Article Published in the National Defense
It has been argued that some of the major weapon systems developed during the Cold War have yet to demonstrate they remain relevant and are successfully adapting to the new threats to global security. To collectively describe Soviet-era weapons programs as irrelevant to the changing security environment of the 21st century, however, fails to account for the experience of the past decade. Indeed, some of them have demonstrated quite the opposite.
One in particular is the Navy’s fleet of nuclear attack submarines, whose future depends upon the Virginia-class New Attack Submarine, or NSSN in Navy parlance, set to debut early in the next decade.
During the past few years the Navy’s attack submarine force has found itself in even higher demand than during the height of the Cold War, filling both traditional and non-traditional roles for American military commanders across the globe. Whether patrolling the world’s oceans for Russian submarines or China’s quickly growing fleet of diesel-powered subs; conducting highly sensitive reconnaissance missions undetected by potential enemies; projecting power ashore with Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles in Iraq or Serbia; supporting surface naval vessels
increasingly operating in dangerous coastal waters; or studying the polar ice caps in the pursuit of science, the nation’s attack submarines are as busy as ever.
“The requirements haven’t decreased at all. They have actually gone up,” in the words of a former attack submarine commander.
However, the United States’ attack submarine fleet-consisting of aging Los Angeles class submarines and just a few Seawolf class boats–currently hovers around 57, down from nearly 100 a decade ago. And, according to current plans, the fleet is to be reduced even further to a mere 50 by the end of next year, roughly half the Cold War fleet.
The resultant strains on the fleet have led the Navy to reconsider the decision during the Pentagon’s 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) to dramatically educe the force structure. Admirals now acknowledge the move was at best premature and at worst ill-conceived.
“Evidence is pouring in that we need more attack submarines,” Adm. Frank “Skip” Bowman, the Navy’s director of nuclear propulsion, said in September at the keel laying ceremony for the first New Attack Submarine, the USS Virginia. “In recent years, our warfighting commanders have consistently stated that they need a force structure of about 70 [attack submarines] to meet their mission requirements.”
Thus, service leaders have fired the first warning shot to indicate they will push for a larger attack submarine fleet-some officials say in the range of 55 to 68 if not higher-in the Pentagon’s next QDR scheduled for 2001.
Enter the New Attack Submarine, the Navy’s answer for military commanders when nuclear attack subs are needed in the decades to come.
With many of the Los Angeles class subs scheduled to be de-commissioned in the coming decades–and little financially or operationally viable means for extending the life of the fleet–the importance of the future fleet of 30 Virginia class submarines is quickly growing.
To ensure the Navy’s attack submarine force can meet the requirements of warfighting commanders in the future, Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding, which are sharing production responsibilities, must begin building at least two Virginia-class submarines per year as soon as possible.
However, the Navy’s current budget does not fund a build rate of two New Attack Submarines per year at least until Fiscal Year (FY) 2006, beyond the current six-year defense spending plan. Simple mathematics confirms that without increased and sustained production sooner the size of the attack submarine force will likely become insufficient to meet requirements.
“If you count the ‘insies’ and ‘outies,'” or the attack submarines coming into the force and those being retired, “we will drop below the level we need,” the former attack submarine commander said.
The Navy’s current plan calls for one New Attack Submarine to be built in FY1998-the USS Virginia–one in FY1999; none in FY2000; one in FY2001; one in FY2003; one in FY2004; and one in FY2005. And the submarine planned for FY2003, added last year with the help of additional defense spending pledged by the Clinton Administration, may be under attack in current budget deliberations. The Navy is said to be considering adding an additional New Attack Submarine in FY2004 and FY2005, bringing it to the minimum required annual production rate at least two years earlier than planned.
A failure to commit to sustained production of the New Attack Submarine now would be a missed opportunity. The New Attack Submarine is shaping up to be the most cost-effective means to deliver multi-mission capability and state-of-the-art technology on call and ready to meet changing threats.
“The Virginia class is key to preserving and restoring our submarine force levels with the right submarines to operate in the 21st century,” Adm. Bowman said.
Without sustained production of the Virginia class, the Navy’s submarine community will likely have no choice but to scale back some of its missions–telling a warfighting commander-in-chief, for example, that it can only provide three instead of four submarines for a particular deployment; canceling critical training exercises; or otherwise failing to meet the broad range of traditional and non-traditional missions in which attack submarines and their unique capabilities have proven so critical in the post-Cold War era.
“Among the most important national security decisions we must make is which weapons systems we fund,” said Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Connecticut), a key Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “If we choose wisely, we will have the tools we need to maintain our military advantage in the future. If we choose unwisely, we risk being caught with the wrong capability to face future threats. In either the open ocean or coastal waters, US nuclear submarines will be instrumental in establishing control of the joint battlespace and in determining the successful outcome of our military operations.”
Only one class of nuclear attack submarines is available today to ensure the fleet can fulfill those missions. The New Attack Submarine, offering a next-generation leap in speed and intelligence-gathering, land-attack and undersea warfare capabilities will help guarantee continued US military supremacy in a warfighting area that has shown no sign of becoming militarily irrelevant. And the longer the fleet has to wait for it, the higher the cost will be to US national security.
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