(Reprinted with permission from Inside Washington publishers. 1992.)
A major contntributor to our victory in the Cold war was the strength and readiness of the U.S. Navy, which enabled it to respond to and counter threats worldwide. Our technically superior nuclear submarines played an essential, but generally unheralded, role in that extended conflict. However, a proposed hiatus in submarine construction places at risk the tactical advantage our submarines have long enjoyed, and sets the stage for a loss of our technological lead to one or more emerging undersea warfare powers.
The President’s FIScal Year 1993 Budget calls for termination of the SEA WOLF submarine program, a decision based ostensibly on the premise that the collapse of the Soviet Union obviates the need for such a powerful and expensive ship. The decision process, however, may not have considered the broad potential military value of the modem nuclear submarine relative to other weapons systems. A unique combination of stealth, mobility, firepower, and endurance in one cost-effective envelope, submarines provide a responsive and survivable counter to any threat that might confront our nation in an era of increasing global uncertainty.
The nuclear attack submarine is a versatile warfighting (peace-keeping) machine. Of the many tasks to which it might be assigned, there are some which only a submarine can do, and some which only a submarine can do with acceptable risk. In justifying the need for a new class of SSNs, it is necessary to show that the missions for which it is intended are such that its availability in significant numbers is essential, and that alternatives, such as other platforms or systems, would entail too great a risk (i.e. casualties and prisoners of war), have too limited effectiveness, or cost much more in the aggregate for the same levels of availability, effectiveness and survivability than would the use of submarines. Such analyses, with attendant debate, are ongoing at this time, with the fate (force size and mix, capabilities, etc.) of the future submarine fleet dependent on the outcome.
The defining attributes of a modem nuclear submarine such as SEA WOLF are its potential for covertness (the tactical advantage of surprise!) in combination with firepower, mobility, and greater endurance. Considered in relation to the varied missions for which it can be employed, it is useful to focus on those core missions for which there is no realistically practical alternative to an advanced nuclear submarine, and to derive the performance and capabilities from these.
The core missions which are indisputably within the special purview of modem nuclear attack submarines include forward area anti·submarine warfare, covert intelligence collection, anti· surface warfare in the absence of adequate air or sea control by friendly forces, and covert mine warfare. Other missions that exploit the inherent stealth of SSNs include precision strike warfare (land attack with submerged launch cruise missiles), and special warfare (covert insertion and extraction of special forces). Attack submarines are also capable of performing antisubmarine barrier missions and area search, combined operations with air and surface anti·submarine forces, and of provid· ing a variety of missions in support of naval task groups.
These core missions are fundamental to the operational employment of submarines. There will be a continuing need for submarines capable of performing such missions, independent of the rapidly changing world situation. Although the nature of the threat may vary, and the scenario may shift from one environment to another, the basic requirements remain, i.e., there will be a need for covert, independent operation, and only a nuclear submarine would be capable of executing the mission.
On August 2, 1990, President Bush first enunciated the basic tenets of the new national security strategy in a speech at the Aspen Institute. This strategy was formally set forth by the President in the National Security Stratea of the United States. August 1991. In tum, the Defense Agenda of the National Security Strategy was implemented by the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, in the National Militaty Strateu 1992. That Strategy is founded upon four elements: Strategic Deterrence and Defense; Forward Presence; Crisis Response; and Reconstitution. The modern multi·mission nuclear submarine contributes to each.
In Strategic Deterrence, a force of 18 OHIO Class Trident ballistic missile submarines will constitute the nation’s fundamental and most survivable nuclear deterrent, and our advanced attack submarine force, through firepower and inherent stealth, serves even now as a potent conventional deterrent SSNs deployed far forward in areas not tenable by other forces provide a ready response to crises worldwide, sustainable for extended periods without external logistics support, fulfilling the Forward Presence role. For Crisis Response, SSNs maintain a constant readiness to deploy rapidly, with great endurance, and an ability to execute a variety of missions in global or regional conflicts. The nuclear submarine force, comprising the most complex warfighting platform in our arsenal, however ,cannot be Reconstituted as envisioned in the Strategy. Hence, there is a valid need for a robust and viable submarine industrial base ready to augment the highly cost-effective, combat ready, and responsive force-in-being.
During the decades of the Cold War, a force of 100 nuclear attack submarines was accepted as an affordable goal. Approached asymptomatically, but never attained, the actual force level is currently in rapid decline, exacerbated by the early decommissioning of the early ’60s technology STURGEON SSN637 Class for budgetary reasons. Today’s base force includes 80 SSNs, but the future is not bright for that number either. The proposed termination of SEA WOLF, coupled with any action to delay the Centurion New SSN, would lead to a force level of less than 40 early in the next century, assuming that the LOS ANGELES Class is overhauled and refueled as origina1ly planned to reach a full 30-year operational lifetime.
The submarine technology and industrial base issues are complex and not very well understood outside of the Submarine Community. Stringent requirements limit construction of nuclear submarines to shipyards with large, experienced engineering staffs and highly trained and qualified production work forces. The discipline and commitment inherent in submarine and submarine system design and construction have been developed over several decades, and, if lost, would be extremely difficult, if not impracticable, to reestablish. To further complicate the problem, for certain unique submarine components, only single suppliers remain. Any interruption in the submarine construction cycle would close the doors of even those vendors. We are in danger of losing a national asset!
The need to control the seas in support of national security objectives will not diminish. As the availability of forward bases decreases, the value of forces that can operate independent of those bases and long logistics chains will increase. Stealth, endurance, and mobility each provide significant and unique capabilities to the submarine; the combination in one warfighting platform provides exceptional flexibility and value to the National Command Authority and his subordinates at any level. Enlightened and visionary leaders are beginning to recognize that value.