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Congressional Research Service
Library of Congress

Mr. Ronald O’Rourke has worked for the Congressional Research Service since 1984. In 1986 he testified on SEAWOLF before Co11gress and in 1987 he authored a report on strategic submarines. 1111989 he wrote a special analysis on attack submarine procurement options that outli11ed a notional reduced cost submarine, which some people view as the intellectual precursor to Centurion.

These comments are my own views and do not necessarily reflect those of CRS or the Library of Congress. My talk is not going to be technical; it’s going to focus on politics, particularly the politics of submarine acquisition on Capitol Hill.

I want to talk about two things today. The first is how attack submarines are doing in the overall debate on force structure on Capitol Hill, and the second part of my presenta-tion will be on the Centurion.

In recent weeks, attention has focused on the SEAWOLF rescission debate. But this debate, as important as it is, is really a side show to a much bigger and more important debate that it is going on more quietly on the Hill right now, and that is the debate over force structure, in particular how many attack submarines the Navy and the nation needs for the post Cold War era. rm going to give you the bottom line right up front: at the moment attack submarines are not doing very well in this debate. In fact, if I had to call it one way or another, I would say they are losing it right now.

There are two important public indications of this that I want to go over. The first is the 18(kfay study that Deputy Secretary of Defense Atwood commissioned That study is re-examining the attack submarine force level, among other things, with an eye toward lowering il The CNO hinted broadly that the result of this study could be a force level of 50 to 65 attack boats, down from the 80 called for in the Base Force. That gives attack submarines the distinction of being the only element of the Base Force that is currently subject to publicly

acknowledged downward reassessment. What I think is significant about this from a congressional viewpoint is that virtually nobody has batted an eye at this or come to the defense of the 80-boat figure, or has expressed any kind of anxiety about the fact that submarines have been singled out in this fashion, for a reassessment looking toward a numerical reduction.

But there is a second and even more direct indication of the fact that the idea of a relatively large attack submarine force is in trouble on Capitol Hill right now, and that concerns the alternative force structure recommendations that have been put out by Representative Aspin, the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, in a policy paper that came out in late February. These are alternatives to the Base Force, and they are referred to as options A, B, C and D. Right now, they constitute the main congressional counterpoint to the Base Force proposal. For those of you that are not familiar with these recommendations, the Naval portion of them is shown in the chart below.

Chart 1.

View full article for table data

The Base Force is on the left side and options A to D are on the right. There are two points to note. The first is that the component of the Navy that is the most strongly supported in the options is the Amphibious Force. Very strong support for the amphibious fleet has been evidenced in the hearings this year on Capitol Hill. The carriers are treated more or less proportionately as you go down in fleet size. So they’re not really winners, so to speak, but they’re not losers either. Surface combatants are not broken out in Aspin’s recommenda-tions but my guess is that, again, they would be treated more or less proportionately, the way carriers are. The component of the Navy that, in effect, is losing (as you can see in the figures) is the Submarine Force. Even under the most robust option (option D) an option which would actually increase the amphibious fleet and the carrier fleet above the Base Force level, a major reduction is recommended in the force level for submarines (50), and those numbers go down even further as you move out toward option A (20 submarines).

The second thing I want to point out about this chart is that option D is really only academic at this point. The one to focus on is option C (40 submarines). Option C was endorsed by Representative Aspin, and the House-passed version of the defense budget resolution for this year is viewed in the House as being consistent with option C, or in the long run with options B or A as well. So, the House in effect is indirectly on record as supporting an attack submarine force of 40 or fewer boats.

Now the fact that supporters of a relatively large attack boat force are in trouble right now is due in part to factors which are beyond the control of submariners. Submariners can’t talk publicly in detail about many of the things that they do. Compared to surface ships and aircraft, submarines look more affordable in life-cycle terms than they do in procurement cost terms; but the way the budget system is structured, the attention is for the most part focused on procurement costs. These two difficulties complicate the ability of the submarine community to argue the cost effectiveness of submarines. But to a signifi-cant degree, the difficult situation faced by the submarine community, in justifying a relatively large force level for itself, is a problem of self-inflicted wounds. In other words, subma-riners are not doing a very good job of making their case and I want to spend a few minutes talking about this right now.

Two years ago, when the ending of the Cold War was beginning to pose a challenge to justifications for a relatively large submarine force, one of the first arguments that was put forward in response to that challenge was the one that focused on the fact that, aside from the United States and the Soviet Union, there were 41 countries that operated upwards of 400 attack submarines around the world. This argument was counterproductive. It indiscriminately lumped together allied nations with potential adversaries, it indiscriminately lumped together technologically obsolete boats and boats of dubious operational status alongside modem capable boats, and it suggested, implausibly, that we would somehow be fighting a lot of these nations at the same time. As a result, it looked like submariners were grossly exaggerating the threat in a desperate attempt to find new missions and justifications. This damaged the credibility of submarine advocates, reducing the impact of the other arguments they were trying to make at that time. But it was also counterproductive in another sense; namely, it reinforced the stereotype that submarines in the post Cold War era should be viewed primarily as ASW platforms, which was precisely the point that submariners do not want to make.

A second example of a mis-step was the reiteration over and over again, going even into late 1991 that there was, as of yet, no evidence of a reduction in the rate of Soviet submarine construction, by which it was really meant a reduction in the rate of launchings and acceptances into the fleet. This was like blowing up a balloon, even though you know somebody is standing a foot away from you with a pin. It was just a matter of time before that evidence was going to come in and explode that balloon, and when it did fmally come in, it further damaged the credibility of the submarine community.

This argument hurt the submarine community in two other ways. It further reinforced the two stereotypes that submarines are primarily ASW platforms, and that submarines are primarily Cold War weapons. Again, this is the opposite of what sub-mariners are trying to get across.

Part of the submariner’s outreach effort goes to the press. I think mistakes have been made in that area as well. I was on the phone some number of weeks ago with a reporter, not from the Washington area, who wanted to write an article about how submarines are adapting to the changed world situation. He was invited to go onto a submarine for a short time at sea. I asked, “Well, how did it tum out? I haven’t seen the article.” He said, “Well, I got on board and they didn’t tell me anything; everyone was really closed lipped.” I asked, “Well, what did you do?” He said, “I didn’t have any choice, I had to wind up writing one of those articles about the life of submariners.” So that was a wasted opportunity. Don’t invite somebody aboard with that kind of a purpose unless you are prepared to support it.

The second example also involves inviting some press people aboard a submarine (including a correspondent from the Washington Post). This was a trip up under the ice. The result of that was the headline “The ‘Silent Service’ Breaks the Ice.” This is exactly the wrong thing submariners should be trying to get on the front page of the Washington Post, a picture of a submarine coming up through the ice like we are back in 1986, and we are talking about the maritime strategy. A front page picture like that and an associated story that focuses on submarines going up under the ice do not make for a good argument. Again, it just reinforces the stereotype that subma-rines are Cold War weapons, oriented primarily toward Russian submarines, and that since they’ve got nothing else to do now, they will take civilians for joy rides up to the ice pack. That wasn’t just a wasted opportunity, it was, again, counterpro-ductive.

Another example is the white paper on submarine roles and missions in the 1990’s that was put out in January. This was a step in the right direction; at least somebody was trying to get something out. But the white paper was too long, and the executive summary was way too long. The report did not sufficiently highlight the most important things you would try to get across to a non-specialist audience; it was way too technical and abstract. The result is that the paper did not have any-where near the impact that it should have had. I only received one semi-favorable comment from a staffer about this paper and it was along the lines of “Well, at least they are trying to do something.” And that was from a staffer, frankly, who was already a submarine supporter. For readers that the submarine community is trying to persuade, I really don’t see that the white paper had any effect at aU. I am very happy to hear that there is a new six-page version of the report. I had argued at the time that there should be a much shorter version.

One final example, and this isn’t really to note a mistake so much as to make a comment. A lot of emphasis has been paid to the combat missions that submarines can perform in regional conflict situations in the third world. That’s fine, and I think that should be part of what is said. But I think it must be understood that those kinds of missions will not form the basis for an effective justification for a relatively large submarine force. Somebody can agree with every one of those combat missions and nevertheless conclude that you don’t need very many submarines to do them. You could double the number of submarines that are publicly acknowledged as having been used in a direct way in Desert Storm, and then you can do two regional contingencies at once, and you still wind up with a requirement for onl 20. These combat missions will not justify large force, and if that is really the only thing that is empha-sized, then the result is likely to be support for a submarine force level requirement more along the lines of options A or B (20 to 40).

The need for a relatively large force of submarines — some-thing more than 50 or 60 boats — is dependent much more on the kind of ongoing, day-to-day, missions that generate a requirement for sustained forward deployment. If the subma-rine community can show that you need to have 11 boats forward deployed on a continuous basis, then that is a justifica-tion for a force of 60 to 65 boats. More focus needs to be put on this kind of argumentation, this kind of day-to-day forward deployed mission.

Now presumably a lot of that is intelligence and surveillance, indications and warning. I don’t think that there is any shame in admitting that this is what submarines are doing. The focus should not be just on how submarines are monitoring the Russian submarine fleet, but rather on how they are monitoring military and political activities in the third world. There are an awful lot of countries out there that people are concerned about, and that we don’t know a lot about. The submarine community can make a good case that it can help fill in a lot of the intelligence gaps that appear to exist concerning a number of these countries. But it goes even beyond that. Submarines can monitor and maybe do things against terrorists. They can monitor the international trade in arms. Weapon proliferation around the world is a very big concern on Capitol Hill. And, in a more marginal way, they can play into the debate on tracking drug shipments and getting good intelligence there.

All communities within the military are parochial to one degree or another, but the submarine community, because of the largely classified nature of its work, appears to be more insular than most parts of the military. I think this has had three unfortunate side effects. The first is that although submariners were aware two years ago that the ending of the Cold War would pose a challenge to the justification for subma-rines, the insularity of the community, I think. prevented the community from recognizing the full extent of that challenge. Within the submarine world the value of submarines and the need for submarines is almost never fundamentally questioned. But it was being questioned fundamentally on the outside, and think submariners were slow to realize this, because they were mostly talking to each other and not so much to people on the outside.

A second unfortunate side effect of insularity is the fact that submarine affairs on Capitol Hill, until recently, have been dealt with within a fairly limited number of members and staffers. As a result, there is a fairly limited base of understanding of the value of submarines and of difficult points such as the subma-rine industrial base. In other words, now that the submarine community needs friends, it doesn’t have many to call on, because it didn’t spend much time, over the years, dealing with more than a fairly limited number of people.

The third unfortunate side effect of insularity is that, because the submarine community has largely been speaking with itself, it lost or never developed fully an ability to speak to outsiders. I think that bas resulted in some of the mis-steps that I was going over earlier.

So, on the issue of the force level debate, the submarine community has a good story to tell, and the submarine com-munity has been trying to tell it. But it hasn’t been doing a very good job of it, and this is beginning to have consequences, which, if allowed to go on much further, are going to be irreversible. The attack boat force level is currently melting down, and if submariners don’t work hard to reverse that trend, then a force level along the lines of 30 to 40 boats becomes an increasingly likely possibility. I’m not sure myself how many attack boats the United States needs for the post Cold War era, but I don’t want policymakers to make a decision on that issue without hearing the best argument that submariners can make. I don’t think that they’ve made that argument yet, and it’s in that spirit that I’ve been offering these remarks here, as unwel-come as they might be.

I want to tum now to the second part of my presentation, which focuses on the Centurion program. Here I want to make three points.

The first is for complete realism on the A topic — Afforda-bility. If you examine where the defense budget may be going in Congress, and if you look at past trends on the share of the budget that goes to the Navy, and the share of the Navy’s budget that goes to shipbuilding, then it is possible, when you run the calculations out, to project a potential shipbuilding budget by the tum of the century on the order of 6 or 7 billion dollars per year in today’s dollars. I’m not sure what percentage of the shipbuilding budget will be devoted to attack submarine acquisition. Until recently, the average has been about 20 percent. If that percentage holds true then you’ve got about 1.2 billion dollars potentially to work with. That’s the cost of one 6881 Class submarine in the current production environment


The Navy stated last year that it hoped Centurion could be designed so that you could get two Centurions for the price of one SEAWOLF. But, given potential funding trends, it could be that if you wanted to get two boats a year, then you’re going to have to design the Centurion so that you can get two Centurions for the price of one 6881, and that is a much more difficult task. If you can’t do it, then the alternative is to accept a procurement rate of less than two boats per year and, in the long run, a correspondingly smaller force. Again, something along the lines of 30 or 40 boats. Of course, the funding situation may not be that rough. For one thing, in this time period, it may be decided that there won’t be any construction of SSBNs. The fraction of the budget that may have gone to SSBN construction could be devoted to SSNs. So there are ways of speculating about why there may be more money available. But for every excursion that you can do on the high side, you can throw in a reason for why the budget may in fact be lower for submarines. For one thing, as I mentioned earlier, there is strong support on Capitol Hill for the amphibious force. Of the 60-odd boats currently in that force, about 40 will be hitting block obsolescence starting around the tum of the century. Almost the entire force is going to have to be rebuilt. That’s going to make a big claim on shipbuilding funds. As another example, Congress has held hearings this year on the future of naval aviation. The affordability of the Navy’s plan for beginning to procure fairly large numbers of carrier aircraft around the tum of the century has been called into question. Already it’s being speculated that, to help to make that plan affordable, funding should be shifted into the aircraft procure-ment account from other places. The shipbuilding account is likely going to be one of those other places, and maybe the primary other place, where that money is taken from.

The point here is not to make a prediction about exactly what the shipbuilding budget may be. Rather, it is to highlight the fact that the amount of funding available for shipbuilding, in fact, may be quite limited, and that the Centurion design effort should avoid optimistic assumptions about funding and be prepared to cope with low funding levels. For this reason the application of technology toward the goal of cost reduction must be a very earnest effort. I’ve been briefed by Naval Reactors regarding their efforts to simplify the next-generation reactor plant, and I think those efforts look very promising. I hope that more along these lines can be done.

The second of the three points that I want to make about Centurion is that, with the termination of the SEAWOLF program (and it’s terminated, whether it’s two boats or three, it’s dead), the standard of comparison for the Centurion program has shifted away from SEAWOLF to the 6881. In other words, to demonstrate that it’s worth going ahead with the Centurion, it will no longer be sufficient to show that the boat is simply substantially less expensive than the SEAWOLF. It will now have to be shown that the boat is worthwhile going ahead with as an alternative to the 6881. I have three charts that will help develop this point.

Relative to the 6881, the Centurion can either be less expensive, it can be about equal in cost (which I defined here as plus or minus 10 percent), or it can be more expensive. And the boat can be less capable, about as capable, or more capable. On the resulting tic tac toe chart, if you wind up in the Centurion effort with a boat that is about the same capability as a 6881 and about the same price (the middle cell), you’re not going to be able to sell that boat And you’re certainly not going to be able to sell the designs that fall into the other unnumbered cells. The numbered cells — 1 through 5 — are the ones that you have a chance of selling. Cell 5 is going to be at best a difficult design to sell, but I didn’t want to rule it out I do want to include that at least in the realm of possibility.

Chart 2.

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But this chart doesn’t capture the whole situation. For example, you can design something in cell #1 that is 15 percent less expensive, and 15 percent less capable than a 6881 and people might well say that it’s not worth it. You have to get more into the idea of capability per dollar. That’s a term that people aren’t going to express explicitly on Capitol Hill, but implicitly that is the concept that many will work with.

Chart 3 is one way of doing it. Cost is at the bottom. This could be life-cycle cost but, for the reasons that I discussed earlier, the focus is going to be probably on unit procurement cost. In the current production environment the price quote for 6881 is that the lead boat is 4 billion and the follow-ens are 1.2 billion. Capability is measured on the vertical axis, relative to the original 688. This is based on the open testimony regarding relative capabilities of the original and improved versions of the 688 and the SEAWOLF. The Improved 688 is about twice as capable as the original 688 and the SEAWOLF is about 3 times as capable as the Improved 688. The sloped lines, connecting the boats back to the origin, represent capability per dollar. The steeper the slope, the more capability per dollar.

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I asked myself how much of a boost in capability per dollar would be needed for people to think it is worthwhile to go ahead with the up front costs involved in doing a submarine design and development effort, and at a minimum I think that’s 20 percent. I don’t think that’s too difficult for the submarine design community to do, given advancing technology, but you have to make sure that you are going to be above that 20% steeper slope. If you can get up toward the SEAWOLF slope on capability per dollar, which is a much larger increase, that’s fine, but I don’t think that’s so important anymore. I think it’s more important how much you get above the 6881 slope, and I think the minimum is 20 percent. I’ve put the SEAWOLF slope in as a dotted line to reinforce the fact that this really isn’t the key standard of comparison anymore.

You can take chart 2, with the tic tac toe, and chart 3, and you can put them together to form chart 4. The five numbered ellipses on chart 4 are the five numbered cells from chart 2. These are the boats that I think are sellable. This is not a chart of what is technically possible; I don’t know what that line might look like. It’s certainly going to be at zero capability, until you get some way out on cost. I don’t know if boat 1 is possible at all. This may be the one boat that can violate the rule of having to stay above the 20% line. People may accept going below that line for boat 1, simply because the cost is so low, in the same way that the Navy accepted purchasing frigates in the past, even recognizing that frigates don’t provide that much capability per dollar, because they help you keep your numbers up.

This isn’t a recommendation of what Centurion should look like. And again, it’s not a chart of what is technically possible. It’s simply a way of presenting in pictorial form the mental map that I think a lot of people will have in their head, whether they express it this way or not. There are different solutions to the problem. H you are going to be out here at boat 5, you need to be fairly capable to justify the increase in cost. It’s no longer enough to say that the boat is 25% less expensive than the SEAWOLF. You wind up with a boat that is probably too expensive at that point. I don’t think you can go anywhere much beyond 25% more than the current 6881 and that’s already pushing your luck.

The third and final point that I want to make about Centurion, to close my presentation, is the need to engage Congress during the design process of the Centurion program much more fully than was the case during the SEAWOLF program. The SEAWOLF design was essentially handed to Congress as a done deal. There was very little explanation about where that design came from; what the options were that were examined.

Engaging Congress more fully than that during the Centurion design effort is going to have two benefits that I think are very important. The first is that it is going to build a broader sense of ownership for the Centurion program than was the case with SEAWOLF. In the past, when submarines were basically an issue for committees, and therefore an issue for a few key members of Congress and their staffers, it was OK just to work with that relatively small number of people. But submarines are no longer a stealth item in the budget. They are a high-profile item. They are an item that goes to the floor of the chamber. As a result, in the future, submarines are going to need a much broader base of support. Engaging Congress more fully during the design process can help build that kind of sense of owner-ship. That sense of ownership was lacking when the SEAWOLF program got into trouble.

The second benefit of engaging Congress more fully in the design process of the Centurion is that, if members are present-ed, at the beginning of the process, with an honest presentation of the advantages and disadvantages of various submarine designs, in terms of cost, capability and technical risk, then those members and their staffers will understand what is possible in submarine design and what is not possible. They’ll understand the difficulty of having to balance all of these characteristics at the same time to arrive at a reasonable solution. And they’ll be better prepared to defend the Centurion design against poorly supported second-guessing that may come later. Much of the various strains of criticism that were leveled against the SEAWOLF design focused separately either on cost, or on its capability, or on the technical risks that were involved in the program. They did not focus on the difficult issue of how best to balance all of these competing concerns in a single design. That kind of argumentative shell game was easy to play for SEAWOLF critics because the Navy did not widely explain the process about how it tried to balance all of these things at once. The critics really had a wide open field to pick one characteristic, without having to be held accountable for what would happen to the others. Involving Congress more fully in the design process will, in a sense,inoculate the Centurion program against this kind of single-factor criticism and allow people to recognize that, by them-selves, these kinds of criticism often are of little value.

Now, involving Congress more fully in the design process might be understood as a euphemism for Congressional interference. And, when you get down to it, yes, Congressional participation often means Congressional interference. That can slow things up. The problem isn’t just getting programs started, the problem is getting them finished. It’s possible to get a program started in Congress (as was the case with SEAWOLF) by just sharing it with a small number of key people, early on. But in future years, with defense budgets declining and new procurement programs subject to increasingly high levels of scrutiny, that approach is less and less likely to result in a program being completed. Involving a greater number of people up front takes more time and more energy, but it is an investment in the long-term success of the program.

Last year, the Senate Appropriations Committee, in its report on the appropriation bill, directed the Navy to investigate a wide range of conceptual design options for the Centurion and to report back to the defense oversight committees this year on those options. This report is an ideal vehicle for beginning to involve Congress in the Centurion design process. It was asked yesterday at the luncheon session, “How can we educate Congress’!” Well, this report is a perfect opportunity. A lot of benefits can accrue to the Centurion program, if real effort is put into the writing of this report. As I said, engaging Congress is an investment in the future of the program. It’s an investment that the program will likely require if it is to remain on track, with broad support, throughout a 12-year process, in a time of declining defense budgets and widely disparate ideas of where those defense dollars should go.

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