The Pentagon has begun building its fiscal 2011 budget request, which will be sent to the Congress next February. 2011 is the year that production of the Virginia-class attack submarine — the only class of subs the U.S. is currently building — will ramp up to two boats per year. Prime contractors General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman have done a good job of cutting costs and labor hours on the Virginia class, but it still costs about $2 billion per boat to build them. So maybe you’re wondering why they need to be produced at a higher rate when the Red Navy is long gone.
Part of the explanation is that Cold War attack submarines will begin retiring at the rate of three or four per year in the next decade, so the undersea fleet will start dwindling fast if we don’t produce more subs soon. But the real reason the Navy needs to keep a lot of subs in the fleet is intelligence gathering. There are some things a submarine can do that other collection platforms cannot — and I’m not just talking about tracking other warships. Consider the case of North Korea, a place where we need to monitor military developments closely.
North Korea is a hermit kingdom run by a brutal dictator, so developing human agents there is nearly impossible. That means our intelligence community needs to rely mostly on technical means to monitor developments. Aside from imagery, our most important intelligence product is electronic intercepts. But satellites are too far away to monitor many transmissions, and flying aircraft over North Korea is dangerous. Systems such as the EP-3 Aries II signals intelligence plane can fly along the coast, but like low-earth-orbit satellites, much of the time they are not in position to pick up critical intelligence.
That leaves submarines. They can remain submerged and undetected near North Korean areas of interest for months at a time, collecting electronic intercepts and transmitting them to remote locations for analysis. And while electronic signals typically travel in a straight line, natural phenomena along the coast like evaporative ducts bend and deflect transmissions so they can be intercepted despite intervening obstacles. So in addition to its sea control, maritime security, special operations and other more obvious missions, the Virginia-class attack sub is a vital cog in America’s system for assuring global awareness of threats originating in places like Korea, China, Iran and Cuba.
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