The Next New Battlefield Needs Small Nuclear-Powered Warships
The U.S. Navy’s Cold War love affair with nuclear-powered surface combatants came to an ignominious end in mid-1999. Left with no viable rival at sea, the enormous sticker price and high operational cost of small nuclear-powered surface combatants outweighed the tactical advantages of nuclear power. The nine ships of America’s nuclear-powered escort fleet were summarily decommissioned after as little as sixteen years of service.
Times have changed. Now that the United States is facing new challenges at sea and high-powered electronic weapons are coming into the fore, it may be time for the Navy to take another look at nuclear power technology. Safer, smaller and lower-cost nuclear options (modular reactors or other innovative power-generation solutions) can be about ready to support America’s hard-pressed fleet.
Nuclear Power Offers Operational Advantages:
In the Cold War, nuclear power brought substantial tactical advantages to smaller surface combatants. Endowed with almost unlimited high-speed cruising endurance, nuclear cruisers and destroyers kept pace with nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and were freed from regular visits to the Navy’s motley fleet of refueling tankers.
America’s smallest nuclear combatant, the 9,100 ton USS Bainbridge (CGN 25), demonstrated the potential of nuclear power by pushing the ship 180,000 miles on the vessel’s first reactor core.
Free from America’s ever-undersized fuel-tanker fleet, nuclear-powered surface ships could more easily surprise adversaries, maneuver around bad weather, and avoid the risks of destabilization conventional small craft can face when operating in high seas at the lower bounds of their fuel supply.
But nuclear power provided other advantages as well. Endless power offered additional resources for power-hungry computers and sensors, and allowed the ship to “button up” more tightly to resist chemical, biological contamination or nuclear fallout. With no exhaust, delicate sensors were unimpaired by stack gas.
Today, the potential operational advantages provided by nuclear power are increasing. With the Pacific and Indian Oceans a newly-contested region, the need for unconstrained range has grown.
Technology is also changing. Sensors and computers have become increasingly power-hungry. Lasers, electronic countermeasures, launch systems and off-board tools all require power or, more and more often, furtive and fast recharges before heading back into the fray. The Navy’s ability to leverage electrical power from nuclear energy has become more efficient and new reactors may be able to support alternative electrical power generation methods (like the cogeneration of hydrogen) that might prove militarily interesting to exploit.
Bringing nuclear power back aboard smaller surface ships may free up needed space and weight for added systems, supplies or munitions.
Nuclear Power Merits A Tough Cost-Benefit Analysis
The research expenses, per-unit costs and the potential for radiological release via battle damage (or from even a more mundane accident) are substantial barriers for the reinstatement of nuclear-fueled surface combatants. Some may consider the costs insurmountable.
But new rivals, strategies, operational expectations and technologies demand new approaches. And with the Department of Defense eager to reshape the fleet, adding an array of small ships, new unscrewed surface vessels and other platforms, America’s limited naval logistics resources will be strained to the breaking point. Nuclear-powered ships, leveraging the best in electronic weaponry, would reduce America’s logistical burden and protect America’s high-end aircraft carrier strike fleets.
Exploring the utility of nuclear surface combatants requires investment. Naval reactor technology is, for good reason, decidedly conservative. But new reactor designs, such as the modular nuclear reactors proposed by aggressive young companies like Portland-based NuScale Power, may offer a safe and cost-effective means for the Fleet to leverage nuclear power while meeting the Navy’s stringent safety and reliability requirements.
Smaller nuclear-powered surface combatants should not be given short-shrift because they were previously rejected over cost concerns. Fundamental warfighting technology has changed, the strategic situation has changed, and America’s maritime needs have changed. The 2020’s may be an environment where the power options backing the small surface combatant/escort fleet need to change as well.