Discretionary Spending

Function 050 - National Defense

Reduce the Number of Ballistic Missile Submarines

CBO periodically issues a compendium of policy options (called Options for Reducing the Deficit) covering a broad range of issues, as well as separate reports that include options for changing federal tax and spending policies in particular areas. This option appears in one of those publications. The options are derived from many sources and reflect a range of possibilities. For each option, CBO presents an estimate of its effects on the budget but makes no recommendations. Inclusion or exclusion of any particular option does not imply an endorsement or rejection by CBO.

(Billions of dollars) 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 2014-2018 2014-2023
Change in Spending                        
  Budget authority 0 0.1 0 -0.9 -1.0 -2.6 -2.3 -4.9 -4.4 0.2 -1.7 -15.7
  Outlays 0 * * -0.1 -0.4 -0.8 -1.4 -2.0 -2.9 -2.9 -0.5 -10.5

Notes: This option would take effect in October 2014. Estimates of savings displayed in the table are based on the fiscal year 2014 Future Years Defense Program and the Congressional Budget Office’s extension of that program.

* = between zero and $50 million.

The Navy maintains a force of 14 Ohio class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). Those submarines collectively carry 336 nuclear-armed missiles, which is about half of the deployed warheads in the U.S. arsenal. Each submarine can carry 24 missiles with up to eight warheads per missile. (However, the Administration plans to meet the limits in the most recent U.S.–Russian Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, commonly known as New START, by reducing the number of missiles per submarine to 20 by 2018.) Over the next two decades, the Ohio class submarines will reach the end of their service life. The Navy plans to replace those submarines with 12 new ballistic missile submarines, currently designated as the Ohio Replacement class; those submarines are designed to carry 16 missiles each. The first such boat will be purchased and construction will begin in 2021 (although procurement funding for that boat is slated to begin in 2017). Under the Navy’s 2014 shipbuilding plan, the SSBN force will fall to 10 submarines between 2032 and 2040 (because the boats will be replaced at a rate of one per year between 2026 and 2035) before leveling out at 12 submarines in 2042.

This option would reduce the Navy’s SSBN force to eight submarines in 2020 by retiring one Ohio class submarine a year over the 2015–2020 period. That number would be maintained through the 2040s and beyond by delaying the start of the Ohio Replacement program from 2021 to 2024 and reducing the number of SSBNs purchased under that program to eight. The savings under this option would total $11 billion in outlays from 2015 through 2023. During the 2030s, this option would save an additional $30 billion by avoiding the purchase of four more Ohio Replacement submarines.

An advantage of this option is that reducing the SSBN force to eight submarines would still provide a robust strategic deterrent at sea. Although the force would carry a smaller complement of missiles, the option would not dramatically reduce the total number of warheads that could be deployed at sea. To achieve the missile-reduction goals under New START, the Administration is expected to allocate 1,050 to 1,100 warheads to the SSBN force of 14 submarines. The Administration’s preferred allocation would place 20 missiles on each deployed submarine with four or five warheads per missile. (Only 12 of the Ohio class submarines, and thus 240 missiles, would be considered deployed under the treaty, because two boats would be in long-term maintenance at any given time over the 10-year life of the treaty.) With an eight-boat Ohio class force called for under this option, the Navy could still deploy roughly the maximum number of warheads at sea consistent with New START using a different allocation—24 missiles on each submarine (for a total of 192 missiles), with five or six warheads per missile Furthermore, if the deployed warhead requirement for strategic submarines had not changed by the time the Ohio Replacement program was completed, the Navy could continue to deploy similar numbers of warheads: Eight submarines, each carrying 16 missiles (for a total of 128) with eight warheads per missile, would carry a total of 1,024 deployed warheads. Another advantage of this option is that some costs of extending the service lives of missiles and warheads would be avoided because the SSBNs would be carrying fewer of them.

This option has the disadvantage of making the Navy’s nuclear forces less effective and somewhat more vulnerable. With a force of 8 SSBNs—instead of 12—the Navy would have fewer boats at sea and available for quick deployment in a crisis. Fewer submarines would give the Navy a smaller area in which to operate, thus making it more difficult to be sure that a sufficient number of warheads were in position to implement a war plan. Moreover, loading more warheads on a smaller number of missiles and submarines would substantially reduce their flexibility in range and in targeting in the event they needed to be used. Fewer submarines would also make it easier for a potential adversary to track and target U.S. forces; the operating areas for those submarines would be more predictable because missiles must fly a certain trajectory to hit key targets.

Another disadvantage of the option is that it would disrupt development of the missile compartment for the Ohio Replacement submarines, a project being undertaken jointly between the U.S. Navy and the British Navy. Both navies are contributing to the design, development, and production of the portion of the submarine that houses and launches ballistic missiles. Delaying production of the Ohio Replacement for three years would mean that the British Navy—in order to meet its schedule for replacing its own strategic submarines—would need to have the missile compartment completed years before the U.S. Navy would need it. In that case, shared costs, planning, and scheduling for those activities would need to be renegotiated.

By phasing in the reduction of the Ohio class SSBNs and by delaying the purchase of the Ohio Replacement class, the Navy would preserve the ability to build more submarines if the future security environment changed. For example, if policymakers decided that they needed to retain 10 SSBNs by the time New START has been fully implemented (in 2018), the last two retirements could be canceled. Likewise, the Navy could purchase additional Ohio Replacement submarines in 2025 and 2026 and reduce to just two years the period over which the force might be at greater risk because of having only eight boats.