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Admiral Holland once served as the director of Strategic and Theater Nuclear Warfare on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations. He is a frequent contributor to PROCEEDINGS and THE SUBMARINE REVIEW.

Republished with permission from the June 2011 issue of PROCEEDINGS a monthly publication of the U.S. Naval Institute of Amiapolis, Maryland 21402.

The cost for the replacement of Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines sends shivers throughout the Navy, builders of aircraft carriers and destroyers, and defense analysts in general, as they straight-line the shipbuilding budget. All visualize the construction of these ships absorbing a third to half of the total appropriations for new ships over ten years. For many naval officers and supporters, their price tag represents a threat to the Navy that they know, serve, and support.

Their concern is voiced in suggestions that the program be scaled down, stretched out, or canceled. But those who hold such opinions must come to terms with the realization that no amount of economic turndown, competition for other ships of more apparent and immediate utility, or concerns for maintaining a shipbuilding base in other yards will make a difference in the ultimate decision whether or not to build these submarines.

The Defense Department’s investment costs in the next decade are staggering. The Ohio replacement submarine, estimated at $72 billion, is just one major investment. The F-35 program is estimated currently at $382 billion, but is behind schedule and over budget. The estimate for the three Gerald R. Ford- class carriers (CVN-78, -79, -80) is $45.5 billion; for the aerial tanker program, $35 billion.

In addition to such big-ticket items will be the expense of replacing the equipment worn out by the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But regardless of arguments from supporters of other programs, the highest levels of government will ask for the Ohio replacements as the first order of business. The importance of this facet of national defense and prestige can be seen in Great Britain’s plan to replace its SSBN force in the face of even more severe budget cuts and force reductions than those expected in the United States.

When development of the submarine-launched ballistic missile began in 1956, the Navy was still suffering from drastic reductions following the Korean War. Funds for everything from personnel to repair parts were scarce in an atmosphere of penury that enveloped all the services. Yet in these dire circumstances, Admiral Arleigh Burke, then Chief of Naval Operations, sequestered monies from every part of the Navy’s budget to fund the first fleet ballistic-missile submarines within existing budget caps. The Fiscal Year 1956 through 1959 budgets were stripped of much, including a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, to fund the SSBNs in what naval analyst Norman Friedman described as a wartime mobilization program. This historical record testifies to the unique importance, strategic value, and national prestige that these ships embody.

The recent nuclear arms reduction pact is not likely to be the end of efforts to further limit the numbers of strategic nuclear weapons or their launchers. Predicting the number of weapons and launchers that will be needed or allowed in 2025 is difficult, but certainly it will be fewer than are deployed now. As the number of weapons declines, the value of each remaining one increases; therefore, its security, survivability, and reliability becomes even more important. These features are the hallmarks of submarine-based nuclear weapons; in these attributes, SSBN basing far exceeds its fixed-point land-based cousins.

Because only a small fraction of the Navy’s officers are employed in submarine-based strategic weapon systems, and because the activities of fleet ballistic-missile operations are isolated from routine naval operations, the importance of the submarine-launched ballistic missile goes unrecognized and unacknowledged by most in the Navy and among its supporters. In the four essays on the future of the Navy in February’s Proceedings, there is no mention of nuclear weapons, strategic forces, deterrence, or SSBNs.

But recognized or not, strategic nuclear deterrence is the first and most important DOD mission. No unit, effort, or force is as valuable as the strategic weapons based in submarines. The Ohio replacement will go forward regardless of the state of the budget or top-line caps on total allotments. The mission needs the Navy more than the Navy needs the mission.

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