Friday, June 10, 2005

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 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 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 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'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".


At 3:50 PM, Blogger Alex Nunez said...

Rob, I think abandonment of the SSBN program cannot and will not ever happen, if only because there will always be a rogue nation like North Korea (as you point out), a continuiously emerging power like China, or a former superpower like Russia with enough nukes (and in the case of China and Russia, SSBNs) to immolate the US if some lunatic ever decides to cross that point of no return.

As for us "practicing what we preach", as awful as it sounds, we don't need to, because we are most definitely the problem. Sure, other nations who detest (and/or envy) us and our overwhelming military power point to us and scream, "hypocrites!" but it simply doesn't wash.

We are and will always remain the single biggest potential target of a nuclear attack, and as such we'll always need that arsenal and the SSBNs that are set to deliver a large percentage of it. I don't think we have a choice.

In the end, I'm in agreement with you overall. The sub force is anything but obsolete precisely because of its capability to execute such a multitude of missions in complete secrecy. No airborne platform or surface ship can do that, and as has been recently demonstrated, if it comes to a point where "cammies and Humvees" are required, well, no one does that better than us either.

Nice post. Very thought-provoking stuff.

At 6:36 PM, Blogger Vigilis said...

One obvious advantage of reduced force size (with vessels of significantly greater flexibility and endurance) is added stealth. That could be tremendous, but it requires a much different playing of today's "shell games." Subs would eventually be deployed for over a year, rotating crews and provisioning as necessary via a few submerged tenders (mother subs) while SUBMERGED.

At 7:11 PM, Blogger Alex Nunez said...

Submerged tenders...interesting.


1. When deployed, how often does the average SSN meet up with a tender for resupply?

2. How much stuff does the SSN generally take on from the tender?

At 1:22 PM, Blogger Vigilis said...

Alex, tenders tended to be homeported. That is, available when subs are back at squadron headquarters, if not the headquarters. That turns out to be infrequently in my own experience. Tenders were capable of some pretty serious repairs, postal functions, administration and provisioning. They can be forward positioned almost anywhere, and they do voyage for practice.

Food is the limiting factor in lengthy deployments. The Navy is trying to reduce crew size as we speak. Subs have capacity to store powdered type foodstuffs in much greater quantities, but chow quality has been fairly important to people leaving the Earth's atmosphere for extended periods on a regular basis. Some of the guys, like bubblehead and bothenook probably remember rum rations (from reading about it), and I was surprised to get a brandy ration exactly once.

At 5:58 PM, Blogger Alex Nunez said...

Thanks. I was confused as to the role of the tender, and didn't realize that it's role homeport/HQ based.

Thanks for clearing that up for me.

At 10:44 PM, Blogger Rob said...


(I'm jealous...and not nearly as old as them "old salts"...we didn't even get beer after being out long enough to rate it, another boat beat us to the supply ship...)


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