Does the United States need a 300-ship Navy or will it over the next 70 years need seven strategic nuclear submarines on patrol in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans? Each would have 24 intercontinental ballistic missiles, all of which could carry up to five nuclear warheads.

That was the choice Vice Adm. William Burke, deputy chief of Naval Operations Warfare Systems, described Tuesday at the Congressional Breakfast Seminar Series.

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.”

It’s not the survivable warhead number that’s key in the Burke formulation, it’s the number of submarines that survive. By basing the subs on the East and West coasts, “it makes it harder for somebody to figure out how to find them.”

First strike is the imagined Cold War threat that drove the United States to build thousands of nuclear warheads. Still, it has not been put to rest, although with Russia’s decline no other country could carry it out on the United States.

Still, the Navy is prepared to devote a major portion of its shipbuilding budget to replacing the Ohio class submarine fleet over the next 20 years, having already extended the life of those in service to 40 years.

The number needed dropped from 14 with the creation of a reactor core of the nuclear propulsion system that lasts for the life of the ship. With that and some engineering changes that shortened maintenance periods, the Navy saved $20 billion, Burke noted.

At first, the new sub was priced at $5.6 billion but, he said, “so far we’ve eliminated about $1.1 billion from the price of each hull.”

The first sub scheduled to begin production in 2021 “will pressurize our [shipbuilding] procurement account,” Burke said. To maintain a path to a 300-ship force, shipbuilding requests during the 2020s must average about $19.3 billion annually, which would be $4 billion more than today and $7 billion above such funding over the past 10 years. The Congressional Budget Office thinks future shipbuilding costs will be larger.

“If accurate, the picture only gets direr,” Burke said. “If we don’t buy the SSBN replacement, we will become a dyad without a survival leg, leaving us with questionable deterrence capability.”

Of course, one answer, as it is with all parts of the nuclear triad, is to cut the number of future nuclear delivery systems and warheads below that which current Navy and Air Force planners think is required. However, they are not the problem.

They are waiting for President Obama to release his nuclear weapons policy guidance, which was concluded last fall but has not been sent to the Pentagon. That paper could solve the Navy’s dilemma by reducing the number of strategic subs the country needs.

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