With the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union, the nation declared a peace dividend for the decade of the 1990s. All of the Armed Services were reduced by about a third; investment in the procurement accounts declined even more drastically. With the end of the open ocean, blue water Soviet Navy submarine threat (the widely perceived raison d’etre of our Submarine Force), the United States Submarine Force became a bill payer of choice for strapped Navy programmers and Congressional staffers for the appropriations and authorization committees. This decision was codified in the notorious back of the envelope calculations behind the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review, which pegged Submarine Force structure at 50 SSNs. Thus, as the Submarine Force approached a century of service to the Navy and the Nation, it faced the greatest downsizing since World War II:
|Total Submarine Force Personnel||60,000||20,000|
|Ballistic Missile Submarines||42||18|
During the latter half of the 1990s, it wasn’t even clear to some observers inside or outside the Submarine Force that the 50 SSNs set down in the 1997 QDR represented a floor or a ceiling. Possibly the only reason it remained a floor in the near term was that we were decommissioning submarines about as fast as we could we just couldn’t get rid of them any faster without simply tying them up pier side, Soviet style, to await their demise in the public shipyards capable of breaking them up.
And yet, to Fleet submariners, their services seemed more ” in demand” than ever, at least when viewed in terms of sea time. As the value of submarine intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) became ever more apparent to the Unified Commanders at the front lines of an increasingly confusing, dynamic and unstable world scene, demand for their services rose beyond levels previously seen in the Cold War.
Concurrently, a “counter reformation” in thinking about submarine force structure was launched, beginning the advocacy for more, rather than fewer attack submarines.2 The double high watermark of this counter reformation was achieved in the Defense Science Board” Attack Submarine of the Future” study of 1998 and the Joint Staff Attack Submarine study of 1999. Drawing heavily on the requirements elaborated by the Unified Commanders, and in particular the ISR contributions provided by SSNs, the JCS SSN study provided a rational and analytically justifiable basis to argue up from the 1997 QDR 50 SSN force structure goal. In fact, it explicitly justified, on its own terms, a force structure of 68 to 76 SSNs and concluded that a force structure below 55 SSNs in 2015 and 62 in the 2025 timeframe would leave the Department of Defense with insufficient capability to respond to urgent crucial demands without gapping other requirements of high national interest.3 With this new thinking about submarine force structure, which explicitly recognized ISR, strike contributions and peacetime presence as the principal drivers for force structure, rather than war plan execution, the stage was set to recapture Submarine Force assets-deemed “a crown jewel in America’s arsenal” by the influential Defense Science Board.4 Inactivations were converted into refueling overhauls, ballistic missile submarines deemed surplus to strategic requirements were slated to convert to Strike/Special Operating Forces (SOF) SSGNs-or guided missile submarines, and the goal of building 2 Virginia class SSNs per year became a focus of Submarine Force programming efforts. This build rate is about what the Submarine Force needs over the long term to maintain a steady state force structure of about 60 SSNs [steady state force structure = (build rate) X (design hull life). In this case: (2 Virginia class/year) X (30 years/hull) ::;;; 60 SSN steady state force structure].
It is at this point that unpleasant fiscal realities intrude. Desir-able as more attack submarines may be to our warfighting Unified Commanders, they don’t have to deal with the challenges of resourcing them. In fact, they don’t deal in a responsible sense in resource issues at all, that being the Title X “provide, equip, train and maintain” responsibility of the Service Chiefs. The dysfunctionality of this division of labor is a topic for another time. Suffice it to say that the Unified Commanders want more of everything, now. They are never faced with the challenge of balancing one program versus another or of balancing current risks versus future risks; their timelines rarely extend beyond the fiscal year, let alone the Future Years Defense Plan. By stated Unified Commander requirements, we should have 15 carrier battle groups and 14 or 15 (depending on whether you believe the Navy or the Marine Corps analysis) Amphibious Ready Groups, as well as 68 to 76 attack submarines. Clearly, we don’t have these assets very simply because we cannot afford them. So, relying on Unified Commander requirements as a trump card in resourcing decisions is a non-starter.
Here’s where some RADCON math, applied to the Navy program, shows us the magnitude of the problem the Submarine Force faces:
- In general terms, the Navy gets about $100 billion per year in its Total Obligation Authority or TOA. While there is some prospect for this number to grow in real terms over the Future Years Defense Plan (FYDP)’, let’s assume that Navy TOA will remain constant in real terms over time.
- Of this $100 billion, about 10% ($10 billion) goes to the Ship Construction and Conversion accounts (known in programming parlance as SCN). Now the small proportion of Navy TOA that goes for this key investment is controversial (some would say shocking) in and of itself. 6 But that’s what the numbers say today. Let’s assume, for convenience of calculation, a Fleet size of 300 combatant ships, with about 50 SSNs.
- Let’s assume that the per ship cost of a new construction Virginia class submarine is about $2 billion dollars.
- Finally, let’s assume that, over the long haul, the Submarine Force proportion of SCN funding will roughly track the proportion of submarines in the combatant fleet.
Now, any of these assumptions could be challenged, but they represent a good “order of magnitude” reflection of fiscal reality, at least good enough to pass muster in a RADCON seminar.
Given these assumptions, the long-term force structure challenge facing the Submarine Force become absolutely stark:
- Right now submarines comprise about one sixth of the combat-ant fleet (50 SSNs divided by 300 total combatants).
- Based on our SCN assumptions above, over the long haul, the Submarine Force should rate one sixth of the SCN TOA = 16 percent of $10 billion = $1.6 billion per year in new construction funds.
$1.6 billion per year won’t even pay for 1 Virginia class SSN. And no CNO would dedicate 40% of his SCN account to buy 2 Virginia class SSNs per year to recapitalize 16 percent of the Fleet. These numbers are bad and no amount of quoting requirements will change them. We need a different strategy if we expect the Submarine Force to maintain itself in the Navy of tomorrow in anything like the same proportion as today.
As with many problems, solutions come in bite sizes (billion dollar bite sizes to be sure) rather than one big chunk or one silver bullet. Here are some things that need to be done:
- Grow over all Navy TOA. With a Global War on Terrorism, the identification of an axis of evil states pursuing interests inimical to our own using horrifying weapons of mass destruction and the longer term challenges posed by regional hegemons or near peer competitors, the case for this argument has never been better. The case for more resources for our Navy, the Shield of the Republic7, both in absolute terms and relative to our sister services, is an easy one to make and Navy leaders of all stripes should be making it, in every available forum, all the time.
- Grow the SCN account within the Navy’s TOA. This is a clear priority of the Secretary of the Navy and the Chief of Naval Operations. They both committed in their Congressional budget testimony this year to find more resources for shipbuilding. 8 This will require some hard decisions by Navy leaders, including Submarine Force leaders. Ruthless vertical cuts in certain programs will be needed to find the resources in the near term. In the longer term, the Navy will absolutely need to reduce personnel end-strength, which threatens to consume ever larger proportions of the Navy’s TOA. While submarines are inherently efficiently manned, we will need to do more to help keep this cost under control.
- Stop the bleeding in the Virginia program. Costs continue to rise in this program, jeopardizing the long term viability of the program. For various reasons none of them having to do with new requirements imposed by the Navy-so called prior year construction costs are presented to the Navy as additional bills for the Virginia class program (VIRGINIA is not unique in this respect-so-called prior year shipbuilding costs imposed a $700 million dollar bill on the Navy in FY 02 with another $645 million bill budgeted in FY 03).9 This simply has to stop or we will never get to 2 Virginia class per year, ever. This is a problem for the entire defense industry. While Sailors have been asked to do more with less for the last decade, the defense industry has produced less for more, at a huge expense to the Nation in direct costs per weapons system as well as in huge tax subsidies to defense companies during the downsizing of the defense industry in the 1990s. It’s time for the businessmen in the defense industry to do some of that business thing and deliver a product on time and within budget.
- Deliver JIMMY CARTER on time and on budget. If we can’t deliver SSN 23 and I Virginia class SSN from the industrial base we have now on time and on budget, no one will believe we can deliver 2 Virginia class per year. This will be our first test. We need to get it right.
- Deliver our 4 SSGNs on time and on budget. Enough said on timely delivery within a budget.
- Lobby hard to accept the proposed A12 Settlement. This unsuspected windfall promises to save substantial funds in key procurement programs for the Navy, including the Virginia class.10 It’s rare that submariners can benefit from the pro-grammatic misfortune of aviators. Let’s jump on this chance now, before funding the Flying Hour program consumes further billions in Navy TOA or before the Treasury and Justice Departments claim the windfall for their accountants and lawyers.
- Start building the argument now for 4 more SSGNs. With the recent treaty signed between the United States and Russia committing to substantial reductions in strategic nuclear weapons11, the handwriting is on the wall for a 10 boat SSBN force. This will free 4 SSBNs for conversion. The Navy should convert every one of them to SSGNs. Let’s start making the case now. With a lot of the preliminary research and design work done, those sunk costs can be amortized over 8 hulls versus 4. Furthermore, with 4 more conversions, we should be able to benefit from shipyard learning curve efficiencies on the second squadron of SSGNs. Besides affordably funding 2 Virginia class per year, this is the best chance we have over the mid term to grow the non-strategic submarine portion of the Submarine Force.
- Assign our best Sailors to the SCN Campaign. We absolutely need to succeed in this construction and conversion campaign.
Many submarine organizations will need to contribute to this success:
- NAVSEA 08
- NAVSEA’s Team Submarine acquisition community
- The local Naval Reactors Representatives
- The local Supervisors of Shipbuilding
- The Commanding Officers and Prospective Commanding Officers of both new construction submarines and submarines in conversion.
All of these entities must work together to succeed. They need the best talent available. Furthermore, we need to ensure our best leaders are rewarded for success in these jobs. Currently, there are no submarine Flag Officers who served as first tour new construction PCOs. This clearly transmits the message that these jobs aren’t as important to the Submarine Force as others. I would submit that they are now critical to the long term health of the Submarine Force, so we better detail and promote accordingly.
As in any RADCON math exercise, some of the arguments are crude and some of the figures could be sharpened up. But the general outline of the force structure challenge facing the Submarine Force is clear. Reciting a mantra of Unified Commanders’ requirements as if it were the Six Factor Formula will avail us little in programming battles where it’s all about the money. Let’s find ways to grow the available pot of money even as we impose the kind of discipline on procurement for which submariners are renowned in engineering and operations.
Beyond this, we need to build the case for submarines within the Navy. The Submarine Force captured the imagination of the Defense Science Board in its look to the attack submarine of the future. The Submarine Force presented a compelling case for the value of submarine based ISR to Unified Commanders and the Joint Staff during the CJCS Attack Submarine Study. The Submarine Force was extremely successful in selling the SSGN concept to Congress, defense think tanks and the Office of Secretary of Defense. That campaign resulted in saving the wonderful Ohio class platforms for future innovative service as SSGNs. And yet none of these efforts have gained real traction with our professional peers in the Navy. It is a common perception among OPN AV action officers that, with more Tomahawk launcher cells in the Fleet now than Tomahawk missiles in our inventory, the last thing we need is the 600 plus more empty launcher cells provided by 4 SSGNs. The SSGN is viewed as a systemic threat to the strike-fighter aviation Navy (due to its strike role) and a fiscal threat to the surface Navy (due to the portion of SCN devoted to the SSGN conversion). The fact that the SSGN unwarned strike concept of operations complements other Navy strike assets is either unknown or not believed by a Navy which views all anti-access threats as an Air Force QDR 2001 ploy. The concept of a SOF campaign from an SSGN is frankly scoffed at. And the truly transformational work that the Submarine Force is engaged in to use the SSGN as a platform for experimentation in submarine payloads is a compelling story that has yet to see the light of day. As a result, we will get 4 SSGNs because OSD will force them on the Navy-but they will come at a price for the Submarine Force, a price levied by our Navy peers who think the SSGN robs them of resources (which is untrue-the money for their conversion came from the submarine resource sponsor aided by a Navy topline plus up from an OSD leadership which believes in the project).
Similarly, many in the Navy have no appreciation for submarine ISR, because few have ever seen the results of such efforts due to security compartmentalization. Quite frankly, such widespread compartmentalization of submarine JSR results has to end soon. In a Navy premised on network-centric operations, where data from all sources is shared widely with those who need it, the kinds of intelligence compartments that grew up in the Cold War environment need radical revision. The good news here for the Submarine Force is that this is not just our problem-it applies to the entire intelligence infrastructure. Indeed, it’s a central conceptual challenge of network-centric warfare. Without submarines as the stealth arm of the Naval battle network, the Navy loses out tactically and the Nation loses out strategically. We should take the lead in fixing the compartmentalization and data latency problems and work to share the results of our ISR efforts with our service peers. The more exposure aviators and surface warriors get to the data provided by their submarine brethren, the better for the long term health of the Submarine Force. All of us in the submarine business know the value of what we do. Without the ability to share that knowledge, however, we not only raise questions about our tactical utility, we sow the seeds of our long-term decline.
Finally, as part of any campaign within our Navy, we should position the Submarine Force as the community of choice for dealing with any threat under the surface of the water, as well as for delivering the unwarned strike the Nation will need in the future, whether that results in a Tomahawk strike or a SOF campaign. We should actively campaign to take on the mine warfare mission. With a submariner in command of Mine Warfare Command, we are in a unique position to do so. Surely no one could claim that the Surface Navy has made sense of this problem. And despite the continuing angst over the threats posed by adversary submarines, no other community is doing anything to take on that challenge. The aviators will neck down to P-3s as their only credible ASW asset, and that asset will spend most of its time doing some kind of non-ASW ISR. And the Surface Navy has no credibility in ASW, either operationally or programmatically (though they promise that the Littoral Combat Ship will tackle the littoral ASW threat, I’ll believe it when I see it.). By contrast, with ARCI and TB-29 sonar assets today and the Virginia class for the future, the Submarine Force has both the operational chops and the programmatic substance to take on ASW. Let’s take on the challenge of defeating all undersea threats for the Navy and apply our intellectual capital to defeating them.
To conclude, the Submarine Force has made tremendous strides in transforming itself from the exigencies of def eating a Soviet blue water submarine threat to tackling the more complex challenges of littoral warfare. One analyst has publicly lauded our imagination and focus in these efforts. And yet, these efforts are either unknown, ignored or not believed by our Navy peers. As a result, we will find ourselves on a resourcing downslope unless we can make a compelling case for the submarine contribution to our Nation’s defense among our own peers. Working with them, we also need to grow resources for the Navy at large, find more money for the Navy’s procurement accounts and find a way for the defense industry to deliver a product on time and within budget. Otherwise, we will only build one submarine per year forever, as we are tantalized with the promise of more resources in the outyears of the FYDP. Unless we want a Navy of 30 SSNs, we have some work to do.