In the June issue of the Naval Institute Proceedings, Captain Tom Jacobs, USN (Ret.), chases a will of the wisp that infects every acquisition program. Lamenting the high price of the submarines presently under construction, Captain Jacobs suggests that with humility, courage and ” … a clean sheet of paper”, we could have a smaller, simpler and cheaper albeit “… a little slower … ” ship that would be built in quantity. While policy makers are particularly prone to this disease of thinking that if only we would start over somehow the end product would wind up cheaper than the present building program, it is unusual to find engineers and operators falling into this abyss of wishful thinking. Captain Jacobs’ misses the main point of building and operating a ship. His argument focuses only on initial costs; he offers only that we don’t need Cold War capabilities without specifying what those excess features may be while entering no argument on how this lesser capable ship would meet the needs of the United States: not even why his planned slower speed is satisfactory.
This view is not unique, having a long but not encouraging, pedigree. The Navy’s experience in these sorts of efforts date as far back as Jefferson’s gunboats. This testifies to the stupidity of efforts to waive away experience to reduce construction costs with little serious contemplation of the ship’s potential missions. But even if one does not acknowledge that missions will creep, history records that the equipment to go in the new boat grows, e.g., hydrophones get longer, antennas larger, weapons heavier. Just the lengthening of core life adds investment cost because maintenance accessibility becomes more important in ships with long periods between upkeeps and overhauls.
The lessons of the programs of the interwar period from 1920 to 1940 are instructive. In this period, those submarines larger than their predecessors were more successful than those planned to reduce construction cost. The end result of this ever larger, ever more capable submarine was the Fleet boat. After World War II, the SSKs were attempts to reduce investment costs without much regard to what the ships were expected to do: they were retired almost before they finished sea trials. The Skate class ships, designed to contain costs, were relatively slow, could not carry much of a weapons load, were cramped and difficult to maneuver and were absolute dogs to maintain. Even THRESHER/PERMIT was too small to allow reasonable access for maintenance and crew comfort was minimal. Not until STURGEONS was a really satisfactory long lived submarine achieved-and even there, late versions of the class had to be enlarged to accommodate electronics and crew that had not been imagined at the class’s conception. During their planning and construction, the loud concerns voiced about excessive cost and size were among the precursors of Captain Jacob’s argument.
Captain Jacobs’s concern centers on force size: ” … we cannot have size and numbers”. But force size is determined more by the utility of the component units than by their individual investment cost. Numbers by themselves are not useful. A million men in rowboats with hammers to smash periscope windows do not make an effective ASW force. This numbers argument always focuses on the investment cost like an accountant absorbed in the quarterly report, missing the measure of value. The leadership of the submarine community since the seventies has been careful to avoid being sucked into arguments on costs with critics unencumbered with operational responsibilities and hopefully will continue to be able to remain so.
The lessons of designing future warships are instructive. Carrier aviators committed to big deck carriers forty years ago and have never wavered in spite of repeated critical attacks on their cost from the highest levels of the Defense Department, Congress and the almost every defense think tank in existence. As a result of their persistence and the commitment of their fellow professionals-including three successive CNO’s who were submariners-the United States today can employ more than a half dozen of these irreplaceable assets in wars that were unthinkable when they were designed and built. And more are being built though the expected cost of CVN(X) is 11.2 billion dollars!
Contrast this record with the efforts to build the next class of surface warships. Arguments on mission and cost tradeoffs have stymied this project for years. In the interim, the only new ship, the Cyclone class, has been transferred to the Coast Guard or retired -the unfortunate fate of the small, cheap to construct ships that prove themselves to be the most expensive ships the country buys. Only now with a commitment to try three differently sized ships do these efforts appear to go forward.
Slow growth and smaller force sizes are inevitable products of the world ahead in which the Navy’s role, while the most prominent of the services, will be substantially less than the missions forecast for the 600 ship Navy. The missions of the ships being built today cannot be predicted in detail so building ships dedicated to restricted roles or special missions will inevitably result in their low utility, short lifetime, and high operating costs. Congress shows little appetite for enlarged naval construction: there is little likelihood that substantially more submarines would be authorized even if their unit costs were significantly reduced. Every unit of tomorrow’s Navy should be as capable as possible from the time the design leaves the drawing board. History shows that designing to contain construction cost just defers investment necessary to make them functional and is likely to leave them limping late into action with worn crews and low reliability.
Veterans of the Diesel Boats Forever nostalgia of the sixties can recall the arguments advanced by many, including senior leaders of the Submarine Force, that we could have two diesel boats for the price of a nuclear powered ship. The arguments used in these debates are the same as those used to justify the horse cavalry in l 930, the unrifled musket in 1860, and the retention of sail in 1880.
There may be answers other than VIRGINIA, to what new submarines should look like, what they should carry or how they are built, but such answers won’t be cheaper.