May 1, 2010  

Deep dive

Self-inflicted attack sub cuts cripple America’s sea superiority

Decreasing funds and increasing missions have put the Navy’s submarine force in deep trouble — and it’s sinking fast. Lawmakers and strategists agree that the Navy’s plan to reduce its attack submarine fleet by 15 percent will render it unable to meet critical requirements. The planned replacement of 14 ballistic missile subs with 12 new $7 billion Tridents will cut shipbuilding by half for 14 years. The retirement of all guided missile subs will place extra missions on an already stretched fleet.

But hidden within the controversial long-term plan is a political strategy with a potential payout in the billions, and the emergence of unmanned technology that may change the face of warfare.

The Navy’s attack submarines stand at the heart of the issue. In the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Navy argued that a 48-sub minimum was a moderate-risk force necessary to provide the roughly 10 subs combatant commanders need on any given day. But the 30-year shipbuilding plan released Feb. 1 would drop the current 53 attack subs to a low of 39 in 2030, then stabilize the fleet at 45 through 2040.

“I have real reservations about attack subs hitting a low of 39 boats, which is well below the minimum required,” said Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “We can’t meet the demand that is out there now, and requirements will only continue to grow in the future.”

Wittman said that he and many of his congressional colleagues are committed to keeping at least 48 active attack subs. The 2023 drop in force structure and build rates that reduces attack subs below the required 48 was “unacceptable,” he said.

The decision to cut attack subs is not be due to diminishing needs. On the contrary, the service’s 30-year shipbuilding plan calls the attack submarine, or SSN, a “force multiplier” and “significant conventional deterrent,” adding “the Navy requires 48 attack submarines … to sustain our capabilities in these areas.”

But the number of SSNs will drop below 48 in 2024, and remain there indefinitely.

“We’re building two Virginia class attack subs per year starting in fiscal year ’11. Yet the shipbuilding plan we just received has our force falling to 39 by 2030, leaving our combatant commanders worse off than they are now,” Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., said during Feb. 24 congressional testimony by Navy leadership.

Submarines have long been on various chopping blocks as the Navy balances missions and money.

Attack subs peaked at 98 boats in 1987. There are nearly half as many today — a decline roughly paralleled by all Navy platforms.

The sub cuts could have been worse. A 2004 internal study said the service could reduce SSNs to as few as 37 boats by porting nine attack subs at Guam and using more unmanned underwater vehicles for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. Those numbers were included in one of two proposals the Navy submitted to Congress in 2005. The second called for 41 SSNs.

But a May 2005 Defense Department study on attack submarine requirements called for maintaining a force of 45 to 50 boats. In February 2006, the Navy proposed to maintain in coming years a fleet of 313 ships, including 48 SSNs. In support of its position, the Navy argued that a force of 48 boats was a moderate-risk (acceptable-risk) force. Specifically, a minimum of 48 attack subs is necessary to provide the roughly 10 subs combatant commanders need on any given day. Even then, the Navy could not meet the peak projected wartime demand of about 35 deployed attack subs, according to a July 2009 Congressional Research Service report.

The 10 forward-deployed SSNs provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and ensure the adequate number of SSNs is in position for the opening phases of potential conflicts, according to the report.

While these SSNs meet 100 percent of critical requirements, those requirements represent only one of four categories of combatant commander requests. In total, attack subs meet 50 to 60 percent of critical, high priority, priority and routine requests, according to lawmakers.

“To meet the full spectrum of combatant commander needs would require 16 to 18 boats daily. That is not possible, so the Joint Staff does risk assessment and balances it against the force they have,” said a former sub captain with working knowledge of the Navy’s force structure plan, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The 10 attack subs deployed daily can “barely” meet the critical requirements, the former captain said. To drop below 48 SSNs would require longer deployments to meet critical needs — at least one month added to each deployment if the Navy drops to 41 boats. Dual-crewing boats would burn out the nuclear cores faster, and the Navy lacks training facilities to produce the crews that would be needed. Both options also would cripple the Navy’s ability to surge.

The outright elimination of the Navy’s four guided missile subs adds to the attack subs’ dilemma, as it is likely they will assume this mission. Block III subs — the final eight boats of the 18 approved in the Virginia class — will replace spherical array sonar with large aperture bow array sonar. Because the spherical array access trunk is no longer required, two large payload tubes similar to those found on cruise missile subs will replace 12 individual vertical launch tubes with all their electrical and hydraulic support apparatus.

In addition, these subs are assuming an ever-increasing number of special operations delivery missions. The result: fewer boats taking on more missions.

“Obviously, they’ve decided to accept more risk,” the former captain said. “[The Navy] may ask, ‘Will we maintain 10.0 forward-deployed submarines?’ I don’t think they’re going to be able to. And if critical needs maintain or increase, and the number of boats decreases, you’ve just impacted national security.”

As such, we are likely to see a new force-shaping plan that will be based not on requirements, but on resources, the former sub captain said.

“This QDR’s results just happen to be what the secretary has already directed,” he said. “There were no surprises. It matches the expected resources. And this QDR does away with the [two major combat operations] concept, which may be the first step to doing away with the surge requirement for subs. What would be looked at next? Perhaps, the daily 10.0 requirement and redefining ‘critical requirements.’ Ultimately, we’ll likely see studies come out with results that match the resources.

“There was a move a couple years ago to do away with that criteria,” the former captain said. “If you do away with the definition, you no longer have to report to Congress that you can’t meet the critical requirements.”

The pending sub cuts are the result of decreasing money rather than missions. While the QDR strategy makes a strong case for 48 SSNs, the shipbuilding budget says it’s simply not possible — and the Navy’s 12 new boomers are largely to blame.

Because the new ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) run about $7 billion each, shipbuilding expenditures will increase by $2 billion annually during their production. This will decrease overall ship production by nearly half over a 14-year period to cover the cost, according to a July 2009 Congressional Research Service report.

“Submarines are so high that efforts to restore numbers in the surface force and the attack submarine force may have to be sacrificed to pay for the national strategic deterrence mission of the ballistic missile submarine,” Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said during testimony Feb. 24.

McKeon echoed the sentiment, saying, “The decision to fund the new SSBN submarine from within the Navy’s shipbuilding procurement account could decimate the shipbuilding program in the out years.”

The Navy operates 14 Ohio-class ballistic submarines, also known as “Trident submarines” for the 24 long-range Trident missiles each sub carries. A replacement for the Ohio-class is almost guaranteed.

It takes about 20 years to design and build a new-generation submarine, which is expected to remain in service for 42 years. Therefore, the new platform must be effective through 2080.

Given the time required for concept, design and construction, procurement of a new boomer — called SSBN(X) — must happen now to ensure the mission is covered when Ohio-class subs start retiring in fiscal 2027. The Navy admits there’s no wiggle room, and it already has completed an analysis of alternatives and invested $500 million this year for research and development.

“This is the Navy’s major cost issue of the 2020s,” said one congressional analyst, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The costly boomer also will limit the Navy’s ability to buy other ships — and this will happen as the Los Angeles-class attack subs, Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers and Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers are retired.

“I am concerned that we are letting budgets drive our plans,” Wittman said. “Did last year’s budget drive the 30-year shipbuilding plan or QDR? Will these now drive a new force structure assessment? If so, we’ve got things in reverse order. We need to begin with strategic needs, then determine how we can meet those needs.”

But the Navy may be one step ahead. There remains the possibility that the ship and sub cuts in the new 30-year shipbuilding plan may be a delay tactic that allows Navy leaders to obtain all the ships and subs they need.

While the new shipbuilding plan will result in eight fewer subs in 2038 when compared with previous projections, the difference begins as only a one-boat deficit — and not until 2029. In fact, the Navy will have more active SSNs through 2023 under the new plan.

“That gives us plenty of time to address the issue, and keep sub numbers where they need to be,” Wittman said.

But the biggest win for the Navy would come by way of alternate funding.

Roughly one month before the Navy released its 30-year plan, defense analysts testifying before the House Armed Services subcommittee on seapower said it would be good strategy for the Navy to ask Congress to find funds in the federal budget to pay for SSBN(X). If lawmakers agree, it would free up billions in the Navy’s shipbuilding budget that could then be used to buy dozens of additional ships. This would likely include four new attack subs cut by the current plan — a purchase that would keep SSNs above the 48-boat minimum.

That’s an idea Wittman said he is willing to pursue.

“At the end of the day, we have to look at another way to fund SSBN.”

The reality is not lost on Wittman’s fellow lawmakers, who earlier this year pointed to the rise of asymmetric weapons (primarily ship-killing ballistic missiles) and the proliferation of submarines and other technology when questioning Navy leadership about the pending sub cuts. China proved to be a hot topic, and with good reason.


An August 2009 Office of Naval Intelligence report calls the submarine force a “primary thrust” of Chinese naval modernization.

Andrew F. Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, in his February report “Why AirSea Battle?,” said China placed 38 submarines into service between 1995 and 2007. If this rate is sustained over the Navy’s 30-year plan, it would produce a Chinese submarine force near 90 boats, each capable of firing anti-ship cruise missiles (many while submerged) and long-range, wake-homing torpedoes.

China also is building a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, according to congressional analyst Ron O’Roarke. His November report, “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities,” says the Chinese SSBN is expected to be armed with 12 ballistic missiles with a range of nearly 4,000 nautical miles. That means they could hit Alaska from protected waters close to China, the western half of the 48 states from mid-ocean locations west of Hawaii; and all 50 states from midocean locations east of Hawaii.

While some analysts consider China’s inexperience and its trailing technologies a minimal threat, at best, the former sub captain does not dismiss the danger.

“Their diesel subs are quieter than our nukes when they run on battery, and can stay submerged for weeks,” he said. Such capability is key when deceiving or delaying naval forces. The career submariner pointed to the Falklands war, when one Argentine sub created so many ghost targets that the British expended 203 anti-sub munitions without scoring a single hit.

“Our subs in World War II represented about 1.5 percent of the Navy, but sank more Japanese shipping than all other platforms combined,” he said. “And consider the effect a few German U-boats had on the Atlantic. Now consider the trouble the Chinese fleet could cause if we are not adequately equipped.”

Because most Chinese submarines have relatively poor underwater endurance at high speeds and cannot keep up with a carrier strike group, the fleet “seems best suited to conduct barrier operations designed to ambush U.S. Carrier Strike Groups advancing within the second island chain,” according to the CSBA report, which said deployments to a Western Pacific crisis would prove “highly challenging.”

The greatest threat comes in coordinated surface, sub-surface and land attacks against U.S. carriers. China is on the cusp of fielding the Dong Feng 21, the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missile. This “carrier-killer” travels at Mach 10 and has a low radar signature, high maneuverability and an unpredictable flight path. It can hit moving ships from 2,000 nautical miles — and there currently is no defense against it. That range would force carriers to operate “from such extended ranges that the effectiveness of their air wings is fatally degraded,” the report said.

“American carrier strike groups that survive ASBM attacks … and succeed in penetrating into the western Philippine Sea near Taiwan risk confronting barrages of anti-ship cruise missile salvos launched from [Chinese] submarines, as well as multiple torpedo attacks,” the report said. “As such, future U.S. naval commanders seem likely to confront the prospect of either proceeding rapidly to pierce Chinese defenses, but at a terrible (and perhaps prohibitive) price, or defaulting to a protracted campaign in which the [Chinese] submarine force is gradually eliminated as a significant threat. It is far from clear that either course of action would yield victory.”

Such threats led Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., to note that the “QDR was eerily silent on China.”

“The Chinese … haven’t been nearly as transparent as we would like,” answered Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. “But we do understand the types of ships they’re building. We understand the types of anti-access missiles, both ballistic missiles and cruise missiles, that they’re fielding. And we understand what they’re doing with their fleet.

“We have great confidence that the ships that we have today, and the ships that we are building for the future, and our total force concept will meet whatever challenge — and I won’t just limit it to the Chinese.”

But some observers have argued that the Navy in coming years should seek to maintain a force of more than 48 attack subs, particularly in light of Chinese naval modernization. Retired Vice Adm. Albert Konetzni, former commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet submarine force, in 2006 pointed out that force-level analyses called for 48 to 60 attack subs. In this context, “a force of 48 SSNs looks more like a sour spot than a sweet spot,” he said. Konetzni, the principal engineer of the Fleet Response Plan, which enables the Navy to maintain global presence, went on to say that the Navy’s force-level analyses reflect “reverse engineering,” in which a number is selected for affordability reasons, and assumptions used in the force-level study are adjusted to produce that figure.

Ironically, this complex, multibillion dollar dilemma may reside in a relatively inexpensive solution already in the works.


The Navy has placed a heightened focus on unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), an effort Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead called “extraordinarily important to our future” during Feb. 24 congressional testimony.

Such vehicles could be key to meeting many critical combat commander requirements.

During the Cold War, anti-submarine warfare against the Soviet submarine force was the primary stated mission of U.S. attack subs. Today, covert intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance top the list. In fact, such taskings have more than doubled in the past 15 years alone. These are missions for which the smaller, cheaper unmanned vehicles are well-suited. While these vehicles would not completely absorb this mission, they would ease the burden and enable the attack subs to better handle missions they will soon inherit from the retiring guided missile subs — namely, the insertion and recovery of special operation forces and covert strikes against land targets with Tomahawk cruise missiles.

Roughead recently spoke with Armed Forces Journal regarding the emphasis on unmanned underwater technologies. In addition to the relatively low cost, he pointed to loiter time and recovery strategies as benefits to harnessing this technology.

“When you don’t need an airplane for a period of time, you can’t just put it in standby and let it sit in the air,” he said. “It has to land somewhere, which means you need some level of infrastructure and manning to accommodate it. But these [unmanned underwater vehicles] can remain right there in the area of operations until needed. That is a considerable benefit.”

Ultimately, however, the implementation of UUVs is not a question of technological capabilities, but power, according to the Navy’s top officer. Roughead explained that a UUV that can perform numerous advanced missions is of little value if it can stay on station for only a day or two at a time. As such, his focus is on endurance. Interestingly, this is the approach by which the legendary Adm. Hyman Rickover revolutionized the submarine force in the first place.

The “power problem” recently took a huge leap forward when the University of California at San Diego Scripps Institution of Oceanography successfully demonstrated the first robotic underwater vehicle to be powered entirely by natural, renewable, ocean thermal energy, which means it can run virtually indefinitely.

The prototype, funded by the Office of Naval Research, uses a breakthrough thermal recharging engine that is powered by the natural temperature differences found at different ocean depths. Carefully selected waxy substances known as “phase-change materials” are contained in 10 external tubes. The material melts and expands as the vehicle surfaces and encounters warm temperatures, and solidifies and contracts when the vehicle dives into colder waters. The expansion pressurizes internally stored oil that drives a hydraulic motor, thus generating enough electricity to recharge the batteries and operate all instruments, the GPS receiver, communications equipment and a buoyancy-control pump.

Researchers completed the first three months of an ocean endurance test off the coast of Hawaii in March, according to a Scripps news release. The vehicle has completed more than 300 dives from the ocean surface to 1,640 feet.

Whether the sub dilemma is solved through alternate funding or advanced technology, analysts agree that something must be done — quickly — to ensure the Navy maintains the sea superiority provided by the silent service.

“The 30-year shipbuilding plan gives the Navy 13 years, then you start seeing the sub fleet dropping into undesirable numbers,” the congressional analyst said. “That may sound like a long time, but when you consider the amount of time it takes to design, test and implement a platform to the same standards as the existing platform, you realize that the Navy’s back is against the wall.

“If the Navy can get alternate funding and implement this new technology, it will be light years ahead of any would-be opposition. If either aspect does not come through, the sub fleet is in for a very rough ride.”

LANCE M. BACON is a senior writer at Navy Times and a former Marine.