Proceed carefully in replacing Trident

The growing pressure to reduce federal spending demands that defense expenditures receive no special exemption when it comes to cutting costs. That includes taking a hard look at the future of submarine construction, a major job generator in this region.

Military expenditures account for about 20 cents of every federal dollar spent, meaning political leaders cannot exempt them from any realistic discussion about reducing spending. Yet the political instinct of most any congressman or senator is to protect the defense contractor in their district and state. The prominent mentality is don't try to cut my defense program and I won't cut yours.

This does not serve the national interest. When it comes to weapons' development the priority must be to meet the nation's military and national security needs at the best price. This is why we welcome a continuing debate about the future successor to the Ohio-class ballistic missile carrying submarines.

For 30 years the Tridents have stealthily plied the world's oceans. Introduced during the Cold War, they were part of the MAD strategy - Mutually Assured Destruction - under which neither the United States nor the Soviet Union would dare risk a confrontation that could escalate to a nuclear level.

The Soviets could not target these Ohio-class submarines with a pre-emptive strike. Each armed with up to 24 missiles capable of carrying multiple warheads, the Tridents provided the threat of a massive retaliation for any nuclear strike against the U.S. Fourteen Ohio-class Tridents now carry about half the nation's nuclear warhead inventory.

Nuclear threat remains

The Navy expects to begin retiring Ohio-class submarines in 2029. In a post-Cold War world it would be nice not to need these doomsday machines. But the unpleasant reality is that the number of nations with nuclear arms will almost certainly expand, with more unstable and unpredictable countries in control of these weapons. Strategically, the U.S. needs the deterrent a sea-based strategic nuclear force provides.

Navy plans call for 12 new submarines to replace the Tridents, a number that could potentially come down in the future. Design work has already begun at submarine-builder Electric Boat in Groton. The estimated price tag is staggering, $5 billion per ship, more than the entire annual operating budget of some states. The Navy expects the first ship to cost $7 billion.

Given these expenses, Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said the Pentagon is once again looking at an alternative previously discussed and rejected - making a longer version of the Virginia-class attack submarines retrofitted to carry ballistic missiles. By some estimates, those submarines could be built for between $3 billion and $3.5 billion each.

Challenges

The idea is worth future study and debate, but the challenges are significant. The hull of the Virginia cannot accommodate the large Trident II (D5) missiles, meaning this option would require design of a new missile, potentially eating away at any expected savings. It is also unclear a redesigned missile would have capabilities comparable to the D5. The Navy could end up with a less able war machine at almost the same cost.

The Defense Acquisition Board, which advises the Department of Defense, looked at the alternative and recommended instead a new replacement submarine. Advocates for the Virginia option have the burden of proving that recommendation wrong.

The discussion needs to take place, but as of now the current plan appears to be the right one, financially and militarily.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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