Over the past ten years, the strategic intelligence taskings for the Navy’s nuclear-powered attack submarines have doubled. During the same period, the number of attack subs in the active fleet declined nearly 40% – from 91 in 1990 to 56 today. At some point these two trendlines crossed, because the Navy no longer has enough subs to satisfy all U.S. intelligence requirements.
The Navy seldom says anything in public about its undersea intelligence systems, but earlier this month RADM Malcolm Fages, the Director of Undersea Warfare, told the New London Day that the sub force is “not able to do some of the national-level missions that we’re asked to do.” “National level” in Pentagon parlance means strategic eavesdropping and reconnaissance, the kind of intelligence that transcends day-to-day tactical needs. Fages said, “we have submarines that have been doing the highest-priority [intelligence] missions, and they have been pulled off those missions to go off and do other work.”
The problem is that attack subs have other missions such as land attack (using cruise missiles) and antisubmarine warfare. Because they are stealthy, subs are in demand for a range of missions. But with the force reduced to 56 boats worldwide – and a large fraction in transit or in maintenance at any time – the likelihood of having more than one nearby when a crisis arises is not high. So subs have to be pulled off intelligence duty to do other things.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says the nation needs 68 attack subs in 2015 to meet all military requirements, including 18 with the latest (Virginia-class) capabilities. But at the rate the U.S. plans to retire old subs, it’s going to be hard just to stay at 56 (see chart). The service needs to refuel some Cold War-era subs slated for retirement to preserve adequate numbers.
Beyond that, the nation needs to start replacing aging attack subs with the more versatile Virginia class. The cheapest way to do that is to commit to a “block” or multi-year buy of subs that enables shipyards to purchase materials efficiently. It’s going to be hard enough to rebuild the sub force without making believe the Navy has some alternative to buying Virginia-class boats for many years to come. Committing to multiple purchases up front at least minimizes the cost of each boat.
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