Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


A special segment of American industry has supported the building of nuclear submarines since the NAUTILUS in 1952. There has been a lot of attention in the press about the shipyard industrial base since there are only two shipyards -Electric Boat and Newport News -who are presently qualified to build nuclear submarines. But there has been little written about the industrial base for submarine combat systems. Of the total cost of approximately two billion dollars for a SEA WOLF (SSN-21) for example, roughly 700 million dollars passes through the hands of the shipbuilder and his subcontractors and about a quarter of a billion dollars is applied to the combat system for both industry and government support. The rest pays for the reactor and other government furnished equipment. Like the shipyards, this industrial base builds unique equipment with few outlets other than U.S. nuclear submarines. The decline in the defense budget will affect these companies and the questions are: whether the country can sustain the ability to produce submarine combat systems in the coming years and what might we do to maintain the continuity of the work done over the last thirty-five years? First we should define what we mean by submarine combat systems and the industrial base and then identify some steps that might be taken to revitalize the base and preserve this national asset.

Submarine combat systems are those components, equipment and computer software, of the command and control, sensors, fire control and weapons that enable the submarine to carry out its military mission. Also included are the spare parts, the trainers and training, and other logistics support items. This paper does not address strategic weapons systems although the same problem exists for the TRIDENT weapon system.

Each of the various submarine combat control configurations consists of a sonar suite, a mass memory, a main frame computer, navigation equipment, signal data converters, fire control software, weapons and additional displays with their mass memory and computers. The Fire Control Systems, MK 117 and 118, the Combat Control System MK 1, the AN/BSY-1 sonar, and the improvements to those systems which are under development, like Combat Control System MK 2 and the AN/BSY-2, are among the combat systems and combat control systems aboard or planned for the STURGEON (SSN-637), the LOS ANGELES (SSN-688), the SEA WOLF (SSN-21), and the TRIDENT classes. Combat systems and nuclear propulsion plants are government furnished (GFE) to the shipyards and represent a significant percentage of the cost of the total submarine. The combat systems are now more expensive than the reactor so we are considering a sizeable market.

The industrial base includes several large companies and hundreds of large and small subcontractors. The Navy laboratories and the in-service support agencies represent another large part of the support base for submarine combat equipment but are not normally counted as part of the industrial base. The United States industrial base for submarine combat systems reads like a who;s who of Fortune 500 companies. Companies like AT&T, G.E., General Dynamics, Hughes, IBM, Martin Marietta, McDonnell-Douglas, Raytheon, Unisys, and Westinghouse and hundreds of subcontractors and vendors produce or have produced most of the hardware and computer software for the submarine weapons, fire control, sonars, and command and control equipment deployed today. None of these companies is wholly dependent on combat system work but each company has a sizeable group of professionals devoted to the business. Some of these companies have been involved in the Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) business since the First World War.

Submarine Signal Company (Raytheon), General Electric (GE), and Western Electric (AT&T), along with a government laboratory then located in New London, Connecticut, formed a consortium in 1917 located at Nahant, Massachusetts, to build and test the first military sonars. This WWI laboratory in New London was the predecessor of the Acoustic Section of the Naval Research Laboratory, not as one might think, the Naval Underwater Systems Center. The Naval Underwater Systems Center has its precedents in the Harvard Underwater Sound and Columbia University Laboratories of World War II and the U.S. Torpedo Station at Newport, Rhode Island (itself dating back to the nineteenth century). Others like Westinghouse and Martin Marietta (Chesapeake Instruments) are pioneers in modem torpedoes and towed sonar arrays. All of these businesses and their large subcontractor base along with companies like EDO and Librascope have the capability to design, produce, and support components of the entire submarine combat configurations. Their major customer for the submarine business, however, is the U.S. Navy.

The submarine combat system business like the submarine hull, machinery, and electrical business is dependent on the number of U.S. ships built or retrofitted per year plus the research and development devoted to improvements to the existing classes or to the next class of U.S. submarines. There has been very little international outlet for U.S. submarine products. The number of submarines and the research and development goals are dictated by the U.S. national maritime strategy, the threat and those tactical and strategic missions assigned to the Submarine Force.

The dramatic change in the Cold War with the Soviet Union and the unleashing of other forces within the dynamics of the world political situation like the Persian Gulf Crisis have called into question in some minds the priority of Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) and the submarine as the main ASW platform. What effect can we expect on the industrial base for submarine combat systems in this environment?

The arithmetic is simple. The end of the SSN 688 and TRIDENT programs and any decline in numbers of SSN-21 submarines will cause a dramatic decline in the industrial base for submarine combat systems, probably greater than the 31 percent decline in constant 1991 dollars for military electronics over the next decade projected by a recent Electronic Industries Association (EIA) report. The submarine industrial community will shrink as the building rate drops from three attack submarines plus a TRIDENT to 1.5 submarines or less a year. This is greater than a 60 percent decline.

In fiSCal year 1989 the submarine combat system production and R&D budget was approximately $1,800M in FY’91 dollars. In fiSCal year 1992 the submitted budget is about $1,220M and $1,022M for ftscal year 1993 in FY’91 constant dollars. The trend predicted by the EIA report is starting to happen.

Logic would dictate that we can preserve the industrial base by any one of six factors or any combination thereof.

  • First, build more submarines of the type we now have, SSN 688, SSN¬∑21, or TRIDENT;
  • Second, make major improvements to the submarines we now have to match new missions and threat capabilities;
  • Third, design and build a new smaller submarine to be produced in larger numbers;
  • Fourth, find an outlet for the submarine products in other U.S. ASW or commercial markets;
  • Ftfth, reduce the cost of our submarines including the combat systems so we can afford more numbers; and/or
  • Sixth, sell our submarine equipment or versions thereof to the international market effectively competing with the British, French, and German companies who currently dominate that marketplace.

There are problems associated with each solution so in reverse order we will examine each factor.

The international market for submarine systems, a potential outlet for U.S. products, has been essentially closed to the submarine combat systems industry for many years because of the technology transfer regulations, principally the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), a ban on building diesel submarine bulls for export and the general feeling in the submarine community that no U.S. submarine equipment should be exported that might give any other country the capability of detecting U.S. submarines. In contrast, the submarine combat system industries in the United Kingdom, France and Germany, faced with their own market decline but with lesser restrictions, have begun to aggressively sell their products to the outside market with support from their respective governments. Their products are suited to the mid and small size submarine bulls while our combat systems have grown to accommodate larger and larger bulls. This brings up the factor of the cost of our products.

The cost in constant dollars per pound of our submarines has not changed much over the years. What has happened is our submarines have grown larger and the combat systems have grown even more, primarily to match the significantly quieter threat. As mentioned above, the cost of the combat system is now a significant percentage of the total submarine cost. This trend influences another factor; applicability to other U.S. markets.

It has been difficult but necessary for the submarine combat system industry to shift to other U.S. ASW markets because the submarine equipment specifications have made the components generally heavier due to shock hardening and more expensive than those used in the surface, air and surveillance ASW communities. Several of the companies have diversified but this is an expensive proposition which takes several years. The commercial sonar market world wide is now dominated by the Japanese because of U.S. technology transfer issues. Although a few U.S. commercial companies have succeeded in the commercial market, they have stayed away from the military side of the business and are not therefore part of the combat system industrial base. Another major reason for non-applicability to commercial products is that the computer software portion of the modern submarine combat system has risen to over 50 percent of the cost of development, production and support. Most of the software product is not transferable to other countries for military products and has little use in the commercial market.

We are now led back to building a new submarine which can take 10 to 12 years to design and produce the lead ship (but studies show that overall the design, development, and production of a smaller submarine will cost just as much or more as we would have spent on the full production run of the larger SSN21 submarine); to making improvements, like the CCS MK. 2, to our existing submarines (however, no money has been planned for mission upgrade improvements other than the AN/BQQ-SE and the CCS MK 2 and new missions have not been defined); to building more of the same which appears to be politically impractical. So what can we do to preserve the submarine combat system industrial base?

  • First, we should recognize that nuclear attack submarines and their combat systems are vital to protecting our TRIDENT fleet. The Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles pose the only serious threat to our national security. The TRIDENT fleet with over sixty percent of the U.S. strategic missiles provides the counter to the Soviet threat.
  • Second, we should recognize that research and production are equal partners in the industrial base. Development alone or with limited prototype production cannot sustain the base. Research without production is the blueprint for a going out of business plan for the industrial sector.
  • Third, the development cycle has grown so long and burdensome and the systems have grown so large that innovative ideas are effectively shut out of the R&D pipeline.
  • ¬†Fourth, there are larger world markets in which the industry should be permitted to compete.

The submarine combat system industrial base is vital to our national security; therefore, the U.S. Navy and industry in partnership, with organizations like the Submarine League, should address head.on the problems discussed. The trends and paradigms of the submarine combat system business should be reexamined and reversed in some cases to preserve the national asset called submarine combat systems industrial base.


Captain Gary F. Velal, MC, USN

Herbert Davey Thomlon

Carl Hartdegen, Ill
WW II Submariner, and Cluuter Member of NSL Central Florida Chapter

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League