There is much very significant meat in the papers by Robert J. Murray, James John Tritten, Sumner Shapiro, and Ronald O’Rourke in the July ’92 issue of the SUBMARINE REVIEW. Their words need to be read, studied, and acted upon by those in positions to influence the Navy’s course in the next few years, especially with regard to the future of our submarine force.
The various arguments in support of future submarine construction were generally well presented, but need to be repeated before broader audiences and in journals with larger and less parochial readerships than The SUBMARINE REVIEW. I would also make a strong pitch for the importance of continued technological development in addition to maintain-ing an adequate industrial base. The recent problems encoun-tered in welding HYlOO steel for the SEAWOLF, in contrast with the use of titanium for many Soviet (now Russian) subs, point up one area where we are currently well behind the Russian technology, namely materials and their fabrication, which in military characteristics translates to hull strength and diving depth capability.
We have also apparently failed to match the maximum speed achieved by the Russians in some of their submarine types, due at least in part to their ability to achieve higher power densities from their reactor plants. A third important area where they may well surpass us is in their design establishment, based on its experience with a wide variety of submarine types built in many yards while we have been limited to three types and two building yards. Indeed, we now seem determined to write off half of our submarine industrial plant. No one bas pointed out the anomaly of having our most advanced attack submarine design capability in one shipyard (Newport News) while the construction expertise is in another (Electric Boat). Dropping either yard from future submarine construction will result in many problems for Naval Sea Systems Command as well as both shipyards.
The Navy and Congress seem to be forgetting the lesson learned after World War I about the critical importance of having competitive submarine design teams. The Navy’s foresight in deliberately supporting competition between Electric Boat and Portsmouth in the 1930s was, in my opinion, a key factor in our developing the excellent GATO/BAlAO fleet subs just in time for World War ll. There are many other lessons about the problems of reconstituting a fleet to be learned from our experience in the last two great wars.
Our naval leaders need to pay close attention to the political factors pointed out by Ronald O’Rourke, but there are some elements in his presentation that are cause for concern. Apparently he, along with many influential advisers and members of Congress, has accepted certain premises that should be challenged. The most important of these is that the future composition of the Navy has to be budget-driven because of some arbitrary figure that is said to be the most that the American public will accept. I am not aware that Congress has ever asked the public what it is willing to accept in the way of national defense, but I do know that the public has not failed to support whatever Congress and the President have asked when presented with a well-defined need. It appears to me that we have to focus on convincing Congress and its staff advisers of the need, as so well presented by Drs. Murray and Tritten. Again, history offers many examples of the pitfalls in allowing ship characteristics to be determined by a budget. I will only cite the battleships IDAHO and MISSISSIPPI of 1903 (which were sold to Greece because they could not keep up with the battle line), the 800-ton “ideal” submarine limit that controlled the design of the S-hoats (which were already obsolescent when launched in the early 1920s) and the MACKEREL and MARLIN of 1939 (which were unsuited for use in World War II), and the limitations of the “designed to price” frigates of the recent OLIVER HAZARD PERRY class.
Another assumption that needs to be challenged is that we will have eight to teo years of warning time during which to reconstitute our armed forces. This is an assumption based on a potential enemy’s presumed intentions rather than his capabilities. A nuclear-armed missile could be fired at the United States tomorrow and we would be powerless to stop it! One only needs to remember the Falkland Islands War to realize how one renegade submarine can cause tremendous havoc at any time. We have to be very careful to define which threats are immediate and which are not.
I am also disquieted by certain elements of O’Rourke’s presentation regarding the CENTURION. While his charts are useful for a broad-brush discussion of options, I feel they are so oversimplified as to be dangerous if used by Congress (as they probably will be) to establish performance requirements and funding parameters for a new class of submarine. It is little more than speculation to state that the SEAWOLF is three times as capable as the 6881 and the latter twice as capable as the original 688, then extrapolate this to a “capability per dollar” figure and a set of notional cost/capability options. Any expectation of getting the same or greater capability from a new design at less cost than a 6881 appears completely unrealistic, given the well-known problems involved in designing and producing any new prototype. The possibility of getting two CENTURIONs, no matter how debased in capability, for the price of one 6881 is also an illusion. With the further budget-driven constraint of a construction rate somewhere around one per year, it is irresponsible to predict that such a submarine could be built cheaply.
Maintaining an industrial base for submarine construction at a minimal building rate will be frightfully expensive in terms of sources of supply for all of the special components unique to a nuclear-powered submarine and of the skilled people needed to produce the equipment and build the sub itself. There is no way a properly balanced workforce can be kept profitably employed in a shipyard building a single submarine per year. If people in the requisite skilled trades are kept on the payroll until needed at the appropriate phase of construction, labor costs will soar. If labor is laid off to be rehired when needed, the best workers leave, training costs rise, and construction delays and errors increase. The Navy and industry are facing these problems already, and if they try to sell the CENTURION to Congress without adequate provision for the increased costs, we will have another submarine program to be scrapped before the prototype gets off the ways.
I am disturbed when I read that Admiral Kelso is on record with an estimated requirement for “a range of 50 to 60, maybe 65 submarines.” With the Administration and Congress in their present state of mind, it seems that SO submarines is tacitly conceded as a ceiling number to be attacked and further reduced. As soon as some reputable Navy spokesman comes out for one of the lower ranges suggested in Mr. O’Rourke’s article, that too will be taken as setting a ceiling rather than a floor.
In conclusion, I hope our Navy leaders will take the recom-mendations and suggestions that came out of the Submarine Technology Symposium very seriously but will not accept dangerous assumptions without making a strong challenge. If worse comes to worse and funding falls so low that a capable submarine cannot be built, and it appears that we really have a warning period of eight to ten years, I suggest another look at history. Immediately after World War ll we had a large inventory of modem ships in being and no credible threat on the immediate horizon. The Navy then invested in some experimental submarines with limited or no military capabilities. The K-class, designed as a cheap anti-submarine platform, was failure but the research-oriented ALBACORE initiated a revolution in submarine construction.
CDR John D. Alden, USN(Ret.)
[Commander Alden served in submarines during and after World War IL He is the author of The Fleet Submarine in the U.S. Na’I!Y. US. Submarine Attacks Durinr World War IL and other books and articles on naval subjects.]