The Iowa Class Submarines
Lance Bacon at Military Time’s Scoop Deck blog writes:
For the first time ever, all four guided missile subs are deployed to an AOR. We’re not talking about being underway at the same time, and sea trials don’t count. We’re talking about being on the tip of the spear. For you strategists out there, that equals a combined 616 Tomahawk cruise missiles on station, and the ability to deploy up to 264 special ops forces.
The historic mark was hit June 10, according to this Navy release. In the article, Rear Adm. Frank Caldwell, commander of Submarine Group 9 said “… back in the mid 90’s this was just a power point presentation.”
Having the firepower of a battleship, the reach of an aircraft carrier, plus the unmatched stealth expected of submarines, the Ohio SSGNs are a significant, perhaps even a game changing addition to the fleet. It could be they are the answer to the Navy’s fears over Chinese anti-access weapons which currently threatens the US surface warships unless some technological breakthrough saves them from destruction. Here in a ready-made, already deployed package is the revolution without many billions of dollars spent on laser destroyers armed with sci fi weapons. The revolution is already here.
On several occasions New Wars has made compared the SSGNs to the Iowa battleship conversions of the 1980s, including this story titled “The Fleet’s New Capital Ship“:
Much like the Iowa battleships of the Reagan Era, these Navy missile subs conversions are a bargain with a bang…Unlike the entire surface fleet, these premier underwater battleships are impervious to the primary threat in modern sea conflict: the cruise missile.
The Iowa’s were supreme symbols of both the old Navy and the new. With its big guns, the class of 4×45,ooo ton capital ships were the apogee of the line of battle tactics that dominated warfare for centuries. With long-range cruise missiles bolted on their deck in their Space Age makeover, and even unmanned aerial vehicles, the old dreadnoughts became the arbiters of a new Navy in which precision trumped firepower and armor.
Unlike our fleet of very large and expensive aircraft carriers, which since World War 2 have only operated in permissive environments against benign adversaries, the SSGNs are well prepared for future conflicts with stand-off missiles and supreme stealth. For this cause it may be safe to reduce our depedence on very expesnive and vulnerable naval airpower, saving only enough for the occasional land battle which carriers are specifically geared to support. The SSGNs are geared for sea control, and as such are survivable, affordable, and available.
All signs continue to point to the need for a return to conventional submarine production (SSK) in the United States, specifically to restore and maintain the number of boats in our over-worked, stretched thin fleet, also for other reasons. Within the same article above, Lance Bacon notices that the need for the deployment of all for SSGNs at the same time is not necessarily good:
These subs, along with 16 to 18 attack subs and a few boomers, are needed every day to meet 100 percent of critical requirements. But these represent only one of four categories of combatant commander requests. In total, subs meet 50 to 60 percent of critical, high priority, priority and routine requests. Why? Subs are few and missions are many…
If this keeps up, sub crews could expect a lot more “deployment records” in the near future. And some Virginia class crews may see deployment rotations that are more consistent with the SSGNs. Those submarines deploy for 12 to 15 months, with crews swapping every three months.
The problem is, the money is tight though as we see the need for submarines remain. Grace V. Jean at National Defense Magazine doesn’t see things getting better, as detailed “In the Navy’s Forecast, a Shrinking Attack Submarine Fleet“:
The Navy two years ago planned to procure 54 attack submarines through 2040 in order to maintain its desired fleet size of 48 ships. In its latest 30-year shipbuilding plan, however, just 44 boats are included.
Given that the average life of an attack submarine is 30 years, cutting 10 ships equates to a 20 percent reduction in the attack submarine force, said Rear Adm. Richard Breckenridge, deputy director of the Navy’s submarine warfare division.
As a result, the Navy faces a 23-year period when the number of attack submarines in the fleet falls below the desired 48 ships.
I personally see even this number as over-optimistic, with numbers in the lower 30s, perhaps even in the 20s if costs are not reined in. All hopes rest on the very large and powerful Virginia class, but as these boats reach the $3 billion each mark with planned updates, it is difficult imagining 2 boats a year as the budget shrinks.
In contrast an SSK could be built in quantity, perhaps as low as $300 million each, or one-tenth the price of an SSN. I would insist the Navy keep the tonnage at around 1000 tons, in order to stave off costly add-ons that adds little to the mission against mostly low tech powers, but does raise the price, enforce delays and reduce numbers. Keeping tonnage low, as we often argue with surface vessels, would enforce discipline on a tech-happy naval community, that thinks capability will duplicate availability.