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. Since 1990, the
number of attack submarines has dropped from 96 to 56, and it may
drop even further. 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
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." 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,
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.
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.
WHY MORE ATTACK SUBMARINES ARE NEEDED
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. 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. Iran has five
submarines, including three advanced Russian Kilo-class
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. 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.
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. 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
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
Reconnaissance. Since the end of the Cold War, the fleet's ISR
missions have doubled. 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. 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
THE U.S. FLEET IS TOO SMALL
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.
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
according to the Defense Science Board,
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.
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.
WHAT CONGRESS SHOULD DO
There are several steps that Washington
should take to reverse the decline of the U.S. attack submarine
fleet, including the following:
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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
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.
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
Jack Spencer is
Policy Analyst for Defense and National Security in the Kathryn and
Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The
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.