Is our submarine force becoming an "endangered species"?From the Newport News Daily Press:
The Navy is heading toward a dramatically smaller submarine fleet that will bottom out at 40 attack submarines in 2028 -- or about three-quarters the size of today's fleet.
Despite the growing importance of intelligence missions since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Navy is now unable to sustain today's fleet of 54 attack submarines, said Rear Adm. Joseph Walsh, director of submarine warfare.
"There is nothing anyone can do about it because that opportunity has passed us," Walsh told a conference of the Naval Submarine League.
The only exception, he said, would be if the Navy begins buying three submarines a year -- a prospect no one argues is realistic or affordable.
RADM Walsh is, sadly, correct. The infrastructure, cost, lead time, and construction time all add up to being unable to swing the curve the on construction in anything short of a WWII-style building blitz. Nuclear subs are EXPENSIVE too...so much so that I've heard runbling of either building or buying advanced AIP subs on the cheap (compared to nukes) for use in missions which don't require the range/speed of SSN's. Maybe a "Sub Wars Episode VI: Return of the Diesal Boat"?
At any rate, there is much debate over what is the "right" number.
It can be argued that the sub fleet we maintained during the Cold War is not needed...given current threats and combat theaters, the vehicle of the day is the Hummvee, not the submarine. And even our maritime operations have shifted...to be brutally honest, the Navy in the current conflicts was more a supporter/mobile airfield/transport/mobile hospital service (with the notable exception of the initial missile strikes, many of which were carried out with Tomahawk capable SSN's). Submarines are yesterday's force, a once noble steed headed out to pasture.
Or are they?
The flip side of the argument has a few really sharp prongs. First, the fact that missile strikes can be carried out by subs, and in fact Tomahawks from SSN's made up a sizeable portion of the "warheads on foreheads" in the opening days of the Iraq invasion (I was there...my boat was the first missile shooter of the war). There's a huge statement to be made for being able to park a big chunk of your cruise missile arsenal on the enemy's back patio and have it not be seen by said enemy. The converted SSGN's will make that arsenal even bigger...carrying a payload of Tomahawks that rivals any surface platform, and that is nearly equal to an the payload of and entire SSN squadron, and with the Blue/Gold crew setup, we can keep Tomahawks on station (and well hidden) virtually forever. Then there is the intel capability...which (no pun intended) we obviously can't highlight to it's fullest advantage. But it's never ceased to amaze me just where we can go, with no one the wiser...what we can watch without being seen. My only regret there is not being able to tell the sea stories of some of the more interesting missions. And lastly, there is the lesson of history...just because the conflicts of today require more desert cammies and Hummvees than poopie suits and fast boats, doesn't mean that tomorrow's threats are going to be rooted in sand. China isn't just the plates on the Wardroom table...it's an emerging power with a growing capability in submarines, and a potential to be a "Cold War" type adversary that could put sub chases back in the curriculum for the O-Gangers.
So what's the right answer? Do we spend the billions upon billions to maintain a fleet for a Cold War gone by...or let it slip into the night, only to need it again (possibly) a decade down the road? Do we set the technological clock back a tick and go smaller/cheaper where we can, or stick with the pricier but more all-around capable SSN? Will the SSGN idea put the SSN out of business, at least in the cruise missile front? Do we really even need the SSBN anymore...from a foreign policy standpoint, retiring the nuclear weapons could be a double-edged sword (nuke disarmament would show the world we are practicing what we preach about nuclear weapons, but do we really want to be de-nuked in the face of a nuclear-capable North Korea?)
It's a hard question, and one I hear more and more talk of "on the waterfront". Times do change, but it seems rather unfitting to sweep the submarine force into the dustbin of history. I for one don't think subs are "obsolete"...the missions are different, but the platform is still one of the most capable and versitle. As long as the oceans still exist, the submarine is still one of the best tools in the military toolbox for getting jobs in reach of the sea done. We've proven it time and time again...the challenge seems now to be proving that the Navy still needs it's "boats".