It is a generally accepted view among Western foreign policy and defense elites that a new era of great power competition has begun. According to the new National Security Strategy: “After being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century, great power competition returned. China and Russia began to reassert their influence regionally and globally… They are contesting our geopolitical advantages and trying to change the international order in their favor.”
A central element of this new competition is the major, one might even say massive, military buildup by America’s rivals. One area where the military dimension of the great power competition is becoming particularly fierce is under the seas. Both Russia and China are investing a great deal of government resources, which in the former’s case are relatively scarce, in a modern fleet of submarines, both attack and ballistic missiles, and undersea systems.
The U.S. no longer enjoys the overmatch in undersea warfare that it had after the Cold War ended. According to a long-time observer of the Russian military: “The Russians are closing the gap. And they have departed from their traditional sort of approach — with lots of mass and lots of submarines but of sort of varying quality — and they are taking a page from our playbook, which is go for quality instead.” The 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review affirmed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim that Russia had deployed an intercontinental, nuclear-armed, underwater torpedo.
Equally important, Russian naval forces, particularly their submarine fleet, are at a tempo unseen for nearly a quarter of a century. According to NATO’s Supreme Commander, U.S. General Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, “They are deploying more and they are deploying at a higher rate.” Russian submarines are active in all their old stomping grounds from the Black and Mediterranean Seas, to the North Atlantic and the Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap around to the Baltic. Russian submarines have been reported to be scouting the sea beds along the paths of the undersea cables that carry the bulk of all communications between Europe and the U.S.
If anything, China looks to soon pose an even greater naval threat to U.S interests, allies and friends. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the former head of U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, declared that “The People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) rapid evolution into a modern, high-tech fighting force continues to be both impressive and concerning. PLA capabilities are progressing faster than any other nation in the world, benefitting from robust resourcing and prioritization.”
An example of this buildup is the explosive growth of the PLA Navy. According to Admiral Harris: “The PLA Navy is in the midst of a massive shipbuilding program. If this program continues, China will surpass Russia as the world’s second largest Navy by 2020, when measured in terms of submarines and frigate class ships or larger.”
This growing maritime challenge from both Russia and China will require that the United States invest in a larger Navy and, in particular, an expanded force of nuclear powered attack submarines (SSNs). The best counter to an enemy submarine is one of your own. At the height of the Cold War, the Navy deployed around 100 SSNs. The current requirement is for 66 boats, up from a total of just 48 that the Navy thought it needed before the return of great power competition.
However, according to its 30-year shipbuilding plan, the Navy will suffer from a shortfall in attack submarines beginning in fiscal year (FY) 2025 and extending through FY2034 as the Cold War-era Los Angeles class SSNs are retired at a rate greater than the current plan to build their Virginia class SSN replacements. The overall size of the undersea fleet will decline from the current 54 boats to a low of 41 in 2028.
The modern Virginia class SSN is certainly the best attack submarine in the world. The Virginia class is extremely quiet and highly maneuverable. They have a fly-by-wire ship control system that provides improved shallow-water ship handling. Instead of the traditional periscopes, they have two photonic masts that do not pierce the hull and deploy visible and infrared digital cameras and intelligence collection sensors. There is an entirely new large aperture bow array sonar, conformal sonar arrays along the flanks and an advanced towed array.
Over time, the Virginia class program has added new capabilities for each group or block of submarines procured, including a new weapon launching systems, the large Virginia Payload Module on Block V and following boats, that can support an arsenal of weapons, improved sensors, a better battle management system and additional quieting technologies.
While each block of Virginia class SSNs is better than the ones built before, the problem is one of numbers. The two companies that build the submarine, General Dynamics Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls Industries, have reduced the time it takes to produce a submarine by more than a year while cutting the cost per boat by 10 percent. Together they are producing two boats a year. Both are now gearing up to build the Columbia class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), a replacement for the aging Ohio class SSBNs, while also continuing to produce Virginia class SSNs.
The Navy needs to take action to increase the size of the SSN fleet as rapidly as possible. One part of the solution is to refuel some of the current Los Angeles class SSNs, adding years to their operating life. Another part is to increase production of Virginia class SSNs. If Congress appropriated the additional funds, the submarine industrial base could expand to produce three Virginia class submarines a year.
If the United States Navy is going to successfully conduct the new great power competition under the seas, it is vital that the number of attack submarines not be allowed to decline to the predicted low. Losing the fight in this arena could well mean losing the next war. The risk of such an outcome is simply unacceptable.
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