U.S. Navy Boosts Submarine Plans As Tensions With Russia And China Worsen
In the years since the Cold War ended, the Virginia class of nuclear-powered attack submarines has been one of the defense department’s most successful weapons programs. Produced from its inception through a partnership of the Electric Boat unit of General Dynamics and the Newport News Shipbuilding unit of Huntington Ingalls Industries, the program consistently delivers the world’s most advanced multi-role submarines on time and on cost. Both companies contribute to my think tank; GD is a consulting client.
U.S. attack submarines are designed to accomplish every undersea military mission except nuclear deterrence (that is reserved for a separate class of ballistic missile subs). During the Cold War, the dominant mission was anti-submarine warfare against the Red Navy, but today the Virginia and older Los Angeles class attack subs spend much of their time collecting intelligence, policing the sea lanes against hostile surface vessels, supporting carrier operations, and covertly delivering special operations forces. They can also lay mines and attack land targets using cruise missiles.
And therein lies a problem. There are barely 50 attack subs in the Navy’s entire fleet, and that number is projected to decline as legacy boats are retired at a faster rate than new ones are commissioned. To make matters worse, the Ohio class of ballistic missile subs will begin retiring in the next decade, beginning with four boats converted to conventional land-attack platforms after the Cold War ended. So the Navy will need to start building a new class of subs for nuclear deterrence at the same time attack sub numbers are declining.
Judging from the most recent version of the national defense strategy, threats will be increasing as undersea assets are decreasing. To quote the strategy, “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern of U.S. national security.” Attack subs are the only type of warship in the entire naval inventory that combine unlimited endurance and versatility with a high likelihood of surviving when operating in close proximity to near-peer adversaries. But 50 attack subs, or fewer, simply isn’t enough to do the job.
For starters, most of the subs are not available where they are needed on any given day. They are on training missions, or they are in transit, or they are being maintained and repaired. Once the subs that actually are available get distributed between the Western Pacific, the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean Sea and other hot spots, there are bound to be shortages. And that’s before the question of which missions should be prioritized is addressed. You can’t eavesdrop on North Korea and support carrier operations in the South China Sea at the same time.
So the Navy needs more attack subs. They are literally the only warships that can perform many of the missions they are assigned. During the Obama years, the rock-bottom number the Navy considered acceptable was 48, a number it will dip below midway through the next decade. But that goal was driven by a national security strategy that drastically under-estimated the threat likely to be posed by Russia and China — not to mention Iran and North Korea — in the years ahead. The strategy resulted in naval shipbuilding budgets being under-funded.
Today, things have changed. The Trump national defense strategy frankly acknowledges that Russia, China, and several lesser nations are “revisionist” powers bent on challenging U.S. interests. It also acknowledges that while America has been distracted fighting terrorists in Southwest Asia, those countries have made big strides in improving their military capabilities and fielding new warfighting technologies. President Trump’s big increase in defense spending last year was a recognition that threat levels demand more resources.
The Navy now has a new goal for its attack sub fleet. It wants 66 boats, a 38% increase over the plan inherited from the Obama years. Even that number hardly seems adequate if the U.S. continues to be the main guarantor of security for dozens of allies in Eurasia — most of whom have their populations and economies concentrated within a hundred miles of the sea — but it’s a start. Problem is, it takes a long time to build subs, and there are limits to what the submarine industrial base can deliver even with increased largesse from Washington.
Electric Boat and Newport News are the only shipyards in the Western Hemisphere capable of assembling nuclear-powered submarines, and even they have a division of labor as to which yard builds which parts of the finished vessel. BWXT (another contributor to my think tank) is the only domestic producer of the nuclear reactors and components that provide sub propulsion. Because submarine technology is so specialized and demanding, the supplier base is full of one-of-a-kind sources — in other words, potential “single points of failure.”
So the Navy can’t launch a crash program to avert the danger of insufficient attack subs in a future East-West war. What it needs to do is build more subs at a sustainable pace, without stressing the supplier base to a point where mistakes are made. Under the construction plan inherited from the Obama years, the Navy intended to order two Virginias every year unless it was a year in which a new ballistic missile sub was ordered. In the twelve years when a ballistic missile sub was ordered – 2021, 2024 and 2026-2035 — it would only be buying one attack sub each year.
Now, with the increased funding the Trump defense budget has provided, its plan is to buy two Virginia class every year, regardless of whether a ballistic missile sub is funded in a year or not. Sustaining a rate of two attack subs per year is actually more efficient than varying the rate, but the Navy admits there are concerns about shipyard capacity, the availability of specialized skills, and the supplier base. The planned surge in submarine construction will have to be carefully managed by the Naval Sea Systems Command and contractors.
The operational dilemma, though, is that the undersea fleet is stuck with the poor choices made by past administrations. Even if Virginia production is sustained at two boats per year, the number of attack subs is destined to continue declining for ten years. The service might mitigate this problem by extending the lives of a handful of legacy subs, but the bottom line is that even if Trump levels of funding persist, the Navy will not reach its goal of 66 operational attack subs until mid-century.
And that is not the only challenge. The four ballistic missile subs that were converted to conventional land attack platforms after the Cold War ended collectively have 616 cruise missiles that might provide a potent opening salvo in any future war. Something will have to be done to restore the lost firepower when they retire in the next decade. The Navy’s solution is to insert a new section in Virginia class hulls beginning in 2019 that can carry an additional 28 Tomahawk land attack missiles.
Ronald O’Rourke, the respected senior naval analyst of the Congressional Research Service, says that would increase the capacity of each Virginia class boat to carry “torpedo-sized weapons” such as Tomahawks by 76%. But he also notes that it would require 22 Virginias in the new configuration to fully replace the 616 land-attack munitions that will exit the fleet when the four converted ballistic missile subs retire. So any way you slice it, the U.S. Navy is headed for reduced undersea capabilities in the years ahead, even as threats rise.
Which brings me back to where I started. The Virginia class has been an exceptionally well-managed program that incorporated new warfighting features and manufacturing processes with each successive production lot (or “block”). Thus, there is reason to expect that a change in the hull configuration and increase in the production rate will unfold smoothly. What the Navy can’t escape anytime soon is the fallout from underestimating the threat posed by near-peer powers during the Bush and Obama years. That mistake will take many years to rectify.