Burke, who is set to retire in the next few weeks, spoke frankly about the undersea portion of the U.S. strategic nuclear triad “and its intersection with our shipbuilding plan.”
His conclusion: “If we buy the SSBN [the planned 12 replacement strategic submarines for the current 14 Ohio class now in service] within existing funds, we will not reach 300 ships. In fact, we’ll find ourselves closer to 250. At these numbers, our global presence will be reduced such that we’ll only be able to visit some areas of the world episodically.”
Sequestration will only make the situation worse. Burke said it would cause the Navy “to both reduce procurement as well as retire existing ships, leaving us with a Navy in the vicinity of 200 ships, at which point we may not be considered a global navy.”
Here is the current situation:
Every hour of every day, four Ohio class subs are on patrol in the Pacific, three in the Atlantic. Among them, they have 840 accurate nuclear warheads that can be independently aimed at different targets. Each warhead has explosive power of at least three times the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
Back in Kings Bay, Ga., on the East Coast, are three more “boomers,” as they are called, and on the West Coast, four more are home ported at Bangor, Wash.
The United States has been doing these patrols for more than 50 years, although at the height of the Cold War when the country had more than 40 strategic submarines, the number deployed was far larger. Of course, the perceived threat was much greater from the Soviet Union, with its thousands of warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
But the Cold War is over. Still, the United States and Russia maintain their nuclear triads — strategic bombers plus land- and sub-launched ICBMs, although at lower numbers and with ongoing talks for more reductions.
Yet, as Burke put it Tuesday, “the Ohio replacements will conduct strategic deterrent patrols into the 2080s.” A good Navy man, Burke defended the strategic submarine program, saying, “As the most survivable leg of the triad, the SSBN is also our nation’s most necessary ship, and we must build it.
“Our fleet of SSBNs was, and continues to be, relied upon as the survival leg of the nuclear triad, discouraging a surprise first strike. . . . The SSBN is the ultimate insurance policy of deterrence with sufficient lethality to make our adversary pause.”
Why 12 new subs and not fewer? Burke explains it’s the need for a “survivable” nuclear payload that can “assure leaders that they have a second-strike capability . . . [which] requires we have a certain number of ships with a certain number of missiles underway at all times.”