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[Ed. Note: Rachel A. McMillan previously worked for the House Anned Services Committee and the Honorable Floyd Spence of South Carolina, now the Ranking Republican on the House Anned Services Committee. She is currently enrolled in Georgetown University’s National Security Studies program. This paper was submitted in fulfillment of requirements in The National Security Decision Making Course taught by Adjunct Professor Arnold Punaro.]


Nuclear attack submarines (SSNs), once the knights on an international chess board, face a danger more real than the Soviet Union. The Soviet threat drove the U.S. to continually move forward in submarine technology and capability. In the post-Cold War world or period, some believe the threat facing U.S. forces is limited to regional conflict. Missions not formerly required for attack submarines fighting the Soviets are demanded in a regional theater of operations. The present number of SSNs in the U.S. fleet is more than the country needs to meet these new threats. Compound this situation with the reality that the Navy’s budget is underfunded by close to $20 billion, and the prospects for acquiring new attack submarines is not readily apparent.

Complicating the situation for all new weapons systems are the reality and pressure of a shift in national priorities. With the election of President Bill Clinton, the national agenda and resources have shifted to domestic, non-defense concerns. Additionally, because of the significant force buildup in the 1980s, the defense industrial base is over capitalized, resulting in more capacity than needed today.

The New Attack Submarine (NAS), also called the NSSN, is the next generation weapon system that will be designed to meet the requirements of regional conflict. The NAS is intended to be a low cost, flexible platform needed for the emerging U.S. military strategy. The affordability of the NSSN, a primary requirement of the boat, poses a significant challenge to the designers to include the desired capability. However, if the NAS program does not start as scheduled (fiscal year 1998), the country’s long term ability to design and build submarines will be adversely impacted and perhaps irretrievable. That is, the country will not maintain the capability to meet force level requirements in the next century.

National security decision makers must consider the cost, the new threat environment including a lingering Russian navy, and other factors before approving or disapproving the NAS . There is a great deal of risk in either option. The major issues that should be considered are:

  • Is there an enduring role for attack submarines in the New World Order? Will the NAS meet military strategy require-ments as defined in the Bottom -Up- Review  and “…From the Sea.” ?
  • Can the U.S. afford continued development and later acquisition of the program? Can it afford not to?
  • What are the long term capitalization needs for the Navy to have the ability to build and design nuclear submarines in the future?
  • What is the best option for the design and construction industrial base to preserve the capability to build nuclear submarines? Is the NAS enough?

Military Requirements

The new strategic environment, illustrated by conflicts such as Operations Just Cause and Desert Storm, demonstrated that future U.S. war fighting would be conducted in non traditional locales, against non traditional actors, and forces would be employed in non traditional roles such as peace enforcement. The international community and economic factors play a larger role in determining which forces to use and under what circumstances forces may be deployed.

Laying the groundwork for small, but technologically sound naval forces, is the Navy’s new maritime doctrine “…. From the Sea”,. Attack submarines are key components, second to the aircraft carrier battle group, in fulfilling the Navy’s operational capabilities requirements. These requirements will enable the Navy to execute its new direction and encompass command, control and surveillance, battlespace dominance, power projection, and force sustainment. The security environment is no longer the open ocean, but the littoral, presenting many different challenges to maritime forces. Submarines, and in particular the NAS, are seen to be central to meeting many of these challenges. “… From the Sea” defines the difficulty distinctly:

“…The littoral region is frequently characterized by con-fined and congested water and air space occupied by friends, adversaries and neutrals-making identification profoundly difficult. This environment poses varying technical and tactical challenges to Naval Forces … For example, an adversary’s submarines operating in shallow waters pose a particular challenge …Some littoral threats …tax the capabilities of our current systems and force structure. Mastery of the littoral should not be presumed. It does not derive directly from command of the high seas. It is an objective that requires our focused skills and resources… ”

The Clinton Administration’s Bottom-Up-Review (BUR) defines the threats facing the SSN force as military and economic. Seemingly based on “…From the Sea”, the missions identified by the BUR for SSNs are:

“…regional sea denial, task force support, precision strike, forward presence, surveillance, and special operations. Whether serving as key elements of joint task forces or naval battle groups, or deployed as independent units, attack submarines play an important role in U.S. defense operations … ”

The BURwent on to state “[t]here is little reason [for the U.S.] to continue procuring an extremely costly submarine optimized to fight a foe that to a substantial degree no longer exists …The SEAWOLF, like existing U.S. attack submarines, was not optimized for regional conflict… A submarine designed specifically for regional conflicts would be more effective in those situations than the SEAWOLF design or existing U.S. attack submarines.”

At the close of the Cold War, the U.S. Navy possessed nearly 90 SSNs in its fleet. Force level requirements were determined by the BUR to be 45-55 submarines. Options enabling industrial base considerations were examined before this number was reached.

The options took into account the “requirements of regional conflicts and presence operations, manpower and training needs, the present capabilities of U.S. attack submarines against foreign submarines, overhaul and refueling schedules, force age, and the attack submarine retirement profile”. The BUR concluded that fewer than 45 attack submarines would not meet war fighting or peacetime requirements. Additionally, approximately 1.5 submarines must be built per year to maintain the new force level.

Stealthiness will be the NAS’s most effective capability. By combining stealth with endurance, the NAS will be able to execute a wide array of missions of which only the submarine is capable. Covert surveilJance and intelligence gathering can only be accomplished if the subject being watched is unaware of this activity. The stealthy SSN can detect activities such as the development of advanced weapon platfonns or potential hostile action by a foreign actor. Precision strike, such as the Tomahawk cruise missile launches in Operation Desert Storm, is a powerful tool in regional conflict. The target may be hundreds of miles inland and not detect the weapon until it is flight or upon impact. The origin of the launch is extremely difficult to locate. Other covert tasks such as, special forces operations, mine countermea sures, targeting and launching unmanned, undersea vehicles, make the NAS more capable of entering hostile waters.

The most compelling example of the SSN’s effectiveness in regional conflict was the sinking of the Argentine cruiser ARA BELGRANO. This sinking led to the subsequent withdrawal of the Argentine fleet during the early stages of the Falklands conflict. The British SSN’s mobility, stealth and endurance were proven assets. Submarine stealth and endurance provided the British Navy the invaluable battle group support, early strike warning, surveillance, and special forces insertion needed to win the war.

Affordability-Can the U.S. Afford NAS?

The Navy’s Shipbuilding and Conversion (SCN) account is underfunded in fiscal year 1994 dollars by $2 billion.’ The Navy’s Recapitalization plan requires 1.5 new attack submarines to be built per year at a rate of $2.2 billion each. In what was an extremely difficult process for the Navy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the NAS was maintained during the building of the Navy’s Recapitalization plan. In recent testimony to Congress, Vice Admiral Lopez, the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Resources, Warfare Requirements and Assessments, expressed the Navy’s commitment to this program and explained how the Navy plans to protect the shipbuilding account:

…To meet this challenge, we will have to continue reducing our infrastructure and thinking of new ways of providing Naval expeditionary capabilities at lower costs …

It is worth noting that the situation we face is more difficult than the last time the Navy faced a significant decline in its resources. During this period Navy funding declined 26 percent in real terms. Despite this decline, the SCN account, for example, averaged 11.5 percent of Navy funding over the period. Additionally, funds in the account averaged $9.4 B[illion] per year (in FY 94 CBS) over the final five years (FY 71-75) of the spending decline. By contrast, for FY 95-99 the comparable figure for SCN is $6.4 B{illion] (9.6 percent of Navy funding) and the average amount we will require to sustain the FY 99 fleet is about $8.4 B[illion], assuming unit costs similar to those contained in the FYDP [Future Years Defense Plan] years …

In 1991, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition Don Yockey, defined the primary requirement for the NAS as afford-ability. In FY 1995, President Clinton is requesting $507.3 millions in research and development (R&D) for the NAS program in the U.S . Navy’s budget. Since FY 1991, $480.5 million have been authorized and appropriated by Congress for NAS R&D, bringing the total close to $1 billion. The question quickly arises, should significant sums of money be spent on that program in an extremely constrained budget?

The DAB reviewed the NAS in 1992 and granted approval for the program to proceed with Milestone 0, permitting the Navy to begin exploring conceptual design alternatives. Deputy Secretary of Defense John Deutch instructed the Navy to conduct a Cost and Operational Effectiveness Analysis (COEA) with the guidance, “that the Navy should consider a broad range of submarine alternatives, avoid arbitrary restrictions in design characteristics, and incorporate emerging technology where appropriate” . Six alternatives were considered, ranging from additional SEA WOLF procurement to non-nuclear attack submarine alternatives.

Forwarded to Congress in late September 1993, the COEA concluded, according to Senator Alfonse D’Amato (R-NY), “the 6881 Upgrade … can carry out the missions, but it is more vulnerable than other … alternatives. The acceptable level of vulnerability is a matter of judgment”. The BUR iterated that two of the most important considerations to be considered for determining fleet size are affordability and maintenance of the industrial base. These requirements cannot be met with additional procurement of 6881 SSNs. Simply buying more 6881 submarines will not preserve the design and technology base essential for future capability requirements.

The Milestone I review of the NAS took place in January 1994. Approval for Milestone I did not occur, but then-Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition Deutch ordered that additional cost and program analysis be undertaken in order to assemble “the strongest possible rationale for proposed modernization programs if we [Department of Defense] are to be successful in explaining major new expenditures to the public and the Congress” . Nora Slatkin, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition, was tasked with leading a technical review team to examine the NAS design ability to “perform its military missions” and, also to provide Secretary Deutch with an “independent check” to better equip DoD in support of the NAS through the Congres-sional budget process. The technical team review and all the information requested have been completed and it strongly endorses NSSN continued development and essential deployment.

Industrial Base

The nuclear shipbuilding industrial base is divided into three communities: ship construction shipyards, nuclear-certified naval shipyards (NSYs) and the nuclear propulsion plant and other component manufacturers. These either integrate or are supported by design laboratories. The construction of nuclear submarines is now largely supported by single suppliers. In the case of the construction shipyards, the decision was made to maintain two nuclear capable shipyards, “thereby mitigating the risk to the industrial base”. This section will not fully examine the NSYs since they are subject to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission in 1995 and how to reallocate their worldoad is too uncertain at this time.

Keeping two shipyards alive, Newport News Shipbuilding in Norfolk, Virginia and Electric Boat at Groton, Connecticut, costs more than consolidating all nuclear shipbuilding at one. The DoD examined the cost of a smart shutdown at NNS, and building a third SEAWOLF attack submarine and later the NAS at EB . The BUR recommended the latter option because it was “judged to be the better industrial practice and had the added benefit of providing the nation with a third state-of-the-art SEAWOLF attack submarine at a cost of only $1.2 billion more than the first option, which provided no third SEAWOLF.

Nevertheless, the shipbuilding industrial base may not be able to survive even with the SEAWOLF, one NAS per year and a nuclear aircraft carrier (CVN) every four years.

Looking at the backlog for the shipyards painfully illustrates this reality. In 1992, EB revealed in testimony before Congress that there were six SSN 688 Class ships, six Tridents, and one SSN 21 in its backlog. An additional SSN 21 was awarded to EB in the FY 1993 budget after Congress overturned President Bush’s rescission request for the second SEA WOLF. All of the 688s will be delivered by 1995, the SSN 21 and Tridents’ delivery will be 1997. The NAS would not begin until 1998, if the DAB approves Milestone I. Even with the SSN 22, this is not sufficient to maintain the unique facilities at Groton. EB has already reduced employment significantly at its Quonset Point shipyard. At its peak in 1989, Quonset Point employed 4,500 people; today employment is under 3,000. The gap between SSN 22 procure-ment and the NAS will cause EB to let go many more workers unless the third SEAWOLF is procured.

NNS is in a similarly difficult situation. In 1988, NNS employed 31,000 people. In April 1994, NNS announced it would be laying off 7,000 additional people from its submarine manufac-turing facility by 1995. This will bring the total to 15,000, less than half its 1988 size. NNS will deliver the last 688 and one aircraft carrier, the STENNIS, in 1995. The UNITED STATES (CVN 75), to be delivered in 1998, is the final carrier in the current backlog. If approved by Congress in the FY 1995 budget cycle, CVN 76 will be the remaining nuclear shipbuilding program for the yard. The massive overhead of these facilities will translate into the cost of the carrier with no additional work. Once the employment level drops below 15,000, it is questionable whether the yard can be kept open at all. Only with submarine dismantling, refueling overhauls, sealift vessel construction and commercial shipbuilding would NNS remain a viable shipyard. However, the Administration has not advocated a shipbuilding construction subsidy to enhance U.S. shipyard competitiveness for commercial work internationally.

The propulsion plant component production facilities are equally unique and practically irreplaceable. The fuel fabrication facility must undergo a time consuming, arduous process to remain a viable supplier. Licensing and an on-sight auditor from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are required by the Atomic Energy Act of 1950, as amended. Safeguarding and security for this facility include the cost of physical security, i.e., specialized fencing, metal and materials detectors, other equipment, and security personnel . The size of the security force at the fuel core fabrication site is greater than the police force for Lynchburg, Virginia, the nearest city. Compound these prerequisites for doing business with other factors such as the numerous Navy inspec-tions, environmental impact statements, security clearances and training for personnel, and the cost and time to establish the workforce and production capability are significant. The work-force must remain qualified and the product, of course, the actual fuel core, must meet the Navy’s standards for safety and excel-lence, arguably the highest.

If the industrial base were slowed, shutdown smartly, or shutdown altogether and later reconstituted, the effect would be devastating. As one recent study on the nuclear submarine industrial base found:

” .. .In theory, the submarine industrial base can be reconsti-tuted, although not necessarily in its current form … Recon-stituting a base that disappeared several years earlier could require as much as a decade and several billion dollars. It is not clear that the nation would be able to generate and maintain the political support necessary for such an under-taking … ”

Critical vendors who operate under the same rigid, quality-intensive stipulations as the major manufacturers find their survival at risk. Indeed, many have gone out of business or the work has been consolidated with one vendor due to excess of capacity. For most of these businesses, there is no commercial alternative. As Admiral DeMars stated in his 1992 Naval Nuclear Industrial Base Report:

“… For most suppliers, the Navy nuclear work load represents 70 percent to 100 percent of their business. Even with the CVN 76 components in FY 93, work loads will drop by over 50 percent in the next few years and suppliers will be operating significantly below capacity. These suppliers, for the most part, have few alternatives as their ability to compete for commercial business is limited due to the cost of the technical controls and practices established to meet naval nuclear quality requirements … ”

The unique technological superiority of these component manufacturers and designers has resulted in the Navy designating them critical to maintain. The skills of the personnel involved go beyond the actual engineering and related training received. A significant amount of black an enhances the products’ quality and the progress of the program. These skills are not only worth retaining but insuring a future for them. With such a drastic decline in nuclear naval procurement, and a practically nonexistent commercial nuclear field, the future for maintaining the nation’s nuclear expertise is bleak. Inspiring talented, new individuals to enter a program with slow growth and little to no challenge will affect the quality of the program. The combined team of the Navy, industry and government laboratories has produced propulsion plants that now last the life of the hull. This is possible because, the “day-to-day problems of designing nuclear propulsion plant equipment often stimulate the best ideas for the next design”. Make-work cannot sustain this type of person and capability. “To be effective, all involved must know they are contributing to an important product and the fruits of their effort will be tested and used.”

If the force level of 45-50 SSNs is to be maintained, the first replacement sub will be required by 2012. If submarine construction were to cease now and new production is required in 15 years, three or more submarines must be built per year simply to maintain the force level. This schedule is entirely unlikely if the industrial base must be reconstituted. If low rate production continues, the industrial base and the capabilities that have provided the safest, most technologically superior platforms in the world will be preserved. Implementing low rate production will ensure that replacement boats arrive in the fleet meeting the force level requirements.

Options for the Future

The need to procure the NAS, or NSSN, is evident. The threat environment existing today includes enduring missions from the Cold War period, such as anti-submarine warfare, including a shallow water, anti-diesel submarine, a littoral-oriented threat, as well as the modern and capable Russian open ocean threat. Maintaining a force level of 45-55 submarines as dictated by the national military strategy, demands the nuclear shipbuilding program continues. While the deactivation rate of SSNs could be slowed to maintain that level, the ability to build and design future submarines ready for future threats will be jeopardized.

Comparing the two options; low rate production or a disman-tling of the industrial base to be started again at some future point in time, the costs to the country becomes obvious.

The thousands of suppliers and decades of expertise in manufacturing processes, engineering, and other skills unique to submarine construction face extinction. A few billion dollars spent today to avoid expenditures equivalent or larger in the future is a wise investment. It is dubious that reconstituting the nuclear shipbuilding industrial base could occur in less than a 10 year period and at less than several billion dollars in current year dollars. This newly reconstituted industrial base would not regain the level of quality in design and manufacturing present today for perhaps longer than a decade. The legacy of the high standards and quality to which the industrial base has been held, is demon-strated by the recently celebrated one hundred millionth nautical mile sailed by the U.S. Navy without a single human reactor-related injury. Low rate production is the preferable option to reconstitution for sustaining the capability to build and design SSNs, and to save taxpayer dollars.

Without the capability to design and build submarines, this country’s ability to protect against aggression, deter and defend its interests around the world would be irreparably damaged. Valuable resources and sunk costs would be wasted as would the benefit of the experience of the manufacturing base. The country sits on a debt of enormous proportion. Therefore, making the investment today wisely, will insure that the technology’s design team and skilled craftsmen will be there for the submarine construction program in the future. Once the DAB makes its final review and the NAS’s costs are contained, the NAS program should go full speed ahead.

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