As potential adversaries enhance their long-range weapons, the United States is moving forward with plans to bolster its own global strike capabilities. The stakes are high as officials try to keep their programs on time and on budget.
Russia, China and North Korea are modernizing their strategic weapon systems, defense officials and independent analysts have noted. At the same time, tensions are boiling in the Asia-Pacific following Pyongyang's recent tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads that could potentially reach the U.S. homeland.
To bolster deterrence and assure anxious allies, the Air Force has flown long-range bombers such as the B-52 near the Korean Peninsula and conducted an ICBM test without a warhead. The Navy has deployed ballistic missile submarines to the region, and allowed officials from allied nations to tour the USS Pennsylvania while it was docked in Guam.
"A lot of that diplomatically is just a show of force," Gen. Robin Rand, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, said during a meeting with reporters at the Air Force Association's Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland. It signaled that "we're ready to fight tonight," he added.
However, the United States' global strike systems are aging, and the Pentagon is pushing to modernize its arsenal.
The Navy plans to replace its Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines with 12 new Columbia-class boats. Advance procurement funding has already been allocated to the project. The lead vessel is to be procured in fiscal year 2021, and enter service in 2031.
Vice Adm. Terry Benedict, director of Navy strategic systems programs, said industry is enhancing shipbuilding facilities.
"Electric Boat is working very, very hard in creating new infrastructure... to handle the capacity necessary to deliver the Columbia," he said at a recent nuclear deterrence conference in Washington, D.C. "We can't do it within the existing footprint."
The Navy is aiming to reduce technical and schedule risk. That includes building infrastructure to test and validate systems and subsystems.
When the Columbia-class is delivered Navy officials will have high confidence that the new platforms are entering operational service with known reliability and system performance, Benedict said.
However, any disruptions to the program would be problematic, he said.
"There is no slack" in the schedule, he told National Defense. "We're trying to find ways to intelligently create that [slack] within our integrated master schedule. But... the buffer for when we need it based on the retirement dates for the Ohio, that's gone."
The new submarine is the Navy's top acquisition priority, with a projected program cost of $128 billion. Despite the high price tag, it appears to have strong backing from Congress. The sea-launched ballistic missile platform is expected to take priority...