Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


I am  privileged to  routinely deal  up  close  with a  group of  talented,  hard working and dedicated people across  a wide range of endeavors.   They include the seagoing operators, tender support people, shipyard mechanics, engineers, logisticians, designers,  instructors  and  trainers;  to  name  a  few.    All  are dedicated to support the operation of the nuclear powered carriers, cruisers  and  submarines  in  a  manner  that  sets  the  norm  for professional naval excellence.  While this perspective provides a broad range of topics, because of today’s venue I will focus on submarines.

In looking back on my remarks before this group last year-always a good idea since someone else may-I find myself guardedly optimistic at where submarines are headed today. I say headed not only because this is a period of great change for the entire Navy, and the country for that matter, but because of the long time line necessary for fundamental change in a capital warship centered Navy.

With new submarine class development times of 12 years, building durations of six years, eight years when long lead components are counted and ship lives of 30 years; the five year defense plan is not really a plan but only a point of departure for a plan.

First, and foremost, what do submarines do for the country and will they continue to make a valued contribution in the future? As is typical, the way is indicated by the strategic submarine. The stealthy, cost effective, professional Iy operated submarine launched ballistic missile subs became the country’s premier strategic deterrent force years ago. A recent extensive GAO study highlighted these qualities and put to rest such arcane issues as space based detection systems, transparent oceans, unreliable communications, and a host of other fables that were the backbone of a Cold War cottage industry.

The GAO has produced a good report albeit one to two decades late. There is talk now of a strategic deterrent DYAD or even a MONAD. The great old line that strategic submarines provided 50 percent of the ready warheads in the country’s strategic arsenal for 25 percent of the Department of Defense’s strategic dollars loses something when the percentages go to 100 percent for 100 percent. But clearly it is in the country’s best interests to put most of the strategic eggs in the submarine basket.

Similarly, the attack submarine’s future is founded in stealth and mission cost effectiveness. Its role will increase in promi-nence for the same reasons as the strategic submarine; ever increasing risk to other weapons systems platforms. The world for surface warships is increasingly more dangerous due to the continued proliferation of relatively inexpensive surveillance and targeting systems and precision guided missiles. This availability to even Third World countries has been accelerated by the virtual garage sale atmosphere in the former Soviet Union countries including scientists, engineers, and entire sophisticated weapon systems.

This very real threat today can result in damage to bystander U.S. Navy surface ships due to misidentification by warring forces or, the obverse, an attack by a U.S. warship on a misidentified perceived threat which turns out to be an innocent bystander. Experience in the Middle East shows the difficulty of keeping ships on station in trouble spots; trying not to be provocative while at the same time defending against attack from seemingly innocu-ous sources. Given the short decision times involved and the ship threatening destructive force of today’s missiles, it is difficult to envision this becoming a more relaxed situation.

This is not to imply that surface forces are obsolete and will be unable to continue their valuable contribution to the protection of the nation’s interest worldwide. It is simply a recognition of the ever changing nature of naval warfare which must be accommodat-ed by the Navy today. This accommodation opens new roles for the attack submarine whose offense to defense ratio is unmatched.

Other factors favor the selective presence of the attack subma-rine in hot spots. They include the worldwide modem media stage on which all crises are played out, the very real domestic political pressure provided by even small numbers of U.S. military deaths and prisoners, and the continued futility of massive amounts of iron bombs to solve anything-coupled with an increased abhor-rence to civilian casualties.

The attack submarine provides a presence which can lurk unthreatened, deep in enemy waters for months, in disciplined communications, reporting all that’s happening and ready to respond with an array of weapons effective against both land and sea targets. The unit can remain secure even if the mission is unsuccessful; and the mission need not be carried out under the glare of worldwide media coverage. Technology can only improve these capabilities in the future.

It is ironic that the attack submarine, popularly viewed as only a Cold War weapon, inflexible, highly specified and useful only against a narrow threat has adapted to the new Navy realities so quickly and almost totally from within-no studies, no consultants, and no formal Washington direction. This rapid adaptability is evident in battle group commander accolades for newly acquired attack submarines, Commander Submarine Force Atlantic and Pacific regional warfare demonstration cruises for Congressional and Executive Department decision makers and the flood of writings in professional journals detailing the new direction.

I know of no other part of the Navy that has executed such a fundamental change so smoothly. It indicates, I believe, that the issue of attack submarine irrelevance to the new realities of the world was one of form and not substance.

But with the near total Navy focus on …From the Sea. what about the blue water responsibilities of the Navy. Are they no longer important for our island nation? I believe the versatility of the attack submarine holds the answer. While the submarine focus has now broadened to increase the priority of other missions, that focus can once again be narrowed to sea control if that is what the national interest requires. While the broad ocean reaches are now calmer, it is not clear that they will remain so indefinitely. The relatively brief history of this country would indicate otherwise.

The decisions we make today will be critical two decades from now when our present front line attack submarines are going away at the rate of which they were built, three to four per year. So. the U.S. Navy attack submarines are capable today in regional warfare and are the Navy’s most ready blue water fighters-the blue water ace-in-the-hole.

The Russians have not abandoned their nuclear submarine Navy. They are in the process of increasing the percentage of their strategic warheads at sea and have publicly stated they intend to build one to two attack submarines per year. There are indications that they have attack submarines at sea today. albeit in small numbers, that are essentially at the stealth levels of our best attack submarines. Another new class of attack submarine is expected before the end of this decade.

In spite of their pressing problems, the Russians continue to pursue a modernized underwater fleet. Why? Because it is a relatively cost effective way to exercise maritime power. Is this a defense problem for our country today? Clearly not. But recall at the start of these remarks I mentioned the long time line necessary for this shipbuilding business.

In a recent OPED piece in the New York Times, Dr. Igor Spassky, a Russian nuclear submarine designer, decried the U.S. ” unwillingness to provide taxpayer dollars to the private Komsomo-lets Foundation. This group is expounding the dangers of the sunken Russian MIKE class nuclear submarine KOMSOMOLETS largely because of the presence of two nuclear weapons. They are looking for millions of dollars to study the sunken submarine and develop equipment to address the weapons concern.

Dr. Spassky, the designer of the MIKE, has a special interest in the loss of this submarine. Joint Russian/Norwegian environ-mental monitoring during the past two years has shown no significant contamination from the MIKE and no plutonium from the weapons. U.S. monitoring of the two U.S. nuclear powered submarines lost over 25 years ago, THRESHER and SCORPION, has also found no significant radiological impact. There has been no release of radioactivity from U.S. naval fuel.

It is odd that so much Russian attention is being given to this ship when there has been no call to action to address the Russian YANKEE class submarine that sank 600 miles off the coast of Bermuda in 1986 with 16 nuclear tipped missiles.

I do not believe there is an environmental threat from the MIKE submarine or from the weapons aboard. Based on currently available information, the best thing to do is leave it alone. If Dr. Spassky continues to believe there is a significant threat, rather than panhandling U.S. taxpayers, I suggest he convince his government to redirect resources from the continuing Russian nuclear submarine modernization program to deal with it.

Along the same line, some entrepreneurs, aided by Greenpeace, have been trumpeting the alleged dangers of Russia’s decommis-sioned submarine fleet, again in an attempt to gamer U.S. assistance and tax dollars. While the Russians have not been as diligent in taking care of the entire life cycle of their nuclear submarines as we have, they do not need technical assistance as they are fully conversant with what it takes to dispose of ships.

Anyone who can put together and operate nuclear submarines with titanium hulls and liquid metal reactors certainly can take them apart. The problem is one of resources and commitment, public confidence, and developing the governmental process and structure to deal with the waste issues.

There are only two parts of the problem the U .S. can really help with: assisting in the technical elements of waste disposal and providing U.S. tax dollars. EPA and NRC could possibly help with the former; the U.S. Navy cannot. For the latter, Russian submarine disposal is not an effort we should ask U.S. citizens to pay for. The Russians continue to build modern nuclear subma-rines and have made clear they will design and build even newer classes, and this despite severe economic problems elsewhere. Just as we have done, they should divert some of these resources to deal with their inactive ships. U.S. tax dollars should not subsidize building a modern Russian submarine fleet.

That leads into a report on the U.S. submarine industrial base where, once again, the issue is not driven by today’s force level but driven by the need to stay in business. Most simply put, this means establishing a low rate of submarine production. Much progress has been made over the last year and resolution is in sight. This issue continues to be studied to death but fortunately concurrent action has been underway with key suppliers to downsize, combine and, in some cases, leave the business.

Today we have a decidedly smaller nuclear supplier base than existed three years ago. These actions I believe are a model for other defense sections that continue to resist the inevitable; hoping for, who knows what.

For the submarine industrial base future, a consensus is emerging. At the risk of prejudging the conclusion, I see the consensus including one more SEAWOLF and the authorization of a new attack submarine in 1998, built initially at one per year. The new attack submarine is key as it represents a stable program around which to rally the industry.

The plan includes inactivating some of the early LOS ANGEL-ES class rather than refueling when due. About one per year will be refueled to maintain a minimum JCS established force level in the face of the large number of end of life inactivations two decades from now. While the current aim point is an ultimate force level in the 50s, the most cost effective long term program as partially reflected in the five year defense plan is unchanged even for force levels down to the 40s.

Am I concerned with these attack submarine force levels? The answer is no. If there is a perception that there are too many submarines today, then it is far better to prematurely inactivate some units to bring force levels down while establishing a low new construction rate. The alternative is to place the industrial base in what, I believe, is a fatal shutdown position.

Additionally, these force levels must be viewed in the context of the size of the rest of the Navy. If you do the math for a 100 attack submarine force in a 600 ship Navy, or a 50 attack submarine force in a 340 ship Navy, you will see what I mean. When you include 18 TRIDENT submarines, the percentage looks even better. Or you can go all the way back to the numbers when some of you in the audience came into this business. I don’t know what the size of the Navy was when I came into the submarine force but I do remember there were only three nuclear submarines in commission.

Let me talk a bit about the new attack submarine development. I, of course, refer to the technical development, not the insatiable acquisition system paper chase which borders at times on the surreal. Naval Reactors has developed over 25 nuclear propulsion plants. We started development of this propulsion plant concept over three years ago and have been hard at work ever since. The philosophy that has guided this development has been to draw upon the accumulated four plus decades of naval reactors technolo-gy to simplify the propulsion plant while maintaining the quieting levels validated, and paid for, with SEAWOLF R&D. It makes little sense to build a noisy submarine. DB’s are expensive to earn but return virtually no value if not used and turned in.

The goal is reduced acquisition and life cycle costs. Every-thing has been questioned, examined, and reexamined. We have, I believe, been successful to date. I emphasize to date. Compared to both the SEA WOLF and the LOS ANGELES propulsion plants, the new attack submarine propulsion plant will have considerably fewer major components and one-half the volume of engine room piping systems subject to submergence pressure. While we are reducing costs by literally reducing components; we, of course, have been conscious of the need to have a safe, reliable propulsion plant. This is not a stripped down model. This plant could power a submarine of LOS ANGELES class size at essentially tactically equivalent speeds.

Some of the more noteworthy features include what we expect to be a life of the ship reactor core, 30 years-no refueling; a new concept steam generator-significantly reduced servicing; and a new ship service electrical system concept with features that replace machinery with solid state devices. Much testing and many difficult technical decisions remain. I conclude this brief propulsion plant description with a quote from the renowned physicist, Richard Feynman: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

Work is underway to define the front end of the new attack submarine using a similar approach. While it appropriately lags the propulsion plant effort, there is no technical reason to delay a 1998 authorization.

The bulk of our work at Naval Reactors is in support of the fleet. We are responsible for SO percent more reactors than there are commercial reactors in this country. We are in the middle of the largest reactor servicing workload in our history and, while we have been inactivating and dismantling submarines for a decade, we are about to embark on a program which dwarfs previous efforts. By the end of this decade, we will have inactivated over 125 naval nuclear power plants.

While most of our resources are in support of the fleet, we do have some development effort beyond the new attack submarine propulsion plant. We are exploring advanced technologies which could potentially provide a better submarine by employing energy conversion concepts producing electricity directly from heat.

This program. assuming it is successful, and that is not a given, would provide a concept for the start of a submarine propulsion plant development program no sooner than several decades from today. While the funding is modest, in many key technologies we are leading the effort, certainly in this country if not the world. Our goal is not to allow anyone to get there ahead of us, assuming there is a there, there!

A few words about people before I conclude. They are at the heart of this demanding program, and this is a period of significant personnel stress as the Navy gets smaller rapidly. This downsiz-ing is particularly difficult for this program which is small and has so much quality in the base. I believe the troika of Admirals Chiles, McKinney, and Ryan are working this hard for the Submarine Force, so I will just mention a few points . Joint Duty-1 can’t say it better than did Jerry Holland in his recent prize winning article in the Naval Institute Proceeslina:s-so I won’t. Women on submarines-not supported by most because of severe privacy and medical issues. This issue won’t and shouldn’t go anywhere as the Navy works hard to fully integrate women into more appropriate sea-going jobs.

In my interviews and discussions with officers and enlisted, the single most pervasive reason they want to be in our line of work is their knowledge that it is demanding and they want to be challenged. No matter what happens to force levels and personnel drawdowns, we must never lose sight of what calls forth the best people and gets the best from them. You have been there, you know what it demands. Make sure they hear from you.

Thank you.

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League