Submarines are the oldest major weapon system still in the U.S. military inventory, predating both fixed-wing aircraft and heavy armor. Their continued utility in modern warfare is attributable to a remarkable capacity to adapt to new warfighting requirements. Major steps in the submarine’s evolution since World War II include the introduction of nuclear propulsion, long-range land-attack munitions, and advanced sensors for monitoring various developments ashore.
While Trident ballistic-missile submarines will remain the backbone of the U.S. nuclear deterrent for the foreseeable future, it is the more versatile attack submarine that is likely to play a growing role in conventional strike warfare. Because nuclear-powered attack subs combine stealth with long undersea endurance, they are able to safely gain access to regions where other U.S. military assets would be at risk. This access in turn enables them to collect many forms of valuable intelligence and to launch strikes against land targets with a maximum degree of surprise. The introduction of increasingly capable sensors and munitions, along with greatly improved communications links to other U.S. forces, suggest that attack submarines will become a key node for strike warfare in the littorals – perhaps the only node that can assure so high a level of survivability, versatility, precision and awareness.
However, the attack submarine’s intrinsic virtues may be compromised by a failure to maintain adequate levels of force structure and new-ship construction. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have determined that regional commanders will need 68 attack subs by 2015 to meet peacetime security requirements, but satisfying that need requires expanding the current force structure of 56 operational attack subs by twenty percent. Unfortunately, projected levels of construction in the Navy’s sole remaining submarine-production program – the Virginia-class – appear too low to close the gap, especially given the numerous retirements of older subs expected in the next decade. The United States thus faces a serious shortfall in future warfighting capabilities resulting from inadequate levels of investment in the attack-submarine program.
This white paper consists of two parts: a discussion of attack-submarine utility in strike warfare, and a discussion of attack-submarine availability. The first part was drafted by Phillip Thompson and the second part by Loren Thompson, both of the Lexington Institute staff. All members of the Naval Strike Forum had an opportunity to review and modify the final report.
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