Where We Are and Where We Are Going
The new and uncertain security environment of the United States, and indeed the world, that has followed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Soviet Union, demands that we more frequently review where we are and where we are going with the nation’s military strategy. A key element of this current and future strategy is of course the role of the Navy’s Submarine Force. In this article, I hope to articulate the Navy’s position as it has developed following such reviews. I believe it is important that those who faithfully support the Naval Submarine League have full access to the logic that has produced the Navy’s current position.
Why Are Submarines Important?
First of all, the United States is an island nation. As such, our country will continue to need a strong Navy to maintain the national security we enjoy. The Submarine Force will likely be an even more important part of this strong Navy team in this new era-an era that increasingly calls for us to be forward deployed, ready for combat, and defending our interests abroad on a daily basis.
Throughout the Cold War, the SSN’s primary mission was to hold at risk the Soviet submarine force. The operative word here is primary, because SSN’s have always been superb multi-purpose warships that require minimal defensive systems, can operate unsupported for extended periods of time in areas without air superiority, are impervious to ballistic and cruise missiles threats, can plant mines or locate and avoid minefields, can dominate undersea and surface adversaries, and can conduct land attack with both precision munitions and/or special operations and Marine reconnaissance forces.
Since the Cold War ended, the priorities for SSN employment have been revisited. These inherently versatile warships are being asked to fulfill more of the roles that kept them busy as far back as World War n, and some new roles that have grown out of this 15 new multi-polar world. A partial listing of current and future missions includes: Carrier Battle Group support, Amphibious Ready Group support, Marine Expeditionary Forces support, strike warfare, surveillance, anti-submarine and anti-ship warfare, special operations/reconnaissance forces support, mine and countermine warfare, indications and warning, combat search and rescue, and forward presence. Whether independently or in consort with other forces, the SSN can provide the Joint Task Force Commander maximum flexibility in accomplishing assigned missions. It is also important to understand that these are not missions that we just talk about. Submarines are forward deployed, around the world, involved in many of these missions as this article is being written.
For example, SSN’s remain on station, unknown to adversaries for extended periods, monitoring activity and providing real time information. Armed with this information, the United States can respond diplomatically in a timely manner to prevent conflict, while the SSN continues to measure the results of these actions. If diplomacy or deterrence fails, the SSN is positioned to respond militarily. Our attack submarines represent a capability against which there is very little defense.
I must emphasize that the heritage of the Submarine Force is one of versatility and readiness. Whether in war, crisis response or peace, submarines have consistently supported American foreign policy by providing the nation’s leaders with a non-provocative, yet eminently lethal warfighting and peacekeeping force. There is no reason to believe this requirement will change in the foreseeable future. Therefore, maintaining and protecting the technological edge of our Submarine Force is of vital national interest.
So as I look at what submarines are doing today and what we will be faced with tomorrow, I see three primary operational challenges: to preserve tactical superiority over Russia’s increasingly advanced nuclear submarine force, to minimize the regional instability caused by the proliferation of advanced diesel submarines and to modernize all our SSN’s to support the newly emphasized mission areas. I will address each of these briefly.
While the surface fleet of the former Soviet Union has rapidly deteriorated, this has not been the case with Russia’s submarine 16 force. Their research, development and construction programs remain aggressive. They have placed a national priority on submarines, and have succeeded in putting nuclear attack submarines to sea which are quieter and harder to find. Without implying sinister intent or purpose on their part, we, as a maritime nation must remain committed to not ceding undersea superiority to them or any other power.
The threat is not limited to Russian or nuclear submarines though. Of particular concern to our Navy is the increased proliferation of advanced diesel submarines. Today for example, there are 57 diesel submarines under construction. A majority of these will be exported. Several third world countries, most notably Iran, have made significant strides in submarine operation-al proficiency in recent years. This experience, coupled with these technologically advanced weapon systems and platforms, poses a significant threat to military and commercial shipping operating in the confined littoral regions and ocean choke-points of the world.
In addition to these specific threats, our Submarine Force must be ready to support all of the other missions which comprise our “Forward… from the Sea” strategy. We need to optimize the versatility of our ships for regional warfare, while still retaining deep water capabilities.
The evolution of these challenges naturally demands that the Navy reevaluate the capacity of its Submarine Force. The Improved 688 class submarines are capable of satisfying all the mission requirements today, but they were not optimized for regional conflict and are being challenged from a quietness standpoint in deep water. The threat was considerably different when they were designed. The first 688 class SSN was commissioned in 1976. The U.S. build 62 of these ships at a high rate over a 20 year period, and in the year 2000, they will make up a almost the entire attack Submarine Force. With the new century, these ships will begin to reach end-of-life at a rate of two to four per year. So there is a requirement for improved performance and an eventual replacement. The Seawolf and the New Attack Submarine classes provide that improvement and respond to the challenges.
The Navy has therefore committed itself to a recapitalization methodology, while downsizing to a much smaller force. The key to the success of this recapitalization plan was the decommissioning of all 637s and some of our older 688s in order to support this new generation of SSN’s. By the year 2000, the downsizing will be complete and we should be well on our way to stable low rate production of the New Attack Submarine in order to maintain our force at the prescribed level and preserve the ability to meet the nation’s needs well into the future.
The path to the accomplishment of this plan, and thus the appropriate response to the challenges that I have described, is not as easy as the simple statement suggests. Force level reduction and transitioning from the high rate of submarine production characteristic of the decades of the ’70s and ’80s to the low rate production goal for the New Attack Submarine brings us to our current situation of a seven year gap in submarine authorization and the need for SSN 23. To properly represent the concerns and intentions of the Submarine Force, the history must be understood and the case must be made for the third and final SEA WOLF platform.
The lead ship of the Seawolf class, SSN 21 was authorized in October 1988. By early 1990, the Seawolf program was envisioned as a 29 ship class, to be built at a rate of three ships per year, and industry was gearing up to produce the components necessary to meet this requirement. By the spring of 1990, the Warship Review Study cut the class in half. In October 1990 the second ship of the class was authorized and in October 1991, the third ship was authorized. Then in January 1992, the Seawolf program was terminated after SSN 21. By May 1992, SSN 22 was restored by Congress and in late 1992 and early 1993, Congress, in response to the Submarine Industrial Base Studies, authorized funds to sustain the industrial base. One of the challenges in the coming months is to achieve the authorization of SSN 23 in fiscal year 1996.
There are three compelling reasons for completing SSN 23. First, it is the right military decision. The Seawolf class submarine not only addresses all current warfighting needs, but introduces capabilities and technologies that are lacking in today’s forces and needed for the future. With its superior speed and payload, the Seawolf is ideally suited to deliver a rapid and decisive military response in the open ocean or littoral. The acoustic quieting achieved in this ship will preserve U.S. dominance of the undersea battlespace that has been increasingly challenged by the advanced, high quality submarines already being built by the former Soviet Union. The Russians today have six nuclear submarines at sea with quieting on par with our 6881 class submarines, with an additional five under construction. Acknowledging this threat, the Joint Staff has called for 10-12 submarines of Seawolf level quieting by 2012. We need SSN 23 to help achieve that goal. In addition to acoustic quieting, Seawolf provides a reduced magnetic signature, making it less susceptible to mines and shallow water detection, improved electronic surveillance capabilities and the next generation sonar suite; all of which contribute to the missions assigned today and expected tomorrow. Seawolf can do every mission better than 6881
Building the third Seawolf also represents a responsible fiscal decision. Prior to terminating the Seawolf class and during the subsequent period of program restructuring, approximately $380 million of Seawolf class components were purchased. Additionally, $540 million directed by Congress for SSN 23 or some other project to preserve the industrial base has been responsibly directed toward the acquisition of SSN 23 components. As a result of this prudent allocation of resources, the remaining cost to build SSN 23 is about $1.5 billion. This is comparable to the cost of building a new 6881, and we get a far superior ship for our money.
SSN 23 construction not only makes sense from a military utility and cost standpoint but has also been proven through repeated studies to be the most cost effective method for retaining the skills required to build quality submarines. Among the alternatives considered, SSN 23 has been identified as the only feasible bridge to the 1998 start of the New Attack Submarine. The submarine industrial base is comprised of three major skill and labor elements: those involved with designing and building submarines, the non-nuclear submarine unique vendors and the nuclear vendors. While New Attack Submarine development/advanced procurement will support critical design and nuclear vendor skills, the SSN 23 is the only project available between now and 1998 that preserves the production skills of the shipbuilder and non-nuclear submarine-unique vendors. All other options considered include too much risk in maintaining or rebuilding these unique skills and facilities. The production activity over the next decade has been stretched to the breaking point. Any further disruption or alteration of the planned build profile could irreparably jeopardize industry’s ability to deliver needed submarines in the future.
In summary, the decision to build SSN 23 is prudent because it provides unequaled military capability through its superior stealth, speed and payload; it takes advantage of funds already appropriated procuring the ship at a costs comparable with an Improved 688 class; and it preserves the nation’s ability to build high tech submarines-providing stability during industry restructuring and transition to stable low rate production.
How Many Submarines?
Anticipating authorization of the third Seawolf and transition to stable low rate production of the New Attack Submarine, a natural follow-up question is often, “How many submarines will be enough?” Once again, the simplicity of this question does not capture the full scope of the issue. As I have already stated, submarines contribute far more to national security than just ASW. Thus, it is not enough to simply count the number of submarines in any given opponent’s inventory and multiply by some weighing factor to decide submarine force size.
During the Cold War the opponent was well known, submarine requirements easily defined, and their contribution well document-ed. The end of the Cold War, with its subsequent reduction in global tension, has not produced a concomitant decrease in submarine utility. In this period of reduced potential for major global conflict, we have seen a dramatic rise in tension and conflicts that respect no boundaries. This proliferation of hot spots has increased the number of locations demanding SSN unique capabilities. Increasingly, the SSN is the lone U.S. representative monitoring the activities in regions of potential conflict.
In view of these developments, both the Joint Staff and the Secretary of Defense commissioned task forces to study the question of “How many submarines?” While the total number and the range of the two studies vary, both studies overlap at the number 55, with a high of 67. Actual deployment data during the last year would indicate that unless the requirements change-and I do not expect they will-the number to fulfill all missions currently assigned is close to 66.
However, the fact is, that calculating the long term number of submarines is the wrong thing to concern ourselves with at this time in history. When we deal with numbers of submarines, there are two more important issues that we should pursue on a timely basis. First, we must get the New Attack Submarine into predictable and committed low rate production as soon as possible, so we can reduce the cost to a level that we can afford to build multiple ships per year in the long term. Second, we should strive to meet the Joint Staff requirement of 10-12 Seawolf-like stealth submarines operational by 2012. In order to do this, we need the third Seawolf (SSN 23) authorized in 1996, start building the New Attack Submarine in 1998, and then produce these ships at the planned rate.
New Attack Submarine-The Right Ship
The New Attack Submarine is the right submarine for the future, a fact which has been reinforced by multiple studies. Historically, warfare challenges acted as the only innovation catalyst for weapon system design. Today, other factors have become equally predominant in driving new designs. In the case of the New Attack Submarine, three innovation drivers were at play. First, it was clear that this submarine would need to be more affordable-and the mandate for affordability promoted innovative thought in requirements setting, design, construction, and other technology applications. We have considered both initial construction cost and life cycle cost as a primary innovation driver. Using this approach, and by judiciously reducing the high end speed and the weapon capacity, we have produced a design that will cost about 30 percent less than a Seawolf, yet still deliver needed warfighting capability.
As we look at affordability for the future-or life cycle costs-there is increased importance placed on building a flexible platform-one that could easily change with future technology. This is the second basic tenet of the new design. The New Attack Submarine takes the technological advances of the Seawolf and applies them over the spectrum of warfare requirements, yielding a submarine which is not only matched to the missions we expect, but equipped with the flexibility and adaptability for missions not yet thought of. Bold measures are being designed in to achieve this flexibility-such as a reconfigurable torpedo room, modular isolated deck structure, an open architecture combat system and the use of commercial off-the-shelf technology. The New Attack Submarine is also being designed to be able to take advantage of new commercial technologies as they evolve.
The last innovation driver takes us back to the original impetus for new weapon systems-military requirements. The face of submarine warfare has changed since the Cold War and for the first time, we can optimize the versatility of a ship for regional warfare-while still retaining deep water capabilities. The New Attack Submarine is being specifically designed for the types of threats we anticipate and are currently experiencing in the littoral regions of the world. For example, the New Attack Submarine will be able to lock out nine Special Forces personnel at a time, and will carry the new swimmer delivery system. It will also be much quieter, both acoustically and electromagnetically, which is extremely important when dealing with the advanced diesel submarines and sophisticated mines that are rapidly proliferating to these potentially volatile areas. The New Attack Submarine’s sensor systems will be substantially improved, and it will be able to incorporate state-of-the-art technology into its onboard systems. The designers have also restored the vertical launch system, giving it increased strike capability over the Seawolf class.
Simply put, the New Attack Submarine will be: more capable by retaining all key warfighting characteristics and being optimized for regional warfare; more flexible for future adaptation by responding to changing technology, threat and missions; and more affordable by prudently relaxing top end performance characteristics and using design innovations to reduce production and life cycle costs. The New Attack Submarine is the best balance between cost and capability and unquestionably the right side for the future.
As I see it, the SSN is destined to remain a vital part of our national defense in the foreseeable future. Our challenge is bow best to invest today’s scarce resources to meet tomorrow’s threat. The Navy’s program for funding the third Seawolf in 1996 and starting production of the New Attack Submarine in 1998, with an aggressive program to right-size the current SSN force, best satisfies the competing requirements of this challenge. This program will get us to stable low rate production of a submarine that is exactly the kind of affordable, multi-purpose warfigbting platform the United States will need well into the next century.