background and Issues for Congress

Ronald O'Rourke
Specialist in Naval Affairs

Ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) carry submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), which are large, long-range missiles armed with multiple nuclear warheads. The SSBNs’ basic mission is to remain hidden at sea with their SLBMs, so as to deter a nuclear attack on the United States by another country. Navy SSBNs form one leg of the U.S. strategic nuclear deterrent force, or “triad,” which also includes land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and landbased long-range bombers. The Navy currently operates 14 Ohio (SSBN-726) class SSBNs, the first of which is projected to reach the end of its service life in 2027.

The Navy is currently conducting development and design work on a planned class of 12 nextgeneration ballistic missile submarines, or SSBN(X)s, which the service wants to procure as replacements for the 14 Ohio-class boats. The SSBN(X) program, also known as the Ohio-class replacement program (ORP), received $497.4 million in research and development funding in the Navy’s FY2010 budget, and the Navy’s proposed FY2011 budget requests an additional $672.3 million in research and development funding for the program. Navy plans call for procuring the first SSBN(X) in FY2019, with advance procurement funding for the boat beginning in FY2015.

The Navy in February 2010 preliminarily estimated the procurement cost of each SSBN(X) at $6 billion to $7 billion in FY2010 dollars—a figure equivalent to roughly one-half of the Navy’s budget each year for procuring new ships. In September 2010, the Department of Defense (DOD) stated that the Navy was working to reduce the average unit procurement cost of ships 2 through 12 in the program to $5 billion in FY2010 dollars. Some observers are concerned that procuring 12 SSBN(X)s during the 15-year period FY2019-FY2033, as called for in Navy plans, could lead to reductions in procurement rates for other types of Navy ships during those years. Potential FY2011 issues for Congress include the following: 

  • the accuracy of the Navy’s preliminary estimate of the procurement cost of each SSBN(X); 
  • the prospective affordability of the SSBN(X) program and its potential impact on other Navy shipbuilding programs; 
  • the impact of UK preferences for the design of its new SSBNs on U.S. consideration of SSBN(X) design options; and 
  • the question of which shipyard or shipyards will build SSBN(X)s. 

Options for reducing the cost of the SSBN(X) program or its potential impact on other Navy shipbuilding programs include procuring fewer than 12 SSBN(X)s; reducing the number of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) to be carried by each SSBN(X); designing the SSBN(X) to carry a smaller SLBM; stretching out the schedule for procuring SSBN(X)s and making greater use of split funding (i.e., two-year incremental funding) in procuring them; funding the procurement of SSBN(X)s in a part of the Department of Defense (DOD) budget other than the Navy’s shipbuilding account; and increasing the Navy’s shipbuilding budget.

This report focuses on the SSBN(X) as a Navy shipbuilding program. CRS Report RL33640, U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces: Background, Developments, and Issues, by Amy F. Woolf, discusses the SSBN(X) as an element of future U.S. strategic nuclear forces in the context of strategic nuclear arms control agreements.

Date of Report: November 22, 2010
Number of Pages: 41
Order Number: R41129
Price: $29.95

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