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The end of naval nuclear ambitions


Galrahn wrote this week that he's not buying these claims by the Russian navy that it will build a new class of nuclear-powered destroyers starting in 2016. There may have been a mistranslation at some point before they got into English, so let's give the Russian reporters the benefit of the doubt and say it doesn't necessarily have to be a "destroyer," but some kind of new, large nuclear-powered surface combatant.

No matter -- concluded Galrahn:

I expect to see nuclear powered destroyers being built in Russia right after those aircraft carriers expected to start construction in 2015 get going. Unlikely. Russia does have the infrastructure to build nuclear powered ships, but those ships are icebreakers, not destroyers. I guess I am just very skeptical. I don't see this as mission impossible for Russia, rather mission "highly unlikely."
As usual, he is right on the money. But here's something interesting: It hasn't been too long since the U.S. Navy was asked to consider the same thing.

A few years ago, a handful of American lawmakers talked about building nuclear-powered destroyers for the U.S. Navy, to insulate the fleet from the topsy-turvy effects of the price of oil. Then-HASC seapower subcommittee chairman Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi, a Democrat since unseated from his shipbuilding district, acknowledged nuclear warships are very expensive upfront. But he argued that over their lifetimes, especially if the price of oil kept ascending northward, the Navy could end up saving money, and enjoy a strategic advantage by not needing to be tethered to refueling ports or oilers at sea.

Fearing for the prospects of what was already an iffy long-term shipbuilding picture, the Navy didn't care for this idea, and after a brief debate, it went away. Although service officials acknowledge their fleet is subject to fluctuations in the price of oil, they believe that by making ships more efficient with the fuel they use, as opposed to going nuclear, is the right way to go. That wasn't always the case, though: The Navy did field nuclear-powered surface warships during the Cold War, in part because it wanted to boast that it could field aircraft carrier battle groups of unlimited range.

For now, though, if the coming decade brings as much budgetary contraction as it appears it will, nuclear-powered surface warships will probably be the last things the Navy tries to get.

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