The charts at the bottom of the page tell a striking story of the fate that has befallen America’s attack- submarine fleet in the post-communist era. Attack subs are the boats that carry out every undersea mission except nuclear deterrence. Over the past ten years, the nation has largely stopped building such subs. After building 28 attack subs from 1981-1990, the Navy only built four from 1991-2000.
All U.S. attack subs are nuclear-powered. Their normal service life is 30 years, after which reactors become embrittled and structural welds begin to show signs of fatigue. So most of the boats built during 1981-1990 will probably be retired between 2011 and 2020. That raises a question about how many boats will be left in the active fleet once mass retirements commence.
There are three basic reasons why the question matters. First of all, surface vessels may become more vulnerable in the future as adversaries acquire long-range missiles, overhead reconnaissance and other advanced technologies. Second, no other weapon in the U.S. arsenal provides an attack sub’s combination of stealth, versatility and staying power (they can stay on station for months at a time). Third, the range of intelligence-gathering and reconnaissance missions assigned to attack subs has doubled since 1990.
Because subs can secretly monitor communications, missile tests and other activities more precisely and continuously than aircraft or satellites, their use for that purpose has grown rapidly. Taskings are up 100% while the number of boats is down 40%. Two-thirds of all submarine mission days are now spent on such missions. Most of the increased demand comes from national-level users such as the CIA.
But at 56 boats today, the sub fleet is already overstretched: last year it had to forego 365 mission days of requested intelligence gathering because boats weren’t available. So what happens when mass retirements begin ten years from now? That depends on the decisions the next administration makes. It needs to find safe, reliable ways of making each sub more productive. And it needs to increase the production of Virginia-class attack subs above the current rate of one per year. The Virginia class is much more capable than its predecessors, but that hardly matters if too few are bought to do the job.
Find Archived Articles: