Restoring the USN Submarine Fleet
As we’ve been looking at this past week, Dr. Wayne Hughes and others have authored an important document titled The New Navy Fighting Machine, detailing specific proposals to rebuild the American Navy for a new century. The Fleet he suggests is one America should have been designing all last decade, while restoring numbers to a rational point matching likely budget allocations. Here’s hoping we won’t repeat the same mistake and shrink further in the 2010’s.
Concerning America’s submarine fleet, there is no doubt it is the world’s best, but it is shrinking as well, made of mainly of Los Angeles class boats designed in the 1960s. It is high doubtful we will be able to construct 50 new warships anytime soon to match those we currently have, especially with the Virginia’s pricing $2 billion each. Capt. Hughes makes an excellent case for the need to keep the numbers high:
The Falklands War of 1982 is a cautionary tale of two submarine fleets having major effects on the enemy in a maritime war. Early in the war, the United Kingdom’s HMS Conqueror, an SSN, sank the aged Argentine cruiser General Belgrano. Seemingly as a result, the Argentine Navy withdrew into port and took itself out of the war, thus
isolating the Falklands from substantial reinforcement or resupply. On the other side, one old Argentine submarine harassed the British task force out of all proportion to its nominal combat value. Literally hundreds of ASW torpedoes were fired by the screening destroyers on contacts that proved to be false. Submarines as sea denial systems can influence enemy operations disproportionate to their numbers and cost.
A while back, I posted my own thoughts on the need to increase sub numbers:
The current fleet size has fallen to less than half its 1980s high of about 600 vessels. Again thanks to the Tomahawk the firepower of the fleet is even greater, but the amount of wear and tear on hulls as well as the great strain upon sailors suffering from numerous deployments, is an obvious sign for the need to balance quality and quantity. The Chinese record for producing conventional hulls should also be a warning to us, as Martin Sieff reveals:
In 2006 China built 14 subs — all diesel-powered. The United States built only one — a traditional nuclear-powered monolith.
Hughes is also against the notion that the submarine is the modern capital ship, displacing the carrier in this role, arguing that although the sub is a perfect sea deniar, it cannot perform sea control. I once felt differently on this idea, but now tend to agree, though I do say the attack submarine shares the role of “new battleship” with the modern guided missile destroyer, its old antagonist from the World Wars!
No doubt they are still important weapons of war, but how to keep adequate numbers deployed, when and where they are needed? If sufficient subs can’t be built to contend with the rise of conventionally-powered SSKs, how will we deal with these rising threats at sea, available to almost any small to medium navy? First, we see the rationale for a bigger force of submersibles:
To counter China’s growing capability to fend off American or Japanese surface warships, the best response is to
create a region where—at the outset of hostilities—neither side can operate safely on the surface. We subscribe to the overt development of a strategy that demonstrably would deny China the use of the seas in the case of hostilities. We speculate that will take about 80 boats.
I completely agree with the notion that the best counter to China’s enhanced fleet is the submarine. It defeated the Japanese within the extended Pacific ranges, and will certainly suffice in a future conflict, even as an effective counter to the rumored PLAN aircraft carrier. But how to reach this mythical 80 boats?
Nonnuclear submarines are at their best when they do not have to travel long distances to the scene of action. The 313-ship Navy, and its hope to respond anywhere, quite logically espouses an all-SSN force because these submarines have matchless strategic and operational mobility. Diesels make sense as a capability focused on one nation at a time. The bimodal strategy says one nation dominates attention at present, and therefore plans for basing in the Western Pacific should proceed concurrent with AIP diesel acquisition.
Hughes rightly calls for continued SSN production, and also the bold step of restarting USN conventional sub production. He is also correct in pointing out the difficulties of building SSKs in US shipyards:
To compete, the U.S. submarine community faces a steep climb out of technological and tactical ignorance. The starting point is evidently—and embarrassingly—to purchase some AIP diesels (e.g., the French Scorpene), with which to gain design and tactical experience. Meanwhile, experience gained currently with leased nonnuclear submarines will give us operational understanding, but not a design capability.
Costs-“The submarine force costs $128B to build and—at 5% per year—another $160B to operate for 25 years, or a total of $288B. Annualized costs are therefore … $11.5B for the 80-submarine force.”
The proposals here are very expedient considering this recent report of a “submarine gap”, via Navy Times:
Sailors aboard attack submarines can expect longer deployments and service-life extensions of their boats to compensate for an expected “submarine gap” in the years to come, according to Navy documents and congressional analysts.
Under the current 30-year procurement plan, the number of attack subs will fall below the required 48 boats in 2022 and will bottom out six years later at 41 boats. The shortfall will continue until 2034…
“There are concerns with this, such as how fast they use up the [nuclear] cores and the burden [longer deployments] will place on crews and families,” the congressional analyst said. “This is not palatable, politically or in the Pentagon. But there’s really no way around it.”
The Navy’s ongoing reluctance to consider alternative platforms in this environment is astonishing. It borders on traditionalism to the extreme, but we can only hope continued pressure from reformers and well as shrinking budgets might turn things around. The suffering the sailors must endure away from home and family has been ongoing since the dramatic demise in numbers of all classes of warship since the Cold War, but the number of missions have only increased. Those who imagine new advanced hull forms can do the work of several older, cheaper vessels evidently didn’t consider the human factor: sailors on excessive deployments doing the work of numerous crews, reaching a breaking-point.