Why Cutting the Submarine Fleet Will Seriously Threaten NationalSecurity

Report Defense

Why Cutting the Submarine Fleet Will Seriously Threaten NationalSecurity

June 5, 2000 15 min read
Jack Spencer
Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom
Jack Spencer oversees research as Vice President for the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity.

The U.S. Navy's nuclear-powered "attack" submarine (SSN) is an important military asset for assuring U.S. national security. This silent submarine is designed not only to engage enemy submarines and surface ships in war and deliver cruise missiles with pinpoint accuracy, but also to collect essential intelligence in strategic regions and to "show the flag" in ports around the world.

Despite warnings from officials in the U.S. Navy, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Defense Science Board that the U.S. military needs more of these submarines, the Clinton Administration wants to cut the fleet.1 Since 1990, the number of attack submarines has dropped from 96 to 56, and it may drop even further.2 At a time when there are increasing threats from rogue states like Iran and North Korea and weapons of mass destruction are proliferating, the Administration should be strengthening the SSN fleet, not weakening it.

Admiral Archie Clemins, former Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, has stated that the U.S. Navy "could meet all our commitments with 72 SSNs."3 The current production rate of about one SSN a year will not be sufficient to meet this number at any time in the near future, and thus will not produce enough to meet the increasing national security requirements of the next few decades. Already, the fact that the Navy has too few submarines has led to a high operating tempo, a rash of unfulfilled missions, insufficient maintenance investments, and more time submerged per crew. The result: quickly aging submarines and overworked crews.

Congress can take several steps to enable the U.S. Department of Defense to reverse this dangerous trend and increase the fleet's size to make it capable of handling the security requirements of today's uncertain world. Specifically, Congress should:

  • Provide the funding necessary to increase production of the new Virginia-class submarines;

  • Provide funding to refuel the seven Los Angeles-class submarines that have been scheduled for decommissioning even though they have an average of 12 years of service life left; and

  • Provide funding to convert the four Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines scheduled for early decommissioning to conventional cruise missile submarines.4

Such a strategy would help to alleviate some of the strain on the fleet and assure its ability to protect U.S. national security interests in the future.


During the Cold War, the attack submarine's primary missions were to track Soviet ballistic missile submarines (and, if at war, destroy them) and to collect intelligence on the Soviet Union's activities. Although the Soviet Union no longer exists, many of its submarines do. Russia maintains 21 ballistic missile submarines in various ports and plans to field a new class of submarine in 2006. The Russian navy also has 17 non-operational ballistic missile subs, which contain a total of 260 nuclear missiles, and 44 attack subs.5 Financial constraints have forced Russia to dock its submarine force, but it has continued to maintain it and could deploy it in the future.

Other nations also have submarine fleets. China's 71 submarines include one ballistic missile submarine and five nuclear-powered attack subs, and others are in production. North Korea has the fourth largest submarine fleet in the world, with 26 diesel submarines that operate in the Sea of Japan and up to 60 smaller submarines. There have been numerous reports of North Korean submarines off the coast of South Korea.6 Iran has five submarines, including three advanced Russian Kilo-class diesel subs.7

In the 1990s, the U.S. submarine fleet was asked to do much more than track and counter other submarines. For example, during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and again in 1997 and 1998, submarines launched cruise missiles at Iraqi targets.8 Similarly, SSNs launched cruise missiles at Bosnian targets in 1995 and fired 25 percent of the Tomahawk missiles that were used in the Kosovo conflict in 1999.9

U.S. submarines also are used for limited strike missions, such as those carried out in 1998 against suspected terrorist camps in Afghanistan and suspected chemical weapons facilities in the Sudan.10 These types of missions are likely to increase as chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons proliferate (increasing demand for their production) and as members of terrorist organizations flee to states that they know will protect them.

Additionally, submarines are used for military-to-military exercises and counternarcotics operations.

The National Security Imperative. A fleet of robust attack submarines is imperative in today's world. In war, especially in the far regions of the world where the United States has vital national interests, forward-deployed attack submarines can mount the first line of defense against advancing enemy forces. They can prevent the enemy from gaining an early stronghold and make it easier for the arriving U.S. forces to establish control.

The SSN also is able to monitor activities in regional hot spots. No other U.S. military asset can lurk undetected for long periods off the coast of a potential enemy, tap underwater communications lines and intercept communications signals, observe military activities, and strike with pinpoint accuracy when necessary. The information the SSN gathers can be useful in preparing U.S. troops for war, monitoring weapons proliferation and testing, assessing the strength of enemy forces, evaluating political situations, and analyzing terrorist activities.

The attack submarine is a powerful deterrent to war. A strong submarine fleet tells the world that the United States is committed to peace and stability throughout the world and that it will act quickly to dominate aggressors that try to upset that stability. In joint exercises, the fleet demonstrates America's commitment to a region's stability. In the past, the Pacific Fleet has conducted exercises with nations as diverse as Japan, India, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia.

The versatility of the SSN attack submarine makes it an essential asset of the U.S. military, but that versatility also means that its missions will be diverse, from warfighting to intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR).

Warfighting. The key strategic value of attack submarines is that they can be the first military assets to reach a theater of combat and can remain there largely undetected for an indefinite period. They are invulnerable to anti-ship cruise missiles.11 As those weapons proliferate and become more precise, the vulnerability of the U.S. Navy's surface ships will increase, which makes the stealthy SSNs even more important to the military's future defense structure. Moreover, SSNs can destroy the weapons and systems of aggressors that target the Navy's surface ships and airplanes, which makes it safer for them to move into a theater of combat. Finally, unlike land-based units and surface ships, the SSN is self-contained and therefore is not vulnerable to chemical or biological attack.

A realistic number of SSNs needed to fight a major regional conflict (for example, in Korea or the Middle East) is 25. Some of these submarines would be engaged in Tomahawk missile strikes; some would be used to insert special operations forces into an area to conduct clandestine operations behind enemy lines while others would be laying minefields, conducting intelligence and reconnaissance, engaging enemy submarines, and protecting U.S. surface ships.

Military commanders require a minimum number of forward-deployed forces in regional hot spots at all times. Assuming that the minimum requirement is being met (which today, with the shrinking U.S. force, is not always the case), attack submarines would be deployed at the outset of hostilities to mine harbors, launch cruise missile strikes against power grids and air defense assets, and sink enemy surface ships and submarines. These early actions will ease the burden on other U.S. forces as the battle unfolds and will ensure fewer American casualties.

Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance. Since the end of the Cold War, the fleet's ISR missions have doubled.12 Tapping underwater fiber optic cables, intercepting communications signals, collecting water and air samples, spying on military exercises, and monitoring tests of ballistic missiles are the types of missions SSNs can conduct off the coast of regions of strategic interest.

Unlike these SSN activities, other forms of intelligence gathering can be evaded. A rogue state can avoid being monitored by satellites, for example, because it can predict when a satellite will pass overhead and simply hide its activities.13 As more nations acquire sophisticated information networks, terrorist organizations become stronger and larger, and weapons of mass destruction proliferate, missions to gather intelligence become increasingly important. The need for military assets such as the SSN that can gather intelligence information without being detected is great.


The attack submarine is a complex machine requiring skilled crews and regular maintenance. Powered by a nuclear reactor, the SSN carries some of the most advanced weapons and electronics in the U.S. Navy's arsenal. It is designed to withstand immense water pressures while submerged for extended periods and is largely self-sufficient on its six-month deployments. A submarine spends only about one-fourth of its lifetime deployed, since the rest of the time is needed to prepare it for deployment. This means that only around one in every four submarines can be deployed at any one time. Therefore, a fleet of 80 submarines would be required to keep 20 submarines out at sea.

The Administration's 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) calls for reducing the U.S. fleet to 50 SSNs. This reduction plan remains in place even though a 1999 study by the Joint Chiefs of Staff stipulates that the United States will require 68 submarines by 2015 and 76 by 2025 in order to meet the nation's security requirements.14 Moreover, according to the Defense Science Board,

The SSN force level forecasts based on budget expectations are noted to be substantially lower than those recommended by the QDR, and the United States may require more, not fewer SSNs.15

Currently, production does not keep up with the rate at which submarines reach the end of their useful lives. In the late 1970s and 1980s, submarines were produced at high rates; 26 of these submarines will leave the force between 2010 and 2020. Yet there are plans to build only one submarine per year for the next five years and two per year thereafter, and as the Defense Science Board points out, even this build rate is unlikely given the projected defense budgets. At this rate, the size of the attack submarine fleet could fall to below 30 over time, which would allow the U.S. Navy to deploy only seven or eight submarines at a time.

Exacerbating the problem are the length of time it takes to build a complex SSN--around six years--and the highly trained labor force that is required. If the United States needed another submarine on short notice today, it could not expect to have one ready for six years. This makes the warnings of the Joint Chiefs and the Defense Science board more ominous. Given their projections, the U.S. Department of Defense should start building additional SSNs now.

Critics contend that without the Soviet threat, the United States needs far fewer of these submarines. In reality, however, the shrinking fleet is consistently given more missions. Moreover, submarine technology is proliferating at an alarming rate to developing countries such as North Korea and Iran. It is essential that the United States continue to field and modernize a fleet of attack submarines that meets security requirements in this post-Cold War environment.


There are several steps that Washington should take to reverse the decline of the U.S. attack submarine fleet, including the following:

  1. Provide the funding necessary to increase production of the new Virginia-class submarines. The sustained health of the SSN submarine fleet requires a long-term commitment to build more Virginia-class submarines. Each new attack submarine costs around $1.7 billion. A substantial increase in spending will be required because the many submarines built in the late 1970s and 1980s will retire at the same rate at which they were procured. The U.S. Navy should plan to build two submarines per year until 2005 and then increase production to three to four submarines per year until 2019. Such a ramped-up production schedule is necessary to avoid a dramatic decline in fleet structure in the 2020s. Congress should commit to funding the production of 56 Virginia-class submarines, with the last one coming on line in 2025.16

  2. Provide funding to refuel the seven Los Angeles-class submarines scheduled for decommissioning. Seven Los Angeles-class submarines are scheduled for decommissioning before the end of their useful lives. Refueling them would help to alleviate the short-term pressures on the SSN fleet. At a cost of $200 million per submarine, such refueling would add, on average, an additional 12 years of service life to each one.

  3. Provide funding to convert the four Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines scheduled for early decommissioning to conventional cruise missile submarines. At a cost of $2 billion to convert all four, this initiative would help to reverse the force structure crisis in the short term. Each submarine would be armed with 154 cruise missiles, advanced sensing and surveillance equipment, and special operations capabilities--a unique combination that makes the platform unparalleled in the Navy. The refueled and converted subs would last an additional 22 years. This step would not be needed if the decision to decommission these submarines were reversed.

The total cost of these recommendations, spread over 25 years, would be about $4.4 billion per year. This is about $2.5 billion to $3 billion more than the Navy would have spent producing one to two submarines per year over that period of time; it also is less than the United States will provide in assistance to foreign militaries next year alone.17


Many of America's adversaries are gaining access to modern submarine technology, advanced reconnaissance capabilities, satellites, precision munitions, and ballistic and cruise missiles; none of them, however, has the ability to detect submarines or defend against them. In this dangerous world, the value of America's SSN attack submarine fleet cannot be overestimated. Although other naval platforms can perform some of the SSN's functions, none can perform them all. More important, none can perform them undetected. This is what makes the attack submarine the "crown jewel" in the U.S. arsenal.18

To meet the security needs of the next few decades, the U.S. Navy should have a submarine fleet that features 70 attack submarines in the near future and as many as 80 by 2025. Because it takes six years to build each SSN, and because the effort will require a highly skilled labor force, the process must begin soon. By refueling the Los Angeles-class submarines that are scheduled to be decommissioned and by funding the cruise missile submarine conversion project, Congress can spread the cost of building an adequate SSN fleet over the next few decades.

As more and more developing countries and rogue states gain access to more precise weaponry, ballistic missiles, and weapons of mass destruction, the Administration's efforts to cut the attack submarine fleet make little sense. Congress must take steps to ensure that America's high level of force projection is not undermined by efforts to deplete the military's store of this vital asset.

Jack Spencer is Policy Analyst for Defense and National Security in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

1. Joint Chiefs of Staff, "Unclassified Release of the 1999 CJCS Attack Submarine Study," February 7, 2000, by memorandum, February 9, 2000; U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology, "Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Submarine of the Future," July 1998.

2. In 1990, the United States also had 35 ballistic missile submarines, compared with 18 today.

3. "Interview with CINCPACFLT, Admiral Archie Clemins," Undersea Warfare, Summer 1999.

4. In 2003-2004, the U.S.S. Ohio, U.S.S. Michigan, U.S.S. Florida, and U.S.S. Georgia are to be inactivated even though they still have an expected 20 years of service life.

5. International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 1999-2000 (London: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 107, 112.

6. "Mr Kim, Meet Mr Kim," The Economist, April 15, 2000.

7. Force levels taken from International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 1999-2000.

8. Barton Gellman, "Gulf Weapons' Accuracy Downgraded," The Washington Post, April 10, 1992, p. A1.

9. Prepared testimony of Rear Admiral Malcolm Fages, U.S. Navy, Director, Submarine Warfare Division, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, before the Seapower Subcommittee on Submarine Warfare Systems, Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate, 106th Cong., 2nd Sess., March 23, 2000.

10. Bryan Bender, "Poor U.S. Intelligence May Have Led to Sudan Strikes," Jane's Defense Weekly, September 2, 1998, p. 4.

11. Bill Gertz, "Russia Sends Cruise Missiles to China for New Warships," The Washington Times, May 19, 2000, p. A1.

12. Josh Corless, "Problems Beneath the Waves," Jane's Navy International, June 1, 1999, p. 10.

13. Thomas E. Ricks and Vernon Loeb, "U.S. Warns Pakistan: No New A-Test," The Washington Post, May 24, 2000, p. 21.

14. The Report of the Quadrennial Defense Review, May 1997, sets a goal of 50 attack submarines eventually and 52 by 2003. The Quadrennial Defense Review can be accessed on the Internet at http://www.defenselink.mil/pubs/qdr.  The Joint Chiefs of Staff released an unclassified "Information Paper" summarizing the key points of the 1999 CJCS Attack Submarine Study on February 7, 1999.

15. U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology, "Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Submarine of the Future."

16. The U.S. Navy plans to build around 30 Virginia-class submarines; but as the Defense Science Board indicates, given budget projections, this number of new subs is unlikely under current conditions.

17. See "Congressional Budget Justification for Foreign Operations, Fiscal Year 2001," at http://www.state.gov/www/budget/fy2001/fn150/forops_full/150fy01_fo_tbl-detail.html

18. U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology, "Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Submarine of the Future."


Jack Spencer
Jack Spencer

Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom