Article Published in Proceedings magazine
The nation’s submarine force is at flank speed ahead on multiple fronts. Submarines are making critical contributions to the Global War on Terror (GWOT). The community is looking toward increasing the submarine construction rate in a few years. And warfighters are expanding the mission sets for both attack subs (SSNs) and converted Boomers (SSGNs). Believe it or not, submarines are even getting into the anti-air warfare business.
The new Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Mike Mullen, is moving to help the submarine community deal with dangerous shortfalls that will hit the undersea fleet in the coming decades. If current build and retirement rates continue, America will have only 28 attack subs in the year 2028. But Mullen has now proposed two Virginia-class SSNs for the shipbuilding budget starting in 2012, and may be considering options for increasing the build rate sooner to ensure that the force never falls below 40 SSNs and SSGNs. The end zone in this fight is to get a second SSN into the Five Year Defense Plan with real money placed against the boat.
One of the principal advantages of the nuclear-powered American submarine force is their stealthy and global reach. Given their long range and endurance, submarines are a great WestPac–China story that many people understand. But some continue to believe that they don’t play much of a role in the GWOT. In fact they have been delivering the goods on Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), helping catch and disrupt jihadists and their operations, and the Combatant Commanders can’t get enough of these stealthy platforms. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld himself thrives on their reporting ability and long endurance on station.
Submarines–both SSNs and SSGNs– combine stealth, ISR, sea and land attack, and Special Operations (SOF) on one platform. Undersea warfare, like air dominance, enables the rest of the force. It is the key link in sequential maritime warfare. Submarines make sure an area is clear and safe, or they can attack with surprise from close-in, then surface ships can come in and do broader missions, including air operations and land attack.
For instance, once the United Kingdom sunk the cruiser General Belgrano with an SSN-based torpedo, the rest of the Argentine surface navy stayed in port for the duration of the 1982 Falklands war. At the same time, an Argentinean submarine–the San Luis–got loose amidst the British battle fleet, and had her torpedoes not misfired there is a good chance the Brits would have lost that war. Even one hit from a stealthy sub while the Brits were already taking hits from Exocet cruise missiles could have sent the British fleet, or what was left of it, sailing the 7000 nautical miles home.
The SSGN community is now driving to expand beyond Tomahawks and SOF. There are several new missiles under consideration for these voluminous platforms. First and foremost is a Submarine Launched Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (SLIRBM). SLIRBM has a 1500-2500 mile range, can reach its target in 15 minutes, has better accuracy than a D5, and hits its target with tremendous kinetic energy. It is the ultimate bin Laden or Zarqawi killer.
Another missile under consideration for the SSGN is the Joint High Speed Weapon, which is tactical, not ballistic, and has a range of 4-600 miles. The Defense Department is also considering a conventional warhead for the D5s on board our Boomers for deep penetration land attack missions. This latter idea may quickly run up against the powerful arms control faction in the U.S. Senate.
And the sub community is finally preparing to enter the anti-air warfare arena. A Littoral Warfare Weapon is being developed for submarines, a small diameter missile like the AIM-9 that can be fired without surfacing. It’s presence on subs could quickly take enemy helicopters and maritime patrol aircraft out of an area. While this new dimension to sub warfare is not a hard technological leap, it is a radical and long overdue addition to one of our nation’s most valuable sea-based assets.
Some defense planners have come up with the concept of “overmatch,” another excuse to cut our weapons modernization plan that would focus on areas of undeniable American strength like air superiority. But perhaps it is better to build on American asymmetrical strengths the way the submarine community has. They have taken a classical Cold War platform, added new missions and multiplied its effectiveness across the battle spectrum. That is how you win wars, and save American lives.
Merrick “Mac” Carey, a former senior aide on Capitol Hill, is CEO of the Lexington Institute.
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