Over the past ten years the number of attack submarines in the U.S. fleet has declined 40%. Meanwhile, the amount of secret intelligence-gathering the sub force has been asked to perform has doubled. Even though two-thirds of all mission days are now dedicated to such activities, there aren’t enough boats to go around. So last year, 365 days of requested intelligence-gathering (mostly for national agencies like CIA) could not be done. There’s no way of knowing what was missed; maybe it was a missile test, maybe a transfer of biological weapons to terrorists.
The Navy has 56 active attack subs today, but the Joint Chiefs say they will need 68 by 2015. The main way the service plans to fill this gap is by building a new generation of versatile, very stealthy Virginia- class subs. But the boats cost a billion dollars each, so in typical peacetime fashion some pundits and policymakers are looking for ways to avoid building as many subs as are needed. Two of the alternatives being discussed are truly bad ideas.
One proposes that attack subs get dual crews like Trident ballistic-missile subs, enabling each boat to be used more intensively. What’s wrong with that? First of all, the extra crews don’t exist, and it would take many years to prepare them. Second, boats would no longer be available for essential training. Third, because repairs and replenishment take time, even with two crews the gain in mission days would only be 40%. Fourth, the higher operating tempo would reduce submarine service lives by 20% — from 30 years to 24 years — leaving future administrations with an even bigger submarine construction bill.
The other idea is to extend the lives of subs due for retirement well beyond their intended 30 years. What’s wrong with that? There’s no way of knowing for sure when systems will finally begin failing. Reactor vessels are embrittled as a natural by-product of atomic fission. Structural elements are fatigued by continuous pressurization/depressurization cycles. The Navy has already decided it can safely extend the lives of some subs to 33 years, but now it’s considering even longer. If that sounds dangerous, it’s because it probably is. The Navy needs to stick with the plan and buy an adequate force of safe, modern submarines.
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