Investing in the Undersea Future

By Rear Admiral Michael J. Connor, U.S. Navy

Second, it is fair to assume that the high end of warfare will be defined by state entities, but small conflicts will frequently arise on short notice from an ever-changing array of non-state adversaries.

Third, national-security requirements will be increasingly cost-sensitive. Cost will be a requirement in itself and will affect the size and mix of our future maritime forces to an even greater degree.

Finally, anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) systems will continue to proliferate and may at times impede joint-force freedom of action. Submarines are less vulnerable to A2AD than other forces and will, therefore, continue to play a key role in establishing access for other forces. In low-intensity conflict, this capability minimizes friendly losses. In major conflict, it will determine whether the joint force succeeds or fails.

With these considerations in mind, the submarine force developed an integrated strategic plan that forecasts future roles and missions best provided by undersea forces and the platforms, payload volume, payloads, and people required to meet our responsibilities to the joint force. This strategy is designed to guide long-term planning and investment decisions. The planning horizons vary.

It takes more than a decade to design and build a new class of ship. It takes five years to implement a change in force structure by adjusting procurement rates. Completely new weapon payloads take more than five years to put in place, while critical adjustments to existing weapons can be implemented in months, provided that the architecture of the weapon is designed with rapid-change potential in mind. People are our most versatile resource. While it takes years to prepare an officer for command, a talented crew can prepare for and execute a radically new mission in the course of a single deployment cycle.

Current Trends

The trajectory of undersea force structure over the next 20 years is already well defined because ships are large investments with long service lives. The trajectory is downward. The recent implementation of two-per-year construction of Virginia -class attack submarines will slow, but not arrest, the force-structure decline that occurs as submarines constructed in the 1980s and 1990s reach end of service life. Therefore, the strategy starts with the proper prioritization of the force structure. There are three well-defined challenges that the integrated undersea strategy must address.

Nuclear-Powered Ballistic-Missile Submarines (SSBNs): Action is needed to preserve SSBN-force strategic deterrence as the centerpiece of the nation’s nuclear strategy. The Navy operates submarines carrying nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles in support of U.S. Strategic Command. The SSBN fleet forms the largest and most survivable leg of the strategic triad. The need for the United States to retain a survivable nuclear deterrent (SSBNs) will continue as long as other nations, or non-state actors, retain nuclear forces. The United States and Russia have been able to cooperate in reducing nuclear weapons from Cold War levels, but other nations have entered the nuclear arena. Therefore, we must plan for the continuing requirement for an SSBN force and the responsibility to operate it at the highest levels of safety and security.

The retirement date of Ohio -class SSBNs is set by the expiration of submarine hull life after 42 years of service. This fixed retirement schedule effectively determines the procurement schedule for the replacement SSBN. Having set the major requirements, we are conducting technology development now for a class of ships that will start construction in 2019, be delivered in 2026, and go on patrol in 2029. The cost of this major investment in national strategic deterrence will have implications for the submarine force and the Navy as a whole.

Nuclear-Powered Attack Submarines (SSNs): Action is needed to compensate for an inevitable SSN-force shortfall. Per the current Navy shipbuilding plan, the attack-submarine force will shrink by 30 percent to a low of 39 hulls in 2030. This is the program of record—it is the starting point as we enter into consideration of defense-budget cuts.

From a warfighting and deterrence standpoint, this drop in SSN-force size and forward presence carries important consequences for day-to-day operations. It will reduce intelligence collection and lengthen response times for contingencies and war-plan surges. When combined with the impact of all four nuclear-powered guided-missile submarines retiring in the 2020s, tactical submarine forward presence will drop by some 43 percent between today and 2030. When considered in light of (1) the increased future reliance on naval forces, (2) the increased dependence on undersea forces to gain access, and (3) the emergence of regional challengers with naval capabilities, it is clear that if no action is taken the Navy will lose its ability to have SSNs operating in many places where they are currently the only credible U.S. military force.

Nuclear-Powered Guided-Missile Submarines (SSGNs): Action is needed to sustain undersea payload volume as SSGNs retire. We have four dual-crewed SSGNs with a forward-based crew change-out CONOPS that allows us to get on average about 2.5 submarines of forward presence from these four ships. Each ship carries in excess of 100 Tomahawk missiles and is capable of carrying up to 154. In addition, these platforms have the capacity to support Special Operations teams with covert insertion-and-extraction capability that is unique. All four of these ships are going to decommission by 2028.

As a result of this SSGN retirement and, to a lesser degree due to the reduction in the SSN-force size, our Navy’s undersea strike capacity will decrease by 60 percent by 2030. This reduced payload volume will impact not only strike but also large-diameter payload volume needed for deploying and retrieving large unmanned undersea vehicles, future distributed systems, and special-operations forces (SOF) support. The undersea investment strategy addresses this undersea payload gap in order to ensure that we can continue to fulfill our responsibility as the force that opens the door for access by other joint and maritime forces.

SSGN retirement affects peacetime forward presence, wartime strike volume, and the ability to execute a number of SOF missions. To replace the 2.5-submarine forward presence provided by our SSGNs would require adding 13 SSNs to our construction plan over the next ten years. That is unrealistic. To replace the 600-plus Tomahawk strike capacity of these four platforms would require adding 50 SSNs to our force structure. That’s also not viable. And from an SOF standpoint, no number of SSNs can re-create the value of consolidated command-and-control of SOF teams consisting of scores of SEALs.

An Integrated Strategy

These separate problem areas are highly interconnected and require an integrated solution. This solution must fit within the fiscal and industrial constraints facing the Navy and the country. The investment plan outlined here represents the culmination of a focused effort over the past year to develop a blueprint to guide key decisions affecting future undersea warfighting capability. The goal has been to develop an integrated approach that does not solve problems piecemeal but instead solves them in a coordinated and complementary way that is both effective and cost-efficient.

The “Integrated Undersea Strategy” has six main elements.

1. Field the Ohio-replacement SSBN without disruption or delay. The Ohio replacement is our highest priority, and all other facets of the integrated undersea future-investment strategy are subordinate to it. The existence of a reliable and survivable nuclear deterrent is critical to deterring conflict between major powers. The current procurement plan is executable, and we want to make sure that the Ohio-replacement SSBNs enter service on time, with the right performance, and on budget. The size of the fleet and the missile capacity are smaller than the current fleet and consistent with the “New START” treaty between the United States and Russia. Twelve replacement SSBNs will fulfill the same responsibilities that 14 SSBNs have serviced these past ten years.

Cost is a critical issue. Therefore, the next SSBN will be delivered with the correct capabilities, and nothing more. Further, the existing, proven technologies in the D5 strategic weapons system, Virginia -class tactical systems, and other Seawolf - and Virginia -class components will be leveraged to achieve aggressive cost goals.

That said, it must be recognized that as the country reduces the number of nuclear warheads, thereby increasing the premium on safeguarding this highly valued inventory, the Ohio -replacement SSBN will be called on to carry the vast majority of the national strategic-deterrent arsenal. It will serve as the dominant deterrent against major war for the bulk of this century, at a fraction of the cost of the security value it returns.

2. Take affordable steps to arrest the decline in SSN force structure. There is almost no practical plan that would add SSNs to the force in sufficient numbers and early enough to forestall the force falling below the minimum requirement of 48 SSNs established by the Chief of Naval Operations. However, adding two SSNs to procurement plans over the next decade will result in a stable two-SSN per-year procurement schedule through 2023, which will provide attendant efficiencies in economic-order quantities and in shipyard manning. If additional ships are added as a tenth ship to planned “block buys,” unit prices for the block purchases would be reduced.

If we move quickly, we can deliver these ships in time to minimize the depth of the force-structure trough in the critical period between 2020 and 2030. In terms of “SSN years,” adding two ships, one in 2018 and one in 2023, eliminates almost half of the projected SSN shortfall.

3. Add a Virginia payload module (VPM) to 20 already planned Virginia -class SSNs. Stretching 20 of the Virginia -class SSNs already in the Navy shipbuilding plan to support the addition of four large vertical-payload tubes will provide the force with near-equivalent undersea payload volume currently provided by our four dual-crewed SSGNs. This sustainment of undersea payload volume will be vital to our future security by supporting an increased volume of strike missiles and other asymmetric payloads. The payload tubes increase Virginia -class SSNs’ strike volume from 12 to 40 Tomahawk missiles while protecting the full torpedo-room payload volume for sea-control missions.

This design option has been technically studied and is feasible. It would cost-effectively employ tubes like the large 87-inch bow tubes on Block III and later Virginia s, making payloads that could be used in SSGN tubes and existing Virginia bow tubes able to be used in these tubes. In addition, the hardware and support equipment would match other large tube applications to a significant degree. Because these tubes would be added aft of the sail near the longitudinal center of the ship, they would be accessible to operators reaching through manway hatches (similar to SSBN tubes today). This would be an important advantage over the large-diameter bow tubes in Virginia Block III, which are not accessible.

If all 20 of the Virginia SSNs starting with Block V (beginning construction in 2019) were stretched to include this VPM, the gap in undersea strike volume would be reduced by more than three-quarters. This strike volume would be a little late, leading to a “notch” of reduced undersea strike volume from about Fiscal Year 2028 to FY 34.

Adding a payload module is a significant investment, adding about 20 percent to the cost of each ship. However, it is possible to stretch ten Virginia SSNs for the cost of a single new Ohio -like SSGN.

The Virginia class is currently planned to be a 30-hull class. The undersea investment strategy would extend the Virginia class beyond 30 hulls, allowing the Navy to exploit the cost-efficiency of continuing to build a highly effective and proven cost-efficient design while enhancing it with weapon-payload growth to help compensate for the reduced SSN force structure and the retirement of SSGNs.

4. Integrate a large-displacement unmanned undersea vehicle (LDUUV) into the undersea force. The development and fielding of capable LDUUVs will increase the productivity of the undersea force because they will do some of the tasks currently accomplished by submarines. To permit the effective integration of LDUUVs into the force, a number of technical challenges will need to be confronted. Although unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are in many cases remotely piloted, the connectivity challenges associated with UUVs do not permit that option. The vehicles must be autonomous. As the technical challenges of future LDUUV missions grow, the complexity of the necessary autonomy must also grow.

In addition to autonomy, there is the well-known challenge of extending LDUUV endurance. There is good reason to believe that the aggressive investments of the automobile industry in battery technology may result in improvements that can be leveraged for LDUUVs, but this is not a given.

These vehicles need not be operated from submarines, but their greatest value in helping pick up gapped submarine taskings will, by definition, arise from forward employment in areas accessible by submarines. Submarine launch and recovery of LDUUVs forward, close to the desired operational site, will permit effective military utility even for craft with limited endurance. As their endurance grows, they will be capable of being launched by other platforms at standoff ranges. Until this endurance is achieved, forward LDUUV operations will be best supported by submarines. Even after long endurance becomes a reality, some missions will continue to require submarine launch and recovery in order to achieve the required timing and positioning. Waiting for vehicles to transit in or out from long standoff would introduce time delays that may be unacceptable in fast-moving contingency or combat operations.

The most operationally useful LDUUVs will be capable of launch and recovery from a variety of platforms, will have long endurance, will be guided by sophisticated autonomy, will have strong information-assurance capabilities to prevent risk even if the vehicles were lost, and will be capable of deploying a variety of payloads that are adaptively tailored to the mission.

5. Open the aperture on revolutionary and evolutionary payload enhancements. With a smaller force, each submarine will need to be able to hold a broader set of targets at risk and do so over a broader geographic area. Beyond LDUUVs, we must make investments in our undersea payloads and off-board capabilities as a way to further compensate for force-structure shortfalls. Incremental evolutionary changes in existing systems will be the key to producing disruptive revolutionary effects in an affordable manner and at a rate fast enough to outpace the most sophisticated adversaries. In many ways, existing submarine-delivered missiles and torpedoes are functioning as unmanned vehicles. Emerging technology developed for UAVs and UUVs can be incorporated into the existing space and weight capacity of today’s weapons to produce revolutionary effects. We will not earn the maximum return on our force structure until we fully realize the autonomous potential in some of our existing systems while we develop future unmanned systems. When we produce or upgrade our systems, we need to ensure that we use open architecture in order to easily leverage the ability of our technical community to produce and install an application or “app” for a new mission on short notice.

There are a variety of opportunities that can be investigated on relatively short timelines at low cost. Decoys, deception devices, mine countermeasures, and non-lethal weapons are all possible and being considered as part of the strategy. This category of “payload enhancements,” unlike the platform-related areas, will involve a substantial degree of adaptation and, therefore, cannot be firmly defined in advance. The added capability of newly evolved payloads will greatly complicate adversary planning, make it possible for the United States to more effectively leverage the assured access resulting from undersea concealment, and deter aggression.

6. Evolve the undersea warrior. In the same way we have described the evolution of undersea payloads, the undersea warrior of the future must also evolve. To be effective, he or she must not only understand the mission, but also exercise boldness, initiative, and the ability to selectively apply the capabilities of both the submarine and unmanned assets to take full advantage of the extended reach of diverse undersea payloads. The undersea warrior must be granted the greatest possible operational autonomy to most effectively operate far forward in areas that are denied to other naval forces, exploiting subsurface concealment for military effectiveness.

The future undersea warrior will leverage remote undersea sensors for planning and targeting as seamlessly as we do today with third-party targeting of Tomahawk missiles. The smart payloads of the future will in many cases give the submarine the vertical and horizontal standoff to enhance mission safety. Other payloads may require teams of special equipment operators because of their specialized or classified capabilities. The future undersea warrior will require a diverse knowledge of the ship, its payloads, and the optimal way to coordinate the joint force in the undersea domain.

Taken together, the elements of the long-range undersea strategy minimize the decline in force structure, prioritize the investment of scarce funding to build the right ships with the right payload volume, develop innovative payloads, and evolve the skills of undersea warriors to maximize the impact of each submarine. These goals are all important, because financial constraints and the limits of industrial capacity mean that the Navy must get greater undersea effectiveness out of a shrinking force of manned platforms. The Integrated Undersea Strategy provides the nation with effective naval forces that can assure access despite future threats, sustain our undersea payload capacity affordably despite the retirement of SSGNs, preserve powerful nuclear deterrence with survivable SSBNs, and employ off-board vehicles and improved payloads to create operational and tactical flexibility even as the submarine force shrinks.

Admiral Connor is director of the U.S. Navy’s Submarine Warfare Division. His prior assignments include command of the USS Seawolf (SSN-21), Submarine Squadron Eight, Task Force 54, and Task Force 74.
 

 
 

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