June 1, 2000 | News Releases on National Security and Defense

U.S. Should Build More Attack Submarines, Not Fewer, Analyst Says

WASHINGTON, June 1, 2000-Despite warnings from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other senior military officials that the United States doesn't have enough nuclear-powered "attack" submarines to protect U.S. interests, the Clinton administration has proposed cutting the number still further.

But it should be doing the exact opposite,a new Heritage Foundation paper says, increasing the number from 56 today to a minimum of 70, and perhaps as high as 80, over the next two decades.

Critics contend that without a Soviet threat, the United States needs far fewer of these submarines, or SSNs. The number has already been almost halved over the last decade, from 96 in 1990 to 56. But with more demands being placed on the fleet, from launching cruise missiles at Bosnian targets in 1995 to firing Tomahawk missiles during the Kosovo conflict, the United States should be building more SSNs, writes Heritage Defense Analyst Jack Spencer.

"At a time when there are increasing threats from unpredictable states such as Iran and North Korea, and weapons of mass destruction are proliferating, we should be strengthening the SSN fleet, not weakening it," he says. China's 71 submarines include one ballistic missile sub and five nuclear-powered attack subs. North Korea has the world's fourth largest submarine fleet, with 26 diesel subs in the Sea of Japan and up to 60 smaller subs. Iran has five submarines, including three advanced Russian Kilo-class diesel subs.

SSNs are crucial in time of war, when they help mount the first line of defense against advancing enemy forces, but their numerous peacetime uses should not be overlooked, Spencer says. They collect intelligence in strategic regions and monitor military activity in global hot spots. They also can carry out limited offensive missions, such as the one in 1998 against suspected terrorist camps in Afghanistan and chemical weapons facilities in the Sudan.

Currently, the SSNs are being retired in greater numbers than they're being produced. More than two dozen will leave the force between 2010 and 2020, yet current defense plans call for only one sub to be built per year over the next five years and two per year after that. At this rate, Spencer says, the fleet could eventually fall to below 30, even though U.S. security needs will require at least 70 subs and perhaps up to 80 by 2025.

Spencer lists several steps Congress can take to help avert this crisis. It can boost defense spending to allow for two SSNs to be built each year until 2005 and up to three or four per year until 2019. A short-term solution, meanwhile, is to fund the replacement of the nuclear cores of subs currently slated for retirement, adding another 12 years to the life of each. Lawmakers could also provide funds to convert four of the fleet's Ohio-class ballistic missile subs into conventional cruise missile subs rather than retire them.

The total price tag for these recommendations: $4.4 billion per year over 25 years, or about $2.5 billion to $3 billion above current planned expenditures for producing one to two submarines per year over the same period. Spencer notes that the amount needed per year to rebuild the fleet of attack subs is still less than what the United States will provide in foreign military aid next year alone.

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