The Navy’s Nuclear Bailout

Bailout was a naval term before it was a financial term. Bailing out a ship means, essentially, to save a sinking ship by taking a bucket and heaving water overboard. Since the financial collapse, the term has also meant giving taxpayer money to insolvent businesses. So the bailout metaphor is particularly fitting when the Navy appeals to Congress for a taxpayer cash when the cost of new nuclear submarines threatens to sink the Navy’s shipbuilding budget.

The Navy’s proposed fleet of 12 ballistic missile submarines – capable of deploying up to 1,536 nuclear warheads through the end of this century – is expected to cost an estimated $100 billion. In tight budget times, however, the Navy does not have enough money to both begin a nuclear submarine buildup and buy the new surface ships it needs. 

That would threaten the Navy’s whole line of business – keeping the worlds oceans free and secure. If nuclear sub plans go forward, the Navy projects that it would have to scrap plans to buy new destroyers, attack subs or even carriers in order to find funds for its nuclear mission.

To avoid that, the Navy asked Congress for a nuclear bailout - $4 billion extra each year from 2019 onward. With defense budgets shrinking, that money would have to be taken away from some other military need.

As I wrote in Roll Call today:

There’s a simpler solution: cut excessive nuclear requirements. America does not need 12 ballistic missile submarines to deter our modern day adversaries. In fact, we could deploy over 1,000 nuclear warheads on submarines with a fleet of only eight new subs. The President and his military advisors have signaled America is prepared to bring the nuclear arsenal down further, meaning the Navy would need even fewer submarines to meet modern post-Cold War deterrence requirements.

The problem is that the Pentagon’s plan to reshape the nuclear force has slowed, while the contract to buy the Navy’s subs has raced ahead. If this policy-procurement gap persists, the Navy is going to go broke buying a sub fleet that exceeds any rational security strategy.

The Navy shouldn’t need the extra funds. The U.S. can defend its national security interest with fewer nuclear weapons at less cost. Planning for that reality would allow the Navy to offload some of its nuclear burden, invest in the ships it really needs and avoid a nuclear bailout.

On a side note: a “bailout” is a much cleaner metaphor for the Navy. When the Air Force gets around to asking for a nuclear bailout for its $55 billion bomber, it will mean something entirely different.


Photo by Official U.S. Navy