Today’s U.S. nuclear submarine force is the result of tremendous national investment and effort. Together with the industrial base that supports it, the nuclear submarine force is an American crown jewel, as necessary to our security and superpower status as our arsenal of nuclear weapons. The recent Submarine Service fact book America’s Nuclear Powered Submarines called the modem nuclear-powered submarine “the only naval platform that combines stealth, endurance, and agility in a single vehicle”. 1 Despite the fact that the nuclear-powered submarine force is the most efficient, effective, and stealthy tool of American maritime combat power, a large portion of this precious national resource is being discarded through accelerated decommissionings to save the costs of refueling overhauls. The first LOS ANGELES class submarines to be scrapped are only 15 years old and are very capable, modem platforms with updated weapons and sonar systems. In view of the uncertainty of future geostrategic order, the budgetary requirements which cause this reduction in force structure seem extreme.
The Strategic Perspective: The National Military Strategy claims to be a strategy of deterrence.2 “Regional threats of consequence to U.S. vital interests” are the strategy’s focus. 3 Forward presence is called the “key to averting crises and preventing war. “4 As stated in The National Military Strategy, forward presence forces are “principally maritime;”‘ they are the “glue that helps hold alliances together, builds cooperative institutions, and helps regional countries work together, including some with historical antagonisms. ”
However, despite the National Military Strategy’s deterrence claim, evolving national security strategy puts the emphasis on contingency response. In other words, it is a strategy of readi-ness, not deterrence. Forward presence of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps makes up for the fact that land based combat forces of the Army and Air Force will be more and more based in the continental United States rather than overseas. In a crisis, our land-based Army and Air Force must be able to surge rapidly from the United States to regional troublespots. To transport and sustain these forces requires fast sealift, prepositioning and airlift. The success of this surge strategy presupposes command of the seas. It also depends on the peacetime, global deployment of American naval forces, Navy and Marine Corps, as “the leading edge of our crisis response capability. “7 These forward presence forces enable early and rapid entry of additional American combat forces when required in a crisis or major regional contingency.
Nuclear propulsion plays a major part in forward presence. Self-sustained, limited only by the amount of food carried onboard, nuclear ships can operate anywhere in the world’s seas for extended periods. Their endurance and self-sustainability are legendary from the NAUTILUS’ first Arctic patrol from Hawaii to Iceland, to the GEORGE WASHINGTON’s first strategic deterrence patrol, to the undersea circumnavigation by TRITON. The presence of these magnificent undersea warships around the globe has given the United States true command of the seas, breaking once and for all the Mahanian limitations of the U.S. Navy on protecting sea lines of communication.
On the ocean’s surface, a warship’s projection of credible presence is limited by the range of her weapons and the speed of the vessel. However, nuclear undersea warships begin to spread their presence globally from the moment they submerge. The circle of uncertainty over the location of a nuclear submarine grows daily from the point of submergence and increases the uncertainty that opponents must face.
The Falklands Example. In the Falklands War, the British Navy, using three nuclear submarines, imposed a 200 mile maritime exclusion zone around the Falkland Islands only ten days after the 2 April 1982 invasion.” For the first several days, the British submarines may not even have been in the exclusion zone they were imposing. In total, the British Navy employed five nuclear submarines and one diesel electric submarine during the Falklands War.
Throughout the Falklands War, because the locations of British nuclear undersea warships remained unknown, they were able to project power and influence in a much larger area than could have surface combatants. The HMS SPARTAN, the first British nuclear submarine deployed to the Falklands on 29 March 1982, spent 150 days at sea. Such endurance and stealth confronted the Argentine planners with a circle of uncertainty that included the entire globe. However, on 2 May 1982 the sinking of the Argentine cruiser ARA GENERAL BELGRANO by the British nuclear submarine HMS CONQUEROR drove home the certainty that British nuclear undersea warships effectively controlled the seas off Argentina. For the rest of the war, Argentina restricted her surface combatants to operations in territorial waters.
In sharp contrast to the effectiveness of British nuclear submarines, the Argentine submarines in the Falklands were a failure. The British naval task force responded to numerous submarine contacts by taking ASW actions, but none of the suspected Argentine submarine contacts were ever really con-firmed. The one Argentine submarine that actually operated in the vicinity of the task force, the German-built SAN LUIS, never got off a successful shot due to grotesque material deficiencies. 10 So despite British reactions to faJse contacts and the continuous psychological pressure of the suspected but unproven presence of Argentine submarines, the Argentine submarine presence was not credible. And without the credibility of a successful attack by an Argentine submarine, the effect on the British task force was minimal.
Limitations of Peacetime Presence. In peacetime, the credibility of submarine presence is even harder to effect, since the sinking of the targeted country’s vessels is not allowed. A United States surface combatant or amphibious landing ship with embarked Marines just outside territorial waters is a much more effective and continuous reminder of American presence. A submerged warship does not have this same continuous presence. However, an-nounced ASW exercises being conducted with surface combatants would multiply the uncertainty for the targeted country many-fold. Regular port visits by nuclear submarines to nearby friendly countries would also have an affect on potential adversaries. Flares launched from a submarine in the vicinity of the targeted countries’ naval craft or other vessels going into the targeted countries’ ports may also have a significant effect, although they would tend to give up the stealth advantage of the submarine. To retain stealth, a submarine could launch time delayed slot buoys that would broadcast detectable and detestable messages to the targeted country. However, in the peacetime presence mission, the continuous, long-term coercive effect of visible presence is much more effectively achieved by a patrolling surfaced warship than by a submarine in the peacetime presence mission.
As mentioned above, port visits by American nuclear subma-rines hosted by friendly countries can demonstrate a regional presence to targeted countries. These visits also represent a more positive type of presence, i.e. naval diplomacy with the hosting country. Contrary to continuous targeted presence, the nuclear submarine is well suited to naval diplomacy. Nuclear submarines are identified by most countries as capital ships, the result of a national program and commitment. Foreign navies look forward to exercising and operating with modern, capable American nuclear submarines. Their small, elite crews and thoroughly professional officers also mean minimal local impact, few liberty problems, and they are a pleasure to host.
However, nuclear submarines do have drawbacks in naval diplomacy that conventional surface combatants don’t. Restrictions regarding the reactor complicate port visits by nuclear submarines. For example, when the USS WILL ROGERS (SSBN659) visited Rotterdam in the spring of 1991, only a handful of Hollanders really knew it was there. It berthed at a commercial dock without public access, unlike normal visiting warships that can tie-up next to a public park. In addition, the U.S. Navy restricts non-American citizens from touring nuclear submarines without very high level approval.
The politics of greenism are another significant challenge to the effectiveness of naval diplomacy with nuclear submarines. In the above example of the USS WILL ROGERS, there was a major demonstration by green activists at a local commercial nuclear power plant the very week that the submarine visited Rotterdam. Surely the activists would loved to have known that an even better target of their anti-nuclear venom was available! The most significant example of the politics of greenism is, of course, the prohibition of nuclear warship visits in New Zealand, a restriction that broke up the ANZUS alliance. That restriction is stilJ in effect even now that all tactical nuclear weapons have been removed from those ships.
Warfighting Requirements. Like it or not, the reality is that nuclear submarines currently suffer handicaps as a peacetime force. As a warfighting force though, these handicaps are distinct advantages. The nuclear power plants, political handicaps in peacetime greenism politics, allow long, self-sustaining war patrols and indefinite periods of submergence. While surface search radars and anti-ship cruise missiles can keep surface combatants far off-shore, submarines with their stealth can operate inshore for intelligence, warning, surveillance, early strike and special operations. As in the case of the Falklands War, they can severely restrict enemy fleet operations once their striking power is demonstrated by sinking enemy ships. Since the Falklands, the nuclear attack submarine has also acquired the role of a joint strike platform with precisely targeted, long range cruise missiles.
The nuclear attack submarine also remains the premiere anti-submarine warfare platform. Despite the increasingly quiet Russian nuclear submarines, and the silence of Third World diesel submarines operating on the battery, American nuclear submarines remain effective ASW platforms, especially with the advent of new communications and data links, in addition to onboard processor and sonar advances. It is quite likely that in future conflict, the enduring role of submarines in both sea-denial and covert opera-tions will continue in addition to new roles in joint strike and task force operations.
How Many SSNs? A central question for the immediate future is how many nuclear attack submarines are needed in the U.S. Navy. Interestingly, recent papers out of the submarine branch of the Navy staff have tended to emphasize the submarine’s role in peacetime engagement and regional deterrence but have minimized the important role of the submarine in major regional conflict. 11 Such is the importance attached to portraying the nuclear attack submarine as part of the peacetime presence Navy, that the attachment of submarines to carrier battlegroups has become a central part of any submarine force brief given to key decision makers.
With the Cold War over, the nuclear attack submarine is being touted for its regional crisis response capability and peacetime presence. Unfortunately, these arguments tend to tie the number of submarines to the number of other naval platforms. For instance, in the current Defense Department Bottom-Up Review, the Navy stance has been that daily peacetime presence and crisis response requires 12 aircraft carriers, which would also be enough for warfighting. 12 Given two submarines per carrier battle group, then algebraic logic would lead to a submarine force of only 24 nuclear attack submarines. This small submarine force would hardly be effective for a single major regional conflict. So, while peacetime presence and crisis response may be effective arguments for visible forces, particularly with the high daily visibility of these forces in the Persian Gulf, the Adriatic Sea, and in humanitarian operations, the role of submarines in these type of operations is invisible, not apparent to force structure decision makers, and consequently a poor argument for determining the size of the nuclear attack submarine force.
The number of submarines needed for major regional conflicts, however, is another matter. While the number of aircraft carriers required for peacetime presence and crisis response is more than adequate to satisfy the requirements of a major regional contingen-cy, the number of nuclear attack submarines required is much higher. In many major regional contingencies, airpower demands can and should be met by land-based air, and when sea-based air is required, it is hard to imagine employing all the carriers at once. However, even when carriers aren’t required, the demands of the theater for maritime control of the battlespace will still put an emphasis on the endurance, agility and stealth of nuclear attack submarines. The joint task force requirements for sea denial, including anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, joint strike, and covert operations will be much higher for many major regional conflicts than for the crises of the Persian Gulf, Somalia or the Balkans.
The renewed Russian naval building program and China’s naval buying spree should give pause to those planners who call for further reductions in submarine force levels. Because of the uncertainty of the intentions of our recent Cold War competitors, Dr. William Kaufman of The Brookings Institution excepted attack submarines from general post-cold War naval force reductions. In The Brookings Institution’s most recent annual assessment of the defense budget, Kaufman called for an increase of the level of attack submarines over the base force level to 84.13 However, current Navy plans call for accelerated decommissionings of LOS ANGELES class nuclear attack submarines below the base force level in order to save the costs of mid-life refueling overhauls. Such a strategy could reduce the attack submarine force to as low as 40 ships by the end of the decade.
Alternatives . Fortunately, the Secretary of Defense’s Bottom-Up Review did not take the role of submarines in peacetime presence to be tied as closely to carrier levels and called for a sustainable, warfighting force of 55 attack submarines. 1” The challenge is to get to that number intelligently. There are no 21st century submarines in the fleet today, so the nation and the Navy must make do for now with a larger force of 20th century nuclear submarines. Since the challenges that 21st century submarines must face are just now beginning to be known, it would be wrong to drop down in numbers rapidly, before the first SEAWOLF joins the fleet and before the CENTURION is even off the drawing board. The submarine fleet must not go down so rapidly that a challenger takes advantage of the interim submarine development period to challenge America’s command of the seas and the Navy’s ability to dominate the littoral battlespace.
The rapid reduction strategy, while increasing the risks to maritime battlespace dominance, has the perceived advantage of helping to justify the building of new SEAWOLF and CENTURI-ON submarines. Without a doubt, building new nuclear attack submarines is the best way to preserve the nuclear submarine industrial base. 1‘ However, despite that justification, it is bard to rationalize the scrapping ofgOod, modem LOS ANGELES class submarines in mid-life for a one year savings of approximately $200 million for each one scrapped. Surely, these capable ships can be laid up for less than the $5 to $7 million annual costs of operating each one, with enough fuel remaining to be valuable in the first year or two of a major regional or global conflict.
When the 21st century SEAWOLF and CENTURION subma-rines begin entering service, the laid up, surplus 20th century submarines can be scrapped. Meanwhile, though the missions for the naval service continue to increase, particularly in littoral areas, the bottom-up review calls for a much smaller force of surface combatants. Consequently, though submarines are not ideal for many missions that the surface Navy has in peacetime, the submarine service must learn to do them.
Already, submarines have proved valuable in international counterdrug efforts. 16 Counterdrugs is just one of many missions that, when the Soviet threat demanded that American submarines make ASW an exclusive priority, the submarine service just could not take on. Another potentially new mission for submarines, with ASW a lessened priority for now, is sanctions enforcement, including surveillance and boarding operations. Only I in 50 embargo challenges actually results in a boarding. Just as from a surface ship, a rubber dinghy can transfer the boarding party from a submarine when it is necessary to surface and board. 17 Imagine the merchant that is interrogated by a submerged warship! The extra psychological factor might even reduce the number of embargo breakers.
lllegal immigration is another area where submarines can be extremely valuable. The recent grounding of a shipload of illegal Chinese immigrants highlighted the wave of maritime human smuggling that is washing on to American shores.” From China alone~ the U.S. Coast Guard has detained more than 1600 illegal immigrants so far this year, and if drug seizures are any exam-ple, 111 more than twenty times that number may have successfully entered by maritime smuggling. Ships of illegals are extremely difficult to detect for several reasons: they often have the tacit approval of the originating country’s government officials; they avoid normal shipping routes; they can transfer their cargo between feeder boats and mother ships without having to enter port; and when they suspect surveillance, they hide their illegal cargo belowdecks. However, a submarine can survey suspected smugglers without their knowledge, and can even electronically monitor the coastal areas of countries where the activity is suspected to originate.
Besides the above novel missions, submarines and submariners should get better at traditional naval presence. Regulations and restrictions designed for the Cold War must be reviewed and changed to fit new realities. Submarine commanding officers must learn how to make diplomatic port calls and be given the diplomat-ic tools and training to make each foreign visit shine. However, no matter how good the submarine service gets at peace, it must never forget that its primary justification is command of the seas in war.
Conclusion. In summary, it is better to be conservative and keep nuclear attack submarine force levels high to meet major conflicts, than to justify them for peacetime presence and crisis response and be satisfied with lower levels . Although the decline in numbers of surface combatants requires using nuclear attack submarines in new and novel ways, current restrictions on conducting port visits and the politics of greenism put nuclear submarines at a disadvan-tage compared to conventional surface combatants in many aspects of naval diplomacy. The inherent stealth and invisibility of nuclear submarines also make them poor candidates for visible, coercive peacetime presence or conventional deterrence short of hostilities. Howevert once hostilities begin, the nuclear submarine proves its presence by forceful action. It becomes a powerful platform whose invisible presence, sea-denialt and striking power dominate the maritime battlespace.