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Will They Be Relevant?


America’s Forward … from the Sea Navy is a mission based, littoral force. Many contend that the limited shallow water capabilities of the nuclear attack submarine (SSN) make it a prohibitively costly, and seemingly unnecessary, member of this force. However, what the SSN’s detractors don’t foresee is that in the near future the nuclear submarine will be the principal counter to several unique national security threats.

The U.S. SSN Today

With a hostile nation afoot, rationalization of military programs is easy-if they’ve got one, we need a better one! So it was for U.S. SSNs in the Cold War. The Soviet Union, committed to the possession of a powerful submarine force, posed a clear threat to the United States. Consequently, the issue for the U.S. was never whether submarines were necessary. Rather, the question was simply how many submarines were needed and how expensive would they be. Today, this rudimentary basis for SSN force structure is obsolete. Responding to cries for a peace dividend after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the Navy announced in Forward … from the Sea: ” … the most important role of naval forces .. .is to be engaged in forward areas, with the objective of preventing conflicts and controlling crises.

Overnight, America’s Navy became a critical component in the national security strategy of engagement and enlargement. Swiftly, yet subtlety, threat became ancillary. Forward … from the sea proclaimed littoral operations as preeminent and aircraft carrier battle groups (CVBGs) as centerpieces. The traditional mission of SSNs anti-submarine warfare (ASW)-was conspicuously absent. Although SSNs were considered integral elements of CVBGs, their role had unquestionably shifted to that of secondary, supportive warships. Furthermore, the utility of SSNs to a CVBG remained a contentious issue. Thus, given the high cost of procuring and maintaining nuclear submarines, national leadership began asking questions. Are SSNs relevant to the national security strategy? Does the United States need SSNs7 Many said no. Indeed, America’s newest SSN, SEAWOLF, was pronounced a Cold War relic. Even the SSN’s staunchest supporters agreed that lacking a well defined mission, the Submarine Force’s future prospects appeared bleak.

Still, the international environment rarely remains static. Russia sustains, and China is currently developing, naval weaponry that seriously threatens United States security. Much of this hardware can only be challenged by SSNs. If global developments maintain their present course, the popular tide will again shift for America’s submarines. They will not only be relevant to the nation’s defense, they will be vital.

U.S. SSNs end the Future Russia

When the Soviet Union collapsed, its Navy suddenly faced numerous problems. Of the massive surface fleet which once sailed the globe, only a handful of ships could be kept operational. Naval bases from Murmansk to Vladivostok were full of decrepit hulks seeping toxins into coastal waters. Cases of political infighting, including removal of a submarine base’s electrical power, were widespread. Readiness and morale within the Russian Navy was at the lowest level in a generation.To the casual observer, it appeared that the Russian Navy no longer had the capability to threaten American forces. Additionally, any hostile intent seemed to have abated. In 1994 Russia declared its strategic weapons were no longer aimed at American targets and its Pacific fleet wouldn’t deploy. 4 Apparently, the Russian bear had been de-clawed.

Despite Russia’s public posture shifts and material problems, America would be wise not to jump to conclusions. Russians, proud of their global leadership, are keenly aware of the attribute from which they draw their power. Landmass and population might seem logical candidates, but the plight of Brazil (landmass) and India (population) demonstrates that these elements do not ensure status as an impact player. In reality, Russia is a major world actor for one reason-its nuclear arsenal. Recognizing this, the Russian General Staff continues to funnel precious resources into residual [strategic] deterrence. American friendship notwithstanding, Russian authorities are committed to strategic parity with the United States.

With START treaties forcing an increased reliance on the seaborne component of its nuclear triad, Russia’s Navy has become the principal benefactor of its nation’s determined strategic policies.While other military programs languish, illustrations of a lively nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) program abound. A new SSBN class is under development and should begin delivery at the tum of the century. A Typhoon class SSBN, severely damaged by fire and thought to be a candidate for scrapping, was repaired and remains operational. And, the super quiet SEVERODVINSK SSN, a key to Russia’s layered bastion SSBN defense scheme, will soon be launched.

Will the United States need SSNs to counterbalance Russia’s vibrant but seemingly benevolent SSBN program? Absolutely! Russian SSBNs are still on patrol and many old strategic facts of life remain germane. In fact, military planners should recall why SSNs were used during the Cold War to hunt missile submarines. Soviet SSBNs usually operated in contiguous waters. The probability of maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) or surface antisubmarine warfare (ASW) assets surviving, let alone succeeding, close to the Soviet Union was considered small. Besides, if the SSBN proceeded under ice it was invuinerable to MP A and surface vessels. The diesel-electric submarine (SS), a potentially cheap alternative to the SSN, was susceptible to counter-detection during battery recharging and lacked the endurance for lengthy ASW prosecution. The stealthy SSN, an excellent ASW platform with unlimited stamina, was the obvious choice.

With the oceans of the world remaining wonderful cloaks for strategic forces, none of the tactical reasons America chose SSNs to stalk Soviet SSBNs have changed. Still, many feel U.S. submarines aren’t needed to check friendly Russian forces. After all, America doesn’t keep tabs on British or French SSBNs. Nevertheless, it is a real possibility in a nation as hungry and unstable as Russia that a hostile opportunist could rise to power. Although capabilities can take decades to develop (and Russia’s SSBN capability is currently powerful), intentions can change overnight. In fact, recent events indicate that Russia’s intentions may not match popular Western perceptions.

Though promising to remain in home waters, Russian submarine operations remain aggressive. Oscar class guided missile submarines (SSGNs) recently sortied to the central Pacific and Atlantic Oceans to simulate attacks on deploying U.S. CVBGs. Cruise missile capable Akula class SSNs also operated near Trident submarine bases in 1994 and 1995.1 As if forward submarine operations were not enough to indicate that the Russian Navy was not as benign as had been thought, in 1995 a Typhoon launched an SS-N-20 exercise ballistic missile from the North Pole. In performing what was ….. theoretically impossible according to the logic of recent years”, 9 Russian leadership boasted, “Whatever people say, the Russian Navy and its nuclear forces are not dead … “.A Russian newspaper provided the civilian perspective that ” … [the Navy] is alive and battleworthy” . The polar launch of a ballistic missile illustrates a capability which only nuclear submarines can counter. Were SSNs removed from the American arsenal, Russia would be granted de facto under-ice sanctuaries for its submarines. Ironically, the United States has firmly declined repeated Russian requests for this type of “ASWfree zone” during past arms control negotiations.

Even if the Russian government remains friendly, other developments ensure the necessity of an American SSN fleet. By most accounts Russian armed forces are “riddled with criminal groups … who hire out their services as hitmen.” The prospect of a rogue submarine under Russian mafiya control, unthinkable in the days of stringent Soviet security, is now a possibility that cannot be ignored. 13 Given the level of disorder and unrest throughout Russia; mafiya influence, power, and corruption will not abate anytime soon. Already hampered by severe cutbacks in other ASW programs, a U.S. Navy without SSNs would be hard pressed to respond to the threat posed by a nuclear capable Russian submarine operating under control of an illegal, non-government entity.

In 1962 the Soviet Union decided to challenge the Monroe Doctrine by sending nuclear missiles to Cuba. When Kennedy responded with a naval blockade, Khrushchev realized he had no proportionate response. Indeed, with nothing mightier than World War II era cruisers in his Navy, the Soviet Secretary General could not oppose the powerful U.S. fleet.” Khrushchev learned too late that in order to secure world-wide interests in the 20th century a nation needs a blue-water navy. The U.S. Seventh Fleet recently taught the People’s Republic of China (PRC) the same lesson.

Chinese leadership, hoping tough talk and aggressive nationalism would buoy the communist government’s prestige, attempted to influence the March 1996 Taiwanese elections.Employing a typical post-Mao strategy of military intimidation coupled with diplomacy, China blatantly sought to sway votes from President Lee Teng-hui with live-fire war games.Enter the United States. Proclaiming Chinese missile launches .. an act of coercion”, America dispatched two CVBGs to the area.Taiwan, anxious but not pressured, conducted its election under the protection of the Seventh fleet. Badly outgunned, the Chinese completed their exercises and withdrew to pre-crisis status. Furious with American gunboat diplomacy, Chinese authorities angrily denounced U.S. actions as “ridiculous .. .interference” in internal matters.Nonetheless, Jacking a blue-water navy they had no choice but to swallow the bitter pill of foreign intervention. Their bluff had been called.

The Taiwanese election was the latest regional dispute in which lack of force projection seriously limited Chinese alternatives. A long standing problem, inability of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to satisfactorily leverage events has been an achilles heel for the PRC. Yet, as early as 1975 Deng Xiaoping recognized the need for an up-to-date Navy to preclude superpower interference in Chinese foreign affairs. Unfortunately for Deng, the government lacked the means to procure such a fleet.In fact, under Deng’s sweeping reforms of the early 1980s, defense received the lowest priority for state allocations (after agriculture, industry, and science and technology).However, the PLAN’s fortunes are starting to shift. Experts point to several years of explosive economic growth to support predictions that the PRC will possess the world’s second largest economy by the year 2010.23 Though this estimate may be optimistic, China is clearly beginning to enjoy the wherewithal to support a substantial military-industrial complex. Nevertheless, PRC coffers will never be infinite. The Chinese, with ports and airfields full of outdated hardware, are going to have to carefully select between competing requirements. Which programs will be top priorities? Indication: point to the PLAN’s submarine force. Consider China’s recent decisions.

Years before the 1996 Taiwan crisis, China was determined modernizer its sub-surface fleet. The 1994 purchase of four Russian Kilo submarines was the first increment in a program aimed at acquiring up to of these modern boats. The new Song class, an indigenously produced SS, is expected to incorporate a significant amount of Kilo technology and utilize improvements provided by Israeli submarine experts The Chinese nuclear submarine program is also being upgraded. The PLAN’s five Han class SSNs have been fitted with sophisticated French sonar systems and may be armed with wake homing torpedoes acquired as part of the Kilo contract.Development of follows to the Han class SSNs and Xia class SSBNs is well underway.And, recent agreements between Russian President Yeltsin and Chinese President Zemin indicate that Russia may be ready to use the Taiwan crisis as an excuse to provide China with sophisticated nuclear technology or one of its premier boats. Troubled by possible U.S. expansion of NATO, Yeltsin agreed with Zemin that Taiwan is an internal Chinese affair and Washington has been guilty of “hegemonic”.Moreover, Russia has set a precedent by renting nuclear submarines to India.Were the PLAN to have access to Russian submarine secrets, the jump in Chinese underseas capability could be swift.

The pre-1996 upgrade of the PRC’s navy and submarine force was driven by many factors. First, there were a series of unresolved regional disputes. Paracel, Spratley, and Senkaku Island sovereignty debates were ongoing.30 Second, there was the question of reunification with Taiwan. With Lee Tenghui in office, this issue simply wasn’t going to evaporate. Finally, naval procurement by China’s neighbors was accelerating. In 1994 eight Asian nations adjacent to the PRC accounted for almost one half of the world’s orders for new naval vessels. With submarines representing a substantial portion of these purchases, underseas warfare improvements were imperative. 31 Yet, despite all the reasons the PRC had to improve its submarine force, the 1996 Taiwan crisis will probably be regarded in the future as a turning point.

Though the Chinese have long known that they don’t possess the wherewithal to challenge America’s SSNs, the United States emphasized the point during the Taiwan affair. For the first time during a regional contingency, America announced that SSNs would be on patrol.Already pursuing vigorous submarine acquisition, the PLAN was provided with clear justification for its aggressive programs. Thus, just as the Soviets pursued a dramatic buildup of their surface fleet in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, an embarrassed PRC will undoubtedly redouble its quest for top notch submarines.Although the PRC’s submarine force may not be the world’s best today, American actions ensure that it will try to be in the future.

If the day arrives that PRC submarines are on a par with front line Russian SSNs, America had better ensure it still owns a dominant SSN fleet. With substantial percentages of world trade traversing sealanes adjacent to the PRC, it will remain vital that the United States be able to project power and influence in the western Pacific.To quote Singapore’s leader Lee:

Asia needs the American security umbrella for protection against China and to guarantee the stability in which economies thrive.

With highly capable PRC submarines roaming the seas, U.S. combat or presence missions in the Pacific rim could be in grave danger without SSN protection. Threatened by an array of nearby air and sea assets, task force units would have little time to conduct demanding ASW searches. Should PRC SSNs begin striking allied shipping, a Task Force Commander’s options would be minimal. Just as Argentinean task forces lacking credible ASW capability were forced into port after a British SSN sank the GENERAL BELGRANO, the U.S. might be forced to withdraw. Having learned its lesson in the Taiwan Straits in 1996, having closely observed declines in U.S. ASW funding and expertise, having watched America terminate its costly SSN program, the PRC would have taught the imperialist foreigners a lesson in power projection.

Other Possibilities

Many believe Russia’s economy simply can’t sustain a modem military infrastructure and that the collapse of the Russian submarine force is only a matter of time. Yet, such a disintegration would not match the Russian track record. After World War II the Soviet Union was devastated. With no great need for oceanic power and no tradition of naval success, the U .S.S.R. expended the extraordinary national treasure necessary to build the world’s largest submarine fleet.Similarly, despite a shrinking economy Russia continues to build and operate submarines that rival the world’s best.Social upheaval and political unrest notwithstanding, history is clear on one point-Russia will always pursue a formidable submarine force.

Two arguments have become popular among those who contend China and its submarines will never constitute a threat to the United States. First, there is the theory that China will become an adversary only if America treats her like one. Proponents of this position argue that America’s engagement strategy will lead to adequate Sion-U.S. relations.Unfortunately, this premise ignores current realities. Anti-foreign nationalism has replaced ideology as the foundation of communist power. Calls for “the sacred mission of reunification [with Taiwan]” ” and for “living space [in the Spratleys]”‘ indicate that resolution of international disputes involving China will be neither swift nor peaceful. Furthermore, after U.S. intervention in the Taiwan Straits, many in China’s leadership view America as an enemy.Given the animosity in the relationship between the two nations, it seems overly optimistic to assume engagement will be singularly successful.

The second commonly held position is that the PLAN will never achieve its submarine modernization goals. The point is made that China’s defense budget in 1995 fell to only 1.5 percent of Gross National Product (GNP) and that the PLAN remains a largely antiquated force. Why should things improve in the future? To begin with, China disguises much of its military funding. Arms sales and monies hidden in other portions of the state budget are not reported as military spending but significantly contribute to PLAN outlays. In reality, although reported defense spending has consistently dropped as a portion of GNP, real military funding grew 40 percent since 1988.” With respect to outmoded equipment, China has demonstrated an ability to develop and employ sophisticated technology when there has been a national will to do so. China’s indigenous production of a hydrogen bomb only two years after exploding a crude atomic device is ample evidence of its technical potential.


Will SSNs be relevant to America’s defense in the years to come? Put simply, they will be vital. Russia, friendly or not, will continue to operate an impressive SSBN fleet. Without SSNs, America would cede invulnerable patrol areas to Russian submarines capable of inflicting massive damage on the territory of the United States. With a nation whose populace is rife with organized crime and as susceptible as any to a dictatorial coup, this is a risk the United States must not take. China, home to a dangerous mix of nationalism, militarism, territorial disputes, and hatred of foreign intervention, is committed to the acquisition of modem submarines. Explosive economic growth and foreign technological assistance all but assures that China will have the wherewithal to achieve its goals. As a result, America must have SSNs to ensure the safety and effectiveness of future naval operations along the Pacific rim.

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