|THE CASE FOR MORE SUBMARINES
by CDR Mark L. Gorenflo, USN, and CDR Michel T. Poirier, USN
|In the five domains where our military forces
operate - on land, in the air, on the sea, beneath the sea, and in space - undersea
operations are the least visible. For this reason, they offer the ultimate in stealth and
surprise while influencing events in all five domains with minimal risk. Unfortunately,
because submarine operations are virtually invisible and highly secretive, they are least
understood and most frequently under-valued by the public at large. This article discusses
the unique value of the U.S. Submarine Force today and why it warrants more defense
investment for the future.
What U.S. Nuclear Submarines Do
U.S. nuclear submarines conduct numerous critical missions - many in ways that submarines are uniquely able to perform. Although details of these missions are classified, they include:
Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR). Submarines provide the nation a crucial intelligence-gathering capability that cannot be replicated by other means. Operated with care and cunning and deploying multiple sensors, submarines can monitor happenings in the air, surface, or subsurface littoral battlespace, providing a complete picture of events across all intelligence disciplines. They are also an intelligence "force-multiplier," providing tip-offs of high interest events to other collection assets. Submarines are able to monitor underwater incidents and phenomena not detectable by any other sensor. Since they are able to conduct extended operations in areas inaccessible to other platforms or systems, submarines can intercept signals of critical importance for monitoring international developments. The unique look-angle provided by a submarine operating in the littoral region enables it to intercept high interest signal formats that are invisible to reconnaissance satellites or other collection platforms. Furthermore, the ability to dwell covertly for extended periods defeats efforts to evade or deceive collection by satellites and other sensors. The intelligence gleaned from submarine operations ranges from highly technical details of military platforms, command and control infrastructure, weapons systems and sensors to unique intelligence on potential adversaries' strategic and operational intentions. Our submarines can provide real time alertment to National Command Authorities on indications of imminent hostilities. And unlike other intelligence collection systems such as satellites or reconnaissance aircraft, submarines are full-fledged warfighting platforms carrying significant offensive firepower.
Power Projection - Conventional
Whatever an opponent's ability to deny access to, or preempt, U.S. military presence, it can use these weapons in only limited ways against submarines. Coastal cruise missiles, tactical ballistic missiles, and weapons of mass destruction pose little or no threat to a well-operated nuclear submarine. A credible attack capability against our submarines could be developed only by substantial investment in an attack submarine force comparable to our own. Accordingly, so long as we maintain our investment advantage, submarines will remain one of the most credible, survivable, and potent land attack missile platforms in our arsenal.
Sea Control. The United States is a maritime nation whose trade and military power-projection capabilities depend upon assured use of the high seas. Ocean transport satisfies the vast majority - over 90 percent in most cases - of our strategic lift requirements. Submarines are the quintessential sea control platforms, with proven anti-submarine and anti-surface capabilities. Several historical examples illustrate the power of submarines in naval warfare.
Two world wars demonstrate that even submarines of limited performance are a major threat to sea transport. American World War II submariners, comprising less than two percent of naval personnel, sank over five and a half million tons of Japanese shipping - more shipping than was sunk by all other means combined. Their campaign was a critical factor in the industrial collapse of the Japanese war effort. At the same time, a small number of German U-boats placed a death grip on the Atlantic sea lanes that was only broken by the commitment of overwhelming sea, air and intelligence assets.
More recently - during the 1982 Falklands War - a single unlocated Argentine submarine caused the expenditure of 203 British anti-submarine weapons, with no hits. One British SSN employed in that same war sank the Argentine cruiser Belgrano, resulting in the Argentine fleet's hasty retreat to homeport for the duration. Had even limited-performance submarines been used against the United States in the Korean, Vietnam, or DESERT STORM conflicts, or in our efforts to escort Persian Gulf tankers, the resulting military costs and delays in delivering forces could have been significant.
Modern U.S. submarines - vastly superior to their historical ancestors - possess unsurpassed abilities to hunt and kill submarines and surface ships on the high seas and in the littorals. They provide our only assured capability to wrest control of the sea from a determined enemy employing submarines in an area-denial role. As a result, today's U.S. Navy, which includes nuclear submarines in its combined-arms anti-submarine capability, is able to sail freely on the world's oceans. In turn, the sealift needed to support power projection can be counted on whenever and wherever needed.
Submarines excel at preparing and controlling the littoral battlespace for joint expeditionary forces, even in the face of substantially improved capabilities to locate, target, and engage non-stealthy platforms near land. By determining an adversary's order of battle and force dispositions before the outbreak of hostilities, they allow U.S. commanders to engage and destroy key threats decisively at minimal risk. Before an aircraft carrier battlegroup or amphibious ready group with nearly 10,000 Sailors and Marines onboard ventures to approach a high-threat area, a submarine can have already detected, reported, and destroyed major threats.
Mine Warfare. In both covert offensive mining and mine reconnaissance, submarines provide capabilities that no other platform can deliver. The submarine offensive mining capability allows national leaders to place mines precisely for maximum effect without enemy alertment and with minimal risk. Mine reconnaissance capabilities from submarine-launched Unmanned Undersea Vehicles allow the submarine to covertly detect and report mine danger areas without risk to other naval forces. As a result, potential adversaries have fewer clues indicating potential locations of American expeditionary operations, and U.S. military planners are better able to exploit the element of surprise.
Special Operations. Submarines are an excellent means of clandestine insertion for special operations forces operating in the littorals. The submarine's inherent stealth and endurance, as well as sophisticated communications equipment, sensors, and navigation suites, enable covert, precise insertion of Navy SEALs and other special operations forces close to their objective and provide a reliable means for their extraction.
Survivable Strategic Deterrence.
What is it about the Submarine Force that fits it so well for these missions? First, highly capable, multi-mission submarines are cost-effective to operate over their service life, even considering initial acquisition costs. The rigors of submerged operation demand extraordinary quality control, while the technical demands of safe and reliable naval nuclear propulsion require materials, technology, and fabrication of the highest quality. These up-front investments pay dividends over the long term in operating savings, particularly since modern nuclear submarines have fuel for the life of the ship built into the nuclear reactor core. On a crew-size-per-tonnage basis, attack submarines are among the most efficient ships in the Navy inventory. They make up about 24 percent of our major combatants but use only seven percent of thepeople and 12 percent of the budget. Further, they require no replenishment-at-sea logistics train and no protective escorts. They provide pure offensive firepower at next to no cost in logistics ships or support infrastructure ashore in foreign countries.
Able to operate covertly when required or overtly when desired, SSNs deliver multi-spectrum capability to our unified commanders. These demonstrated capabilities have resulted in demands for submarines by CVBG commanders, theater CINCs, and the National Command Authority that exceed the number of submarines existing today or projected for tomorrow. We'll address that next.
The United States Needs More and Better Submarines
In the fall of 1998, the highly respected Defense Science Board published an independent study on the "Submarine of the Future." That report characterizes submarines as the "crown jewel" of America's defense establishment and recommends that long-term SSN construction rates be reevaluated, since "we need more, not fewer SSNs." In particular, the DSB believes that the force structure of 50 attack submarines recommended by the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) is inadequate to deal with long term trends in naval warfare that favor submarine stealth and firepower. It also fails to prepare for the rise of a peer competitor.
The QDR based its force level recommendation of 50 submarines on fiscal constraints. Submarine requirement studies, conducted by the Navy's three fleet commanders-in-chief, have substantiated requirements for a minimum force level of more than 70 attack submarines. The planned force level of 50 SSNs barely supports current major theater warplans and the small-scale contingencies that are envisioned over the next decade. The surprising fact is that in many mission areas, such as ISR, there is greater demand for submarines today than at the height of the Cold War. Indeed, with the Submarine Force reduced by nearly 50 percent since 1989, the number of ISR missions has doubled, due to the national need for unique intelligence in many new trouble spots around the globe. Today, even with force structure still above QDR levels, the Submarine Force is over-tasked and under-resourced, leaving theater and fleet requirements unmet. Further force reductions will increasingly impair the Navy's ability to perform critical missions and degrade the Nation's capacity to collect intelligence, prepare the battlefield, maintain peace, and minimize battle casualties.
Thus, a 50-SSN-force level is an absolute minimum. SSN-688 and 688I-class ships, built at rates of three to four per year in the 1970s and 1980s, are the backbone of today's attack submarine force. They will begin to reach the end of their service lives in large numbers early in the next century and will be inactivated at a rate of two to four each year. To maintain the minimum QDR force level of 50 SSNs, the Navy must build two submarines per year over the next two decades, to replace the retiring SSN 688s and 688Is. If current rates of construction do not increase soon, the SSN force structure will drop significantly below 50 SSNs, and our Nation will be left without adequate numbers of submarines to meet either wartime or peacetime requirements.
As required by the 1997 QDR language, the Joint Staff is conducting a study to determine the SSN force structure required in 2015 and 2025 for peacetime presence, national indications and warning, ISR, and warfighting. While the results are not yet available, initial indications are that they will validate substantially greater national military requirements than can be provided by 50 SSNs.
VIRGINIA-Class New Construction and Evolving Submarine Technology - Dual Pillars for the Future
Our need for increasingly capable submarines will grow as technologically sophisticated weapons, information, and detection systems proliferate. Future adversaries will have increasing access to relatively inexpensive, high-technology systems, such as space-based surveillance and targeting systems, quiet diesel submarines, low-cost mines, information warfare, tactical ballistic missiles, coastal cruise missiles, and weapons of mass destruction. Such asymmetric capabilities will challenge U.S. power projection and place a greater premium on a submarine's stealthy firepower. While maintaining - or increasing - our force levels, we must simultaneously improve sensor, weapon, and information systems to assure our ability to defeat such challenges and to prepare our submarines to participate in the Navy's emerging network-centric warfare regime. The two pillars necessary to support this strategy are maintaining adequate new construction of Virginia (SSN-774)-class submarines, and continuing a robust, ongoing technology program.
The Virginia Class - Cornerstone of
the Future Force
The Virginia design provides the best balance between capability and cost and meets all military requirements for advanced SSNs specified by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Virginias will surpass Seawolf in stealth, mine warfare, special warfare, and battlegroup operations, while maintaining a robust open-ocean, "blue-water" capability. To maintain the required margin of acoustic superiority, the design has the flexibility to adopt future advanced technologies rapidly and affordably. Reconfigurable spaces, modular design and construction, and open systems architecture enable faster and cheaper upgrades in future ships, while allowing configuration for specific mission tasking.
In truth, there are no realistic alternatives to building Virginia-class nuclear submarines in quantity.
Non-nuclear submarines are the wrong ships for the United States. America's Navy operates every day in the far corners of the world's oceans, often thousands of miles from homeport, and we cannot count on basing our ships in foreign countries close to deployment areas. Even the most advanced air-independent propulsion submarines simply do not have the necessary speed and endurance to get from U.S. homeports to the deployment areas in a timely fashion, nor could they operate in support of highly mobile carrier battle groups and amphibious ready groups. It is instructive that when our French and British allies were forced to choose between maintaining their nuclear or diesel submarine fleets, they both chose to retain their capable, flexible, and robust nuclear submarine capability, despite a long tradition of diesel submarine success and an existing diesel submarine construction and maintenance infrastructure.
Similarly, building or retaining older classes of submarines does not meet U.S. needs or save money. All of our legacy attack submarines, including the Improved USS Los Angeles (688I) class, have limited margin for future improvements, and we cannot backfit the technologies needed to meet the challenges posed by other submarine building nations.
Restarting 688-class production would be an expensive proposition, and studies have shown that the cost of building a new 688I today would almost equal that of a Virginia-class SSN but would provide far less operational capability. Moreover, we would sacrifice a number of features that bring the new class more reliability at lower cost - most notably modular construction and open systems architecture.
Building a succession of one-of-a-kind experimental submarines has also been suggested as an alternative to Virginia-class series construction. However, such a scheme fails to benefit from either economies of scale or the construction learning curve, while burdening the operating forces with higher maintenance costs and less military capability. On the other hand, the congressionally approved strategy of robust technology insertion in Virginia-class submarines provides a solid way ahead.
Innovation Through Continuous
Our long-term innovation strategy focuses on developing enhanced submarine capabilities to better support a broad array of missions and improved sea-submarine interfaces to expand the use of off-board vehicles. Such an interface would remove the current tyranny of the 21-inch torpedo tube. Submarines, in concert with the rest of the Navy, will need to incorporate electric-drive technologies, both to improve acoustic stealth and to provide greater electrical capacity to power evolving sensors and weapons. Finally, the Navy intends to continue advances in submarine design and construction methods, such as modularity and open systems architecture. Such methods not only allow for rapid, less expensive modernization of submarines, but have also substantially improved affordability.
The Way Ahead
More than ever, America requires a robust Submarine Force to gather critical intelligence, maintain strategic deterrence, and to prepare the battlespace for joint forces in a world of evolving and unpredictable challenges. Virginia-class SSNs today embody the best features our Nation can build into an affordable submarine. On that basis, the Navy and the Nation must now make the investment in Submarine Force structure and on-going technology insertion that will keep our SSNs a "crown jewel" of our Nation's military arsenal. Clearly, the stealth, survivability, firepower, and cost-effectiveness of nuclear submarines are a bargain for American taxpayers and provide a capability we can ill afford to lose.
CDR Gorenflo is a 1983 graduate of the United States Naval Academy. He is the Prospective Commanding Officer of the USS Parche (SSN-683). His previous assignment was as the Executive Assistant to the Commander, Submarine Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet. CDR Poirier is also a 1983 graduate of the United States Naval Academy. He is the Assistant for Plans and Liaison for the Director, Submarine Warfare Division (N87), on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations
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