Submarine Salesmanship

Jan. 1, 2001

The numbers certainly sound distressing. In 1999, the US Navy’s attack submarine fleet was not able to carry out 365 ship-days’ worth of reconnaissance and surveillance missions. By mid-2000, it was on a pace to default on about 550 ship-days’ worth of spying assignments handed down last year by commanders and senior Washington officials.

The problem: The Navy’s fleet of 56 nuclear-powered fast attack boats is barely half as large as the Cold War force of 99 submarines, yet its intelligence taskings have nearly doubled since then. “We’re stretched too thin,” snapped Rear Adm. Albert Konetzni, commander of the Pacific submarine fleet, in Congressional testimony. “I need more submarines.”

The plight of the undersea fleet is not unique. Many communities inside the US military assert that they, too, are in need of more. The Army claims it requires an additional $10 billion per year to transform itself into a more agile and lethal ground force. The Marine Corps is pleading for more troops. The Air Force wants extra funds for its aerial tanker force and its space programs.

Even within the Navy, the submariners face tough competition. Surface warfare leaders warn that they’re about 20 ships short of their requirement, and naval aviators insist the fulfillment of all missions requires 15 big-deck aircraft carriers-three more than the 12 currently in service.

In the fight for defense dollars, however, the submariners have a secret weapon: A Joint Staff study that specifically calls for giving the Navy 26 more attack submarines than it would be entitled to get under terms of the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review, the blueprint for the contemporary force.

The QDR had determined that, by 2003, the Navy’s submarine force would need no more than 50 attack boats, far fewer than the 73 undersea craft that were then in service.

Since then, say senior submariners, the demand for their services has grown so much that there is now an acute shortage of undersea platforms. With the Joint Staff study providing the analytical backbone, the once-silent service has embarked upon a startling program of submarine salesmanship that has dominated Congressional testimony and media appearances in the general area of national defense.

Jewel in the Crown

In a recent session with military reporters in Washington, Adm. Frank Bowman, the director of naval nuclear propulsion and the Navy’s senior submariner, declared flatly that submarines are “the crown jewel in the nation’s arsenal.”

The case for more submarines, however, contains a major paradox.

The Navy’s attack submarine force was built to shadow and, when necessary, destroy Soviet subs poised to fire nuclear-tipped missiles at United States soil. They also were charged with protecting America’s own ballistic missile subs from the Soviet undersea fleet. Special missions such as monitoring foreign missile tests, eavesdropping on shore communications, and even sneaking into unfriendly harbors to observe activities there often were considered secondary duties.

Then the old Soviet empire collapsed, breaking apart into Russia and a collection of smaller countries, with Russia taking the submarines. By the time of the 1997 QDR, Russian boats rarely went to sea anymore. The dilapidated state of the Russian military seemed to permit broad reductions in the size of the US sub fleet, whose job it had been to keep the old Soviet Navy in the crosshairs.

Instead, submariners contend, the nation has a growing demand for the types of submarine spying missions that once were ancillary assignments. While intelligence-gathering activities are highly classified, submariners say they have been overwhelmed with requests for intelligence on countries such as North Korea, China, India, Pakistan, Libya, and Iran.

The proliferation of ballistic missile parts and other weapons-most often transported by oceangoing ships-keeps subs busy tracking smugglers. Foreign countries are becoming adept at evading the stare of US spy satellites, which they can track from the ground. These factors, submariners argue, have raised the value of submarines, which can sneak close to a country’s borders and raise surveillance antennas without being noticed.

Their stealthiness also makes subs attractive for other missions. Although subs carry fewer than half as many Tomahawk cruise missiles as cruisers or destroyers, they can fire them from a point much closer to shore and do so without being vulnerable to anti-ship missiles from coastal batteries or small patrol boats.

US attack boats still train for anti-submarine warfare against the few Russian subs that continue to go on patrol and against quiet diesel-electric subs operated by countries such as India, Iran, and North Korea. During the 1999 Kosovo war, USS Miami fired its full load of Tomahawks, monitored two Yugoslav subs in Yugoslavia port, and then shadowed a Russian Oscar­class guided-missile submarine that cruised into the Mediterranean.

Needed: 68 to 76 Subs

The Joint Staff study quantified all those demands. The document is classified, but the Pentagon did release a terse two page summary of its findings. The unclassified paper said the Joint Staff had concluded that, in 2015, the Navy would need 68 attack submarines to meet all requirements. By 2025, it went on, the Navy would need 76 subs.

Submarine advocates now refer to those numbers as set-in-stone Pentagon requirements.

“Sixty-eight submarines is the requirement,” Rear Adm. Malcolm Fages, the Navy’s director of submarine warfare told Congress. “It is a requirement which has come from the unified commanders. It is not a requirement that has been generated within the Navy or within the submarine force so that we could then justify a force structure requirement.”

Perhaps, but the math has been subject to varying interpretations. The Joint Staff study also found that an attack sub fleet as small as 55 boats in 2015, and 62 in 2025, would still be enough to fulfill all warfighting missions under current guidelines. Some demands for intelligence would remain unfulfilled, but the gaps would not be as pronounced as those anticipated in other areas of the military, particularly the gap between available strategic airlift and the amount actually needed to get troops and materiel to overseas theaters during wartime.

“They [submariners] have a requirement,” says a senior Pentagon official. “That doesn’t mean it’s affordable. It means you accept the loss of those mission days.”

Even that gap may be exaggerated-or so say officials involved in programs and activities that must compete against the submariners for resources.

“The CINCs [regional commanders] are asking for their services,” explains a naval surface warfare officer, but there are others who “have to look for relevancy.” And with another QDR looming in 2001, claims of unfulfilled missions bear the hallmarks of posturing for a budget battle.

“Bowman sees a unique opportunity with the QDR to make the case for an increase in sub force structure,” says a senior Navy official. By treating the higher numbers from the Joint Staff study as a baseline, he says, Bowman is trying to make a bigger sub force a fait accompli. “It’s a very clever, subtle thing he’s doing. The real number to meet the most critical requirements is 55.”

Year of Decision

Ultimately, it will be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Henry H. Shelton, and the incoming Defense Secretary who decide whether to pump up the submarine force over the next two decades. The 2001 QDR that they direct will re-examine all the spending priorities laid out in the last QDR. Shelton and others promise that the new QDR, unlike the 1997 version, will first lay out a coherent strategy for dealing with multiple conflicts in the world. Then it will determine how many troops and weapons systems will be required to fulfill that strategy. If political leaders aren’t willing to spend the money to do everything the strategy calls for, then the strategy will be scaled back, claim Pentagon officials.

In an ad hoc way, that’s already happening. In addition to lost mission days, submariners complain about fewer “engagement days” when they build goodwill with other navies through exercises and port calls. “How do you have influence,” wondered Konetzni at last summer’s Congressional hearing, “when your friends come to you and say, ‘Are you angry at us? You won’t exercise.’ “

Despite their pleas for more boats, senior submariners acknowledge that actually getting the requisite amount of money will face long odds. The Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan calls for building just one of the new Virginia­class submarines in each of the next 14 years. Reaching the preferred Joint Staff levels of 68 subs in 2015 and 76 in 2025 would require building Virginia­class subs at more than three times that rate.

“It would consume virtually all of the shipbuilding budget today,” acknowledged Bowman in his meeting with reporters.

A recent Congressional Budget Office report laid out in detail the implications of maintaining even the current sub fleet.

“The Navy plans to build less than one attack submarine a year between 2000 and 2006,” said CBO’s report. “That low rate of production is sufficient to maintain a fleet of 55 attack subs through 2015. … But continuing to build one new attack submarine a year indefinitely would lead to a fleet of 28 by 2028, and 33 in the very long term, as older subs were retired at a faster rate than they were replaced.

“Maintaining the 55-sub force for a longer period means that the Navy must increase procurement to two submarines a year after 2006. Annual costs for producing two submarines a year would be about $3.5 billion-approximately half of the Navy’s total shipbuilding budget for 2000 (a year in which the Navy is not buying an aircraft carrier).”

More With Less

In addition to pleading for more Virginia­class boats-at nearly $2 billion apiece-submariners are exploring ways in which they can further stretch the service life of the existing fleet.

One option is to convert four soon-to-retire Trident subs-the big “boomers” that prowl the deeps with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles-into guided-missile boats carrying as many as 154 conventionally armed Tomahawk cruise missiles. Such nuclear powered guided-missile submarines, designated SSGNs, might be equipped to handle some spying missions themselves. More importantly though, they’d carry the firepower of five or six standard attack boats, which could be freed for other missions.

These new SSGNs would last as long as 20 years. However, the conversion would cost about $600 million per ship, which could put them into funding competition with other Navy warships.

The Navy also may refuel the nuclear cores of eight of its older attack subs, which would coax an extra 12 to 13 years of service life out of them. That would cost about $230 million per ship, about half of which is already available if that’s how the Navy chooses to spend it. But some inside the Navy would like to see that money used as a down payment on SSGNs.

Submariners are also looking for ways to get more use out of the attack subs already in the fleet, which only spend about half of their time at sea.

One plan, which most view as the most promising of the lot, calls for permanently stationing as many as five attack boats at Guam, just as the Navy keeps a carrier battle group homeported in Yokosuka, Japan. Building a sub base on Guam would cut transit times so much-compared with basing them in Hawaii, for instance-that forward deployed subs could spend up to three times as many days on station.

New technology may also produce more spying per submarine.

“An increase in attack submarine sensors and weapons,” says Ron O’Rourke of the Congressional Research Service, “could in the future help permit an attack submarine force of a given size to perform significantly greater numbers of missions than is possible today.”

The Navy’s submarine force evinces less enthusiasm for another innovative idea: “double crewing.” After a time at sea, one crew would simply turn the sub over to another crew, which means the sub would spend less time in port and more under way.

Even though the Navy runs its fleet of 18 nuclear-missile-carrying boomers with such “blue” and “gold” crews, submariners argue that the model wouldn’t work with attack subs.

“We don’t have the people to do that,” insists Bowman. “I don’t have in my bottom drawer 56 standby crews.”

Beyond that, he says, it is much easier to swap crews on boomers, which go on routine, predictable patrols, than on attack subs, which during a deployment often are tasked to do a number of unanticipated missions in strange waters.

“We are not going to stiff-arm this concept,” says Bowman, “but we are going to study it very, very carefully and be careful before we move forward.”

Richard J. Newman is the Washington­based defense correspondent and senior editor for US News & World Report. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “The Misty FACs Return,” appeared in the October 2000 issue.