Kristensen was skeptical that the new missile, if placed aboard a stealthy attack submarine, would ease concerns about potentially destabilizing ambiguity during a crisis.
“Even a conventional intermediate-range ballistic missile launched from a converted Virginia-class attack submarine could be misinterpreted because its compressed trajectory would look much like a nuclear D-5 launched in a compressed trajectory as part of a first strike,” he told GSN. “And it’s still unclear to me why it is so important to have a conventional ballistic missile against terrorists and rogue states, given the overwhelming firepower that we deploy today.”
In a document released on Thursday, titled “Defense Budget Priorities and Choices,” the Pentagon characterized its decision to invest in the submarine-based capability as part of its effort to “rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific and Middle East regions.”
Defense leaders debuted this regional shift in U.S. focus earlier this month as part of new military strategic guidance, based on force drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan and mandates to reduce Pentagon spending over the next decade (see GSN, Jan. 6).
Offsetting some of the budget reductions proposed over the next fives years totaling $259 billion -- compared to previous spending plans for the same time period -- defense leaders said in the newly released document that they “increased or protected investment in capabilities that preserve the U.S. military’s ability to project power in contested areas and strike quickly from over the horizon.”
Among these focused investments would be to develop a new stealth bomber to replace today’s fleet of nuclear- and conventional-capable long-range aircraft.
The new Asia-Pacific emphasis -- which many defense experts interpret as largely a response to China’s rising role in the region -- “requires an Air Force that is able to penetrate sophisticated enemy defenses and strike over long distances,” Panetta said at the Thursday news briefing. “So we will be funding the next-generation bomber, and we will be sustaining the current bomber fleet.”
No previously unanticipated U.S. nuclear reductions would be included in Obama’s fiscal 2013 budget request, said Ashton Carter, the deputy Defense secretary, in a follow-on press conference.
The White House is “considering the size and shape of the nuclear arsenal in the future,” he said in response to a question about whether further atomic cuts must await new negotiations with Russia following last year’s New START agreement. “When those decisions come, we'll factor them into our budget,” Carter said.
The spending plan does foresee a two-year delay in a Navy effort to replace its Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, which Carter said would reduce schedule risk in what had previously been an “aggressive” developmental plan, “maybe even verging on optimistic” (see related GSN story, today). Prior expectations had the new submarine first being deployed in the 2029.
Along with these nuclear-capable strike systems, the Pentagon will also “design changes to increase cruise missile capacity of future Virginia-class submarines” and design “a conventional prompt strike option from submarines,” the document states.
If the simplest of the three options for giving the attack submarines a ballistic missile capability is embraced, launch tubes being built for Tomahawk cruise missiles on the stealthy underwater vessels could do double duty as launchers for the new medium-range ballistic missile.
A redesigned bow for new Virginia-class subs would allow for the emplacement of two launch tubes, each of which is expected to accommodate six Tomahawks, according to Defense Department documents. A 2010 Navy briefing on its submarine development and fielding plans depicts the location of the two tubes, each capped by a lid, in front of the submarine sail.
Each launch tube could be fitted with at least one -- maybe more -- of the new medium-range ballistic missiles, permitting a total of two or possibly additional ballistic missiles in each modified submarine, defense sources told GSN.
The Navy is currently buying Virginia-class attack vessels at a rate of two per year. Procurement is in a series of “blocks,” with incremental upgrades expected in each block of submarines, according to a fiscal 2011 Pentagon report on test and evaluation.
Eight Block 3 submarines, beginning with the 11th Virginia-class hull built, will for the first time feature the new, wide-diameter launch tubes. The two wide tubes replace 12 narrow vertical launch tubes for launching the same number of Tomahawks.
The design for next set of boats in the series, Block 4, has not yet been finalized.
Irwin, the Defense Department spokeswoman, would not say on Thursday how much the new-design ballistic missile might cost, how many of the weapons could be procured or how soon they might be fielded.
A “sea-based prompt-strike missile is in the early stages of development” so these details “are not yet available,” she said in the written responses.
With the new design and procurement of U.S. ballistic missiles typically running into hundreds of millions of dollars or more, Kristensen was skeptical that Congress would embrace the Pentagon initiative at a time of budget restraint. The Pentagon could face yet another roughly $500 billion in reductions if lawmakers are unable to negotiate an alternative to the budget “sequester” process by the end of this year.
“Congress is very unlikely to pay for an entirely new ballistic missile,” the longtime defense analyst said.
In fact, the new submarine missile initiative appears to be based on an initial design concept first discussed under the Pentagon’s conventional prompt global strike effort several years ago, he noted (see GSN, March 20, 2008).
For her part, Irwin hinted in response to questions that basing the missile aboard the Virginia-class submarines is not the only option under consideration.
“The development is not service specific,” she said. “The current focus is a submarine variant, but we are very early in the R&D process.”