Skip to content

Restoring the USN Submarine Fleet

January 11, 2010

The Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Norfolk (SSN 714).

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.

21 Comments leave one →
  1. October 10, 2014 5:39 pm

    There’s definately a great deal to know about this topic.
    I love all of the points you made.

  2. October 8, 2014 10:28 am

    I have read so many content concerning the blogger lovers but this paragraph
    is in fact a fastidious article, keep it up.

  3. B.Smitty permalink
    January 12, 2010 7:55 pm

    John Cooke,

    Undersea communications and lack of UUV autonomy are the main reasons.

  4. John Cooke permalink
    January 12, 2010 6:16 pm

    If SSGN was cast in the “milch cow” role, why would you have a manned SSP/K? Think UUVs.

  5. B.Smitty permalink
    January 12, 2010 5:59 pm

    Interestingly enough, an SSN or SSGN could be the ultimate milch cow. It could not only carry H2 and LOX, but it could actually MAKE it. Gotta love nuclear reactors.

    Unfortunately the main problem with SSP/SSKs still exists. Their transit speed is little more than a brisk jog, so they take a long time to get anywhere.

    They can’t tail anything other than another SSP/K for any length of time. They essentially have to get lucky and be in the right place at the right time for a brief intercept.

  6. Chuck Hill permalink
    January 12, 2010 4:06 pm

    The more modern Sub that caused the Brits to drop so many ASW torpedoes and depth charges had a fault in its fire control system, otherwise things might have turned out very differently.

  7. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 12, 2010 2:22 pm

    Bruce, yeah the German milch cow idea. Very plausible, with the SSGN as mothership.

    John, thanks for your comments. Wonder if anyone has considered a Virginia SSGN, with a missile hull section inserted amidships as we did with the original George Washington SSBNs? Though I think some SSKs should get the priority.

  8. John Cooke permalink
    January 12, 2010 1:51 pm

    One option which is not being discussed…convert more OHIO Class SSBNs to SSGNs. While significantly increasing the effective number of SSNs, this would also align with our plans for Strategic Nuclear reductions. The OHIO Class SSGNs are less maneuverable than their SSN counterparts but with 24 ocean interfaces they are infinitely more configuable to current and emerging missions. Additionally, with 2 crews, their forward presence equivalent equals 2+ SSNs. SSGN conversion and refueling costs are less than a single VA Class and, having just completed the first 4 conversions, the plans and capacity are already in place. Additional converted SSGNs can be added to the force almost immediately. The capacity for SSGN conversion is independent of VA Class construction and would add directly to the effective SSN build rate.

  9. January 12, 2010 1:50 pm


    I’ve had this crazy idea about the 214 class. Phase zero typically takes longer than the submerged endurance of the best AIP boat (because it takes a long time to expel political hot air one harumph at a time), our allied partners will likely run out of gas before the fireworks begins. I thought to myself that modifying a SSGN by installing H2 storage in one missile tube and LOX in the other, an AUV could traverse the distance between the SSGN and the SSP… with a semi-rigid hose in tow. Once connected, the SSGN could refuel the SSP underway, underwater, and silent. The shorter SSP could then penetrate the shallows to spread hate and discontent among enemy units in harbor while the SSGN could intercept blue-water enemy ships and lob TLAMs ashore.


  10. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 12, 2010 9:34 am

    Bruce, I agree with you! Since it is a German design, you can’t help but think these people know submarines!

  11. Bruce Bremer permalink
    January 12, 2010 9:19 am

    I’ve been fascinated with the U-212A/214 design ever since I saw one pull into Groton. The Salvatore Todaro is the newest of the Italian Navy’s submarines and this class of boat has some very impressive capabilities. The 214 improved upon the 212A in endurance, doubling the number of fuel cells. The Siemanns PEM FC is extremely efficient. Their use of metal hydrides for hydrogen storage advanced the state of the art from a novel experiment on small-scale devices to a very large scale production unit. Even their liquid oxygen storage system under the turtle shell (aft of the sail) is worth studying. This is the platform that I would love for the US to study and improve upon.

  12. January 11, 2010 11:13 pm

    Hello nico,

    Santa Fe didn’t get the chance to do much harrasing:

    I found this line interesting:

    “us Antrim and the rest Closing our pacific going to go in for a Carl Gustav attack”

    Carl Gustav is an anti tank weapon,Pacific I think is the type of the ships boat.

    Some more on Falklands helicopter operations here:

    I would imagine San Luis spent most of her time keeping her head down in the shallows rather than harassing the task force,she did conduct some unsuccessful attacks.


  13. nico permalink
    January 11, 2010 9:03 pm

    The Santa FE was launched in 1944, might be referring to that one.

  14. Scott B. permalink
    January 11, 2010 7:18 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “On the other side, one old Argentine submarine harassed the British task force out of all proportion to its nominal combat value.”

    Old Argentine submarine ?!?

    The ARA San Luis (S-32) was commissioned by the Argentine Navy in 1974, so she was NOT exactly *old* in 1982.

    The much overhyped Streetfighter Reloaded *report* is full of such grossly inaccurate statements.

    In short, like the good ol’ William wrote in Macbeth : “And then is heard no more: it is a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.

  15. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 11, 2010 6:32 pm

    Chuck I am certain we could build SSKs as large as we want, but this seems to negate their advantage of stealth and affordability compared to the nuke subs.

  16. Chuck Hill permalink
    January 11, 2010 6:17 pm

    We can build some pretty big SSKs and not approach the size of the SSNs.

  17. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 11, 2010 1:10 pm

    Vic a large AIP boat costs as much as a nuclear boat, mostly defeating the purpose. The Aussies have so many manning and technicals issues with the Collins, proving this point. Most SSKs are less than 2000 tons which seems to be about the practical max tonnage, though the Japanese have some good large d/e subs.

  18. Distiller permalink
    January 11, 2010 12:35 pm

    Yip, the SSN number needs to go up. At least to an active force of 60, making them the primary sea/force projection denial tool. I’d be willing to pay for that by cutting deep into the carrier force, even to the point of making them half the current size, conventional powered and part of the amphib assault groups.
    40 SSK seem a little high, given the potential scenarios. But a dozen or so would be a very good idea.
    And the number of SSBN also has to go up, but with less SLBM each, which could be paid by retiring the Minutemen down to two or three dozens and taking out the Air Force of the offensive strategic deterrence role.

    The sea control and patrol angle can be covered by land based long range aviation (manned and unmanned) and frigates (another sore point).

  19. January 11, 2010 10:56 am

    The Aussies want big new AIPs and have tech. Why not work with them? The most likely design model is more akin to Japanese or Aussie than the French boats.

  20. Matthew S. permalink
    January 11, 2010 10:46 am

    The shipbuilding problem will not go away until we realize China is in an arms race with us. Unfortunately we are stuck dumping billions away in two dead end wars so there will be no solution for many years.


  1. links for 2010-01-12 « Budget Insight

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: