Declining Capabilities and a Rising Subsurface Threat

By Abraham M. Denmark

These and other developments indicate that the undersea realm will be a key area of competition and (potentially) conflict in the coming years, and a fundamental means for U.S. power-projection in the Asia-Pacific region. The Pentagon has acknowledged the significance of subsurface capabilities to defending American interests. While the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review said very little about the Pentagon’s subsurface plans, its call for the possible use of future Virginia -class attack submarines for long-range strike and to “exploit advantages in subsurface operations” may be veiled references to what former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates described more directly as the importance of submarines to “conduct more missions deep inside an enemy’s battle network.” 4

Clearly, this is an area in which the United States cannot afford to cede its military dominance.

The Cold Waters of Reality

Despite the obvious importance of such capabilities to U.S. interests, budgetary pressures will limit the Pentagon’s ability to sustain American subsurface dominance. While the upcoming Virginia -class attack submarine is a wonder of technology, its hefty price tag (estimated at $2.5–$3 billion per ship) will challenge the Pentagon’s fiscal ability to produce them in large numbers. Indeed, analysts have already pointed out that the U.S. Navy’s plan to reduce its attack-submarine fleet by 15 percent will render it unable to meet critical requirements. 5 The 30-year shipbuilding plan would reduce the current number of 53 attack submarines to 39 in 2030, followed by a bounce up to 45 through 2040. 6 While troubling in their own right, these reduced numbers are especially disturbing considering that only a portion of America’s submarine fleet will be deployed to the Asia-Pacific region at any given time.

Persistent economic difficulties and a skyrocketing federal budget deficit are driving calls for fiscal restraint in Washington, and Department of Defense budgets of the past have become fiscally and politically unsustainable. Former Secretary Gates already attempted to prepare the DOD for stagnant or declining budgets, and acknowledged that the economic crisis and concerns in Congress over jobs will force the Pentagon to “make tough choices about specific systems and defense priorities based solely on the national interest and then stick to those decisions over time.” 7 Both current Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen have warned about the effect of further budget cuts on the U.S. military’s ability to address future threats. 8

Given the Pentagon’s realization that difficult choices are imminent, strategists are already beginning to examine which capabilities are necessary and which are expendable in a budget-constrained environment. Gates has stressed the importance of making hard choices and attaining a balance between manpower-intensive counterinsurgencies and higher-end asymmetric threats, and offered a clear warning for his naval subordinates: “Mark my words, the Navy and Marine Corps must be willing to reexamine and question basic assumptions in light of evolving technologies, new threats, and budget realities.” 9 As the United States confronts probable budgetary restraints in the coming years, and the Pentagon is forced to make difficult choices about what capabilities it will really need to protect American interests and the security of our allies, the importance of maintaining strong subsurface warfare (SSW) capabilities must be well understood.

SSW on a Budget

As it exists today, given the prevailing mood in Washington regarding budgets and deficits, and the expanding number of subsurface challenges in the Asia-Pacific, the existing American approach to SSW may become fiscally and strategically unsustainable. With a declining number of attack submarines and projected costs for the next generation of submarines approaching the stratosphere, the U.S. Navy must not rely solely on large and expensive platforms alone. The United States must instead develop new ways of sustaining SSW dominance. Luckily, emerging technologies and the rise of new and friendly maritime powers are inadvertently conspiring to present the United States with an answer to this dilemma.

In 2013, the Navy is scheduled to begin introducing the Boeing P-8 Poseidon, a converted 737 designed to replace the venerable P-3 Orion as an airborne antisubmarine-warfare (ASW) asset. A highly capable platform that will greatly improve the Navy’s technical ASW capabilities, the P-8 is also significant because it is exportable. Indeed, India and Australia already have signaled their intent to procure the P-8 once available. Technological breakthroughs also offer potential cost savings for the air portion of ASW. Aircraft-carrier–based unmanned aerial vehicles, once matured, will have the potential to act as an autonomous (and potentially armed) ASW force capable of detecting, tracking, and attacking subsurface targets while significantly reducing strain on traditional air crews.

Unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) also offer a great deal of promise, though the technology is a few years away from being militarily useful. Small, agile, and capable of quietly entering restricted areas and lingering for long periods of time, mature UUVs will be able to lay mines, cut communication cables, or provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance at a far lower cost than associated with traditional submarines. Moreover, UUVs can remain on station for weeks at a time with no impact on crews with families and health-insurance plans that cost the Pentagon billions of dollars every year. Unlike airborne means of detection and clearance, UUVs do not signal our presence or intent to operate in an area. Recent technological breakthroughs suggest that UUVs may become a viable platform in just a few years’ time: Navy researchers have successfully tested a UUV that uses temperature changes in the ocean to continuously generate electricity and recharge batteries. 10

Identify, Engage—and Train

But technological innovations alone will be insufficient to address SSW challenges in the western Pacific. In the coming years, the United States must develop and harness the subsurface capabilities of the emerging, friendly Asia-Pacific naval powers to ensure they promote regional stability and the openness of the maritime commons. Regional engagement generally will be composed of three stages: identification, capacity-building, and training.

The United States should engage Asia-Pacific allies and partners to identify states whose interests and threat perceptions are compatible with America’s, and to continuously engage them in discussions on emerging subsurface threats in the region, the importance of subsurface capabilities, and SSW operations and tactics.

Washington could also help its own cause by regularly flexing American subsurface muscles in the western Pacific, as was done in July 2010 with the near-simultaneous surfacing of Ohio -class submarines in Pusan, Subic Bay, and Diego Garcia. 11 Such displays not only signal military capacity and will to America’s potential adversaries—they reassure U.S. allies and partners of American commitment to maintaining a strong regional presence.

Yet engagement must be supported by more than rhetoric and signaling. With countries whose threat perceptions match those of the United States and that also have substantial subsurface and/or ASW capabilities, the Pentagon should regularly engage in multinational SSW exercises. The centerpiece of the effort should be a training center—potentially based in Australia—in which the United States, its allies, and like-minded partners discuss, train, and exercise in SSW operations. With this center, the United States and its allies could build a network of SSW partners to complement, and eventually supplement, American subsurface power in the region.

Strategists cannot ignore political or budgetary realities in which they operate. Too often, they leave the difficult decisions about such matters to budgeteers or congressional appropriators. In an increasingly complex international environment, the Department of Defense will not only need to identify key capabilities, but also figure out how to maintain those capabilities on a realistic budget. Combined, the use of new technologies and the development of capable SSW partners in the region can preserve stability in the Pacific—in a way that will allow the United States and its allies to address subsurface challenges without breaking the bank.

1. Investigation Result on the Sinking of the ROKS “Cheonan,” (20 May 2010), Ambassador Han Duk-soo, Briefing on the Cheonan Situation (25 May 2010), .

2. U.S. Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Security and Military Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2011 , August 2011.

3. For more on the shifting balance of subsurface military power, see Mackenzie Eaglen and Jon Rodeback, “Submarine Arms Race in the Pacific: The Chinese Challenge to U.S. Undersea Supremacy,” the Heritage Foundation (2 February 2010), .

4. U.S. Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review 2010, p. 33; John Bennett, “Gates: U.S. Must Rethink Expensive Warships, Carriers, EFV,” Defense News (3 May 2010), .

5. Lance M. Bacon, “Deep Dive: Self-Inflicted Attack Sub Cuts Cripple America’s Sea Superiority,” Armed Forces Journal (May 2010), pp. 12–16.

6. For more on the Navy’s submarine cuts, see Lance M. Bacon, “Deep Dive,” Armed Forces Journal (May 2010), p. 13.

7. Robert M. Gates, Defense Budget Recommendation Statement, 6 April 2009, .

8. Greg Jaffe and Jason Ukman, “Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warns against more cuts in Pentagon budget,” The Washington Post , 4 August 4 2011.

9. U.S. Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review 2010, p. 33; John Bennett, “Gates: U.S. Must Rethink Expensive Warships, Carriers, EFV,” Defense News (3 May 2010), .

10. Rebecca Boyle, “Navy Submarine Runs Eternally on Thermal Power from Ocean Currents,” Popsci (8 April 2010), .

11. Greg Torode, “U.S. Submarines emerge in Show of Military Might,” South China Morning Post , 4 July 2010.

Mr. Denmark is an Asia-Pacific Security Adviser at the Center for Naval Analyses and is widely published on American strategy and policy toward the Asia-Pacific region and the global commons. He has worked as a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security and served as Country Director for China Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Mr. Denmark is an Asia-Pacific Security Adviser at the Center for Naval Analyses and is widely published on American strategy and policy toward the Asia-Pacific region and the global commons. He has worked as a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security and served as Country Director for China Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

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