Ernest Blazar is a Senior Fellow at Lexington Institute, a public-policy, a non-profit think tank in Arlington, VA.
The end of the Cold War was supposed to usher in a period of strategic pause. That assumption lay behind the reason for the significant cuts in the U.S. military force structure since 1989. Without a rival superpower, the U.S. military could handle two nearly simultaneous, regional wars and could easily meet normal peacetime requirements, the thinking went in the early 1990s.
Fast forward nearly a decade in an examination of one part of the U.S. military.
The Los Angeles class attack submarine, USS BOISE, was yanked out of a U.S. Atlantic Command-sponsored joint exercise with the British and Norwegians in 1998 and sent to the Mediterranean to cover for a possible Tomahawk missile strike, a tasking sent out by the U.S. European Command.
Later, USS PITTSBURGH was pulled from “Battle Griffin” a major NATO exercise in the North Atlantic to respond to an urgent need for submarine coverage in the U.S. Central Command.
So busy is the Submarine Force-58 strong as of this writing, but headed for 50 incoming years-that it is able to provide only the bare minimum submarine support for the Joint Interagency Task Force’s anti-drug campaign despite the fact that submarines have been rated as the most effective platform for the detection of go-fast drug-running boats.
Nor is the Submarine Force able to provide the four attack subs that the U.S. European Command says it continuously requires in the Mediterranean. Nor can it supply that command with a year-round availability of a submarine with a dry-deck shelter for special operations missions.
Strategic missile submarines, the boomers, have been pressed into service as opposition forces during ASW training, something they have rarely done before, all in an effort to provide some relief to overworked attack submarines.
These are all examples of how optimistic assumptions about the post-Cold War period have run false and what effect it is having on at least one community within the U.S. military. And it raises the issue of whether the cuts in the submarine force structure, predicated on those false assumptions, should be revisited.
During the late 1980s, the size of the U.S. attack Submarine Force peaked at 98 boats. By 1997, the fleet had shrunk below 72 hulls, the minimum number able to meet all the operational needs of the regional CINCs. At that time, the 72 strong force was able to support a constant, oversee deployed presence of about 16 boats.
Today’s fleet of 58 attack submarines can support about 12 forward deployed. When the Submarine Force reaches 50 in coming years, only about 10 of those boats will be forward deployed at any one time.
“While each of your individual submarines with its highly capable crew can be a marvel of technology, at some point quantity becomes its own quality,” Vice Admiral Ed Giambastiani advised Congress on April 13. He is the Commander of U.S. Submarine Forces in the Atlantic. He warned that even though the Submarine Force has already begun to intentionally leave missions unfulfilled because of too few submarines, the situation will only grow worse as the fleet levels off near 50 boats. “We must take actions now to stabilize t.a’te Force so that we’ll go no lower than 50 in the long-term term,” said Giambastiani.
And that presents a very steep challenge.
The chief reason for this is the navy’s own plan for buying new submarines to replace older ones that will be decommissioned in the coming years. Simply put, the Administration and Congress have yet to provide sufficient funds for the navy to replace its older submarines at a pace that will keep the Force from dropping below 50 submarines.
Present plans call for the Navy to buy one Virginia class submarine each year. At that rate, the Submarine Force will stay at 50 boats until 2013, but will drop below 50 boats in the years after. That is because, at that time, the Navy will be decommissioning improved Los Angeles class boats at the steeper rate of nearly two per year, a reflection of their healthy building rate in the 1980s.
If not corrected, a one-per-year submarine production rate would result in a Submarine Force that drops below 50 boats by 2013 and reaches a low of about 30 boats by 2030.
Navy Secretary Richard Danzig confirmed to Congress on March 3, 1999, that the Administration’s current plan is to build one Virginia class boat per year. However, he cautioned that “over the longer term we need to get to higher build rates”. He made clear to Senators that he is “not a fan of declining fleet size. More is better. More ships give us more versatility … ”
Increasing the build rate to one-and-a-half Virginia class submarines still won’t prevent the Submarine Force from dropping below 50. That build rate would see the Force drop below 50 by 2015 and would result in a long-term Submarine Force no larger than about 38 vessels.
Compounding this future problem is the slow pace of submarine construction in recent and coming years. For the period 1990-2005, only 10 attack submarines were procured or planned for addition to the fleet. There was the last Los Angeles class in fiscal 1990, the second and third of the Seawolf-class purchased in fiscal 1991 and 1996, respectively, and the first seven Virginia class boats, one in each year fiscal 1998, 1999, and 2001-2005.
Had the building rate during this period instead been based on the need to maintain a 50 boat fleet, 23-27 attack submarines should have been procured during this period, according to an analysis done by Ron O’Rourke, a naval specialist at the Congressional Research Service, an arm of Congress.
“Between now and about 2015, this 13-17 boat backlog in SSN procurement will be masked by the large number of (Los Angeles class) SSNs procured during the 1980s. After about 2015, however, SSNs procured during the 1980s will reach retirement age and begin to leave service, and the fiscal 1990-2005 deficit in SSN procurement, if not then redressed, will begin to be un-masked.”
By about 2025, O’Rourke testified to Congress, most of the Los Angeles class boats will have been decommissioned, leaving the Submarine Force to drop below 50 vessels for at least a decade.
A key function that helps determine how long Los Angeles class submarines can remain in the fleet is the duration of their nuclear reactor. Just recently, the Naval Reactors office completed a study that found that many Los Angeles class boats can extend their service lives for several years. This will depend upon careful management of their nuclear fuel, but wiH not impinge upon the submarine’s operational effectiveness.
In particular, Naval Reactors found that nine early models of the Los Angeles class, those without vertical launch tubes, can extend their service lives. Three will decommission after 31 years of service and the remaining six will go after 33 years.
As for the later model Los Angeles class boats, 21 can remain in the fleet for 33 years of service, two can be stretched until 32 years of service is reached. And another can extend its service life to 31 years.
Together, these changes will slow the removal of Los Angeles class boats from the Submarine Force, talcing some of the pressure off the build rates needed for the Virginia class. Had all the Los Angeles class boats decommissioned after 30 years of service, the Navy would have had to build three Virginia class boats almost every year from 2008-2026. At $1.S billion each, a three-a-year submarine building plan would have been difficult to fit inside the Navy shipbuilding account.
Indeed, Rear Admiral Malcolm Fages, Director of Submarine Warfare, told Congress on April 13, “I am concerned with the affordability of an acquisition profile that included the need to purchase up to three Virginia class submarines in multiple years starting in the fiscal year 2008.” This new plan, he said, “will save a significant among of money in future shipbuilding budgets, while ensuring that we can maintain at least a SO submarine force.”
But with the service life extension on the Los Angeles class boats, the Navy is now looking at buying one Virginia class boat in 2004, 2005, and 2007-2011. After that, the build rate must increase to two per year through 2032 in order to sustain a 50 submarine fleet.
However, even with that build rate and the extended lives of the Los Angeles class boats, there remains a period from about 2026-2032 in which the Force drops to about 45 submarines before recovering. Pages highlighted the urgency of addressing this problem before Congress. “I would tell you that the greatest challenge which we face in the Submarine Force is the challenge of maintaining overall force structure, while the number of Los Angeles class go out of service into the next century.”
He explained that a Force level of fewer than 50 submarines, say 25, would be tantamount to abandoning the nation’s current national security strategy.
“Those who argue for significantly fewer, for example, 25 … argue that, I believe, from a context of an entirely different national strategy-a strategy in which we are essentially isolationists. A fortress America strategy. A strategy in which we are not forward engaged.”
An examination of the current missions now being performed by the submarine fleet-special intelligence missions like intercepting enemy communications, anti-submarine warfare, special operations forces, countering an area denial strategy-in fact indicates that more than 50 submarines by be needed.
Indeed, the last time the regional CINCs were queried for their thoughts on Submarine force levels, it was determined that 72 attack submarines are what is required. Another such study is ongoing today, being conducted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It is looking at the national need for submarines in the 2015-2025 period. Early indications point to a similar conclusion.
These studies bolster the statements made by Rear Admiral Lowell Jacoby, Director of Naval Intelligence, when he told Congress that he would prefer there be a larger number of attack submarines.
“It would probably be in the range of 65 to 75,” he told Congress on April 13. He·said the ongoing JCS study has found that the regional CINCs want twice the number of mission days provided by submarines last year. 11 Now an element of that JCS study is affordability and the degree to which that will play in the ultimate outcome of the study I can’t predict at this time. But the requirements as seen by the warfighting CINCs are for numbers that are significantly higher than 50″.
While the final number is yet to be determined, it is clear that the assumptions about the post-Cold War, that led to a planned 50 strong Submarine Force, were flawed. The implication of this can be seen in the heavy tasking that submarines receive today from a variety of overseas theaters and in the number of submarines missions that must go unfilled.
Evidence indicates that it is going to be difficult enough to sustain a 50 strong Force. Increasing the Force beyond 50 boats, if called for, will require the annual construction of at least three Virginia class submarines in coming years, a sizable proposition in today’s fiscal environment.
The need for a more healthy Submarine Force clearly exists. What remains to be seen is Washington’s ability to respond appropriately.