[Ed. Note: The following article is reprinted from Defense News June 28 issue.]
With the end of the Cold War and drastically decreasing Wdefense budgets, few were surprised when President George Bush canceled the SSN-21 SEAWOLF program,
whose construction costs had escalated to more than $2 billion. The real surprise was the promise to proceed with a new, less- capable, low-cost submarine code-named CENTURION. Although lower-cost alternatives are certainly possible, most observers were skeptical that the nuclear Navy trained by ADM Hyman Rickover, which always emphasized the most capable craft possible, could bring itself to build such a ship. It turns out, they probably are right.
Although it never was publicly released, in January outgoing Defense Secretary Dick Cheney sent Congress a six year Future Year Defense Program showing spending for CENTURION development at more than $3 billion followed by a new submarine costing not $2 billion, but $2.6 billion. President Bill Clinton and Defense Secretary Les Aspin have yet to issue a Future Year Defense Program, but it appears they agree.
They list CENTURION development costs of $449 million for 1994, very close to the $473 million in the Cheney budget. It’s one thing to spend $3 billion in development and then $2.6 billion for a better submarine, but quite another for a supposedly less-capable one.
There are, in fact, some options that should be explored, such as looking at truly less expensive SSN alternatives, not in the 5,000-6,000-ton range as the Navy wants, but more in the 3,000 to 4,000-ton range. Since 1970, the Navy has examined 22 alternatives that should be reviewed, although if Congress wants a true evaluation they should go to the General Accounting Office or the National Science Foundation, not the nuclear Navy.
Since those 22 options are probably out of date by now, another alternative might be a combined program with England’s Royal Navy, which needs and wants a new SSN but cannot afford development costs. The Royal Navy would make sure costs are kept low.
Another alternative simply would be to continue with the improved LOS ANGELES SSN-688-class, which still costs less than $3 billion a piece.
The real problem facing the submarine force is a Catch-22 dilemma. On the one hand, with the commissioning of the 62 LOS ANGELES-class SSNs, the Navy has submarines coming out of its ears, but there simply are not enough missions for that many submarines in this post-Cold War world .
On the other hand, most agree that stopping sub production for even a few years would devastate that important industrial base.
There is still another problem. Rumors persist that the sub force will be cut to around 50, requiring mothballing of relatively new ships. Because mothballing nuclear submarines is not easy, one solution might be a lend-lease program of some of the earlier SSN-688s to Canada, which at one time wanted an SSN. Maybe even some could be lent to the Royal Navy. This could actually turn out to be cheaper that decommissioning.
But that does not solve the Navy’s quadruple problem of retiring, building, increasing capabilities and saving the industrial base for subs all at the same time. The only solution is some kind of high-low mix of subs and for the low end that probably means the dreaded “D” word-the diesel SS.
As many on Capitol Hill now want, there should be at least some diesels built for export. However, the U.S. Navy also could buy a few for training and a diesel sub could even be placed in reserves . Stringent safety requirements probably preclude a reserve nuclear SSN, but certainly not a non-nuclear SS.
The Navy also should take a close and honest look at combined diesel-nuclear systems sometimes dubbed SSns, where the smaller nuclear plants are used to recharge the diesels. These also could be perfect solutions for strategic boats that will need replacing starting around 2010.
The Navy also should take a close look at the new air-indepen-dent (AlP) systems now appearing in some European navies. [Ed. Note: see AlP- A Historical Pers.peqive from Walter to Sterlint by Dick Bloomquist in the July Submarine Review.] AlP and the SSN solve the Navy’s main and very legitimate complaint about non-nuclear subs-that they have to snorkel to recharge, making them vulnerable.
In sum, there is a fairly long list of cheaper, affordable alternatives, and best of all they can truly save money for what the Rickover-trained Navy really wants-a better, not less capable submarine.
There should be only one alternative for the Navy-stop the charade and cancel the costly CENTURION now, or see it eventually canceled by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Office of Management and Budget or Congress. This would throw the submarine community into the same disarray as the Navy air community, which has been chasing paper program after paper program.
The costly CENTURION will be the worst of all worlds-too expensive for the low end, therefore squeezing out funds for a truly sophisticated high end, while probably only delaying an inevitable cancellation. In short, the best way to really save the Submarine Force and industrial base is to cancel CENTURION.
[James George, A Jennings Randolph Peace Fellow with the United States Institute ofPeace, is author of1he U.S. Nayy in the 1990s.· Alternatives for Action.]