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The following article is excerpted from a Naval Strike Forum white paper, a project of the Lexington institute, which was published in December 2003. The Lexington Institute is a public policy think tank located in Arlington, Virginia. For more information please visit their website at or contact them at 703-522-5828.

For the purposes of this publication. the paper is presented in two parts. The entire document as originally published is available 011li11e at Hard copies are available upon request to the Lexington /Institute.

Part One:


The cover of the ninth and last edition of Soviet Military Power, published by the U.S. Department of Defense in 1990, featured a picture of a Delta IV strategic ballistic missile submarine. This formidable weapon system epitomized the profound nature of the Soviet threat to the American homeland. Throughout the Cold War, the United States relied on a fleet of attack submarines to track, and if necessary destroy, these Soviet behemoths. With superbly trained and dedicated crews, this U.S. fleet was also charged with protecting surface combatants and naval convoys from Soviet attack submarines. In 1990, the United States had 100 submarines available for these anti-submarine warfare (ASW) missions.

Because of the overwhelming importance of ASW, nuclear attack submarines (referred to in naval nomenclature as SSNs -SS for submarine, N for nuclear-powered) were associated with a relatively narrow role in the ongoing drama of the Soviet-American competition. Consequently, they were often viewed as a quintessential “Cold War weapon. When the Soviet Union collapsed, some considered the SSN an anachronism.

Ironically, the contrary has proven true. U.S. military planners and joint force commanders are more aware than ever of the unique attributes of submarines that make them extraordinarily useful tools. It is a fleet that can operate in hostile shallow waters and influence events onshore because it can strike land targets quickly, conduct secret reconnaissance over extended periods and covertly deliver special operations forces.

In an even more dramatic reversal of Cold War roles, four Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines -U.S. counterparts of the Delta TVs -are being relieved of their strategic payload and are being refitted for conventional missions. Designated as SSGNs, these four submarines will have some of the same missions as SSNs, but with a much larger payload.

As the United States enters the twenty-first century and the era of global terrorism, the American submarine fleet continues to represent a capability far above and beyond that of any other country. But this advantage cannot continue to be taken for granted. Today’s attack submarine fleet is barely half the size it was in 1990, and consists entirely of platforms initially designed for the Cold War environment. While these facts do not constrain the operational value of the fleet in any significant way today, the continuing evolution of the threat against the American homeland and U.S. interests abroad demand that the country continues to invest in and deploy advanced submarine technology optimized for the new environment. With adequate funding, robust training and innovative operational thinking, the submarine fleet will continue to be the Navy’s “crown jewel 1 well into the future.

Submarines: Weapons of Choice in Future Warfare

The 1980’s goal of a 600-ship Navy included 100 attack submarines. This goal was met in 1988 and sustained for several years. But with the end of the Cold War, the SSN force objective was rapidly reduced in a series of studies between 1991and1993. These numbers reflected the significantly reduced role envisioned for America’s non-strategic submarine fleet. As the number of active submarines declined, so also did procurement of new boats. The last Los Angeles-class (SSN-688) was funded in fiscal year 1990. Its successor program, SEA WOLF (SSN-21 ), was terminated in 1992, although three boats eventually were appropriated by Congress.

By the end of the I 990’s military planners were beginning to have second thoughts about these reduced force levels, particularly in light of peacetime operational requirements. A 1999 study by the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) set the parameters around which current planning still revolves. The JCS study asked regional commanders-in-chiefs to estimate future submarine requirements based on their own projections of the regional threat. The results forecasted a substantial increase in demand for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (known as ISR) that could be provided only by submarines. They also projected a need for a much greater forward presence in the Asia-Pacific region, especially in the latter years with the increased prospects for the emergence of a peer military competitor. The study determined that these peacetime missions of submarines justify a larger SSN force structure of 68 boats. How-ever, taking into consideration resource constraints, the JCS finally concluded that the number for warfighting requirements (55) is an acceptable floor for the fleet at least until 2015. By 2025 the recommended goal increases to 76 (with a floor of 62) SSNs to take into account evolving threats.

Attack Submarine Force Goals

Reagan-Era 1980s Base Force 1991 JCS Seudy 1992 Bottom-Up Review 1994 QDR 1997 JCS Study 1999 QDR 2001
100 80 51 45 50 55(68) 55

Defense Capabilities for the New Strategic Environment

The 200 I Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) established a framework for adapting the U.S. defense posture to a security environment primarily characterized by uncertainty, even as key U.S. interests endure. While general trends in the future military threat are certainly identifiable, the fluid nature of the political environment makes it impossible to predict where or when armed conflict might actually loom. Shifting alliances, maturation or deterioration of long-standing regimes, and the cyclical power of terrorist groups render traditional threat-based planning unsatisfactory for purposes of calculating future military needs. Instead, the QDR embraced capabilities-based planning, a concept that focuses on achieving key military goals regardless of the specific circumstances. In the future, the United States must deploy forces capable of adapting to and initiating surprise, operating covertly, and both employing and countering asymmetric warfare. Such forces must be available at all times in distant regions in sufficient quantities to swiftly defeat any adversary, with modest or no reinforcement; or, if that is not possible, to quickly pave the way for follow-on forces.

Against such asymmetric future threats, capabilities-based planning demands that the U.S. conceive and nurture a force with its own asymmetric ability to counter such anti-access and area-denial strategies. Among other things, this force must have “robust capabilities to conduct persistent surveillance, precision-strike and maneuver 3 within the areas the adversary seeks to deny. Many, if not most, of the area-denial and anti-access activities will take place in coastal regions, in the hostile littoral area of relatively shallow water and the first few miles of land. They pose a particular problem for the U.S. Navy in its role as a key enabler of follow-on joint forces.

“If the Navy cannot clear the way, sealift and other forces cannot follow. (Congressional Budget Office, March 2002)

Unique Advantages of Submarines

This discussion of the evolving threat environment makes clear the challenges facing force planners and future operational commanders. The QDR’s analysis puts a premium on capabilities such as deception, surprise, persistence, adaptability and precision fire power, to meet these challenges. Each capability is inherent in the modem U.S. nuclear submarine.

The most obvious characteristic of a nuclear submarine is its stealth. While stealth is a characteristic of many of America’s most modem weapon systems, only submarines are difficult to detect in all environments, by all types of sensors, when they are submerged. This makes them the ultimate covert platform.

The stealth of nuclear submarines provides the opportunity to conduct missions that are never revealed, or to provide strategic, operational or tactical surprise in both peacetime and wartime. Nuclear submarines can remain on station, hidden and carrying out their mission 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for months. This characteristic of persistent stealth is of great value in meeting key military goals reaffirmed in the QDR.

Defend the Homeland

In the Global War on Terror, submarines have a day-to-day mission to clandestinely collect intelligence. The submarine’s own sensors, and its special operations delivery capability (much enhanced with deployment of the SSGNs and Virginia class, as discussed below), allow it to observe without being observed. Unlike satellites with their predictable overhead paths, submarines can be anywhere in the hostile littoral at any time. Using the same capabilities, submarines can engage in covert information operations by transmitting data to a target audience and monitoring the response. In the last several years, technology has made rapid progress in submarine communications with high data rate antennas, allowing real-time transfer of this intelligence data via manned or unmanned aircraft or satellites to users at the highest levels.

One of the most difficult challenges of Homeland Security is the protection of ports. The United States receives 5,400 ships a year with international cargo and crews, creating an enormous monitoring task. While much effort is being devoted to enhancing security at the ports themselves, there are obvious advantages to monitoring and even interdicting suspicious shipments long before they reach American waters. Again, because of their covert nature, submarines could potentially be used to monitor ships in foreign ports and track them even in territorial waters.

The most widely reported use of submarines in the war on terror already has been displayed in Operation Enduring Freedom as the United States worked to eliminate the terrorist base of operations in Afghanistan. In the future, terrorist targets, including mobile command centers and weapons stores, could be identified by covert submarines and special forces working in tandem, and then promptly destroyed by the submarine’s precision strike capability.

Deter Aggression and Coercion Forward

Deterrence is often thought to be best served by the presence of highly visible military forces. But the best movie directors have long known that the greatest suspense is created when an audience cannot see what it fears. In the prelude to any conflict, a potential adversary knows that America may well have a virtually undetectable submarine lurking off its shores, ready to make the opening moves in a counter or pre-emptive attack.

Because it is capable of total surprise in an initial strike, today’s submarines armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles can attack sensitive and strategically important mobile or movable targets, such as command and control and stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. They can also serve as key enablers of follow-on air forces by attacking surface-to-air missile sites and other defenses. In a very short time, a covert submarine attack can substantially degrade an adversary’s ability to mount a defense. This capability against time-sensitive targets could be enhanced by the deployment of tactical, semi-ballistic missiles on nuclear submarines. In addition to the surprise factor of launch from a submarine, this type of weapon (discussed in more detail below) has the speed to reach a target several hundred miles inland in a matter of minutes.

Although strike options such as these momentarily reveal a submarine’s presence, other initial enabling missions allow a submarine to remain covert and conduct operations during the pre-hostilities phase of conflict, potentially deterring further action. These missions are particularly important in littoral environments. They include tracking adversary submarines and mapping mine fields.

Swiftly Defeat Aggression

Once a decision is made to go to war, submarines can engage in the type of clandestine early attacks needed by follow-on forces such as discussed above. They protect surface ships by neutralizing underwater threats like enemy submarines and mines, and by targeting enemy surface vessels with heavyweight torpedoes. Perhaps just as important, they serve as a base for special operations forces tasked with generating targeting data, seeking weapons of mass destruction and/or gathering intelligence on ground forces.

By assuring freedom of the seas, the submarine fleet can solve a major portion of the access-denial problem. “In short, summarized the Congressional Budget Office, “if naval forces as a whole represent the vanguard of U.S. military power -preparing the path and securing the beachheads for much larger ground and air forces in areas where they do not have access to land bases -then submarines may be key to clearing the way for other naval forces that are more vulnerable to an enemy’s access-denial strategy.

The value of submarines in the early phases of conflict has been demonstrated in recent operations, especially in Operation Iraqi Freedom. During this war the U.S. had 12 attack submarines in-theater, joined by two British submarines. Of the 800 Tomahawk missiles that were fired, about a third of them came from these 14 boats. In this rapidly paced operation where the targeting process was compressed to hours -and in some cases minutes -submarines participated as a full partner networked with the National Command Authority. And, although not much information has been made public, special operations forces were highly effective in Iraq. This “marriage of the two premier stealth forces in the nation, special operations forces and the submarine force has created a capability that will be substantially enhanced with deployment of both the Virginia class SSN and the SSGN.

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