RADM (Ret) Frank Lacroix was the Director for Force Structure Resources and Assessments (J-8) on the Joint Staff and the Deputy Director for Operations i11 the Office of the Navy Comptroller.
Despite last minute Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) efforts to trim costs, the SSBN(X) submarine, the follow-on to today’s Ohio class ballistic missile submarine that is due to enter service in 2028, may still be the costliest submarine in U.S. history. First estimates had the lead boat in the anticipated class of 12 SSBN(X) submarines costing as much as $13 billion to research, develop, and manufacture, subsequent boats in the class were projected as costly as $7 billion apiece to procure. At that cost, given the United States’ current and anticipated budget environment, funding issues likely could dog the program throughout its design and construction, particularly if a solid case has not been made that the right submarine is being built and built well.
The Navy and the Department of Defense (DOD) have long been aware of this new submarine’s high price tag. The Navy’s 30-year (FY2011-2040) shipbuilding plan noted years ago that, “recapitalizing the SSBN program will impact the Navy in the mid-term as significant resources are allocated to the SSBN(X) recapitalization program … (T)hese ships require significant resource commitment and their cost will impact the Navy’s ability to procure other shipbuilding requirements during the period when they are procured … ”
And the Secretary of Defense acknowledged that “the Department proposes spending $6 billion in research and development over the next few years -for a projected buy of 12 subs at $7 billion apiece. Current requirements call for a submarine with the size and payload of a boomer and the quieting of an attack sub” and that “the new ballistic missile submarine alone would begin to eat up the lion’s share of the Navy’s shipbuilding budget.”
The staggering unit cost quoted for the SSBN(X) signals that, at least in the submarine’s earliest phase, the DOD, the Joint Staff and the Navy may need to revisit a critical lesson that policymakers learned in earlier submarine programs, particularly during the transition from the Seawolf to the Virginia program: when establishing the operational requirements for a new submarine, cost and specifically total ownership cost (TOC) are the most important considerations.
Using Cost to Define Requirements
While a seemingly straightforward notion, TOC has not al-ways successfully been considered during a program’s design phase.4 With TOC as an overriding concern, a new submarine design’s through-life cost becomes the ultimate design criterion instead of other factors, such as maintenance ease and access. As we learned on the Virginia-class program, using such other criteria to drive the design did not always translate to lowest through-life cost.
Minimizing developmental risk also plays an important part in controlling the TOC of a new submarine program. Consider the Ohio class. Before those boats were built, the Navy’s Strategic Systems Program Office (SSPO) did its homework and made two influential decisions. First, it decided to incorporate the state of the art technology into the boats. This simple but wise decision eliminated excessive technology and system development risk from the design and construction phases of the program. Nonetheless, the U.S. Navy put to sea a submarine that incorporated the best technology then available, one that was arguably the most capable submarine of its day.
Second, the SSPO decided to focus to sustainability and operational availability. With the Ohio class, SSPO shifted the 41 for Freedom paradigm of operating from tenders worldwide to relying on fewer available submarines that operated from the continental United States. The lesson here is that the number of ships at sea matters, and operational availability ultimately affects both deterrent survivability and required force level. Because this consideration remains important in today’s economic and operational environments, this type of thinking and doing the math should continue.
In contrast, the Seawolf program was launched in the 1980s with a more aggressive technology insertion approach resulting from Group Tango’s efforts. As we know, this approach pushed the state of the art and proved both more costly and more challenging to execute.
Another important cost control tool is the operational requirement reality check. As Defense Secretary Gates might have been implying in his Navy League talk, DOD acquisition programs have routinely raised the requirement bar. In the case of the Submarine Force this means that acoustic signature design requirements have generally held out the most challenging radiated noise levels as the objective quieting levels for new submarines.
This highlights another aspect of the cost-benefit challenge that the Navy faces in creating a 40-year design for the SSBN(X). That is, should the U.S necessarily assume that a new platform would need this degree of quieting to be successful during its design lifetime? Answering yes to this question implies that the United States will face as aggressive and acoustically challenging an adversary for the next 60 years as it faced during the Cold War. Answering 110 means that we are willing to take some risk in this area or that there might be a less expensive means to address the posited threat.
In either case, the new submarine’s program managers face a cost-benefit tradeoff that requires them to ask several first-principle questions including: Why we are designing a 40 year-submarine? And, why are our SSBNs not simply spin-offs or branches of an efficient SSN production line? That is, building an SSBN variant as required.
That approach would likely not require endogenous ROTE investments to assure future operational efficacy in contrast to developing new submarine concepts as we do now.7 With SSBN(X) we seem to be committing ourselves to a unique strategic ship class in a day when its requirement is being questioned and appears to be waning. Indeed, we might even be buying in excess of eventual launcher need under arms control agreements.
Each submarine concept evaluated for efficacy in an analysis of alternatives (AoA) must be balanced from both naval architecture and military capability viewpoints. This means that each concept must be both balanced and internally coherent. Balance as used here refers to a basic submarine design consideration. Once platform characteristics and capabilities are defined, from a naval architecture viewpoint each concept should be neither arrangement nor weight limited. Naturally, from a military capability viewpoint each concept should have the right balance of capabilities. Taken together, the simultaneous optimization of military capability and naval architecture aspects is the nexus I refer to here as concept coherence. Naturally, upsetting the balance after a concept is set is likely to be problematic.
Embracing Low-Risk Designs
In this economic environment a new submarine preferably involves low developmental risk. Despite other appealing priorities, a guiding policy will be to leverage recent shipbuilding process improvements to constrain both near-term (de-sign/construction) risk and cost. This implies that tradeoffs must be made in terms of capability as well. As on the Ohio class, for SSBN(X) better and best are the enemies of good enough in terms of capability. In designing the submarine, judgment will need to be coupled with restraint.
Likewise, sound judgment will be called for regarding margin and flexible volume investments, inasmuch as operational availability and low TOC will be key features of the SSBN(X). In practical terms this means insisting on high-availability, low-maintenance solutions and resisting the traditional impulse to invest in measures to improve technologies which have proven to be of poor-availability. It also means avoiding investments at the margin that involve significant cost.8 In the current environment where the future role of strategic weapons is being debated, wisdom would militate against such investments, especially if they will not make a significant difference if the ship might later be used in another role.
It will also be important to reevaluate the paths to margin employment. Recall that four Ohio-class boats have been converted to SSGNs. The role of strategic weapons in the world is evolving and their place in our military arsenal is slowly being redefined. That redefinition is incomplete, but it is clear that the most basic assumptions of nuclear deterrence are also being challenged. Changes to Cold War strategic retaliation doctrine may well result in continued lowering of nuclear force level requirements and alert conditions.
In this regard, it is notable that a slew of improved conventional capabilities-including the follow-on to the Tomahawk, the hypersonic cruise missile, and low-observable, SSBN-convertible JSR packages- are on the near horizon. As those assets come on line, it is more likely that the new submarine’s internal volume will be eventually sought as flexible space for such conventional payloads. This makes it all the more important that the SSBN(X) design avoid a solely “high-end” strategic submarine framework and not be coupled with missile tube design margins tied to future strategic missile payloads, as was the case with prior strategic submarines. Rather, during the early phases of the program policymakers need to think through designs that offer low-cost ways to convert the submarines to conventional use.
The proposition here is straightforward. In a constrained economic environment, the lesson of the Virginia program should be applied on SSBN(X) and future new submarines. A cost cap should be applied (and important policy guidance to constrain costs should be given) before alternative concepts are developed. In the case of the SSBN(X), this could have been done by the Navy or OSD; or preferably by agreement of both.
Having missed this opportunity, it is important to remember that the SSBN/SSGN platform is basically a truck carrying strategic or conventional capabilities. With this in mind, wariness must accompany any Mercedes or Cadillac acquisition solutions. This means avoiding the temptation to push the state of the art in any high technology area. It also implies tempering any rush to high RDTE investment in areas other than those that would underwrite the ship’s operational availability and lower its TOC. And it suggests the importance of lessons learned from VIRGINIA and the SSGN concerning open architecture and flexible volume.
Fiscal realities are now constraining the SSBN(X) program. Times have changed, because of the SSBN(X)’s unconstrained birth and the future impact on other programs, the DOD is now compelled to impose a unit cost cap (e.g., about $5 billion in 20 I 0 dollars) on the submarine.
Unfortunately, after the fact, this has the disadvantage of potentially upsetting design balance and risking the preferred concept’s coherence as each capability is selectively reexamined, altered or eliminated.11 The SSBN(X) program is now faced with the reality of affordability as tile priority program requirement; it also faces the challenge of avoiding a piecemealed, directed and sub optimized SSBN(X) design.
Whatever the final design, the SSBN(X) program must yield high operational availability. One approach to this is to examine technologies from the viewpoint of sustainability and decisively shed those that are losers or likely costly in the future. Luckily, the Los Angeles, Seawolf, Ohio and Virginia class experiences can provide insights in this area. They will also highlight the most effective sustainment processes.
Lastly, as was the case with the Ohio class, acquiring the SSBN(X) means sorting through a complex coupling of strategic and submarine concerns. While some issues are more straight forward than others, once the ship is under construction, Navy and shipyard SSBN(X) program managers will have a final difficult challenge: shackling the requirements while nonetheless delivering a capable submarine with maximum operational availability at minimum TOC.