The Navy’s long-range plan for its undersea warfare fleet is overdue for an update. The current plan contains major gaps that could leave the undersea fleet unable to maintain an adequate level of forward presence or cope with emerging adversaries such as China. First, the service has failed to provide a credible funding concept for replacing Ohio-class ballistic missile subs that are the backbone of the nation’s nuclear deterrent. Second, the service has not offered a solution for how it will deal with the retirement of four cruise-missile subs constituting most of the undersea conventional-strike capability in the present fleet. Third, the service is not buying enough Virginia-class attack subs to sustain current levels of intelligence gathering and sea-control activity. Fourth, the service continues to predict development of a replacement for the Virginia class that will not be feasible in the planned timeframe given the dedication of scarce design capabilities to the Ohio replacement.
Collectively, these gaps add up to an undersea-warfare plan that is neither believable nor responsive to future warfighting requirements. In the years ahead, the nation will need to rely more, not less, on the undersea fleet to sustain strategic deterrence, gather sensitive intelligence, and assure presence in places where surface warships have become too vulnerable. The Navy therefore must have a credible plan for maintaining undersea capabilities, which means allocating adequate levels of funding to support executable construction programs. The first step in any such plan is to explain how the $80 billion Ohio replacement program is supposed to fit inside a naval ship construction budget that currently claims a mere two-percent of defense spending. It obviously cannot, and Navy leaders therefore need to have a serious conversation with Pentagon leaders and the Congress about increasing the shipbuilding budget at least 30 percent during the time the Ohio replacement is being built.
The next step is to figure out how the Virginia class of attack subs can be modified to carry more land-attack cruise missiles per warship so there is no shortfall in undersea strike capabilities when current cruise-missile subs are retired. This presumably means increasing the length of vessels to accommodate mid-hull launch tubes, which may require extensive changes to assure adequate survivability. In addition, the Navy needs to bolster the multiyear buy of Virginia-class subs to mitigate the shortfall in available boats that becomes critical at precisely the same time when cruise-missile carriers are exiting the fleet (from 2026 onward). The highest-leverage option is to add an additional sub to the multiyear buys in 2018 and 2023 — the only years in either buy when the service proposes to purchase a single boat rather than two.
Finally, the Navy needs to acknowledge the reality that it will not be developing a replacement of the Virginia class for decades to come because it lacks the technical talent to do so while also developing an Ohio replacement at the same time. In other words, the service should be acting like the Virginia class is the only undersea warship that it will be building other than the Ohio replacement until mid-century, and plan its ship construction program accordingly. Unfortunately, the shipbuilding plan it is using today doesn’t reflect such realities, and thus leaves policymakers without a valid framework for thinking through future budgetary tradeoffs. Undersea warships probably have a bright future in the emerging threat environment, but that future cannot be realized unless the Navy has a credible plan for acquiring the right capabilities in a timely fashion.
Find Archived Articles: