Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


A response by the Assistant Chief of Naval Operations
for Undersea Warfare
to James J. Kilpatrick’s article:
Seawolf sub: a $2 billion baby the Navy doesn’t need
in the Verginian-Pilot, 12 September 1991

James J. Kilpatrick visited our aircraft carrier USS JOHN F. KENNEDY during Mediterranean exercises in 1987. He was enthusiastic about seeing our 18 and 19 year-old sailors engaged in complex and dangerous flight deck operations at night. The thousands of all-American bluejackets he saw that day inspired him to write a stirring column.

His genuine friendship and rapport with sailors aboard USS JOHN F. KENNEDY, and his strong support of our Navy, have made me one of Jack Kilpatrick’s admirers. I respect his views, but his recent column of the SEA WOLF submarine deserves a response. He would expect that of me.

As the Naval Officer with more years of recent operational command of submarines than anyone else on active duty, let me explain the operational art of submarine warfare. It is a oneon-one event, involving technology and people – the same 18 and 19 year-old sailors which inspired Jack Kilpatrick in 1987. But, most of all, undersea warfare is stealth — the ability to operate a submarine for months in ocean depths – without detection. With true stealth, you will win. Without it, you lose.

Submarine crews are continually trained in the first principle of the art of submarine warfare: submarines must maintain stealth and surprise until ready to yield it. Submarine commanding officers and crews must keep the initiative to shoot first, undetected, and make each shot count.

Our capability to win in undersea warfare is a product of our people and technology. But the margin of superiority has been drastically reduced by major improvements in the stealth of potential adversaries. In fact, our remaining edge is more the performance of our people than the state of our technology.

“Kill the SEAWOLF.” It seems simple enough to Jack Kilpatrick, calling for an end to a decade of research and development of the’ next generation of U.S. attack submarines. But, does he realize that if we take his advice the U.S. will surrender leadership in submarine warfare for little, if any, real savings. Indeed, we will threaten ourselves with becoming a second-rate submarine force, incapable of building modem submarines.

Mr. Kilpatrick’s argument is rooted in weeks-old Soviet developments which, he says, have made the threat non-existent. But, we have yet to observe any changes in Soviet submarine operations. As he seems convinced we will never a&ain be threatened undersea, he must be clairvoyant.

If we kill SEA WOLF, what kind of submarine force will we have? Today, our mainstay LOS ANGELES class (SSN-688) is the best in the world, despite its 25 year-old design. This is because we have stretched its capabilities since it first went to sea in 1976.

Why not scrap SEA WOLF and restart the LOS ANGELES class? Having stretched the class to the limit there is no room for further technological growth. It is as good as it will ever be — we can’t count on it being good enough a decade from now. What would we really save? The last LOS ANGELES class sub was ordered two years ago. If we ordered one in FIScal Year 1992, it would cost only 15% less than the budgeted SEA WOLF – while providing one-third less warfighting capability. And we’d still be contractually obligated to pay for the first SEA WOLF, plus cancellation penalties. There are no savings: Canceling SEA WOLF would cost more.

The Navy and the Submarine Force have already been affected by changes in the communist world. A year ago, when change seemed inevitable and our country needed a more affordable defense, procurement was cut from three to one submarine per year. In 2004, the LOS ANGELES class will begin leaving service at the rate at which they were built – three per year. So, with SEA WOLF, we will have a net loss of two submarines from the force each year.

A submarine study project, named Centurion, is alread_y addressing that eventuality. But submarine development takes 10-13 years. Today, the Centurion project is where SEA WOLF was over a decade ago. By the next century, Centurion can produce an advanced submarine in numbers to maintain our submarine force. However, if in the meantime, we have lost our technological and industrial capability to build submarines – the LOS ANGELES may be our last submarine class. This Is the real cost or amceUog SEA WOLF.

American submarine builders, a very specialized breed, are employed by only two shipyards. If there is a hiatus in construction of high technology submarines, they will have to find work in other industries, and there will be no incentive for a new generation to learn the skills. If we stop building SEA WOLF, we risk losing our submarine industrial base. This would also remove competition as a factor in the price of submarines. Then we will certainly know real sticker-shock.

To be comfortable with Mr. Kilpatrick’s vision of the future, I would like to be sure the Soviets will stop modernizing their formidable submarine force. In 1990 they launched 10 submarines and continue quiet submarine production. I would like to see a stop to both the proliferation of advanced submarine technology and the construction of capable diesel-electric submarines in the Third World. Today, 39 non-U.S./Soviet countries operate about 400 diesel-electric submarines worldwide, and significant advances in quieting, endurance and combat system capability are expected in the future. I would want a guarantee that no future power will seek to control access to the sea lanes which are essential to the economic and political survival of the U.S., our allies and friends. And, finally, Americans would have to be confident that their defense is secure – without a high quality Submarine Force.

The construction of SEA WOLF is in the last stage of a decade of development and investment in a submarine which will enable the U.S. to maintain a clear technological edge well into the next century. If we scrap it now, we will risk our national security against the hope that the geo-political currents remain flowing in the direction they seem headed today. If they ebb, as well as flow, we will hedge our bets with the hope today’s undersea technology is good enough in the 21st century.

Much has changed in the world since Jack Kilpatrick sailed with us in the Mediterranean. But, Soviet submarines are still there, and they are a generation better. Certainly, Jack Kilpatrick understands my goal of providing our submarine sailors with the winning advantage. Anything less is wrong. Desert Storm taught us we should provide the best technology to America’s sons and daughters who will go in harm’s way to defend the vital interests of the United States. SEA WOLF is that technology, and it is needed now.


Copies of our short video SEA WOLF- The Inside Story ct111 be borrowed from your local Chapter or NSL Headquarters.

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League