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Arms treaty reducing Bangor submarine launch tubes

BANGOR, Wa. -- Trident submarines will play a key role in the United States reaching strategic arms treaty obligations that require warhead and missile reduction during the next four years.

Eight of the Navy's 14 ballistic-missile subs are based at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor. Each can carry up to 24 missiles and each missile can transport multiple warheads.

Today, the U.S. deploys 1,688 total warheads, and 809 missiles and bombers to deliver them. It must get down to 1,550 and 700, respectively, according to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia. The deadline is seven years from when the treaty went into effect on Feb. 5, 2011. Russia already met the limits, with 1,512 warheads and 498 launchers.

A strategic force structure announced by the Pentagon Tuesday describes how the U.S. plans to get there. It puts much of the onus on submarines.

Four missile tubes on each sub -- 56 total -- will be rendered inoperable, it says.

Two of the 14 Tridents are always being overhauled at any given time. Twenty launch tubes on the remaining 12 would offer a maximum of 240 deployable missiles.

Deployed nuclear-capable bombers will be reduced to 60 by converting 30 B-52s to conventional use, and Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles will be sliced to 400 by emptying 50 silos. The silos will be kept in reserve instead of being destroyed, a decision that forced the submarine launchers to be eliminated.

Metal shields will be installed in the tubes to shrink their diameters and render them incapable of launching ballistic missiles, said John Daniels, Strategic Systems Programs spokesman. The majority of the work will be conducted at Bangor and the Tridents' East Coast base at Kings Bay, Ga., by a team of sailors, civilian defense workers and contractors, he said. The tubes will also be ballasted for stability.

The Department of Defense estimates the cost of the Trident work at $215.9 million -- $84.8 million for transportation and storage, $64.4 million for materiel and ballast support, $39.7 million for missile support equipment and $25.5 million for Navy exhibitions and inspections. The work will be performed in 2015-17, Daniels said.

Though the number of nuclear weapons is dwindling, their capabilities won't. The Obama administration is planning extensive upgrades to all systems.

The Navy is in the middle of extending the service life of the Tridents' W76-0 warheads from 20 years to 60 years. The new version -- W76-1 -- has the same 100-kiloton yield, but features improved safety and targeting, according to the National Nuclear Security Administration. The first one was delivered in 2009.

Production must be completed by 2021. The 455-kiloton W88 warheads will get their arming, fuzing and firing systems upgraded, starting by December 2018.

The warheads are carried by Trident II D5 missiles, which have their own life-extension program underway that will take them to the year 2040.

The missiles will continue to be used in the next version of ballistic-missile subs, the SSBN(X) class. Plans are to replace the 14 existing Tridents with a dozen new ones. They're expected to have 16 missile tubes. Construction on the first was supposed to begin in 2019, but budget problems pushed it back two years.

After that, one will be started every two years. They're now in research and development. Adm. Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, says it's the Navy's top-priority program.

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