Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Roiling Debate over Size of US Sub Fleet ; Push for More Submarines Raises Questions about Cost - and the Military's Role in a Post-Cold-War Era

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Roiling Debate over Size of US Sub Fleet ; Push for More Submarines Raises Questions about Cost - and the Military's Role in a Post-Cold-War Era

Article excerpt

Few weapons better illustrate the challenges now facing the US military than the Navy's attack submarines.

Stealthy, heavily armed, and expensive, they once patrolled the seas searching for Soviet ballistic-missile launchers, ready to strike in the event of a nuclear showdown.

Today, 100 years after the Navy purchased its first underwater craft, submarines face a reversal of fortune: They are the hunted.

Indeed, arguments to shrink the size of the America's submarine force are intensifying, even as the Joint Chiefs of Staff advance a proposal to expand it.

The disagreement is rooted in a larger debate about the role of the US military in the post-cold-war world. Supporters say the subs' intelligence-gathering capability is particularly well-suited to today's challenge of keeping tabs on so-called rogue states. Detractors, however, say that there are better - and less expensive - ways to accomplish that objective.

Compared with other projects, such as a national missile defense and new lines of stealthy aircraft, submarines hardly seem to be a priority in 21st-century warfare. Russia's fleet has eroded, and, as a result, the role of the US attack submarine has diminished. Today, their responsibilities are primarily intelligence gathering, fleet support, and even monitoring the earth's polar ice caps.

Then, there's the money problem, something shared by the entire Department of Defense. While a report by the Joint Chiefs recently recommended a hefty increase in production of attack submarines, a large fleet could break the Navy's budget.

"The force goals that the [Pentagon] is talking about are going to be very expensive," says Eric Labs, a Navy budget expert at the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Paying for a larger fleet "will take a dramatic change in the budget picture."

At issue is how many attack submarines the Navy needs. The current number, 56, is down from 93 a decade ago. The Joint Chiefs of Staff report, however, recommends that the Navy have 68 by 2015, and as many as 76 by 2025.

Advocates of cutting the force, on the other hand, argue that 25 submarines could do the job - and fit projected defense budgets. New subs cost close to $2 billion each, and bringing the fleet up to 68 would require a spending increase of about $15 billion. Yet, while the overall defense budget has been cut about 44 percent since the end of the cold war, the submarine budget has gone down less, by 40 percent.

"Many of these decisions [that the US needs more attack submarines] are based on congressional and Pentagon politics, rather than what we actually need," says Ivan Eland, a defense specialist at the Cato Institute here, who favors a smaller fleet.

Those who back the idea of a larger fleet say submarines are suited to both old and new dangers. They say the threat against the US remains high, with Russia unstable, China on the rise, and so- called rogue nations like North Korea, Iran, and Iraq getting easier access to new technology and weapons of mass destruction. …

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