Despite Cost, Navy 'Laser-Focused' to Deliver Ohio Replacement Sub by 2031 (UPDATED)

By Vivienne Machi
Artist concept for the SSBN(X) Ohio replacement submarine

Two senior Navy officials said July 8 that the service is dedicated to delivering the next generation of ballistic missile submarines by 2031, and is looking into every cost-saving measure they can to ensure they can pay for it without sacrificing the rest of the fleet.

Rear Adm. Charles Richard, director of undersea warfare, and Rear Adm. Michael Jabaley, program executive officer for submarines, described the SSBN(X) nuclear submarine — also known as the

Ohio replacement submarine — as a necessary sea-based strategic deterrent 

But they acknowledged that the dollar amount — around $97 billion for the total acquisition of 12 new ships over 15 years, according to a March 2016 Government Accountability Office report — can be hard for lawmakers and taxpayers to swallow.

"We recognize that it is a big bill," Jabaley said at an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. "If left unchecked, it prevents you from building a lot of the ships that the Navy needs to build."

The Navy's proposed budget for fiscal year 2017 includes $773 million in advanced procurement, and $1.1 billion in research-and-development funding for the Ohio replacement program, according to a May 2016 Congressional Research Service report.

Jabaley said the Navy is looking to reduce costs by pursuing a submarine unified bill strategy that would merge contracts for identical or similar items that will be built across all new ships. "A chill-water pump on a Virginia-class submarine is the same as a chill-water pump on the Ohio replacement submarine," he said. "Left unchecked, we would have two separate programs."

The Navy also plans to work with aircraft carrier contractors that develop common components and materials on the submarines and could deliver bulk orders across the programs.

Both officials said the Ohio replacement program was necessary to combat an upcoming shortage of attack submarines the service will begin to see in the coming decade, as older ships developed for the Cold War are phased into retirement.

"Our requirement is 48 attack submarines, and we reach a minimum of about 40 to 41 in the late '20s, early '30s, before we start climbing out of that," Jabaley said.

To mitigate that trough, Jabaley said it was crucial that they continue to build two Virginia-class submarines per year, and that the Ohio replacement construction must begin in 2021 to maintain the service's at-sea SSBN force structure.

The Ohio-class boats are expected to begin reaching the end of their service lives in 2027, with the final boat scheduled to retire in 2040. Richard lauded the program's longevity, and the designers, maintenance crews and engineers who built and cared for the boats to last well past their estimated expiration date.

"It makes me proud to be an American that we design a ship, the Ohios, to last for 30 years, and we give you 42 out of it," he said. "But the message here is that can no longer be extended any further … the Ohio replacement has to be on patrol by 2031, and we are laser-focused in providing the resources, focus and leadership to make sure that that happens."

The Ohio replacement's new features include an electric drive engine system to replace the traditional steam-driven main engine, which promises great improvements in acoustic stealth, Jabaley said. Also included is a 42-year reactor core that lengthens the time the ship would have to spend in maintenance over its lifetime.

Initial ships will continue the use of the Trident D5 ballistic missile system, which is employed on current Ohio-class submarines, though in the future, a new missile defense system will be fielded and placed on the SSBN(X), Jabaley said.

Production and improvements continue with each new version of the Virginia-class submarine. Acoustic superiority remains a key effort by the Navy, Jabaley said, and the future SSN South Dakota — with an expected delivery in 2018 — will get an enhanced hull coating, large vertical arrays to help detect other submarines, an improved hybrid propulsor and further machinery improvements to lower noise levels, Jabaley said.

Each of these components is being individually installed on various ships, but "South Dakota will be the first to have the entire package," he said. "It will drive what we install on future ships, including the Ohio replacement and what we backfit on existing Virginias."

This year, the Navy transitioned from the research and development funded design for the Ohio replacement submarine to the detail design, with a contract to be awarded later this year, Jabaley said. The Navy will go before the office of the secretary of defense later this summer to receive approval for Milestone B of the program, and they will produce a new cost estimate at that point, he said. He declined to comment on that new estimate, as it is still moving through Navy approval processes.

Photo: Navy

Clarification: This story has been updated with a clarification of Jabaley's remarks on the future attack submarine shortage.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, Shipbuilding, Submarines, Undersea Warfare

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