The accusations of too big and too costly against the SEAWOLF (SSN-21) bring a sense of deja vu to those who recall the same charges against the STURGEON (SSN-637) and LOS ANGELES (SSN-688). Controversy of this kind has been part of the U.S. Navy since its early days, when John Adam’s superb frigates were replaced by Thomas Jefferson’s useless gunboats.
Naysayers argue that there is no threat anymore. Senator Trent Lott (R-MS) characterized the SEA WOLF as “overdesigned for the post-Cold War posture.” Those who want no new expenditures ask why a new submarine is needed, since the improved LOS ANGELES-class submarine is the best in the world. The program’s large initial costs make it an easy target for those who seek to divert its funds to other uses.
Regardless of force sizes or identified threats, modernization must continue, going beyond the research-and-development stage. We must deploy and use equipment to find out how it works and to make proper plans for its follow-on generation. Just staying current requires continuing investment. The Navy must drive the areas of technology that affect maritime matters significantly — especially when improved technology translates to large payoffs and others are not investing that way.
Undersea warfare fits this prescription precisely. Under the ocean, technological improvement continues to provide big payoffs. Submarines have not reached the point at which large expenditures achieve only small incremental gains in performance. Sustaining the industrial base is particularly important in nuclear matters. The miserable record of the public utilities, for example, underscores the need to sustain an environment of excellence and productivity in areas that are crucial to the Navy, in ways that others may not understand.
Technological improvements will continue to yield steep increases in submarine performance, but most of these will require a new hull. Electronics can be changed, but speed and depth improvements can be made only in new designs. Magazine and launcher sizes are set forever in construction, as well.
Most important, quieting gains are made only in new construction. Stealth technologies cannot be retrofitted. In undersea warfare, quieting stands first in the order of merit; all other characteristics follow. There is no more important ingredient under the ocean than stealth, and those who predicted that submarines were as quiet as they could ever be were proved wrong in 1960, 1970, 1980, and again in 1990.
Those who suggest that a submarine can be built for less money, with capabilities that are good enough, have not learned from history. Every artificially constrained ship has been mediocre – a second-rater unable to take its place in the line of battle. The Gulf War demonstrated the virtue of quality over mass. Iraq had thousands of T -72 tanks, which were destroyed without ever seeing their enemy. As a simile for submarine warfare, this is hauntingly accurate.
The most important reason to build new submarines is their overwhelming importance in maritime affairs. While hearing those who declare that military force will be unneeded in the new world order, one must keep in mind the West’s incredible inability to predict Russian (formerly Soviet) behavior. No expert has foreseen by even one day any of the significant political events that have astonished the world for the past three years. Given this poor track record in anticipating Soviet Russian moves and the continued capability of their submarine force to threaten Western sea lines of communication, it is the height of folly to pretend that the United States will never need maritime military force again.
Overarching these professional considerations will be political facts that will overtake and overwhelm the military arguments. Ship construction will regain its public-works aspects. Through most of the Navy’s history, ships have been built to maintain employment levels and to enhance local political prestige. Considerations of threat, technical merit, and potential missions have been and will be secondary. In this situation, shipbuilding monies will not be fungible. Those who c.nvision shifting of funds from a SEA WOLF built in Virginia to three or four AVENGER minesweepers built in Wisconsin or four or five F-14s built on Long Island are dreaming.
Focusing exclusively on shipbuilding costs is the equivalent of a businessman’s looking only at quarterly bottom lines. American business often is castigated justly for excessive concern over immediate profits. Naval officers should be careful to avoid the same trap over the SEA WOLF. Twentyfive years ago, naval aviation’s leaders resolved to build largedeck carriers only. Even the persistent efforts of a Chief of Naval Operations committed to a small sea-control ship was unable to rock this resolve. Time has proved that large-deck judgement correct. As the size of the Navy diminishes, the value of each ship increases. By the year 2000, the Navy will have little use for second-raters in the line, be they carriers or submarines. Through continuing construction of the best ships that can be built — albeit in small numbers – we can preserve the industrial base and enhance the design skills necessary for rapid expansion of forces, should that be needed.
The march of technology is inexorable. The millennium of peace is not yet at hand. Soviet/Russian submarines are the only conventional arms that can seriously challenge the national interests of the United States. Even in the Third World, we cannot expect everyone to be as inept as the Argentineans in handling their submarines. Costs associated with system development have decreased only when new systems have been substantially less capable than the old. Expenditures for such systems are, in large measure, wasted.
Someday, the United States will have to build the SEA WOLF. If not now, when?[Admiral Holland is President, AFCEA Educational Foundation. He served in submarines and submarine-related assignments for 27 of his 32 years of commissioned service.]