Energy Undersecretary: SSBN(X) Key to Maintaining Sub-based Leg of Nuclear Triad
By OTTO KREISHER, Special Correspondent
Updated: October 30, 2014 10:02 AM in Seapower Magazine
WASHINGTON — Building a replacement for the nuclear-powered Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines is “a program of highest national interest,” the Energy Department official who oversees the Naval Nuclear Reactors effort to produce a new nuclear power plant for the future strategic deterrence boats said Oct. 29.
“It’s very, very important that we maintain this, the most survivable leg, of the [nuclear deterrence] triad,” said Frank Klotz, the undersecretary of Energy for Nuclear Security and head of the National Nuclear Security Administration.
Klotz, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who had commanded the Air Force Global Strike Command, which manages the land-based Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles and the nuclear-capable bombers, said “the other two legs of the triad are equally important for the synergistic effects that they bring to the force. But this is one that we absolutely must get right.”
In a breakfast session with the Defense Writers Group, Klotz also talked about his agency’s efforts to extend the life and modernize the two types of nuclear warheads for the Trident D-5 strategic ballistic missiles that now arm the Ohios and will be used for the future strategic submarines.
In describing the array of programs he manages, Klotz said he has “special responsibility for Naval Reactors, which was started largely by ADM [Hiram] Rickover and still bears much of his imprint. It has been producing naval reactors for aircraft carriers and submarines for several decades now and continues to do that in an exemplary manner and safely.”
Naval Reactors, officially known as Naval Nuclear Propulsion and currently commanded by ADM John Richardson, was created in 1946 as part of the Manhattan Project and was led by Rickover for more than three decades.
The Navy has listed the Ohio-replacement program, commonly known as SSBN(X), as its “top priority” in shipbuilding and initially planned to start building the first submarine in 2019. The program has been revised to start construction of the lead boat in 2021.
The program of record is for 12 new submarines to replace the 14 Ohio-class “boomers.” The smaller force is considered adequate because the plan is to produce a reactor that can last for the life of the boat, which could be 30 years or more.
Klotz said the life-of-the-ship reactor “is extraordinarily important on two levels. It’s extraordinarily important on cost, because one of the largest elements of the total operating costs of a nuclear submarine over its life has been replacing the (reactor) core when that has come due. That’s very expensive.
“The other aspect of that is when you go into the deep overhaul that is necessary to replace the core, you’re taking a submarine out of service, for a long time. And so, if you have a life-of-the-sub core, you avoid both cost and you avoid extensive down time as you refuel the reactor.”
According to Naval Reactors, “Reactor design work is ongoing and supports FY2019 [fiscal year 2019] Advance Procurement of long lead reactor plant components and FY2021 ship construction start. Reactor procurement is required in FY2019 to support delivery to the shipyard by FY2025.”
Klotz said his “great concern on the Ohio replacement — and for the elements of the other two legs of the triad — is the enormous cost that will be involved in those programs.”
The Navy has estimated the lead SSBN(X) could cost $12.4 billion, including $4.8 billion in non-recurring engineering and design work. NAVSEA officials hope to get the cost of the follow-on boats down to $4.9 billion. But that still would be more than one-third of usual annual shipbuilding budget.
Other elements of Klotz’s organization are working on programs to reduce the size of the nuclear weapons stockpile, while extending the life and improving the safety and reliability of the existing warheads.
Two of the nuclear warheads in that effort are the W-76-1 and the W-88, which can be used in the independently targeted re-entry vehicles in the Trident missiles.
Klotz said the W-76s are halfway through a life-extension program to keep them operational for another 20 or 30 years, while the W-88s are in an alteration program that “will replace the arming, fuzing and firing assembly,” which was produced decades ago. “It’s time to refurbish that part of the overall system. And there also will be some limited life component changes made.”
Production has not started on the W-88 modernization, but testing has been completed on the new components.
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