Photo of RADM Walsh

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Undersea Dominance

A Submarine Force for the Future
by Mike Smith

Rear Adm. Joe Walsh was relieved as Director, Submarine Warfare (OPNAV N87) in July of this year, serving in this billet since May 2004, and reported as Commander, Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet (COMSUBPAC) in August. He is a native of Point Pleasant Beach, N.J., and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1977. Rear Adm. Walsh then served in a variety of submarine billets: Main Propulsion Assistant and Weapons Officer on USS Skipjack (SSN-585); Engineer of USS City of Corpus Christi (SSN-705); Executive Officer of USS Ohio (SSBN-726)(B); Commanding Officer of USS Hyman G. Rickover (SSN-709); Commander, Submarine Development Squadron TWELVE; and Commander, Submarine Group TWO. He has also served in a number of diverse shore assignments: Nuclear Power Training Unit instructor, Submarine Department Head Detailer, Naval Aide to Presidents H.W. Bush and Clinton, Special Assistant to the Deputy Director/Prospective Commanding Officer Instructor at Naval Reactors, and Chief of Staff for Commander, Submarine Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet.

Rear Adm. Walsh recently sat down with UNDERSEA WARFARE Magazine to discuss the current and future states of the Submarine Force, his experiences as N87, and his assignment as COMSUBPAC.

Q: Why is 48 the right number of SSNs for the Fleet?

We’ve looked at our force-level requirements six ways from Sunday. When you think about it, the number of studies done on submarine force-structure probably exceeds the number done for any other platform in the U.S. Navy. In the last two years, we’ve done three separate force-structure studies, all of which came out at about 48 submarines. Forty-eight is the right number. And what’s more important than “what the number is,” is the fact that we have a number and not a range – Adm. Mullen has said it is “48 plus or minus zero.” So it’s not 48 to 52; it’s not 40 to 48; it’s 48. This allows us to stop discussing how many submarines we need and why we need them – and turn, rather, to what capabilities 48 submarines will provide.

Now that the number 48 is right, the real problem then becomes whether or not we can maintain a force level of 48. And the answer, unfortunately, is not always. We’ll be able to stay above 48 until 2020 if we begin building two Virginia-class submarines a year starting in fiscal year 2012. For the period of time that we’re below 48 we’re going to have to very carefully manage the risk that comes with a force structure that doesn’t meet our requirement.

Could you discuss the process for modernizing our submarines and its importance to the
submarine force?

I think the Submarine Force deserves a pretty good “pat on the back” for the way we have modernized our ships. Today, the USS Los Angeles (SSN-688), the first 688, commissioned in 1976, is as modern – maybe even more modern – than USS Cheyenne (SSN-773), which was the 62nd and last 688-class submarine that we built, 20 years later. As a result of our modernization programs, the capability of our ships continues to improve. So, Los Angeles does not look or operate anything like she did when we built her in 1976. What has allowed us to be successful in terms of modernization is using our “ARCI business model” throughout the front end of the submarine – the non-propulsion electronics. We started with ARCI [Acoustic Rapid COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) Insertion] and the sonar systems. We’re now applying the ARCI business model to the combat control systems, and to the imaging and electronic warfare systems. As a result, we no longer buy state-of-the-art equipment. We buy state-of-the-practice equipment at a fraction of the cost of legacy high-end equipment, and then we replace it periodically, like commercial industry does. Because we are buying commercial products, we don’t buy spares, and we don’t buy the logistics tail that historically went along with the older legacy systems. To upgrade signal-processing capability, we just buy a new processor, like you’d go out to buy a new computer in town. The other thing that our modernization model has allowed us to do is to transform the Los Angeles-class boats – built as blue-water submarines at the height of the Cold War – into very effective littoral assets. From the systems that give the ship unparalleled situational awareness in high-density contact environments, to precision hovering systems that allow the ships to operate in very shallow water, these new capabilities have allowed us to morph that ship from a deep-water submarine into a littoral boat.

Because this business model is critical and requires a steady-state investment, I worry about our ability to maintain COTS-based open-architecture and the ARCI business model in the face of budgetary constraints. Our budget process is not a steady-state affair in which I’m allocated the same amount of money each year, and the bills that we have to pay are always near term. When you take money out of COTS-based systems because you’re forced to pay for other things, you walk away from that business model and the ARCI-business-model approach breaks down. To be successful using our modernization model requires a commitment to this process. During my tenure at N87, I’ve tried to protect, to the best of my ability, all of our investments in that area, and will pay bills with almost anything but our modernization money in order to maintain the ARCI business model.

Photo caption follows.
USS Virginia (SSN-774) during her Alpha trials.

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