PENTAGON - One of America’s greatest threats to outsiders is 171 meters long and four stories high and can be completely submerged underwater, free to roam the seas in secrecy.
The Ohio-class SSBN submarine, carrying a payload of Trident II nuclear missiles, is what Secretary of Defense Ash Carter this week called “absolutely essential”.
The vessels, strategically positioned around the globe, each carry up to two dozen ballistic missiles that can take out targets up to 7,400 kilometers away.
"This is the most important weapon system that we have as far as strategic security, because nobody knows where it is, it always works and it's always on watch," Sonar Technician Senior Chief Jarrad Hampton said during a VOA visit to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay near St. Marys, Georgia, which is home to six SSBN subs.
WATCH: Sonar technician Senior Chief Jarrad Hampton talks about the Ohio-class Submarines
Officials argue these subs are the foremost prong of the nuclear triad, a term used to describe America’s ability to launch a nuclear weapons attack by air, land or sea. Strategic bomber jets and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles make up the first two prongs.
Fourteen SSBN submarines filled with hundreds of Trident II missiles make up the third prong of the triad, giving the U.S. the ability to strike anywhere, any place, at any time.
Navy Captain Greg Hicks, a spokesman for the military’s top general, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joe Dunford, said the weapons system prevents offensive first strikes that could be crippling to the United States.
“It provides our country a basis in which we can say, ‘If you do harm to us, we will do harm to you,’ ” Hicks said.
The Ohio-class submarines’ mobility and ability to disappear beneath the ocean surface is matched by the Trident II missile's reliability.
“Every time that we've gone out to do an evaluation,” Hampton said, “it goes exactly where it's supposed to go.”
“They are the number one thing that keeps our nation secure,” Hicks added.
Thanks to the current number of Ohio-class nuclear subs, according to Hampton, there is never a “gap” in the Navy’s ability to respond to aggressive actions.
But that ability will soon be threatened if a program is not funded in time to replace the aging fleet. The submarines' hulls last only about 40 years.
The first of the current Ohio-class subs are set to retire by 2029.
“We're going to have to find a replacement," Hampton said. “We have to get these boats built, outfitted, tested and at sea before the other ones start coming off.”
And when the new START treaty goes into effect in the near future, the submarines will become even more important, with their payload expected to increase from about 50 percent to 70 percent of the nation’s active nuclear arsenal, said Lieutenant Lily Hinz, the public affairs officer at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay.
The first Ohio-class sub took several years to build and commission. Building and commissioning the entire Ohio-class fleet took more than 20 years, from 1976 to 1997. A similar time contribution should be expected for the new fleet, officials say, with a heavy financial investment needed up front to procure the new fleet.
Translation: Lawmakers are running out of time to fund a program that officials say can no longer be postponed.
The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) has money set aside for initial procurement of these replacement submarines, dubbed the Ohio Replacement Program, or ORP, but there is no guarantee that Congress will approve it.
“It's the critical survivable and enduring peace of the nuclear deterrent. Gotta, gotta, gotta have it,” Carter told sailors at a base in Connecticut on Tuesday.
Carter said his biggest concern was that across-the-board budget cuts could prevent the military from getting the money it needs for these updates, if there is a collapse of the bipartisan budget agreement that currently provides relief from these cuts.
The last major update to the U.S. military’s nuclear infrastructure occurred in the 1980s. The military recently has made billions of dollars in various nuclear infrastructure investments, but it’s not enough to cover all the required changes to the aging nuclear enterprise, according to Lieutenant Commander Courtney Hillson, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
The Senate on Wednesday voted to proceed to the NDAA by a vote of 98-0, clearing the way for formal debate. Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, an Arizona Republican, has said final action on the bill would most likely come in June.
Some lawmakers have pushed to create a National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund, an account set aside specifically to finance the ORP.
If it's created, lawmakers could ensure the sea-based leg of the military’s nuclear infrastructure upgrades is funded, without the program having to fight other needed programs for cash.
“We can’t afford this all at once,” Hicks said. “We need to invest over time so that we can afford the system, instead of trying to fund a big bill at the last minute.”
If approved, plans for the next generation of ballistic-missile-carrying subs call for nuclear reactors that never need to be refueled, according to Hampton, the sonar technician.
He said the new submarines would last 40 years, like the current Ohio-class subs, but would provide a “huge cost cut” in operations.
Current Ohio-class submarines must refuel about every 20 years. Refueling is extremely expensive and time-consuming, keeping the boat off the high seas for about two years.