America’s total nuclear arsenal has decreased significantly since the Cold War, but you can’t tell by looking at the U.S. Navy’s stockpile.
While the overall nuclear stockpile has shrunk, the Navy now holds 70 percent of nation’s total strategic arsenal, all of which is in the care of the Navy’s submarine force, said Capt. Brian Lepine, commanding officer of Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay.
That was among several answers Lepine gave to members of the Rotary Club of St. Simons Island at its Tuesday luncheon.
A New York native, Lepine enlisted in the Navy in 1981. He worked with nuclear reactors on submarines and aircraft carriers for most of his career before taking the role of vice commander at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Va. He assumed command of Kings Bay in 2016.
He answered as many questions from rotary members as he could, noting that the submarine force is called “the silent service” for more than one reason. America’s submarines are silent, but their crews also know how to keep secrets, said Scott Bassett, a spokesman for Kings Bay who accompanied Lepine.
When on a mission, a submarine’s main goal is to remain undetected. Submarine crews spend 90 percent of their two-year missions underwater, striving to accomplish that goal, Lepine said. A good after-action report is one in which nothing is seen or heard.
Roughly 25 percent of the Navy’s ships are submarines, and about 70 submarines are on active duty at any given time, he said.
One member of the club asked how much the subs cost. One Ohio-class submarine costs around $1.5-2 billion, Lepine said. To give something to compare it to, he said the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier cost around $5.5 billion to construct.
Another asked how the Navy keeps the technology in the submarines current. Lepine said the designers left some room for new technology in the Ohio-class submarine’s blueprints.
When asked how Russian and Chinese submarines stacked up against America’s, Lepine said that Russia’s were catching up and China’s were pretty advanced. Neither were as advanced as America’s, and neither country could field as many as the U.S. does, he said.
One rotary club member asked what the biggest improvement the new Columbia-class submarines, slated to enter service in 2031, bring to the table. Most of the difference is in the reactors, Lepine explained. He said an Ohio-class sub’s nuclear reactor core only lasts for about half the lifespan of the submarine itself, 42-44 years, and replacing it is costly. Columbia-class reactors will last the entire life of the sub, he said.
Gender integration is going well on submarines, Lepine said in response to another question. There were some bumps, but overall the submarine force is stronger for it, he said.