The high cost of the Trident submarine raises the possibility that the United States may be pricing itself out of its future sea-based missile force.
Some Pentason analysts are so concerned about the possibility that they are suggesting a new look at cheaper alternatives to the Trident missile submarine.
At least one congressional gardily of the military. Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), has reviewed submarine deployment plans in light of Trident's rising cost and as concluded "there's a real problem."
Simply started, there is not enough shipbuilding money in sight to pay for the Tridents needed to replace the aging submarine missile fleet now in service.
Yet missile submarines are at the heart of the nation's nuclear strategy. It is this force of invulnerable nuclear missiles inside submarines which backs up presidential warnings that any nuclear attack on the United States would bring devastating retaliation from the ocean depths.
Currently, this "ses-based deterrent" consists of a fleet of 41 Polaris and Pooseidon missile-carrying submarines. But they are wearing out. The newest of those subs is the Will Engers, commissioned in 1967.
This means the newest of the Poseidon boars will be warn out in 1992 or 1997, depending on whether it lass 25 or 30 years. Older missile subs must be replaced slower than that, or have their hulls strengthened in some way.
The United States has no more than 14 to 19 years to replace all its Polaris and Poseidon submarines if the current sea-based deterrent is to be kept as big as it is today.
Eash Polaris and Poseidon carries 16 missilles. Each Trident will carry 24 missilles. It thus will take 28 Tridents, carrying a total of 672 missles to duplicate the current Polaris-Poseidon force of 655 missiles.
By straight arithmetic, building a force of 28 Tridents over the next 14 years would mean appropriating money for two Tridents every year from now on.
The Navy recently estimated that its first Trident submarine will cost $1.2 billion instead of the $300 million it had originally estimated. Add the Trident's 24 missiles, each costing $10 million and the price tag jumps to $1.5 billion for the first Trident.
If the price of Trident stays at $1.5 billion - the Navy figures will drop, but nobody can tell for sure - buying two of those ships each year would cost $3 billion, or half of this year's shipbuilding budget for the whole Navy.
Congress would almost certainly refuse to appropriate half the shipbuilding budget to one type of ship even if the Navy requested it. The House Appropriations Committee complained this year in its report on the Pentagon's money bill than the Navy's shipbuilding program "indicates no sense of purpose to achieve a balanced fleet of the appropriate numbers and kinds of ships required by the Navy of the future."
Even if Navy optimists should have right and the price of Trident falls all the way down to around $300 million a submarine, as the builder. Electric Boat, gets into full production. Navy shipbuilding plans still would run short of money unless there are major changes in it.
Besides the Trident the Navy also is building a new fleet of nuclear attack submarines designed to destroy other submarines posing a threat to Trident and surface ships. Each of these new attack submarines, called the 613 or Los Angeles class, costs $264 million.
Navy leaders insist they need 50 nuclear attack subs instead of the 67 now in service. "It is necessary." Adm. H. G. Rickover told the House Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee this year, to build three Los Angeles attack subs every year "just to maintain a force level of 91 nuclear attack submarines."
"Something has got to give," argued one Pentagon analyst in arguing that the new nuclear submarines championed by Rickover threaten to deny the President the sea-based deterrent and sink the rest of the Navy financially.