False Assumptions, Wistful Dreams

By Neil Travis Honaker

Considering the historical strategic importance of the U.S. attack submarine force, this state of affairs is both perplexing and worrisome. The United States faces a Russian Navy that, although by no means on par with its Soviet predecessor, still is emphasizing submarine development. In spite of budget woes, it has managed to field the improved Akula class, begin construction on the new Severodvinsk class, and operate the current inventory of submarines for extended periods and over expanded areas of operation.

It is clear that the U.S. advantage in submarine technology has shrunk, if not evaporated completely. And high-tech subs are not the only threat; a new arms race has sprung from the proliferation of diesel-electric boats, with Russia leading the export rush. It is easy to discount the effectiveness of a nonnuclear submarine built solely for export—especially when compared with the multibillion-dollar U.S. SSN fleet—but it bears remembering that a single submarine operating in the vicinity of a battle group is enough to bedevil a commander. 3

During the 1970s, the United States enjoyed a substantial lead over the Soviet Union in submarine design effectiveness. That lead has been eroded—to a few years at best—and it will alternate between the United States and Russia over the next five to ten years as both nations field new designs. For the United States to regain and retain operational primacy requires an honest and accurate assessment of the U.S. submarine program and its counterparts.

Current Status of the U.S. Submarine Force

The Los Angeles Class: The Los Angeles -class nuclear attack submarine has been the backbone of the U.S. SSN force since the late 1970s. When introduced, it represented a ten-year lead in technology over the Soviet Victor class, which it was designed to counter. And until the introduction of the improved Akula, it was the world's quietest submarine. Even well past 20 years into its design life, the 688 still is one of the most capable boats in the world. The improved Akula may surpass it in terms of stealth at tactical speeds, but it cannot match the 688's weapons load or sensor capability. The Los Angeles class will remain the primary U.S. attack submarine until well into the second decade of the next century.

At present, there are some who advocate extending the service life of the Los Angeles -class boats past the original 30-year span. The General Accounting Office has recommended extending nine improved 688s for an additional 120-month operating cycle, which would allow SSN procurements from 1996 to 2014 to be cut from 31 to 17. 4

The Seawolf and NSSN Classes: SSN-21 is the largest attack submarine ever produced, with a submerged displacement greater than that of early ballistic-missile boats. Its weapons load can include up to 50 Tomahawk cruise missiles, twice the capacity of a Los Angeles -class boat. A Cold War design originally intended as the replacement for the 688, the first of the Seawolf class (scaled back to three units) completed initial sea trials and was commissioned last year. If it lives up to its billing, it will be an impressive feat of engineering, unmatched in the world's navies—at least until the Russian Severodvinsk class is ready around 2000.

The driving factor in the design of the NSSN was the retention of Seawolf -level quieting but at a reduced cost. By comparison, the NSSN—which is being touted for everything from littoral warfare to special forces insertion to traditional SSN operations—will be smaller but equally capable (equal in terms of stealth and systems; inferior in weapons load, speed, and operating depth).

One aspect of the NSSN being emphasized is its open system architecture and reliance on commercial off-the-shelf technologies for command-and-control systems. The first boat designed completely with an open systems architecture, the NSSN will rely on asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) for its networks. 5 Because ATM standards are only partially in place, the NSSN has built in its contracts a "tech refresh," to ensure that it will meet the current technology base when the system eventually is fielded. 6 Perhaps more significant, the system designer, Lockheed Martin, will have an extra incentive to ensure that the system may be upgraded easily and inexpensively because it will retain ownership after the NSSN is delivered to the Navy.

After Congress killed the idea of using the Seawolf ’s BSY-2 combat system on the NSSN, the Navy took the unusual step of creating a quite-open request for proposal (RFP) for the combat system. "The RFP is a performance spec," says the assistant program executive officer for submarines. "It's up to the bidders to come up with a plan. We have the footprints identified, but what goes into that space is up to them." 7 This will allow the NSSN to at least stay on par with commercial-system capability—unlike the Seawolf , whose systems rely on the same computer chip as the last generation Macintosh computers. 8

The Two-Shipyard Controversy: The first Seawolf was produced under a split design/construction plan, with Tenneco's Newport News shipyard designing the forward end, and General Dynamics' Electric Boat designing the aft end and constructing the finished product. The idea was to promote competition between the two yards for the Seawolf program, which at the time was scheduled to produce 29 submarines. The problem, however, was that neither shipyard wished to open up its processes to its competitor. Partly because of this, the Seawolf program office recommended sole-sourcing the NSSN program, and the contract for the NSSN was to have gone to Electric Boat—exclusively. 9

In 1995, however, Congress decided that the Seawolf program had become a mess; that shutting down submarine production was not an option; and that the NSSN was at risk of being less-than-capable against the most advanced threats when finally fielded early in the next century. This prompted Congress to direct the Navy to alternate between Electric Boat and Newport News for construction of the first four NSSNs, and to require that each boat incorporate systems and demonstrate capabilities that will make it more capable than its predecessors.

The logic behind this shell game—which threatens to increase program costs by an estimated $3 billion 10 —is that the nation's security interests are best served by maintaining two nuclear-capable shipyards. Indeed, without the third Seawolf and SSN program, Electric Boat will have to begin shutting down operations this year. Newport News, however, is involved in carrier construction and overhaul that will carry it through until mid-2002, and it has indicated that its carrier operations would support 69-92% of the specialized jobs needed for submarine construction. 11 By alternating shipyards for the NSSN, Congress has created a perfect opportunity for the conditions that led to the Seawolf cost overruns to reappear.

The survivability of the submarine industrial base outside of the shipyards is a more complicated matter. The Navy believes that without SSN-23 many critical vendors will be lost—but there are no established criteria for what constitutes a critical vendor. A 1994 GAO report notes:

although [ the Office of the Secretary of Defense] has identified 8 critical suppliers of nuclear and non-nuclear components, the Naval Sea Systems Command has identified 49 critical vendors of non-nuclear components alone, and the Seawolf program office has identified 63 critical non-nuclear vendors. 12

Obviously, some vendors will be lost, but the impact is difficult to measure. The RAND report on the submarine industrial base—whose findings Congress apparently has accepted—recommends full funding for SSN-23 and production of the NSSN beginning no later than 2001 (it prefers 1998). By starting construction in 1998, with the first four boats prototyping new technologies, Congress hopes to have a mature design by 2001, when production of the final design will begin.

Antisubmarine Warfare: The traditional submarine threat is dead. As one commentator has noted:

When next called to the fore, ASW equipment, tactics, and training will be used, not in the traditional sense of mercantile convoy escort or high-value unit defense, but to enable a broader use of military power. Much as precursor air strikes are used to pummel enemy antiaircraft sites to allow the later use of manned fighters and bombers, an ASW campaign will be a necessary prelude for nearly every major joint mission. 13

In other words, ASW no longer will be focused on the defense of naval assets; it will be used in an offensive role to allow the projection of naval power ashore.

In such a situation, the submarine's role as hunter/killer will become even more important. With the proliferation of diesel-electric boats (SSKs) to Third World countries, the threat is less a function of technology than of the SSK's ability to disrupt the flow of military operations by interfering with insertion, resupply, and amphibious operations. In particular, SSKs are ideal platforms for seeding mine fields in coastal waters, and as the U.S. Navy shifts its focus to littoral operations, countering the SSK must be a cornerstone of its doctrine. As defense strategist Colin Gray has noted, any war (indeed, any forward projection of U.S. power) is possible only if the United States controls the sea lines of communication. 14

Ballistic Missile Boats: Some in the submarine community have advocated converting several retiring Ohio (SSBN-726)class ballistic missile submarines into platforms to launch conventional guided missiles. The Navy also is exploring adapting the Army's Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) for launch from Los Angeles -class boats, to provide them with a ballistic missile strike capability. 15

And Then What?

How will the NSSN compare to the fourth-generation Russian attack submarines? The current Navy consensus is that the Severodvinsk class will be about as capable as the improved Akula, and because the Seawolf is quieter than the Akula, and the NSSN is as quiet as the Seawolf , the United States will retain the advantage. The problem with this theory is that the U.S. Navy consistently has been surprised by Soviet/Russian submarine advances. As former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral James D. Watkins noted:

When my first command, USS Snook [SSN-592], was launched [1960], we were infinitely ahead of the Soviets in nuclear submarine technology. Later, about 1973, we were only about ten years ahead of them. Today [1983], we are only about five to eight years ahead of them and they are still in relentless pursuit. 16

In 1989, the Director of Naval Intelligence informed Congress that the Akula had reached quieting levels that the United States had not projected the Soviets to attain until the early 1990s. The Seawolf will be quieter than the improved Akula, but the NSSN will just hold that line. To believe that the fourth-generation Severodvinsk , started four years after the Seawolf , will be only slightly quieter than the Akula appears to be wishful thinking. 17 In addition, the Russians have coupled their submarine technology advancements with increases in speed and operating depths (the NSSN will be slower and have a shallower maximum operating depth than the Seawolf ). With no quieting advance in the NSSN, the newest U.S. submarine may be outdone before it ever puts to sea.

The U.S. Navy's shift in focus from blue-water operations to littoral warfare has prompted some people to argue for the return of diesel-electric submarines to the U.S. force. 18 SSKs are more affordable than their nuclear-powered counterparts and more easily maneuverable in shallow waters because of their smaller size, but opponents argue that nuclear propulsion allows for longer submerged operating periods and increased quietness. Even with the advancements in air-independent propulsion systems, SSKs still must surface occasionally to recharge their batteries.

Most pro-SSK arguments call for a fleet of 10-12 submarines that would focus on littoral warfare and special operations. The utility of an SSK in littoral warfare would seem to be mainly as a naval strike weapon, since the platform would lack the land attack or broader strike capability of a larger SSN, but some naval analysts have noted the inappropriateness of using submarines in this role in low-intensity conflict.

The kind of damage [submarines] can inflict. . . is almost always fatal and catastrophic. This rules them out as weapons of much utility in operations at the lower levels of intensity. Submarines can be used as cover for more valuable forces in such situations and they can threaten unwelcome retaliation if the rules of limited conflict are broken; if they are unleashed then it usually marks a major escalation of the conflict. 19

With construction of the NSSN to begin in less than two years, it is unlikely that the U.S. Navy will revive the diesel-electric submarine. In light of the increased capabilities of the Russian submarine force and the continued proliferation of diesel-electric submarines, the advantages of an SSN over an SSK are hard to ignore—and could be the deciding factor in a future undersea naval engagement.

The future U.S. submarine force structure may look like this: three Seawolf -class boats on the high-end; the NSSN on the low-end; and the Los Angeles class filling the gap in between. If so, the big question for the U.S. Navy will be how best to employ the Los Angeles -class boats in the 21st century. Two major factors may be the Navy's decisions on whether to deploy a naval variant of ATACMS on the 688s and to maintain the class through—if not past—its originally designed service life. With the demise of the arsenal ship, conversion of some Ohio -class SSBNs to conventional missile boats may prove beneficial.

If the NSSN lives up to the Navy's billing (and the Severodvinsk lives down to ONI's assessment), the United States will remain the preeminent undersea power into the 21st century. What comes after probably will be the hottest naval contest since the days before the world wars, with freedom of movement and forward power projection going to the winner. Until then, ensuring that the NSSN is the most capable design it can be is of primary importance. Congressionally mandated prototyping of the first four ships of this class may well be worth the added cost. And if Congress is willing to fund such a program, the Navy should take advantage of the opportunity.

What is required is a multirole submarine that is capable, versatile, and affordable. From current indications, the NSSN may be none of the above. In a world where the next mission the SSN force will be called on to undertake is anything but clear, the tradeoffs may be too steep. Congress has taken steps to make the NSSN better, but further efforts are needed to ensure that it is, in the words of the late Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jeremy Boorda, "better than all of them and each of them." The United States cannot afford for it to be anything less.

1"Submarine Operated off USA," Jane's Defence Weekly, 3 January 1996, p. 6.

2 Rupert Pengelley, "Grappling for Submarine Supremacy," International Defence Review, July 1996.

3 Antisubmarine warfare historically has required a disproportionate allocation of assets to destroy/deter a numerically inferior opponent. See Cdr. Joseph Lodmell, USN, "It Only Takes One," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, December 1996, pp. 30-33.

4 The Navy does not agree, saying that the 688s cannot possibly meet the future threat if their service life is extended to 42 years and SSN procurement is cut. The GAO notes, however, that such a strategy still meets the JCS requirement for 1012 Seawolf capable submarines (3 Seawolfs and 9 NSSNs) by 2014. See U.S. General Accounting Office, Attack Submarines: Alternatives for a More Affordable SSN Force Structure (Washington, DC: GPO, 1994, NSIAD-95-16), pp. 17-19.

5 ATM, as opposed to TCP/IP (transmission control protocol/internet protocol, which ensures that data packets in networks arrive at their destinations in the order they were transmitted), attaches a specific header to each data packet, allowing transfer speeds far above what can be achieved with TCP/IP. This will make the NSSN's systems faster and more efficient in handling tracking and targeting.

6 Edward J. Walsh, "Unique `Tech Refresh' Planned for NSSN," Sea Power, July 1996, pp. 17-18.

7Stan Zimmerman, "The Latest Innovative Thinking by R&D Leaders: Is It a Breath of Fresh Air or a Potential Disaster?" Sea Power, January 1996, p. 68.

8 The NSSN will run 5.4 million lines of computer codes, but less than 10% will be written exclusively for the NSSN. The rest will be COTS or taken from other Navy programs. See Walsh, "Unique 'Tech Refresh' Planned," p. 18.

9 U.S. General Accounting Office, Navy Ships: Lessons Learned May Reduce New Attack Submarine Costs and Delays (Washington, DC: GPO,1994, NSIAD-95-4).

10 A recently released GAO report agrees with the Navy's estimate, though the Navy does not support the rest of the report's conclusions about NSSN cost and capability. See U.S. General Accounting Office, New Attack Submarine: Program Status (Washington, DC: GPO, 1996, NSIAD-97-25).

11 GAO, Attack Submarines, p. 21.

12 GAO, Attack Submarines, p. 22.

13 Capt. Bruce Linder, USN, "ASW as Practiced at Birnam Wood," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, May 1996, pp. 62-63.

14 Colin S. Gray, The Leverage of Sea Power (New York: The Free Press, 1992), p. 276.

15 LCdr. Joseph N. Giaquinto, USN, Lawrence L. McDonald, and LCdr. J. Patrick Madden, Jr., USNR, "The Quick Strike Submarine," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, June 1995, pp. 41-44.

16 Norman Polmar, "The Quest for the Quiet Submarine," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, October 1995, p. l19.

17 Norman Polmar, quoted in "Bound in Shallows and Miseries'?" by Richard Boyle, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, October 1996, p. 54.

18 For a pro-SSK view see Cdr. Paul Murdock, USN, "SSNs Aren't Enough," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, February 1996, p. 48; Richard Boyle, "Bound in Shallows and Miseries?" LCdr. James E. Wright, USN (Ret.), "Submarine Design for the Littorals," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, December 1995, p. 39; Commodore V. F. Holderness, SAN (Ret.), "Relaunch the Non-Nuclear Boats," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, June 1995, p. 45. For a brief article refuting most of the pro-SSK lines of reasoning, see RAdm. W. J. Holland, Jr., USN (Ret.), "Diesel Boats Again?" U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, June 1996, p. 13.

19 Eric Grove, The Future of Sea Power (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1990), p. 132.

20 Office of Naval Intelligence, Worldwide Submarine Challenges (Washington, DC: GPO, 1996), p. 33.

Mr. Honaker is completing a master’s degree in military studies (defense management) at American Military University and is editor of the newsletter of the Central Kentucky Council of the Navy League.


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