The nation’s second highest military officer is worried about the defense industry’s ability to deliver the critical components of the nuclear deterrent modernization on time, specifically warning that the Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) are scheduled to sail until “the absolute end of their service life.”
“There is no slack in our ability to deliver the Columbia class” submarines that are to replace the Ohio-class SSBNs, Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Aug. 3.
“If we don’t replace the Ohio class with Columbia, we won’t have a sea-based deterrent,” Selva told a Mitchell Institute breakfast on nuclear deterrence.
The Navy already has extended the service life of the 14 Ohio subs to 40 years, and plans to begin building the first of 12 Columbia-class boomers by 2021 and have it in service by 2029. But Navy officials have warned that if the Ohios are not replaced on time, their hulls may be unable to take the pressure of operating at their normal depth.
A May report by the Congressional Research Service projected that even if the first Columbia is operational in 2029, the SSBN fleet will have dropped to 12 because the three oldest Ohio-class boats will have been decommissioned. The long-range plan for 12 Columbia SSBNs is based on the expectation that the new submarines will not have to be taken out of service for maintenance and upgrades as often, allowing 10 operational boomers at all times.
The nuclear deterrent Triad includes an air leg, currently consisting of B-52s, some of which are nearly 50 years old, and the 19 newer B-2s; and a ground-based leg of 400 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The Air Force is pushing development of the B-21 Raider to replace the B-52s and a new ICBM to replace the Minuteman missiles.
Selva said there was “no alternative” to replacing the current nuclear deterrent Triad because “nuclear weapons pose the only existential threat to the United States.” That is why, maintaining and modernizing the Triad is “the most important mission of the Defense Department,” he said.
Selva emphasized that the program was to replace, not modernize, the Triad. He noted that an essential part of the replacement program was the nuclear command and control network, which has components that include 1950s vacuum tubes.
In describing the threat that the nuclear deterrent Triad must counter, Selva listed Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, noting that Iran is the only one that does not have nuclear weapons, which he attributed to the multinational agreement that has frozen Tehran’s program.
Asked about the threat from North Korea, which has staged multiple tests of nuclear devices with increasing power, and in July conducted two tests of ballistic missiles that may have the range to hit the United States, Selva said “before we can assume that North Korea has the ability to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon,” it would have to demonstrate four capabilities.
The Pentagon believes North Korea has a missile with adequate range, does not believe it has a missile with the guidance, control and stability to deliver a warhead without breaking up; does not know if it has a re-entry vehicle that can survive the heat and pressure; and does not know if it has a warhead that can survive re-entry.
Independent analysts have reported that in the last ICBM test, which appeared to have the range to hit the United States, the re-entry vehicle apparently broke up before reaching the surface.
But, Selva added, he could not rule out North Korea correcting those problems because people can learn “some interesting things if they are willing to fail.” And North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un “is willing to fail.”