Thank you for the introduction, and also for the invitation to speak today. The submarine community has long welcomed outside perspectives, which is something that I think benefits the community.
I should mention at the outset that these views are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.
I’ve been told that I have 25 to 30 minutes, so I’ve designed my remarks to leave some of that time for Q&A.
As some of you know, I gave a talk on submarine issues this past May at the annual Sub Tech Symposium at Johns Hopkins APL. Some of you may have heard that address, or read it in the July issue of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW, so I’m not going to repeat in detail what I said at Sub Tech. Instead, I’m going to quickly review some of the points I made in that address, and then extend the discussion to some follow-on issues.
Review of points made in May
In my talk last May, I noted that this year’s 30-year shipbuilding plan eliminated about I of every 6 attack boats that were in the previous 30-year plan. As a result, the attack submarine shortfall that has been projected for many years is now expected to be a little deeper at its minimum, and somewhat more open-ended, than previously projected. This change has not received very much attention in discussions this year of the 30-year plan.
I also noted that there were some reasons to believe that the impact of the SSBN(X) program on the Navy’s ability to afford other kinds of ships might be greater than shown in the 30-year plan, in part because there’s no explanation in the plan as to how the Navy will achieve the $2 billion- per-year hump in the shipbuilding budget that is assumed in the middle years of the plan, which is intended to help pay for the SSBN(X)s, and in part because the federal budget situation that has developed since late- 08 may put downward pressure on the DOD top line. I then provided some comments as to why the burden of paying for the SSBN(X) – if it turns out to be greater than shown in the 30-year plan – might be more likely to fall on the attack submarine procurement program than the destroyer program.
Looking at that situation, I concluded in May that at least some- if not most or all- of the Virginia-class boats that are shown in the shipbuilding plan during the years of SSBN(X) procurement were at risk of disappearing from the plan due to funding constraints- that as many as 12 Virginia-class boats might drop out of the plan, which would reduce the attack boat force to levels well below those shown in the 30-year plan- to figures that are below 40 boats for a number of years.
Given that possibility, I said, the submarine community might want to consider exploring various potential options, including additional forward home porting of attack submarines, dual- crewing of attack submarines, and extending the lives of the 23 Improved 688s and the 3 Sea wolf-class boats by something like 10 years, which would require refueling those boats. I noted that the technical feasibility of the service-life-extension option was questionable, given limits on pressure hull life and other considerations, but that the Navy should still consider exploring it, if only to confirm general beliefs about its feasibility, and to be ready to show the analysis to others.
Changes Since May
So with that as a starting point, the question becomes: What has changed since last May?
Well, for one thing, as I think you’re all aware, Secretary Gates and Under Secretary Carter earlier this week announced that cost-reduction efforts on the SSBN(X) have brought, or are expected to bring, the ship’s estimated unit procurement cost down to $5 billion, compared to the Navy’s preliminary estimate, in the 30-year plan, of $6 to $7 billion. That’s welcome news for those concerned about the pressure that the SSBN(X) program may place on the rest of the shipbuilding budget. Other things held equal, it could help buy back some of the Virginia-class boats that I said were at risk of disappearing from the plan.
But you ‘ ll notice I said “other things held equal,” which may not be the case. Since last May, pressures to reduce federal spending so as to reduce projected deficits and the projected growth in the debt-to-GDP ratio have, if anything, intensified, and there is now more open and direct talk than there was in May about this effort including reductions in defense spending. So the chance that the DOD top line will go down might now be greater than it was in May- a growing number of observers believe it is very likely or even certain- and the potential rate of decline might also be higher than some might have projected earlier.
How these changes might alter the situation I described in May is hard to calculate, but it’s not clear to me that reducing the cost of the SSBN(X), combined with a stronger downward pull on the DOD top line, would necessarily result in a net substantial improvement in the Navy’s potential ability to procure attack submarines in coming years at currently planned rates. On the one hand, the Navy might be able to procure some of the Virginias that are scheduled for procurement in the same years as SSBN(X)s. On the other hand, the Navy might lose some of the Virginias that are scheduled for procurement during the period FY 14 to 18, which is the period between the current multiyear and the procurement of the lead SSBN(X).
I’m not saying that most or all of these at risk Virginias are certainly going to disappear from the 30-year plan. I’m saying that there’s a distinct possibility they could disappear, and that in light of this possibility, the submarine community might want to begin thinking through the implications of this scenario, so the community would be ready for it, should it transpire. I want to spend the rest of my address discussing six specific questions for the submarine community that might arise from this scenario, and then conclude with a comment about a final , broader issue.
Bridging a period of reduced or suspended Virginia class procurement
One specific question that might arise from this scenario is what a suspension or near-suspension of Virginia-class procurement during the years of SSBN(X) procurement would mean for preserving hard-won efficiencies in the production of Virginia- class boats. What, in other words, would be the best strategy for getting through a potentially decade-long period of little or no Virginia-class procurement, so that Virginia-class procurement could be resumed or ramped back up following the completion of the SSBN(X) program with minimal loss of learning or other restart costs?
For example, how should Virginia-specific shipyard tooling and construction skills be preserved? And how should Virginia- specific suppliers be supported or otherwise managed during this period? Should the Navy stockpile components made by these suppliers prior to the start of the suspension, continue purchasing them, in at least limited quantities, during the suspension, or do something else? These are potential questions for both industry and the Navy.
Operating a force of 30-something boats
A second question arising from this scenario is what the operational and force-management implications might be of having an attack Submarine Force that, for some number of years, consisted of 30-something boats. If service-life extensions of the Improved 688s and the Seawolfs are not feasible, then what would be the best way to operate an attack boat force of this size? What role would forward home porting and dual-crewing play in maximizing day-to-day forward presence? What might be done to further maximize the percentage of the force that could be surged on short notice to meet wartime needs? What would a force of this size mean for ship maintenance practices, command opportunities, and career paths? And most of all, what current attack submarine missions might need to be reduced or dropped, with what potential implications for U.S. security?
Some of these are potential questions not just for the submarine community, but for the Navy as a whole, for DOD, and for the nation. The submarine community may wish to be prepared to describe to others the implications of this scenario from its own perspective, so as to help inform the general discussion.
Additional capabilities for in-service attack submarines
A third question arising from this scenario concerns measures that might be taken to augment the capabilities of existing attack submarines, so as to get the most out of a force of 30-something boats. This could lead to an even stronger emphasis than at present on how things like UUVs, clip-on weapon modules, and other backbitten new technologies might extend the capabilities of in- service attack boats.
Additional capabilities for new-construction attack submarines
In a related vein, a fourth question arising from this scenario is whether new-construction Virginia-class boats should be built to a more-capable configuration, such as a lengthened configuration that offers increased volume for equipping the ship with additional things. If only so many Virginia-class boats are going to be built during these years, and if the attack boat force is going to number in the 30s for some period of time, should new Virginia-class boats be constructed with things such as additional built-in payload launchers and a greater amount of internal payload storage space? The logic would that if you’re only going to build and operate so many boats, you might want to make the most of the ones you build.
Right now, the idea of building Virginias with augmented strike capabilities is being explored in part as a way to compensate for the eventual retirement of the SSGNs and the loss of their strike capability. The idea here would be to build a larger number of Virginias with augmented capabilities to offset not only the retirement of the SSGNs, but also the reduction in the total number of attack boats. Building Virginias to an augmented configuration would increase their procurement costs, which in tum might further reduce the numbers procured, but the net result might be a force that is better able to perfonn its assigned missions.
The Navy and industry might consider studying the potential tradeoffs involved in this option. As part of this, the Navy and industry might consider exploring the feasibility, design implications, and construction implications of putting into the Virginia-class design features that would make it easier for the Navy to defer, until the last possible moment, the decision of whether to build a Virginia-class boat to a standard configuration or an augmented configuration.
A fifth question concerns the option of acquiring and operating non-nuclear-powered submarines. The question of whether the U.S. Navy should acquire and operate non-nuclear- powered submarines as supplements to the nuclear-powered boats, largely as a means of increasing total numbers of attack submarines, emerges a matter of discussion every once in a while, and the potential force-level scenario I have outlined here is one that might prompt another round of discussion on the matter.
The general Navy position on the question has been that since non-nuclear-powered submarines have limited submerged endurance, particularly at higher speeds, they are generally inappropriate for performing many U.S. submarine missions, most of which call for stealthy transits to distant operating areas, extended stealthy operations on station, and stealthy transits back home.
The disadvantages of non-nuclear-powered submarines for performing missions with these profiles might be mitigated somewhat by forward home porting the boats near their intended overseas operating areas, but the resulting mitigation of disadvantages would be only partial, and a forward home ported non- nuclear-powered boat would generate less planning uncertainty for potential adversaries than a nuclear-powered boat in tenns of what ocean region that boat is likely to be operating in after it leaves port.
Even so, the submarine community might consider reviewing the option of acquiring and operating non-nuclear-powered submarines, if only to confine, in the context of a force of 30- something nuclear-powered boats, that the Navy’s past position on the issue still applies, and to be ready to shows its analysis to others.
And a sixth follow-on question arising from this scenario is whether there are any actions, beyond those already implemented, that could be taken to increase the capabilities of allied attack submarine fleets, so that those fleets could help more in the performance of submarine missions of common interest. The United States decades ago provided technical assistance to the UK to jump start that country’s nuclear-powered submarine program, and more recently helped Australia fix problems with its Collins- class boats. Assistance can also come in the form of things like joint training and exercises. Of particular importance in this context might be forms of assistance that, in one way or another, might give allied countries the additional incentive or support needed for them to each procure and operate one or two more attack submarines than they otherwise might.
It should also be noted, however, that there are risks in de- pending on allies to perform missions for you, because the interests of allies do not always coincide completely with U.S. interests, and because an ally’s interest in performing certain missions could change abruptly due to changes in policy that can occur, for example, as a consequence of a change in government.
A Navy for a frugal superpower
So that’s six specific questions that arise from a scenario where Virginia-class procurement was limited or suspended for several years, and the attack boat force as a result is reduced, for some number of years, to a total of 30-something boats. These are by no means the only specific questions that would arise from such a scenario, but they’re a start.
As a final and broader point, I’d like to return to the budget situation that gives rise to this potential scenario, and talk for a moment about the place of the submarine force in U.S. national security strategy in the context of this budget situation.
The projected budget deficits and the projected growth in the debt-to-GDP ratio are leading not only to increased discussion about reducing defense spending, but also, as a consequence, to initial discussion, at least in certain quarters, about whether the nation might need to reconsider its role in the world, including which national goals and objectives might be more important to pursue than others.
It’s not clear how far this incipient discussion of U.S. goals and objectives might go. It’s entirely possible that the nation will decide to address the resources-vs.-national strategy situation simply by muddling through, without making crisp or explicit decisions about pursuing some goals rather than others. But either way, our fiscal situation may be taking us in the direction of becoming, in the words of one writer, a more frugal superpower 1, meaning a superpower that will face increased limits in the future on the resources it can apply to accomplishing its security objectives.
In that situation, various parts of the defense establishment will likely be eager to show how they can help a frugal U.S. superpower accomplish the most within more-limited resources. This could be the new Zeitgeist that many will attempt to plug into.
If that’ s the case, then submarine supporters might want to consider thinking about how the Navy in general, and the submarine force in particular, would plug into that Zeitgeist. There are some potential lines of argumentation that submarine supporters could consider pursuing.
For example, it might be argued that a frugal superpower should, among other things, maintain and leverage capabilities that generate high payoffs and enable a lot of options for policymakers, particularly when those capabilities depend on investments in technology that the United States has already made, and which potential adversaries might find too expensive to replicate.
An example of such a capability, supporters of naval forces, including submarines, might argue, is the ability to achieve sea control, and consequently to use the world’s broad stretches of international waters – the maritime global commons – in a highly leveraged manner, as a medium of maneuver, and for gaining access to and affecting events ashore in various parts of the world. Naval forces, including submarines, are central to achieving sea control and denying it to others, and the country’s force of nuclear-powered submarines reflects an investment in technologies dating back decades, and which will be very difficult for any potential adversary to match anytime soon.
The argument would be that nuclear-powered submarines are worthy of continued support not in spite of new limits on national resources, but precisely because of new limits on national resources, on the grounds that maintaining and leveraging this investment could help a frugal superpower get the most out of the resources it has. The argument, in other words, would be that as the country’s resources become more limited, the submarine force would be an ace in the hole that would become more important, not less.
That’s just one possible argument, offered as a notional example. Other arguments, including opposing arguments, are certainly possible. And other parts of the defense establishment will likely be making arguments in favor of their own contributions to national security in a scenario of more-limited resources.
In my talk at the Sub Tech symposium in May, I said that while we’re all aware of the federal budget situation, I wasn’t sure that the system had fully internalized what this situation could mean for the defense establishment. That process of internalization is now underway, but it’s still in the early stages. Exploring the six specific questions and the broader final point that I’ve outlined here might help the submarine community, and the Navy as a whole, in that process.
Thank you again for the invitation to speak today, and I’ll be happy to respond to your questions.