Why Does the Navy Still Not Have Enough Money for New Submarines?

By Jerry Hendrix

December 1, 2014

The Navy is beginning to increase the tempo of its drumbeat calling for additional shipbuilding money to pay for the long planned replacement for the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine. The ship is not unexpected, which is why the plea for more money is surprising– or at least it should be.  How has the sea service arrived at this strategic juncture without enough money already inside of its budget to pay for one of its most critical assets?

That’s an important question. After all, the Navy has a $165 billion budget, and the Ohio-class submarine is the cornerstone of the fleet. During a recent presentation before representatives of the maritime strategic community, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert said that his efforts to support naval presence missions were his No. 2 priority, right behind strategic deterrence, the military’s term for the nuclear arsenal. It was a statement that passed with little notice. For nearly 70 years a fundamental and accepted truth and the foundation of American national security strategy: We have to maintain our ability to strategically deter those who would make themselves our enemies. He made the statement the way a homeowner says, “I have to pay the mortgage.” No brilliance, just common sense.

Except, in the present fiscal environment, the Navy is displaying a dangerous lack of common sense, as evidenced by its inability to appreciate the real economic challenge that faces the nation and its Navy. For almost a decade the Navy’s annual shipbuilding budget has hovered around $14 billion in adjusted dollars within an overall budget of $160 billion. But beginning in fiscal year 2020, the Navy will request an additional $5 billion dollars per year to pay for submarines to replace the 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile “Boomer” submarines that have been performing nuclear deterrence patrols since 1982 and are set to begin retiring in 2027. This seems like a long way off, but isn’t on shipbuilding calendars.

In the present fiscal environment, the Navy is displaying a dangerous lack of common sense.

It is critical that the United States maintain a credible and survivable nuclear war response capability. Ballistic missile submarine crews perform the most weighty and terrible of missions. They wave goodbye to their families, depart their docks, submerge, proceed quietly to undisclosed locations, wait to receive word that the worst – i.e., a nuclear attack – has occurred, and then launch their missiles, which can reach out thousands of miles to exert retribution on those who attacked their homes. Today’s Ohio-class boats are amongst the quietest submarines in the world, and their Trident D5 missiles equipped with nuclear warheads serve as the most survivable leg of the nuclear triad that ensures the United States continued existence in a nuclear age.

So it comes as no surprise that the uniformed head of the Navy should start speaking more often of the impending cost of replacing these critical components of our national security. It has been rumored around the Pentagon for some time that the Navy would seek to raise public awareness regarding the strategic deterrence mission in order to obtain the funds required to pay for the new submarines.

In a fiscally constrained era there are three options. The first is to ask President Obama and members of Congress to increase the Navy’s budget to create a separate funding scheme for the Boomers. Such “top-line” relief seeks additional money within the defense budget to be allocated to the Navy to buy ships that perform a uniquely “national” mission.  Such an approach will face tough going with a public whose appreciation of the nuances of deterrence theory is quite low and a Congress who despite wanting increased defense spending remains focused increasingly on cutting the deficit and size of government.

(RelatedThe Navy Can’t Afford Its Own Plan to Buy New Subs)

The second approach would be for the defense secretary to redistribute funds within the defense budget. With a planned pivot to Asia, the secretary should shift dollars to the Navy from the Army, adjusting for the Army’s diminished role following its withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. Such a move would not be without precedent. The Air Force during the “New Look” era of the Eisenhower administration, as the primary nuclear delivery weapons, received 47 percent of the Defense Department’s budget as compared to 29 percent for the Navy and 22 percent for the Army.  In this manner, $5 billion per year could be found elsewhere within the Defense Department to pay for the required replacement submarines. 

For 10 years the Navy planned to buy a fleet of sports cars like Arleigh Burke class destroyers, even where mission requirements called for pickups, all the while ignoring that there would be a mortgage payment coming due at the same time.

The third approach would be for the Navy to pay for its new submarines out of its own resources. This option actually shouldn’t be hard. The Navy has known for years when the Ohio-class ships were going to decommission, plus or minus a few months. Also, the Navy’s budget has gone up 20 percent since 2002, from $132 billion to $165 billion, and its accompanying shipbuilding budget has gone up 31 percent from $11.7 billion to $15.3 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars. Despite the additional resources, the Navy finds that it cannot maintain its ship count due to an over-subscription to exquisite, high-end platforms that can only be purchased in low numbers.

The need for a replacement for the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines is undeniable.  The strategic deterrence mission, although little understood or appreciated by the American people, is, as the CNO stated, the number one priority of the Navy in that it ensures the survival of the Republic. However, the challenge of finding the money to pay for these new boats is largely self-imposed. For 10 years the Navy planned to buy a fleet of sports cars like Arleigh Burke class destroyers, even where mission requirements called for pickups, all the while ignoring that there would be a mortgage payment coming due at the same time.

The Navy needs to move quickly to reorder its priorities. If strategic deterrence is our primary mission, then funding the next submarine for that mission is the first priority. We have to pay the mortgage. It’s common sense.

By Jerry Hendrix // Jerry Hendrix is the director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security. A retired U.S. Navy captain, he is a former director of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

December 1, 2014