Modernizing two legs of the nuclear Triad at the same time, as we’re doing between a new bomber authorization and existing plans to replace the Ohio class of ballistic missile subs, is a significant investment. With such a tight strategic relationship, the fiscal connection between these two programs is inescapable. It’s not constant, however, and yesterday marked another in a series of important developments for the two.
Last summer, then-Chief of Naval Operations Gary Roughead laid out the conventional wisdom for keeping priority on the SSBN(X) sub when I asked him about friction with the bomber. His answer: survivability, stealth, and service life. Service-life was potentially the most interesting because it’s relatively fixed – refueling its tank, a nuclear core, is very expensive, and water pressurization from diving and surfacing limits the life of a hull. Contrary to Roughead’s logic, however, it was the SSBN(X) that the Pentagon slipped by two years yesterday.
Meanwhile, the bomber has become DOD’s banner program this year. It was the only investment referenced by name in the January 5th strategy review, and Congress opted to increase its FY12 research money by 51%. This happened despite Roughead’s logic for focusing on the sub, and despite an Obama administration decision in FY10 to cancel the previous bomber upgrade program.
Raising the priority on the bomber didn’t take it off the table altogether, though. Seemingly out of nowhere, Gen. Schwartz testified before the House Armed Services Committee last November that the Air Force will “not to certify [the bomber’s nuclear mission] immediately. And the reason is that we're trying to control costs.”
So let’s run the tally. Still two programs, and still a good bit of simultaneity. If we look a decade out, this plan pushes the SSBN(X) procurement event closer to the bomber’s. But most won’t look a decade out, so this helps escape the appearance simultaneity even if not the fact.
The bigger change – even if not the intended change – is to the mission, nuclear deterrence. Deputy Secretary Ash Carter went out of his way to emphasize that the SSBN(X) slip “is not a strategic decision; this is a managerial decision.” In its own peculiar way, that makes sense. These two programs seem to have ended up side-by-side in the budget for managerial reasons – namely Air Force and Navy equities – so it’s fitting that their relationship would evolve in the same way. But there still is strategic consequence, even if it’s unintended. The next generation for one leg of the Triad isn’t going to be certified immediately, and the replacement program for another leg of the Triad has been delayed.
In a story full of twists, this is the latest, but probably not the last.