Retirement in Sight for United States’ Heavy Hitters

Posted June 25, 2013 at 1:00pm

In a twist of bad timing, the nation’s venerable triad of nuclear-capable bombers, ballistic missile submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles all have retirement in sight, just as the Pentagon’s budget takes a sharp downward turn.

While many details are not known about the platforms that will replace the aging delivery systems, one thing is certain: They will be expensive.

The first leg of the triad that demands attention — and significant resources — is the replacement of the 14 Ohio-class submarines now in the Navy’s fleet. The Navy requested $1.1 billion for fiscal 2014 to continue developing the new submarine, with the goal of buying the first of 12 ships in fiscal 2021.

The Navy expects that first vessel to cost a staggering $12 billion — almost as much as the service’s next aircraft carrier. But costs for the rest of the fleet are expected to be significantly lower, between $4.9 billion and $5.4 billion apiece, measured in fiscal 2010 dollars.

Despite budget pressures, officials can’t afford to delay if they want to avoid a significant gap in capability. The Ohio-class has an expiration date, with the first scheduled to leave the force in 2027, 42 years after it entered the water and 12 years later than originally planned.

Meanwhile, the Air Force has requested $379 million in fiscal 2014 to continue developing a next-generation bomber. Service officials hope to buy 80 to 100 new bombers, the first of which would enter the force around 2025. The cost for each of the planes could hit $550 million, with the total cost of the program climbing to $36 billion to $56 billion over the aircraft’s anticipated 50-year life.

The plan for a replacement for the 1970s-era Minuteman III ICBMs is far less clear. The Air Force invested more than $7 billion in the missiles between 2001 and 2010 to keep them operational until 2030. But military programs can take more than a decade to develop and build, forcing service officials to begin to think now what they will need by 2030.

Retired Gen. James E. Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the military should view these platforms as 50-year investments and should think critically about what the service’s strategic needs will be well into the century.

“What are the attributes you want? Really haven’t been debated other than to be better than what we had before,” Cartwright said. “I think that’s kind of the mantra out there. To me, that’s not enough from a strategy standpoint.”