Daniel Gouré, The Lexington Institute
9 November 2015
For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the United States Navy is being challenged at sea. Recently, Russian attack submarines were reported to be sneaking around the international undersea cable lines that are critical to both our commercial and military communications. Russian submarines have begun much more aggressive patrolling in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Pacific. These are modern, capable ships armed with advanced anti-ship and antisubmarine weapons. Moscow’s surface Navy also is demonstrating new and improved capabilities such as its recent launch of several dozen land-attack cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea Flotilla. According to Admiral Mark Ferguson, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe and commander of the Allied Joint Force Command, “We are observing the manifestation of a more aggressive, more capable Russian Navy. It is naval capability focused directly on addressing the perceived advantages of NATO navies. And they are signaling us and warning us that the maritime domain is contested.”
The Navy faces a similar or perhaps even greater challenge from the Peoples Republic of China. The Chinese Navy is in the midst of a major quantitative and qualitative buildup of its naval forces, including both conventional and nuclear-powered attack submarines, surface combatants and even aircraft carriers. China also is deploying an array of air, sea and land-based anti-ship missiles, including the DF21-D ballistic missile, the so-called “carrier killer.” The growing Chinese area denial threat could well force U.S. surface forces to withdraw out of effective range of allies and bases in the Western Pacific.
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). At the height of the Cold War, the Navy deployed around 100 SSNs. The current requirement is for 48 boats. However, according to its 30-year shipbuilding plan, the Navy will suffer from a shortfall in attack submarines beginning in FY2025 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 replacements. The overall size of the force will decline from the current 54 boats to a low of 41 in 2028.
Without question, the Virginia-class SSNs are significantly more capable than its predecessor, the Los Angeles class. 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 photonics 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. Advanced weapons launch systems, including the large Virginia Payload Modules on Block V and following boats, support an arsenal of torpedoes, Tomahawk cruise missiles, unmanned underwater vehicles and, eventually, undersea launched missiles. The Virginia class also includes innovations to support deployment of Special Operations forces and divers.
The requirement for 48 SSNs was based on the belief that the U.S. Navy would not face even one significant challenge to its dominance at sea, much less two. Although each Virginia class is an improvement over its predecessors, the reality is that a single boat cannot be in two places at once. Even at present, demand for SSNs exceeds available boats. Moreover, as the threat to forward deployed U.S. surface forces and bases grows, SSNs are likely to become not just more important but absolutely critical to this nation’s ability to deter conflict and project power into Eurasia. In the face of this new reality, the size of the future SSN force needs to be re-evaluated. The minimum necessary number of SSNs for the era we are entering will be higher.
The Navy and the current submarine industrial base will be challenged to support both the two-a-year production rate for the Virginia-class SSNs and produce the 12 nuclear ballistic missile submarines to replace the current Ohio class. These two programs need to be properly sequenced in order to make best use of facilities and skilled manpower. Even if more shipbuilding money becomes available for naval construction, adding additional SSNs to the 30-year plan will not be easy. The sooner we recognize the need for a larger SSN force and begin the appropriate planning, the easier it will be for the submarine industrial base to respond. Fortunately, investments made over the past decade in advanced design and manufacturing has made it both easier and cheaper to build Virginia-class SSNs.