As Congress raced to complete work last week on spending measures that would fund the military in 2015, barely a word was said about the most important technology program in the whole defense budget. In fact, there are probably plenty of legislators who have never even heard of it. It’s called the Ohio Replacement Program, and there is a real possibility that at some point later in the century, it will make the difference between whether our Republic lives or dies.
I wish I was exaggerating, but I’m not. The Ohio Replacement Program was conceived to modernize the sea-based part of the nation’s nuclear force — the only part of that force that is certain to survive if Russia, China or some other major nuclear power launches a surprise attack in, say, 2050. The reason why is that the Navy’s ballistic-missile subs patrol silently beneath the surface of the world’s oceans, where enemies cannot find them; the Air Force’s bombers and silo-based missiles, on the other hand, are in known locations that can be easily targeted.
(Disclosure: Several companies likely to build the Ohio Replacement or provide on-board equipment contribute to my think tank; some are consulting clients.)
Collectively, these three types of long-range nuclear systems are called the nuclear “triad,” and the sole purpose for their existence is to convince potential adversaries that any attempt to launch a nuclear attack against America would be suicidal. But what makes that threat credible is not the number of nuclear weapons America has before an attack occurs; it’s how many survive the attack so they can be used to retaliate against an aggressor. That’s what convinces him not to attack in the first place. Strategists used to call this “the delicate balance of terror,” and it is probably the main reason why Russia and America never fought during the Cold War.
However, the Cold War ended a quarter century ago, and many Americans have stopped thinking about the fact that the U.S. and Russia still have thousands of nuclear warheads aimed at each other — despite Moscow’s best efforts to remind us during the Ukraine crisis (Russia’s strategic rocket forces staged their biggest nuclear exercises in years, showing off just how potent their long-range arsenal remains). With only one in five members of Congress having served in the military and nearly half elected in the 2010 election or later, it’s a safe bet that few legislators are conversant with the requirements of effective nuclear deterrence.
Perhaps that explains why the Ohio Replacement Program — so named because it would replace all 14 of the nation’s Ohio-class ballistic-missile subs — was delayed two years by implementation of the Budget Control Act. The delay was a Navy decision, but one made under duress when Congress imposed spending caps with little thought as to the impact on military readiness or modernization. Now a further delay looms because spending caps slowed development of a nuclear reactor that will power the propulsion system of the future subs. That’s a serious problem, because any further delays in developing an Ohio Replacement would result in numbers dipping below the Navy’s stated requirement for ten operational subs.
I should mention that most of the Navy’s subs do not carry nuclear weapons at all. Instead, they are conventionally armed (but nuclear-powered) attack subs that protect the sea lanes, collect intelligence, and perform various other secret missions. The Virginia class of attack subs currently being built at the rate of two per year is the most versatile undersea warship ever designed, and is constantly being improved with new technology. Ballistic-missile subs, on the other hand, aren’t supposed to be versatile. They’re supposed to be as good as possible at doing one thing: hiding beneath the waves until the fateful day when they must launch retaliation against a nuclear aggressor, and then doing so in a tailored and 100% reliable fashion.