Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


Thank you for the introduction. And thank you for inviting me back for this year’s symposium. It’s a privilege to be here, and a pleasure, and I appreciate your willingness to listen to my comments.

As always, I need to issue the standard disclaimer that these views are my own and don’t necessarily reflect those of my employer.

I want to make some comments today about where things stand today with submarine acquisition, where they might be headed, and what that might mean in tens of some potential acquisition and force-management initiatives the submarine community might want to consider. I want to do this first with attack submarines, and then finish with some comments along these lines about the next-generation SSBN.

FYlO Budget Submission

As you know, the FY1O budget was submitted last week, and it was a single-year budget submission, without an accompanying FYDP or 30-year shipbuilding plan. This isn’t the first time we’ve had a single-year budget with no FYDP- it happened, for example, eight years ago, in the first year of the George W. Bush administration, when the detailed FY02 budget was submitted without a FYDP. And that submission was made in June, according to my records. So by that standard, the Obama administration is running a little ahead of where the Bush administration was eight years ago.

Without a FYDP, it’s difficult to know exactly where a lot of acquisition programs might be headed over the next few years. That’s particularly the case in light of the stated desire of DOD leaders to use the QDR to reshape the defense portfolio toward new priorities like irregular warfare. So FY1O has turned into yet another one of those budget cycles where the answers about a lot of things are not supposed to become clear until next year’s submission. I’ve lost count of how many times we’ve been in that situation over the last I 0 or 20 years.

Attack Submarines Clarity through FY13

The Virginia-class program, however, is a partial exception to this situation of not knowing right now where certain procurement programs are headed. As a result of the new multiyear for the Virginia class, we can know with a fairly high degree of confidence what the attack submarine procurement profile will look like from FY1O through FYl3.

It’s possible, of course, that DOD could decide to break the multiyear contract, but the cost penalties associated with doing that are so great that such a decision appears very unlikely – which is a big part of the reason those penalties are there to begin with.

So we can be fairly certain that the Virginia-class program will include one boat in FY1O and two boats per year in FY11, 12, and 13. That’s more than a lot of other program managers can say about their own programs right now.

So if the attack submarine procurement profile through FY13 seems fairly clear, the question then becomes, what happens after that? This, I think, is a question the submarine community needs to focus on.

Some indications of the period beyond FY13

In my address here last year, I said I didn’t think it likely that the date for getting to two per year would slip from FY11 to some later year, but that I did think there was a strong possibility that the procurement rate in subsequent years might drop to something less than a solid two boats per year.

Since I made those remarks last year, my view concerning the possible downstream procurement rate has been reinforced, for three reasons.

The first concerns the financial crisis and sharp economic downturn that began last fall, the federal spending enacted to deal with the situation, and the resulting projected effect on the nation’s finances over the next several years. These developments, it seems to me, will likely serve to constrain DOD spending in coming years more strongly than what people were generally anticipating prior to last fall.

The second reason concerns some indications about where the shipbuilding plan may be headed in coming years. One of those indications came in a white paper on defense issues that the Obama campaign organization released last year during the election. That white paper stated quite explicitly that in an Obama administration, the shipbuilding investment balance would be tilted toward smaller combatants.

And indeed, the FY I 0 budget submission seems to reflect such a direction. Of the eight new Navy ships included in the FY 10 budget, six are relatively inexpensive ships-specifically, three LCSs, two Takes, and one JHSV for the Navy. The remaining two new ships are the next Virginia-class boat and a DDG-51.

To be sure, the budget also includes continued procurement funding for the next aircraft carrier, as well as funding needed to complete the cost of the DDG-1000 and the LPD-17 that were authorized but not fully funded last year.

But of the eight ships that are included as new efforts in this year’s budget, three-quarters are relatively inexpensive ships.

A second indication of where the shipbuilding plan might be headed came in February, when Defense News published an article about a draft version of the FY1O 30-year shipbuilding plan that apparently dated to December of last year. This was a draft plan only, and apparently only one of several planning excursions that were being studied at the time.

Even so, the draft plan was of interest, because it included a reduction in plans for procuring larger and more expensive ships and an increased emphasis on procurement in the near term of relatively inexpensive ships like the LCS and JHSV. These proposals, if implemented, would shift the balance of the shipbuilding account toward smaller and less expensive ships, consistent with the statement in the Obama campaign white paper. As some of you may have noticed, the draft shipbuilding plan that was reported in February would reduce planned procurement of attack submarines over 30 years from a total of 53 boats to a total of 40 boats- a reduction of 13 boats, or about 25%.

If you take the attack submarine procurement profile in that draft plan and put it into a simple force-level model, what you get is an attack Submarine Force that drops to the low-to mid-40s, and then stays there indefinitely. So the attack submarine shortfall, which has long been understood as a bathtub that would eventually turn upward, would instead become something like a pennant shortfall.

This situation, in fact, leads me to wonder whether there will be discussion in the QDR of the option of reducing the attack Submarine Force-level goal from 48 to some number in the mid- to Jow-40s.

And the third reason that my view regarding the potential downstream attack submarine procurement rate has been reinforced since last year is the stated OSD emphasis on shifting the balance of the defense portfolio more strongly toward things like irregular warfare. The general view is that such a shift will lead to reductions in programs for procuring expensive, highly capable platoons that are intended primarily for conventional interstate conflict.

All this causes me to wonder what will happen to the attack submarine procurement rate after the end of the current multiyear in FY13.

Now it’s possible, of course, that there could be a change of administrations four years from now, and that a new administration might reverse the shift toward irregular warfare, and the shift toward a greater emphasis on relatively inexpensive ships. Even if that were to occur, however, that new administration would still need to address a federal budget deficit situation that has been changed by last Fall’s economic crisis and the spending initiatives enacted in response to it.

Program execution

So if these are some indications of where things might be headed, then what might all this mean for the submarine community?

First, I think it places an increased importance on maintaining good program execution. The new DOD acquisition executive, Ashton Carter, reportedly said the other day that program terminations can be viewed as a component of acquisition reform the phrase used was acquisition reform “at the back end,” as opposed to acquisition reform that affects the early stages of weapon acquisition programs.

Now, program execution is an area where the submarine community has been getting good marks in recent years, particularly in terms of reducing the procurement cost and construction time of the Virginia class while introducing new technologies that actually improve the boat’s capabilities.

And this situation of getting good marks could be reinforced by the community’s follow-on initiatives to reduce Virginia-class life cycle costs while perhaps also increasing the number of deployments that Virginia-class boats make during their 33-year lives.

Beyond that, the submarine community’s long-range plan for block procurement of Virginia-class submarines, the next- generation SSBN, and the attack submarine that comes after the Virginia-class might come to be viewed as a model for others to follow. Indeed, it might be a harbinger of a more structured and more engineered approach to all Navy shipbuilding that may be required to maintain the Navy in future years at its desired size within available resources.

So in terms of program execution, the submarine community appears to be in a strong position.

Submarines and irregular warfare

But there’s at least one other area where the submarine community might need to put more emphasis, and that is the link between attack submarines and irregular warfare. Currently, that link is not at all clear to people who don’t closely follow submarine-related issues. As possible ways of strengthening this link, there are three potential acquisition initiatives that come to mind.

The first would be to put into place a firm program for procuring some ASDSs as follow-nos to the one ASDS that has been produced to date. The argument about the submarine community being connected to irregular warfare through its support of covert operations by Navy SEALS is weakened by not being able to point to a firm program for procuring the multiple ASDSs that the Navy had earlier argued would be necessary in future years to properly support those SEAL operations. I just learned at the lunch table a few minutes ago that the FY l 0 budget contains funding for additional ASDSs.

A second initiative would be to put into place a firm program for equipping submarines with UAVs. Improved JSR is viewed as part of getting better on irregular warfare, and while the attack submarine offers advantages as an ISR platform in tens of covertness and persistence, the addition of UAVs would improve the JSR capabilities of submarines by giving them a capability for overhead and deep-inland observation that they currently lack.

At a meeting I spoke at a few weeks ago at Carder, the topic of UAVs on submarines came up, and during the discussion, one of the conference attendees said that the Navy’s activities in this area could be summed up with the phrase “a demo and you’re done.”

From where I view things, I’d have to agree with that characterization. For years now, it seems, the pattern I have noticed is that there would be a couple of trade press articles about a UA V being operated by a submarine on a test basis. I file the articles, and then nothing happens- until maybe a year later, when I see another couple of articles, broadly similar to the ones from the year before, which I again file, followed again by nothing. There doesn’t seem to be any clear momentum toward a real acquisition program and planned deployments.

I understand that the submarine community has some work underway regarding submarine hardware for handling UA Vs. But with the Secretary of Defense practically popping his veins over the UAV issue for more than a year now, it seems that a firm, high-profile, initiative to acquire and deploy UA Vs aboard attack submarines by a date certain is something the submarine community should consider.

And a third potential initiative for strengthening the link between submarines and irregular warfare would be to begin a firm program for developing a large-diameter UUV oriented toward irregular warfare that can be put into the large-diameter tubes on the SSGNs and future Virginia-class boats. Introducing the large-diameter tubes on non-strategic submarines is something that the submarine community deserves credit for, but we’re getting to the point where observers might begin to ask what the value of the tubes is, if the submarine community doesn’t have anything new to put in them.

The last large-diameter UUV I heard of was Seahorse, and that was years ago. The submarine community may be working on new large diameter payloads, but if it is, it might help to make that effort better known, or accelerate it, or ensure that it has some applicability to irregular warfare.

I understand that all these potential acquisition initiatives require money. You’d need some pretty substantial funding to procure additional ASDSs, to get UAVs on submarines in a concerted manner, and to acquire large-diameter UUVs. Making the case for that funding is going to be a challenge.

But it’s not just a challenge. Making the case for this funding also provides an opportunity for explaining to others the attack submarine’s link to irregular warfare, and how the submarine community is responding to leadership direction by initiating high- priority programs to significantly strengthen that link.

Additional options in a world of reduced procurement

But there’s one more thing I think the submarine community may want to consider, which is the possibility that, even if the submarine community does everything that I have just talked about, the fiscal situation in coming years may be such that the attack submarine procurement rate will still drop below two boats per year.

Last year, I suggested that it was possible for the rate to drop to as low as 1.5 boats per year. This year, in part because of the change over the last several months in the country’s finances looking forward, I’m not sure I would consider that as the lowest possible level. The 40 boats over 30 years in the reported draft 30- year shipbuilding plan from last December work out to an average rate of one and a third boats per year. And I’m not sure even that figure represents the minimum possible rate.

If that’s the case, then I think that the submarine community should look at two more options for dealing with where things might be heading.

One of these is multiple crewing. The submarine community looked at this a few years ago, and then put the option on the shelf. It might become necessary to take it off the shelf and examine it as part of a larger strategy for dealing with the reduced force size that would eventually result from a constrained procurement rate. And the other option would be to extend the lives of new attack submarines from 33 years to some higher figure – to 40 years, if possible, or even 45. A 40-year life and a build rate of one and a third boats per year over the long run would support a force of 52 boats.

I understand that extending service life to the figures I just mentioned might not be feasible, and if feasible, would raise a number of issues. Among other things, it might require a return to mid-life refueling, with everything that entails for the ship’s design, and for life-cycle O&S costs. And it might require making the ship more expensive to procure, because of the need to build certain parts of the submarine rugged enough to last over a longer life.

I don’t know what’s possible in terms of extending attack submarine life beyond 33 years, or how cost effective it would be relative to the current approach of building boats with 33-year lives.

But I think it’s something the submarine community should examine, if only to be able to understand what the numbers look like, and to be ready to show them to others.

Now, when I’ve mentioned the idea of a longer service life in the past, more often than not, the response I’ve gotten has been a sort of silence. Which might mean one of two things. One is that the person I’m talking to is thinking, “Oh, that’s just Ron throwing- out some crazy idea, and we’ll just wait until he forgets about it and moves on to something else.” Well, if that’s what’s going on, then I guess I have to thank you for being polite enough to not say that to my face. And it’s not such a bad strategy, really, because I long ago reached the age where I can’t even remember what I had for dinner last night.

But on the other hand, if someone had come to you about 20 years ago and told you that the submarine procurement rate would soon fall to zero, that the rate would average less than one boat per year for more than a decade, and that there would be studies for reducing the attack Submarine Force to as few as 37 boats, you would have said that’s crazy too.

The other possibility is that the submarine community doesn’t see this idea as crazy at all, but would pref er not to mention its work on this issue to others, because doing so might risk converting a possible low submarine procurement rate into a planned one. Well, if that’s the case, I guess I understand that, but I hope you’re examining the idea all the same.

Next-generation SSBN

In the last few minutes I have here, I want to shift to the next- generation SSBN. Secretary Gates endorsed the start of this effort in his April 6 news conference, and the proposed FY 10 budget contains a substantial amount of funding for it. I want to make four points about this program.

Accelerated start

The first concerns the question of whether to describe the start of this program as having been accelerated, or as having occurred when it normally would have.

It might be the case that the answer is both- that the program’s start was accelerated originally as part of a strategy for supporting the submarine design and engineering base, but that the Navy subsequently discovered that it needed to start the program this year anyway, given the time the Navy now thinks will be needed to design the boat.

Those on the Hill who have been following submarine acquisition are familiar with the issue from a couple of years ago about the need to find a way to support the design and engineering base, and how accelerating the start of the SSBN effort was going to be a big part of the strategy for doing that. In that context, I think it would confuse people to be told now that the effort has not been accelerated. And noting that the start of the program was accelerated to help sustain the design and engineering base doesn’t preclude the Navy from saying that it subsequently determined that this was the best approach for the program for other reasons as well.

Minimizing cost

The second point I’d like to make about the SSBN program is that, in light of the coming fiscal situation I’ve discussed, minimizing the cost of this ship might not be simply one goal for the program, but a top goal. That would suggest conceiving of the boat as a very basic platoon- as a boat with the features needed to perforation its mission cost-effectively over its entire life cycle, to be sure, but with no extra bells and whistles. Save your money for the attack submarines.

A possible exception regarding bells and whistles might be some new technologies that might not be needed strictly for the SSBN itself, but which, if developed for the SSBN, could help reduce the cost of future attack submarines. But be careful with that rationale, because it’s ripe for abuse. Number of boats in program The third point I want to make about the SSBN program concerns the number of boats in the program. The current understanding, based on the Navy’s prior 30-year shipbuilding plans, is that the program will include 12 boats, and that the number is 12 rather than 14 because the life-of-the-ship core on the boat will eliminate the need for a mid-life nuclear refueling, and thus for needing two additional boats in the force to maintain deployments during the middle years of the class’s life-cycle.

I understand that not everyone agrees with that explanation, in part because, when it comes to mid-life refueling overhauls, getting rid of the refueling doesn’t mean you’re getting rid of the overhaul.

If the explanation about needing 12 rather than 14 due to the-ship cores doesn’t hold up under inspection, then now’s the time for the Navy to come clean on this. Incorporating a fib or a sloppy argument into the start of a program can weaken the foundation for that program.

Beyond the issue of core life and how it might or might not affect required numbers, the submarine community may need to consider the possibility that fiscal limits, perhaps combined with possible arms control agreements, may reduce the number of boats in the program to fewer than the submarine community or the Navy might prefer. If the preferred number is 14, these factors might reduce it to 12 or I 0. And if the preferred number is 12, these factors might reduce it to I 0, or even 8. The Navy’s analysis might show a higher number being needed to perform the mission at a certain level, but that might not be enough to prevent a decision in favor of a lower number.

If a reduction in total numbers is a possibility, then the submarine community might wish to consider whether and how that could affect the design of the boat, or other aspects of the program. Service life And the fourth point I want to make about the next- generation SSBN is that- along the same lines of what I said earlier about attack submarines- the submarine community might want to consider planning the next-generation SSBN as a boat with a service life that is longer than the Ohio-class’s 42-year life – perhaps as much as 50 years. Again, I understand what this might mean in terms of life-of-the-ship cores vs. mid-life refueling and life-cycle costs. And I understand that this idea is in tension with my earlier point about minimizing the cost of the ship. But again, the Navy might want to run the numbers to ensure that it understands the possible barriers or tradeoffs and can explain them to others.


In summary, the point I want to leave you with is this: The Virginia-class multiyear and the budget support for the start of the next-generation SSBN effort give the submarine community some clarity and confidence about where submarine acquisition is headed for the next few years.

But it’s only for the next few years. After that, things are less certain, and preparing for that uncertainty may require consideration of some of the options I’ve outlined here.

Purchases of large numbers of relatively inexpensive LCSs and JHSVs will permit the number of ships in the Navy to be propped up over the next several years at relatively little cost, even while existing higher-capability ships begin to retire in larger numbers. Within a certain number of years, however, deliveries of LCSs and JHSVs will wind down, and the retirements of the higher-capability ships will continue.

At that point, the full dimensions of the Navy’s shipbuilding affordability challenge will be unmasked, and the numbers are going to look very daunting indeed. That’s the situation the submarine community should be planning toward today, and I hope my remarks today will prove useful in that task.

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League