SSBN-X Subs: America Going Nuclear to Replace Graying Boomers
The US Navy needs new SSBN nuclear missile submarines. Their existing Ohio Class boats will begin to retire at a rate of 1 hull per year, beginning in 2027, as they reach the end of their 42-year operational lifetimes. Hence SSBN-X, also known as the Ohio Replacement Program for now.
The first step toward recapitalization involved a new Common Missile Compartment and Advanced Launcher for current and future nuclear missiles. The next step involves finalizing a design that can serve effectively to 2080, without destroying the US Navy’s shipbuilding budget in the process. Good luck with that one, but they have to to try. The maintenance of the USA’s nuclear deterrent is too important, in a world where nuclear weapons are proliferating.
The USA aims to begin construction of the new SSBN in 2021, and have the new type enter service with the fleet in 2031. A total of 12 boats would be produced, with the last boat expected to leave service around 2085. That’s a very long lifetime for a submarine, whose hull is alternately squeezed and released by water pressure as it dives and surfaces. Unfortunately, delays in starting the program mean that the USA is likely to end up with just 10 SSBNs from 2029 – 2042. If the Ohio Replacement Program suffers further development delays, this high-risk period will see corresponding extensions.
America isn’t alone in their pursuit. At present, Britain, France, India, Russia, and China are all working on new sub-launched ballistic missile systems and/or SSBN submarines. The American SSBN-X will be the end product of intense debate, especially given its aggressive production cost target of FY10$ 4.9 billion. So far, what’s known about the design includes:
Basics: The submarines will be about the same length as the Ohio Class at 560 feet, but may be a bit wider. They will be powered by a new-design reactor using 90% enriched uranium. Like the current SSN Seawolf and SSN Virginia Classes, the new reactor won’t need refueling during the submarine’s lifetime.
SSBN-X propulsion will be all-electric, which decouples the drive train from the turbines, and the pump-jet propulsor will use shrouded technology taken from the Virginia Class. The usual sail-mounted dive planes will be present, along with X-shaped stern surfaces.
One suggested way to save money was to reduce the submarine’s maximum speed from 20 to 15 knots. That would cut maximum power needs sharply, and reduce maximum required diving depth because the submarine won’t require as much space to pull out of a jam dive. The penalty would be poorer evasion of enemy torpedoes if the sub is found.
Sensors: SSBN-X is expected to use the horseshoe-shaped Large Aperture Bow Array (LAB) sonar that was developed for the Virginia Block III submarines. The submarines will undoubtedly deploy an array of other sensors, including flank sonars, towed sonar, fiber-optic masts that don’t have to penetrate the ship’s hull, ESM signal recognition and location technologies, etc.
The key will be making these sensors upgradeable at low cost. The 65 years from 2015 – 2080 is a huge amount of time in the technology world. If upgrades are too expensive, the entire SSBN force could find itself compromised mid-way through its life.
Weapons: The new CMC/AL assemblies are slated for production in blocks of 4 tubes, allowing the USA and UK to tailor the total number of missile tubes to their final submarine designs. Current American Ohio Class SSBNs have 24 tubes, but SSBN-X currently plans to reduce that to 16 tubes. The Trident II D5 missiles, which are being refurbished and improved, will switch over to the new boats as their initial nuclear weapons.
Beyond that, there are questions. Should the new boats have torpedo tubes, in order to protect themselves from enemies under, on, or even above the water? Or should they eliminate that feature and its accompanying space? Sometimes the best defense really is a good offense, but even if the torpedo or missile destroys its enemy, the act of destruction is a beacon to enemy forces as soon as they’re aware of it. Attention is the last thing an SSBN wants, so this is a last resort action. On the other hand, torpedo tubes are useful to keep up SSN training and testing roles, ensuring that American submariners remain proficient enough to be assigned between types.
Then there’s the question of non-nuclear payloads in some of the CMC missile tubes. Converted Ohio class SSGNs, for instance, have already replaced nuclear missiles with American special forces, land attack missiles, and UAVs. In a similar and related vein, the Virginia Class Block III fast attack submarine replaced their 12 vertical-launch cruise missile tubes with 2 Common Weapon Launcher (CWL) “six-shooters” derived from the SSGNs’ converted missile tubes. The size of those CWLs allows Virginia Class Block III submarines to launch cruise missiles, UAVs, UUVs, and more from these same tubes.
Nuclear missile submarines are a nation’s most strategic assets, because they are its most secure and certain deterrence option. One does not commit them casually, to any purpose. As key trends like cheaper sensors and the Robotic Revolution grind onward, however, the next 40 years will see big changes underwater warfare. SSBNs will need the flexibility to adapt and leverage these changes if they intend to survive. For the USA and Britain, their weapon launchers need to be part of that adaptation.
Contracts and Key Events
Note that Common Missile Compartment design, and refurbished Trident nuclear missile production, are covered by their own articles. Unless otherwise indicated, the US Strategic Systems Programs in Washington, DC manages the contract.
Specifications “finalized”; GAO and DOT&E reports; Proposal to move it outside of Navy budgets.
June 10/14: GAO Report. The US GAO releases GAO-14-373, “Ten-Year Budget Estimates for Modernization….” of American nuclear forces. With respect to SSBNs:
“…the Navy’s Ohio Replacement Program included $27.8 billion in research, development, test, and evaluation and ship construction estimates over the 10-year period for a new SSBN. However, the Navy’s submarine-replacement program is further along in the acquisition process than either the Air Force’s ICBM-replacement effort, or its new bomber program.”
May 27/14: Sub-contractors. Northrop Grumman announces a contract from General Dynamics Electric Boat to design and deliver the Ohio Replacement Program’s 1st turbine generator units, which will provide all of the submarine’s propulsion and other electrical power. They add that the award “…follows separate ORP contract awards from General Dynamics to Northrop Grumman’s Marine Systems business unit for other ORP components.” Sources: NGC, “Northrop Grumman Selected to Provide Turbine Generator Units For US Navy’s Ohio Replacement Submarine Program”.
May 23/14: Politics. The Senate Armed Services Committee’s FY 2015 mark-up calls for the establishment of a separate budget to finance SSBN-X construction, instead of consuming the Navy’s shipbuilding budget for several years:
“Establishes a National Sea-based Deterrence Fund, to provide resources for ensuring that we implement the Ohio-class replacement program at the appropriate level of priority assigned to it by the Secretary of the Navy and the Chief of Naval Operations, with an [initial] authorization of $100 million.”
They’re going to have to reconcile that with the House bill before that becomes any kind of organizing structure for the program. Sources: SASC, “Senate Committee On Armed Services Completes Markup Of The National Defense Authorization Act For Fiscal Year 2015″.
April 7/14: Specifications. The US Navy has reportedly finalized the specifications for their new SSBNs. They’ll be about as long as the current Ohio Class, but with 8 fewer missile tubes (16 total). The submarines will have a new electric propulsion system, and the same kind of no-refuel reactor enjoyed by recent American fast attack boats. All of this was already established wisdom, and they aren’t saying much more than that publicly.
The latest Navy figures reportedly estimate $110 million per boat per year in operating costs. US Navy estimates at this stage of a program have a bad record, so caveat lector. Sources: DoD Buzz, “Navy Finishes Specs for Future Nuclear Sub” | USNI, “Navy Has Finalized Specifications for New Ohio-Replacement Boomer”.
SSBN spec done?
March 31/14: GAO Report. The US GAO tables its “Assessments of Selected Weapon Programs“. Which is actually a review for 2013, plus time to compile and publish. With respect to SSBN-X, the numbers are very large: $95.103 billion total for 12 boats, split $11.718 billion RDT&E and $85.385 billion in procurement costs.
“The Navy has set initial configurations for areas including the torpedo room, bow, and stern. In 2014, the program expects to complete initial specifications, set ship length – a major milestone – and start detailed system descriptions and arrangements.”
Navy officials are trying to reduce costs for boats 2-12 from an estimated FY10$ 5.6 billion to FY10$ 4.9 billion, and one approach is to seek commonalities with the Virginia Class and the UK’s Successor SSBN. The CMC itself is already doing some of that.
Jan 30/14: UUV launcher. A joint effort between the US Navy and General Dynamics Electric Boat is now testing a prototype Universal Launch and Recovery Module (ULRM) system that would launch and capture underwater drones from SSBN/SSGN vertical launch tubes, and from the Virginia Payload Module on forthcoming Virginia Class submarines. Diagrams show payloads up to a pair of Bluefin-21 (future SMCM mine countermeasures) UUVs, but the extend and launch method itself is adaptable to any new UUV that fits within the space.
This isn’t a development that touches the CMC directly, nor is it new. Indeed, engineer Steve Klinikowski’s idea was tabled in 2005, and a model was exhibited at DSEi 2011 in Britain. This article is particularly helpful in showing pictures of the mechanisms, and in confirming that ULRM has progressed to testing. If there was any doubt that the CMC’s tubes are likely to include payload options beyond nuclear missiles, those doubts are effectively removed. The time to contemplate those needs is right now, during the CMC’s design phase. Engineering.com Designer Edge, “Navy Begins Test of UUV Launch System” | Fox News, “Navy, Electric Boat test tube-launched underwater vehicle”.
Jan 28/14: DOT&E Testing Report. The Pentagon releases the FY 2013 Annual Report from its Office of the Director, Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E). CMC is included indirectly, as part of the “SSBN Ohio Class Replacement Program”.
SSBN-X is currently slated to include a new propulsor, a new electric drive system, and a degaussing system, all of which should make the new submarines harder to detect. The new nuclear reactor won’t require mid-life refueling, a long refit whose operational impact would have forced the USA to build 14 submarines instead of the planned 12. CMC provides the main weapons interface, and there’s currently a debate about whether to even give the SSBNs torpedo tubes. The Strategic Weapon System includes the Trident II D5 Life Extension missile, launcher, fire control, navigation systems, and associated support systems. Most of the SWS will be carried over from existing submarine classes, as will items like communications, sonar, and internal computer networks.
From September 2012 – July 2013, the Navy conducted an Early Operational Assessment (EOA) – an extensive review of Ohio and Ohio Replacement documentation to identify program risks, and a modeling and simulation study to compare the survivability of the existing and future submarine classes. The EOA did come up with some program risks, which are classified. The modeling and simulation was informative, but the acoustic and threat models need updating.
FY 2012 – 2013
The case for the program; Some specifications finalized, incl. all-electric propulsion; Navy decides not to adapt Virginia Class.
Jan 9/13: Long-lead. GD Electric Boat in Groton, CT receives a $15 million cost-plus-fixed-fee contract modification for integrated tube and hull long-lead-time material in support of the Ohio Class Replacement Program. This contract combines purchases for the US Navy (50%) and the Britain (50%).
All funds are committed immediately, using FY 2014 RDT&E budgets and UK government monies. Work will be performed in Groton, CT, and is scheduled to be complete by November 2016. The USN’s Supervisor of Shipbuilding Conversion and Repair in Groton, CT manages the contract (N00024-13-C-2128).
Jan 26/13: All-Electric. TG Daily reports that the next American SSBNs will be doing away with their mechanical drivetrain, which connects the reactor turbines directly to the boat’s propellers. In order to make the boat quieter, and free up electricity for other functions, power from the reactor would flow into an all-ship electrical grid. Some of that power would be harnessed by electric motors connected to the shortened propeller shafts, and it would probably be more than the 20-25% available in more conventional nuclear designs.
This kind of “all-electric” system is becoming more and more common on naval surface ships, so its adaptation to next-generation submarines is unsurprising. Even so, the cramped, no-failure world of submarine design always adds new engineering challenges. The USN also plans to field its new SSBN submarines with reactors that don’t require mid-life refueling, something they’ve already accomplished on the Virginia Class fast attack boats.
Dec 21/12: SSBN Design. General Dynamics Electric Boat Corp. in Groton, CT receives a $1.849 billion cost-plus-fixed-fee with special incentives contract to design America’s new class of ballistic missile submarines. GDEB will also undertake shipbuilder and vendor component and technology development; engineering integration; concept design studies; cost reduction initiatives using a design for affordability process; and full scale prototype manufacturing and assembly. Additionally, this contract provides for engineering analysis, should-cost evaluations, and technology development and integration efforts. This contract includes options which could bring the cumulative value to $1.996 billion.
Other efforts contemplated under this contract include the continued design and development of US unique Common Missile Compartment efforts; and continuing the design and development of the joint US Navy/UK CMC. About 8% of the contract involves foreign military sales to the United Kingdom.
Work will be performed in Groton, CT (91%); Newport News, VA (7%); Quonset, RI (1%); and Bath, ME (1%), and is expected to be complete by September 2017. $183.1 million is committed immediately, with the rest allocated as needed; $8 million will expire at the end of the current fiscal year, on Sept 30/13. This contract was not competitively procured in accordance with FAR 6.302-1 by US Naval Sea Systems Command in Washington, DC (N00024-13-C-2128).
Initial SSBN design ordered
Sept 27/12: Integration. Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. in Sunnyvale, CA receives a sole-source $51.6 million cost-plus-fixed-fee contract for engineering efforts to support next-generation SSBN programs. The firm was deemed to be the only company that could integrate the TRIDENT II Missile and Reentry Strategic Weapon System subsystems into the CMC, and design an updated missile service unit that will be compatible with both current and new submarine fleets. With options, this contract could rise to $52.2 million.
Work will be performed in Cape Canaveral, FL (50%); Sunnyvale, CA (34%); Syracuse, NY (10%); Magna, UT (2%); Washington, DC (1%); yet to be determined locations (2%); and other locations of less than 1% (1% TL); and will run until Dec 31/17 (N00030-12-C-0058).
Sept 24/12: Program Risk. US Navy Director, Undersea Warfare Rear Adm. Barry Bruner answers questions about the Ohio Class Replacement Program. He defends the Navy’s vision of 12 submarines instead of 14, with 16 tubes each instead of 24, at a target cost of $FY10 4.9 billion per hull for boats 2-12. At the same time, he acknowledges that the existing SSBN force will have a problematic period, which will become very problematic if the replacement program suffers any significant delays:
“Because ship construction of the Ohio Replacement shifted from the year 2019 to 2021, there will be fewer than 12 SSBNs from 2029 to 2042 as the Ohio-class retires and Ohio replacement ships join the fleet. During this time frame no major SSBN overhauls are planned, and a force of 10 SSBNs will support current at-sea presence requirements. However, this provides a low margin to compensate for unforeseen issues that may result in reduced SSBN availability. The reduced SSBN availability during this timeframe reinforces the importance of remaining on schedule with the Ohio Replacement program to meet future strategic commitments. As the Ohio Replacement ships begin their mid-life overhauls in 2049, 12 SSBNs will be required to offset ships conducting planned maintenance.”
If the Ohio Class Replacement Program manages to come in on time, and anywhere close to its budget, it will be a very unusual example within recent US Navy shipbuilding programs. The higher-odds bet, unfortunately, is that the USA is headed for serious problems with the readiness of its SSBN deterrent. With respect to costs, and proposals to use the Virginia Class or existing Ohio Class blueprints:
“To date, the Navy has reduced costs by reducing specifications to the minimum necessary to meet national strategic deterrent requirements, implementing modular construction design, re-using the Trident II D5 Strategic Weapons System, and re-using Virginia- and Ohio-class components where feasible….. has already reduced approximately $1.1 billion in construction per ship and ~$3 billion in design from its fiscal year 2011 plan (calendar year 2010).
….Although some savings would be realized due to lower design costs, an SSBN class based on a Virginia hull would require additional platforms, additional nuclear refueling, increased personnel costs, and its acoustic signature would be vulnerable to projected threats. Ultimately, the Navy would receive an SSBN class that is more expensive and less capable. Similarly, rebuilding Ohio-class SSBNs would save on design costs. However, the Ohio-class does not have sufficient stealth to stay viable out to the 2080s, and construction of more Ohio-class ships would not be able to take advantage of efficiencies of modern construction techniques.”
Sources: USN’s Navy Live, “Next Generation Ohio-Class”.
Sept 6/12: SSBN-X Specifications. US Navy, “Navy Signs Specification Document for the Ohio Replacement Submarine Program, Sets forth Critical Design Elements”:
“The Navy formalized key ship specifications for both the United States’ Ohio Replacement and United Kingdom’s Successor Programs in a document signed Aug. 31 at the Washington Navy Yard…. Ship specifications are critical for the design and construction of the common missile compartment, which will be used by both nations’ replacement fleet ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) programs. Specifically, the First Article Quad Pack Ship Specification establishes a common design and technical requirements for the four missile tubes and associated equipment that comprise each quad pack.”
Oct 18/11: No Virginia. The US Navy has reportedly shelved the idea of a Virginia Class SSBN variant (vid. July 20/11), in favor of a new and quieter SSBN design that will carry the CMC. The question is whether that stance can last, given the new design’s current estimated cost of $7 billion per boat. If those costs rise, or budgets shrink, that Navy may find itself with fewer submarine platform choices than it would like. AOL Defence
FY 2008 – 2011
Britain joins common CMC program, launches its own future SSBN program; US Navy considering SSN Virginia Class adaptation.
July 20/11: Virginias? To date, the assumption in America has been that CMC would equip a newly designed SSBN submarine, and GD Electric Boat has been hiring with the idea in mind. Connecticut’s The Day now quotes vice-Adm. Cartwright, Vice-Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as saying that budget cuts may force the Navy to lengthen its Virginia Class attack submarine, in order to fit ballistic missile compartments and act as an SSBN.
By nature, fast attack submarines tend to be less optimized for stealth than SSBNs. The Virginia Class is said to be remarkably stealthy, but the USA will still want improvements, and the weight/ size gap is very challenging. Ohio Class SSBNs are about 18,750 tons submerged. Britain’s Vanguard Class SSBNs are 17,800 tons, and France’s Triomphant Class SSBNs are 15,800 tons. In contrast, the basic Virginia Class is about 7,800 tons. Even with fewer missile tubes on board, finding a solution that offers an affordable extension, instead of a full submarine redesign that defeats the point of starting with the Virginia Class, won’t be easy. The Day.
July 6/11: General Dynamics Electric Boat Corp. in Groton, CT receives a $15.8 million modification to previously awarded contract (N00024-09-C-2100) for continued engineering, technical services, concept studies, and design of a common missile compartment for the United Kingdom Successor SSBN and the Ohio replacement SSBN submarine.
Work will be performed in Groton, CT (93%); Quonset Point, RI (3%); Newport News, VA (2%); and Newport, RI (2%). Work is expected to be complete by December 2011. US Naval Sea Systems Command in Washington, DC manages the contract.
May 18/11: British go-ahead. Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox announces government approval for the early phase of design to replace the existing Vanguard Class. The new “Successor Class” submarines will use the same CMC launcher system as the USA’s SSBN-X, and fire the same Trident II D5 MK6LE missiles. They’ll also be powered by a new nuclear propulsion system known as the Pressurised Water Reactor 3, which is more expensive but safer. The design phase as a whole could be worth up to GBP 3 billion.
The Initial Gate approval ensures that more detailed design work will be undertaken and long-lead items ordered, even though the main build decision for the submarines will not be taken until 2016. Under current plans, the first replacement submarine is expected in 2028. For all further coverage of Britain’s new submarines, see “New Nukes: Britain’s Next-Gen Missile Submarines“.
Britain’s related SSBNs
Dec 23/08: General Dynamics Electric Boat Corporation, Groton, CT receives a $75.6 million sole-source, cost plus fixed fee contract to perform concept studies and design of a Common Missile Compartment (CMC) for the United Kingdom Successor SSBN and the USA’s Ohio Class Replacement program. This contract includes options which would bring the cumulative value of this contract to $591.8 million, and take design work to December 2013.
Work will be performed in Groton, CT (92%), Newport News, VA (4%), Quonset, RI (3%), and Newport, RI (1%), and is expected to be complete by December 2009 for the base contract, and December 2013 if all options are exercised. This contract was not competitively procured, and is formally run through the Naval Sea Systems Command, Washington, DC (N00024-09-C-2100). At present, this contract involves Foreign Military Sales to the United Kingdom (100%), but that may change.
CMC: initial concept studies
Background: Related Technology
- US Navy Fact File – Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarines – SSBN.
- GlobalSecurity – SSBN-726 Ohio-Class FBM Submarines.
- DID – Trident II D5 Missile: Keeping Up with Changing Times.
- DID – CMC Program Defining Future SSBN Launchers for UK, USA.
- DID – SSGN “Tactical Trident” Subs: Special Forces and Super Strike. the 1st 4 Ohios had their 24 tubes converted to cruise missile arsenals via rotary 7-slot launcher inserts, and also became mobile special forces bases.
- DID – New Nukes: Britain’s Next-Gen Missile Submarines.
- US GAO (June 10/14, #GAO-14-373) – Ten-Year Budget Estimates for Modernization Omit Key Efforts, and Assumptions and Limitations Are Not Fully Transparent. Not a problem for SSBNs, but it is for the USAf’s bombers and missiles.
News & Views
- Defense One (April 30/14) – Funding to Replace Nuclear Subs Up in the Air. It may be moved outside the Navy shipbuilding budget, as a national strategic item.
- Defense Tech (Oct 24/13) – Ohio Replacement Submarine Starts Early Construction. At least, CMC does.
- USNI Proceedings Magazine (September 2013) – The Future of Deterrence? Ballistic-Missile Defense. In other words, remove the USA’s SSBN capability. Doesn’t get a great reception from readers.
- USN’s Navy Live blog (Sept 24/12) – Next Generation Ohio-Class. Q&A with Rear Adm. Barry Bruner.
- USNI Proceedings Magazine (June 2012) – The Incredible Shrinking SSBN(X).