Panelists Urge Investing in Upgrading Nuclear Deterrence Triad
By OTTO KREISHER, Seapower Special Correspondent
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The expensive program to modernize the nuclear deterrence triad, which includes the new Columbia-class ballistic-missile submarines, is a vital requirement to continue 70-plus years of successfully avoiding nuclear war, two senior Navy officers said April. 4.
“If you think deterrence is expensive, try the cost of war,” Vice Adm. Chas Richardson, deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said, quoting his boss, Air Force Gen. John Hyten. “What a wise investment our predecessors made,” Richardson said during a 2017 Sea-Air-Space Exposition panel discussion.
Because it will provide longer service life, better readiness and survivability than the Ohio-class submarines it will replace, “Columbia is 21st-century deterrence at an acceptable price,” said Vice Adm. David Johnson, principle military deputy to the deputy defense secretary for acquisition, development and logistics.
The two admirals conceded that modernizing the three legs of the deterrence triad, which includes the Air Forces Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles and strategic bombers, in addition to the Ohio-class boomers and their D5 ballistic missiles, would be expensive.
Richardson would not accept the often-quoted estimate of $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years. He said the Defense Department spends about 3.5 percent of its total budget today on the strategic deterrence, which will increase to 6.5 percent for 10 years during the modernization of the triad. But, he noted, “we only do this every other generation. … It’s time to make that investment again.”
Johnson said the first Columbia is expected to cost $8.4 billion, which includes some of the research and development costs, while the average cost for all 12 boats is estimated at $7.3 billion. The 12 Columbia subs will replace 16 Ohio-class boats and provide 70 percent of the U.S. nuclear warheads allowed under the New Start nuclear limitation treaty,
Johnson noted the estimates by independent government analysts that the Navy’s annual shipbuilding budget of $16.5 billion would have to increase to $20 billion during construction of the Columbia submarines.
Unless the Navy can get a boost in its shipbuilding budget, as it did to build the previous classes of ballistic subs, “we will not be able to fund Columbia without affecting [the rest of] shipbuilding,” he said.
Congress has authorized a separate fund to support Columbia outside of the normal shipbuilding account. But there is no guarantee that account will continue to receive funds during the construction program.
The first Columbia is expected to start construction in 2021, aiming for a first patrol in 2027.
Richardson noted that Hyten, Strategic Command commander, supports modernization of all three legs of the triad. The Air Force has funded development of the new strategic bomber, the B-21 Raider, and is working on plans for a Minuteman replacement and a new long-range, standoff missile to replace the aged nuclear armed cruise missile carried by B-52s.
The two admirals said the Navy is cooperating with the Air Force to find common components that could be used in a replacement for the sub-launched D5 Trident missiles as well as the Minuteman, which could save money for both.
Johnson also noted that the Navy is coordinating development of its Columbia subs with the Royal Navy’s Dreadnaught program to replaces its aged ballistic missile boats.
Iian King, the counselor for defense policy and nuclear programs in the British Embassy, said the U.S. cooperation was essential to the Dreadnaught effort.