Running Too Silent and Too Deep?

By Lieutenant Commander Gary Watson, Jr., U.S. Navy

Russia has maintained a force of more than 180 nuclear and diesel submarines. The U.S. intelligence community is predicting that the Russian Navy is building toward a higher-quality force of 20 ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), 60 nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs), and 40 diesels by early in the next decade. The intelligence community also sees an increased proliferation of submarine technology to many Third World nations, including Iran, China, North Korea, and India. Many of these developing countries are operating diesel-electric submarines produced by the former Soviet Union, and the Russians continue to build diesel-electric submarines—for their navy and for sale.

With such proliferation, it would seem that Congress would be eager to hand the U.S. Navy dollars to build more submarines. Instead of debating how many submarines are needed to counter the Russian threat, however, the Navy and Congress are battling over what submarine should be built, who should build it, and when.

The Current U.S. Force

The Navy currently operates more than 80 SSNs—most of them of the Los Angeles (SSN-688/6881) class. By 2001, that number may be down to as few as 50. 2 The 1993 Bottom-Up Review calls for a reduction in the total number of attack submarines to 45-55 by 2000. In contrast, the Joint Staff has determined that as many as 66 submarines are needed to provide the required warfighting capability, and the Fleet commanders-in-chief have stated that a minimum of 67 are needed to perform the missions currently assigned. 3 In addition, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have identified a requirement for 10-12 submarines with Seawolf -level quieting by 2012. 4

The Navy's plan to reduce the number of submarines is predicated on the early decommissioning of older 688class SSNs, most of which will have more than half of their useful service lives (nominal 30 years) remaining. The rest of the 688s will reach the end of their service lives sometime in the early 21st century, and the Navy has investigated two submarine programs to replace them.

In the late 1980s the U.S. Navy developed the Seawolf , a follow-on submarine designed to be the stealthiest in the world. Quieter than any Soviet submarine, the Seawolf would be able to counter the Soviet threat, as well as any developing threat in the littorals. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, that threat disappeared. The program, initially envisioned to be 29 submarines, quickly was reduced to two by a Congress concerned with the program's exorbitant costs.

The Navy, realizing a need for a more affordable submarine, began design work for the Centurion (later renamed the New Attack Submarine [NSSN]). Congress, however, did not plan to purchase the NSSN until 1998 and continued to tighten the fiscal constraints on the Navy budget. The anticipated lapse in submarine production prompted one of the two nuclear submarine producing shipyards, General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut, to indicate that it would not survive if forced to wait for the NSSN. 5 Faced with this dilemma, the Navy has convinced Congress that a third Seawolf is required and closed its mind to alternative strategies, convinced that the NSSN will solve its future problems.

The Navy's Plan

The Navy's strategy for its attack submarine force is to build the third Seawolf (SSN-23) to bridge the gap in submarine production and then to follow that with procurement of the NSSN, beginning in 1998. The debates over this plan have been heated, but the Navy received authorization to build the SSN-23 in June 1995. The Seawolf program will give the Navy three submarines quieter than the best Russian submarine, capable of operations in both open-ocean and littoral environments, and able to perform the full range of post-Cold War missions. It is estimated that the total program cost for the first two submarines has exceeded $11 billion and that the third will cost more than $3 billion when completed. In contrast, the first NSSN is expected to cost $3.5 billion, with a decrease to $1.5 billion by the fifth submarine in the program. 6

In testimony before the House Procurement Subcommittee in 1995, Nora Slatken, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition (RD&A), noted that the NSSN will be "the first nuclear submarine designed to focus on a broad spectrum of missions rather than Cold War priorities." 7 It will adopt the quieting technology achieved in the Seawolf and new capabilities specially designed for littoral warfare.

Now, the focus of debates is whether this submarine incorporates all the technology available to date. Mr. John Douglas, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for RD&A, and then-Vice Admiral Thomas Lopez, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations, testified before Congress in March 1996 that the NSSN "is designed for what we envision the use of submarines to be in the 21st century .. [W]e’re quite satisfied that where we don't have the technology today, we have the growth potential to put it in." 8

Who will build the NSSN and when are issues at the forefront of today's discussions. The Navy originally awarded the design and initial construction to Electric Boat. It would have preferred that yard to have built all 30 submarines presently scheduled in the NSSN program, but after complaints from Newport News shipyard executives, Congress, concerned with maintaining competition in submarine construction, overruled the Navy plan. In 1995, it passed legislation requiring the Navy to allow competition for production of the NSSN. The Navy has argued that if competition had been introduced during the design of the NSSN, production would have been delayed by as much as two years, and would have severely affected Electric Boat's ability to remain in business. 9

To comply with the congressional mandate, the Navy has proposed three alternatives for NSSN production. The alternatives differ in the number of boats assigned to each shipyard and starting dates of competition for additional contracts. None offer serious competition for submarine construction until fiscal year 2002 or 2003, when both shipyards would be able to compete for production of an additional NSSN each year.

Problems with the Navy's Plan

Missing from the Navy's strategy is a vision that looks beyond the Cold War. The force planning strategy uses a threat-based approach to justify a level determined from the bottom up, trying to fit into a fiscal reality. The Navy plan has come under close scrutiny from Congress and has been criticized by those who are still unconvinced that the NSSN is the right submarine for the future.

A major criticism is that Russian capability has formed the lead argument for all submarine designs, yet little mention is made of what the Russians intend to do with their submarines. Even if the NSSN betters the best Russian submarine, it will be an extremely costly platform to produce just to match a capability. To make the NSSN affordable, the Navy has had to trade off speed and weapon payload. Some opponents argue that the NSSN probably will cost between $2.5 and $3 billion at best and that "the technology is out there to do things cheaper and the Navy has historically not capitalized on that." 10

Another criticism of the Navy plan is that it suffers from a lack of real competition. In fact, the Navy has done much to eliminate competition in submarine design. Since the advent of nuclear power and the Hyman G. Rickover submarine program that followed, the Navy has put the cart before the horse. Naval Reactors has dictated the propulsion plant for every nuclear submarine produced—including the NSSN—which ultimately has determined the dimensions and limited the flexibility submarine designers have for the remainder of the boat. Spending Department of Energy money, Naval Reactors designed the propulsion plant for the NSSN in secrecy and effectively removed any consideration of any propulsion plant alternatives, other than a nuclear reactor. 11

With the propulsion plant decided, Electric Boat was given sole rights to the design of the NSSN. The submarine will be built using modular construction, with many defense contractors providing the equipment and systems that will make up the forward end of the ship. Thus, most of the cost of the NSSN already has been decided, leaving little room for competition.

In addition, because the NSSN design does not incorporate any new production technology in the hull construction (e.g., titanium welding), and since the Navy has supervised the production of a significant number of submarines by both shipyards, production costs should be fairly consistent between shipyards. Therefore, only marginal gains could be expected from a competition between the shipyards for production of the NSSN. If the Navy truly wanted competition to drive the next submarine acquisition, the two shipyards should have been allowed to compete during the design stage and allowed to investigate alternative technologies, including nonnuclear propulsion plants.

In testimony before the Seapower Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Tony Battista, a private consultant involved in defense issues for 38 years and a former senior staff member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, voiced a concern that the NSSN has "very little consideration to hydrodynamics . . . [and] in the case of a submarine, you have to design acoustic and non-acoustic quieting in at the outset." 12 He was joined by Norman Polmar and Lowell Wood in the view that the NSSN will be only a marginal improvement over the best Russian boat. The trio also articulated their disagreement with the Navy's plan to decommission 688s with 15 to 18 years of service life left. They believe the Improved 688 is just as quiet as the Seawolf and that "these still young Los Angeles boats . . could serve the nation well as test beds for new submarine technologies and as operational prototypes for the expanded set of submarine mission areas even now emerging." 13

The last point of contention involves the total number of submarines that will comprise the force if the plan proceeds to completion. By 2012, the tenth NSSN will have been procured, giving the force the 10-12 quiet submarines required by the Joint Chiefs. During this period, however, three to four SSN-688 class boats will have been decommissioned each year. To maintain a force of approximately 50 submarines, a significant ramp-up in NSSN construction will have to occur. At an estimated cost of $1.5 billion a copy, the NSSN program "could take a whopping, unprecedented 40-50 percent of the Navy's ship construction budget." 14

Is There an Alternative?

The DoD and the Navy are convinced that all possible alternatives to the proposed force plan have been considered. It is apparent, however, that the Navy has not fully convinced Congress, which continues to hold hearings to debate the NSSN program and the funding for it. Concerns have been raised that the NSSN is still too costly and that with an expected procurement of one per year, a large block buy of 30 submarines does not make sense. 15

So what are the alternatives? One possibility would be to reopen the production line for SSN-688s. An Improved 688 with the weapon systems and technology now available would cost about $1.4 billion a copy, and with its proven reliability, would provide a capable submarine. This alternative would allow the Navy to put more money into research and development and the testing of new technologies, while retaining the best 688/688I SSNs in the inventory. The three Seawolf submarines would be incorporated to counter a Russian threat, if such a threat presented itself. This combination would present a formidable force, capable of littoral and deep-water operations worldwide.

This plan may not be feasible, however, since most of the production line for 688s has been closed and reopening the line would incur major startup costs. This option also would limit the force's ability to incorporate advanced technology, which may prevent us from matching future Russian submarine capabilities. In addition, this plan would have a significant impact on the submarine-building industry, because new submarines would not be required for several years while the force downsizes to the levels of the Bottom-Up Review.

A second alternative, although extremely unlikely, would be to continue the Seawolf program while pursuing technology for a follow-on submarine. This option has been all but eliminated because of the high cost of this submarine design. The Navy could not afford to sustain a fleet of 50 Seawolf submarines and would have little money—if any—left for research and development.

A third option would be to look into nonnuclear (SS) alternatives. Such a platform could cost as little as one-third the cost of the NSSN, and as several countries have demonstrated, the modern diesel submarine is a very capable platform. The weapon system and automation incorporated in the Australian Collins class and the work on improved propulsion systems-such as the air-independent propulsion being investigated by Sweden, Germany, France, and Russia-illustrate the possibilities that exist for nonnuclear submarines. 16

Proponents of the nonnuclear submarine argue that it is better suited for many missions. In littoral environments, the SS would be able to perform Special Operations Force missions, minefield locating and penetration, and coastal surveillance and intelligence gathering. With a lower initial cost, automation to reduce crew size, and improved weapon systems available in the United States, the SS would provide a lower-risk alternative to a nuclear submarine. In addition, the SS fleet could provide valuable antisubmarine warfare training for U.S. forces and, with modifications, be made available for sale to allies.

Opponents of a nonnuclear alternative argue that SSN operations "place a premium on sustained high-speed transit and submerged endurance, qualities that are the distinguishing characteristics of the nuclear submarine." 17 As the force gets smaller, these qualities become even more important if the U.S. military is to be able to respond quickly to crises and remain on station anywhere in the world. The nonnuclear submarine would have difficulty conducting long transits and would be susceptible to detection when snorkeling.

A final alternative rests on the acknowledgment that, at present, Russian submarines are just a capability, not a threat—and that no other country poses a significant threat to the United States that must be countered with submarines. If we accept these points, we are free to pursue new technologies, including the NSSN and its follow-on. This alternative would mean building one or two NSSNs, testing them, and then improving on what was produced. At the same time, development of the next submarine could be started. Norman Polmar, testifying before Congress in March 1996, noted that he would suggest providing the shipyards with several reactor designs and let the shipyard designers "tell [the Navy] what submarine [the shipyard] wants to put around it that provides [the U.S.] the greatest capability for 30 years from now." 18

This option would slow the decommissioning rate of 688s to maintain an inventory of submarines to meet mission requirements and to get the full service life from these boats. It also would require a reevaluation of the 688s that are due for refueling overhauls. This plan uses the current low-threat environment as a window of opportunity to pursue new technology but does not commit to any large block purchase of a boat unless a significant threat develops.

A continuing point of contention in the submarine debate is how many submarines the United States should have. Despite the attention it receives, this point does not address all the problems associated with force planning. Two questions remain that may be unanswerable in the near future: Are all the missions currently assigned to the submarine force still required? Is Russia's submarine capability a threat that needs to be addressed now, or a capability that should be matched technologically?


Navy leaders need to reevaluate their strategy for the submarine force and consider some alternatives:

  • The Navy—and, in particular, the submarine force—cannot afford to forget its core requirement: sea control. If the United States is to be able to project power globally, the Navy must be able to ensure control of the sea lines of communication.
  • Congress and DoD must agree on how submarines will fit into the National Security Strategy and what warfighting capability (i.e., total number of submarines) is required to support it, realizing that the Bottom-Up Review does not reflect the future, and knowing that, in an uncertain security environment, some hedging will be required.
  • Given current fiscal constraints, a multi-mission nuclear submarine is not a feasible solution to future submarine force planning. Certain minimum capabilities—such as acoustic quieting, sonar, antisubmarine and antisurface weapons, and effective communications—are required for every submarine, but not every submarine needs to operate with Special Operations Forces, conduct mine warfare, or possess a Tomahawk strike capability. More affordable submarine options could be considered if the current jack-of-all-trades approach were abandoned. 19
  • Finding a quiet nuclear submarine is not a unilateral mission. 20 Little emphasis has been placed on coordinated antisubmarine warfare since the end of the Cold War. Fortunately, this trend appears to be changing, because as submarines worldwide become more stealthy, U.S. submarines will need more than quieting to counter the threat.
  • We must pursue new technology to stay ahead of our competition. Designs for mission-specific submarines, like a guided-missile SSN (SSGN) or submarine arsenal ship, should be investigated and produced in small numbers to test and evaluate. Every effort should be made to pursue the latest developments technology has to offer. No serious alternative should be dismissed, including the nonnuclear one, until it has been proved to have no utility for the submarine force.

If no real threat develops in the next five to ten years another evaluation can be conducted to determine mission requirements, force size, and mix. If a significant threat does emerge, the Navy will have an array of alternatives to pick from and can build up to the level needed to counter the threat.

The NSSN is a good start, but it is not the answer. If Congress and the American people allow the Navy to pursue its present force plan, the U.S. submarine force will find itself running too silent and too deep.

1 L. Edgar Prina, "Prerequisite to a Strategic Vision: SSN-23/NSSN Debate Enters Final Stages," Sea Power, July 1995, p. 37.

2 Prina, p. 36.

3 VAdm. L. Lopez, USN, Statement before the U.S. Congress, Senate, Senate Armed Service Committee, Seapower Subcommittee, FY 1997 Defense Authorization Hearings (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1996) p. 3-25.

4 Prina, p. 38. Based on expected Russian output of one improved Akula per year and six already in their inventory.

5 From five per year as recent as 1987, U.S. submarine production fell to two in 1991 and, until the third Seawolf was funded and the NSSN program approved, no submarines were scheduled to be built until well into the next century. See also, Scott C. Truver, "Tomorrow's Fleet: Part I," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, June 1995, p. 92; and Jim Courter and Scott C. Truver, "The U.S. Submarine Industrial Base: Unique to Defense and Essential to Security," Strategic Review, Spring 1995, p. 13.

6 Truver, "Tomorrow's Fleet," p. 92.

7 Prina, p. 38.

8 Lopez, p. 3-25.

9 Prina, p. 37.

10 Tony Battista, Statement before the U.S. Congress, Senate, Senate Armed Services Committee, Seapower Subcommittee, FY 1997 Defense Authorization, Hearings (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1996), pp. 25-30.

11 Robert Holzer, "Critics Tame U.S. Navy Office," Defense News, 1-7 April 1996, p. 28. 

12 Battista, pp. 25-30.

13 Lowell Wood, Statement before the U.S. Congress, Senate, Senate Armed Services Committee, Seapower Subcommittee, FY 1997 Defense Authorization, Hearings (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1996), pp. 30-34.

14 French Caldwell, "Submarine Warfare (Domestic & Otherwise): New Attack Sub Effort Is Taking Shape, But Uncertainty Still Clouds the Program," Armed Forces Journal. International, July 1995, p. 33.

15 Wood, pp. 30-34.

16 RAdm. Julian Lake, USN (Ret.), "The Case for the Diesel-Electric Submarine," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, June 1995, p. 63.

17 Center for Strategic & International Studies, Attack Submarines In the Post-Cold War Era (Washington. DC: June 1993), p. 3.

18 Norman Polmar, Statement before the U.S. Congress, Senate, Senate Armed Services Committee, Seapower Subcommittee, FY 1997 Defense Authorization, Hearings (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1996), pp. 34-38.

19 The NSSN is designed with all these capabilities. Because each mission adds equipment and thus cost, the NSSN has had to sacrifice speed and weapon payload, making it less capable than the Seawolf.

20 As Russian submarines became quieter and thus harder to locate, the U.S. Navy relied on multiple capabilities to conduct ASW. Whether open ocean or in the littoral, U.S. submarines used cueing from Maritime Patrol Aircraft as well as the seafloor sound surveillance system and shipboard towed arrays to get into position to track Russian submarines.

Lieutenant Commander Watson , a 1996 graduate of the Naval War College, is executive officer of the Norfolk (SSN-714).



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