It's Time to Mothball Unneeded Nuclear Attack Submarines

Article excerpt

In the post-Cold War era, 25--instead of the proposed 50--submarines would be more than enough to assure U.S. underwater security.

DURING the latter stages of the old War, the U.S. force of nuclear-powered attack submarines reached approximately 100. A primary mission of those vessels was to fight the large Soviet attack submarine force. In any conflict, U.S. attack submarines also would have hunted Soviet nuclear-powered subs designed to launch nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles at the U.S.

Thus, U.S. attack submarines were more focused on Cold War missions than were most other weapons--for example, aircraft carriers, which mostly were tasked to intervene in crises in the Third World. As a result, with the demise of the Soviet Union and the virtual collapse of the U.S.'s main naval adversary, the Department of Defense (DoD), in its 1993 Bottom-Up Review, planned to reduce the attack submarine force to between 45 and 55 ships in the post-Cold War era. That review argued that 45 submarines would be needed to fight two major regional wars and 55 to provide the required presence overseas during peacetime. The 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review reassessed that goal and chose 50, the midpoint in the range. Although the planned force of 50 submarines is half the size of the force during the Cold War, even that number is much too high.

The effective reduction of the amount of submarines needed for the overseas presence without any DoD justification leads to the suspicion that the requirement has been inflated primarily to justify building 30 unneeded new attack submarines (NSSNs). The NSSN was projected to replace the Seawolf, its predecessor.

Meant to operate against Soviet subs during the Cold War, the expensive Seawolf (more than $2,000,000,000 apiece) was canceled, effective with completion of the third. With declining budgets for shipbuilding after the Cold War ended, the Navy designed the NSSN to be a less expensive alternative (about $1,500,000,000 each) that could be built in greater numbers. The ship was designed to be as quiet as the Seawolf, but is slower, carries fewer weapons, and can not dive as deep.

To maintain a force of even 50-55 nuclear attack submarines, the Navy would not need to produce any more until 2010. As a result, the Navy is decommissioning more than 600 Los Angeles-class nuclear submarines early--before the end of their 30-year usable life--so that it can finish building the three new SSN-21 Seawolf submarines and begin producing successor NSSNs. It is dubious logic to be scrapping usable submarines and replacing them with new ones when the Navy already has widely recognized undersea superiority.

The two most prominent justifications for retaining a force of 50 attack subs, as well as building three Seawolf submarines and 30 NSSNs, are the alleged satisfaction of military requirements and the need to ensure a healthy industrial base to produce submarines in the future. Neither of those justifications is valid.

Military needs

The submarine is hard to find and kill in its underwater environment and can have a devastating effect in a war at sea. In the two world wars, submarines were extremely effective at destroying military and commercial surface vessels. The submarine has added lethal anti-ship cruise missiles to the torpedoes already in its offensive arsenal. Thus, the submarine now may be the dominant naval weapon.

A smaller fleet of about 25 would be sufficient to carry out a foreign policy that tries to keep the U.S. out of regional wars, the vast majority of which are unimportant to American national security, and would be more than enough to fight one major theater war. A force of such size would be a hedge against the improbable reconstruction of the Russian submarine fleet as a viable fighting force or the eventual rise of a potent regional submarine navy--for instance, that of China. If more subs were needed to combat such unlikely threats, the U. …

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