U.S. Navy’s New Nuke Sub Is 20,000 Tons of Apocalypse

Next-gen ballistic missile boats are priciest, biggest ever for U.S.

The U.S. Navy has unveiled the design of its next-generation nuclear ballistic missile submarine.

It’s huge. And very, very expensive.

Displacing 20,000 tons of water—thousands of tons more than the Ohio class it will replace—the so-called “Ohio Replacement” submarine packs fewer missile tubes and torpedoes than its predecessor vessel but extra space for sensors and propulsion.

The Ohio (pictured) and the Ohio Replacement, which the Navy once called “SSBN-X,” should be equally long—560 feet from bow to stern. But the extra displacement makes the newer boat America’s biggest submarine ever, although not the world’s biggest. That honor belongs to Russia’s Cold War Typhoon boats.

The new U.S. sub will have 16 missile tubes for Trident D5 intercontinental rockets, every rocket dispensing several independent warheads that each can nuke a separate target.

To adhere to a recent arms treaty with Russia, the Pentagon has limited the Navy to 240 sub-based missiles. Once the Ohio Replacements fully supplant the Ohios, the Navy will have a capacity for only 160 at-sea rockets, although additional copies could remain in storage.

The Navy’s ballistic missile subs, also known as “boomers,” comprise one leg of the Pentagon’s nuclear triad, which also includes the Air Force’s land-based missiles and bombers hauling atomic bombs. The sailing branch had 41 boomers during the peak of the Cold War but today possesses only 14 Ohios, each with 20 missile tubes.

To keep down costs, the Navy wants just 12 new boomers—without sacrificing its ability to effectively end civilization in a few hours’ bombardment. “Twelve Ohio Replacements must deliver the same availability as 14 Ohios,” according to a slide presentation by Capt. William Brougham, the boomer program manager.

The U.S. Naval Institute’s news blog published Brougham’s presentation in early April.

Opposite America’s planned 12 new boomers, Russia could end up with fleet of eight to 10 modern Borei-class missile subs. France and the U.K. plan to maintain four each equivalent boats. China is slowly developing a five-boomer fleet, but lags in technology and tactics.

Even a reduced U.S. boomer fleet will be incredibly expensive. In 2011, the Navy estimated each new boat would set taxpayers back $7 billion, not counting development costs. Today the sailing branch thinks it can eventually push the price of an Ohio Replacement down to around $5 billion.

But the overall program could still end up costing nearly $100 billion—a sum the Navy and outside groups say is unaffordable. “Ohio Replacement is poised to tear a gaping hole in the Navy’s shipbuilding budget,” the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation warned.

The Navy typically spends around $13 billion a year on new ships.

The Navy is trying to get Congress to either add money to projected budgets … or persuade an agency other than the Navy to help cover some of the cost. “This step would not be unprecedented,” the arms-control center commented. “There are some activities within the Pentagon, such as most missile-defense spending, which are viewed as national programs and not funded by the individual services.”

The Department of Energy already partially pays for the sailing branch’s nuclear powerplants. The Ohio Replacement is getting a new kind of nuclear reactor that never needs expensive refueling during its 40 or 50 years of use. The next-gen boomer’s reactor will be connected to a new kind of electric drive to actually propel the ship.

Working with the Connecticut-based General Dynamics Electric Boat—America’s main submarine-builder—the Navy has put the Ohio Replacement on a diet of sorts. For starters, the U.S. and U.K. are collaborating on the design of the missile compartment.

Besides carrying fewer torpedoes and missiles, the new boomer’s missile tubes will also be narrower than the Ohio’s and thus cheaper. The SSBN-X will have just six sensor masts compared to the Ohio’s 10.

The new boat borrows hull coatings, computers and other equipment from the Virginia-class attack submarines currently in production. “I steal—I should say, reuse—everything I can from the Virginia,” said Brian Wilson, Electric Boat’s program manager.

The Navy also delayed construction of the new submarines from 2019 to 2021—both to save money and give Electric Boat time to mature the design. The first Ohio will decommission in 2027 after its reactor core wears out. To keep up America’s at-sea atomic arsenal, the first SSBN-X must sail no later than 2031.

Automatic “sequestration” budget cuts could force the Navy to begin buying fewer new warships in coming years, but the sailing branch has vowed not to eliminate any new boomers. “This is our top priority program within the Department of the Navy,” Sean Stackley, as assistant Navy secretary, told Congress.

Brougham’s presentation hinted at why. With the ability to carry new weapons as they’re developed, the SSBN-X has the “flexibility to handle problems across triad or degradation in [the] strategic environment.”

In other words, the next-gen boomers—more than any other weapon in the U.S. arsenal—will always be ready for the apocalypse.

David Axe’s new book Shadow Wars is out. Sign up for a daily War is Boring email update here. Subscribe to WIB’s RSS feed here and follow the main page here.