The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has completed a comprehensive study of attack-submarine requirements in the years 2015 and 2025. The study is a follow-up to the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review, which recommended the Navy reduce its attack-sub fleet to 50 boats by 2003. There are 56 attack subs operational today, down from 90 ten years ago.
The study found the U.S. would need 68 nuclear-powered attack subs in 2015 and 76 in 2025. Those are higher numbers than most observers expected, and the reason why is revealing: instead of using an abstract force-sizing methodology, the Joint Staff asked U.S. regional military commanders around the world to list and prioritize their actual needs. It soon became apparent that there was a huge requirement for surveillance, reconnaissance and other intelligence-gathering performed by submarines.
Intelligence missions are the missing link in public discussion of attack subs. In a community traditionally called the “silent service”, intelligence gathering is the most secret mission. The Navy would rather talk about how stealthy and versatile attack subs are, about how they can destroy enemy subs or use cruise missiles to attack land targets hundreds of miles from the sea before their presence is apparent.
But that’s precisely why they make such good intelligence platforms: no one knows they’re around, even when they’re close by. They can tap undersea cables, monitor military frequencies, send special forces ashore to conduct reconnaissance, and carry out a host of other intelligence missions without adversaries having any idea they are being scrutinized. Unlike spy satellites, they can get very close to targets, and there is no predictability to when they’ll be within range. Unlike surveillance planes, they can loiter for months and not have to worry about being intercepted.
So for many intelligence missions, attack subs are the perfect tool. There is only one problem: the U.S. has largely stopped building them. Which is why, unless the Pentagon gets moving on block purchases of new Virginia-class subs, there’s no way future military needs will be met.
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