The May 2010 report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, AirSea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept, outlines how the United States and its Pacific allies could win a potential war against China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the western Pacific. In particular, AirSea Battle calls for major changes to the Department of Defense’s current plans for equipping American forces in preparation for potential conflicts—including combating China and how to cope with Beijing’s rapidly growing array of submarines, surface warships, antishipping cruise missiles, growing arsenal of land-based ballistic missiles, expanding antisatellite and cyber-warfare capabilities, and a future stable of robotic airborne and underwater vehicles. China’s impressive array of hardware is designed to create a “no-go zone” for U.S. military power, extending far into the western Pacific and South China Sea, where Beijing’s writ will be law.1
Solving the Carrier Problem
For American and allied forces to penetrate China’s increasingly powerful maritime defenses and defeat the PLA without suffering crippling losses, AirSea Battle’s authors argue that the Navy must finally accept the potentially crippling vulnerability of its big carriers and cooperate with the U.S. Air Force in finding innovative ways to offset China’s plans for neutralizing U.S. power in East Asia.2
One of the document’s core tenets is that in the early stages of any conflict with China, the United States must rely heavily on its stealthy nuclear submarine force to pare down the PLA’s sea- and land-based assets to a level at which the Navy’s carrier groups could then move in without fear of catastrophic losses and deliver killing blows against Chinese forces.
The authors refer to the U.S. Navy’s Ohio-class cruise-missile submarines. These boats are conversions of the four oldest Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines. Slated to be decommissioned under the existing arms-control treaties, in the early 2000s the Navy decided instead to remove the vessels’ 24 ballistic missiles and replace them with 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles.
Unfortunately, as the report notes, the Navy is planning to retire the four cruise-missile boats from service by the late 2020s without planning for their replacement.3 To remedy this future lack of survivable firepower, AirSea Battle’s writers recommended the construction of a follow-on class of cruise-missile vessels.4
Don’t Reinvent the Wheel
But why build a completely new class of submarine? After all, constructing a new class of warship can be extremely expensive, an important point to keep in mind in today’s climate of frighteningly high budget deficits. Additionally, building a large modern warship usually takes an enormous amount of time, a process that outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates criticized in his May 2010 Navy League speech, saying that it “. . . has been likened to building a medieval cathedral.”5
The December 2010 ratification by the U.S. Senate of the New START nuclear arms limitation treaty with the Russian Federation could offer a partial solution to the lack of a next-generation class of cruise-missile submarines. Treaty provisions call for each country to possess no more than 700 delivery vehicles of all types.6 This means a likely reduction in the current force of 14 ballistic-missile boats. While implementing the new treaty, whatever number of ballistic-missile boats that might face decommissioning should instead be allowed to join their older siblings as cruise-missile submarines.
While thinking about the Ohio conversion program it is hard not to consider the Navy’s Virginia-class attack submarines. These boats are extremely stealthy: they’re reputedly quieter while under way at low speeds than their predecessors, the Los Angeles-class boats, are at dockside.7 Current versions already carry 12 Tomahawk missiles, and at one point there were plans to have later boats in the class carry 36 of these weapons.8
So why not take it a step further and use the Virginia-class boats as the template for a dedicated class of cruise-missile submarines, as the AirSea Battle writers suggest? The basic design is already well-known, and shipyards are geared up to build them. Contractors could apply the experience gained during the Ohio conversion program to construct the new class. It is even possible to envision the two submarine classes—the standard Virginia-class attack submarine and the new cruise-missile variant—being built side by side in the same shipyard.
The Navy has undertaken such conversions before. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was developing and deploying the first sea-launched ballistic missile, the Polaris A-1. To speed its introduction into the Fleet, the Navy used two boats from its existing class of attack submarines, the Skipjacks, and inserted in each a 130-foot compartment or “plug” carrying the missile-launch tubes amidships. It then proceeded to weld them back together. The modified submarines became the world’s first class of nuclear-powered ballistic-missile boats, the George Washington class.9
Remaining in service until the 1980s—when, ironically, they were reconverted to attack submarines before they were finally retired—the George Washington class successfully provided the United States with a virtually invulnerable sea-based nuclear deterrent.
Two other successful warship conversions of historic importance were the pre-World War II Lexington-class carriers, the USS Lexington (CV-2) and Saratoga (CV-3). Originally conceived as battle cruisers during World War I, the unfinished vessels were slated to be destroyed as part of America’s obligations under the terms of the 1922 Washington Naval Disarmament Treaty. Instead, they were transformed into aircraft carriers, since the treaty allowed Britain, Japan, and the United States each to convert two battle cruisers into carriers, rather than simply scrapping them.10
In their day true supercarriers, the Lexington and Saratoga could each embark 100 aircraft and were faster than their closest rivals, the early carriers of the Imperial Japanese Navy.11 Both vessels fought in World War II. The Lexington was sunk during the May 1942 Battle of the Coral Sea, in which she helped blunt the Japanese advance into the southwest Pacific. The Saratoga survived the war, only to end her days as a target ship as part of the 1946 Baker A-bomb test at Bikini Atoll, where she was sunk.12
The Navy wasn’t the only U.S. military service to use conversions as a major force multiplier. In the late 1970s, the Air Force did the same thing with its fleet of C-141 Starlifter cargo planes to greatly augment their lift capacity.13
Given the successful track record of past conversion projects, it is almost certain that any Virginia-based cruise-missile submarine program will be a technological success. The only major obstacle is likely to be that perennial nemesis of U.S. defense programs: cost. The Ohio conversion program was actually very expensive, with the final bill coming in at $1 billion per boat, but part of the cost can be attributed to the fact that the four boats were not only configured as cruise-missile carriers but were also modified to transport Navy SEAL teams and their commando-carrying minisubs.14
Still, in a time of trillion-dollar deficits at home and expanding Chinese naval power in the Pacific, the Navy doesn’t need a repetition of its notorious Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program, where shipbuilders quoted an original price of $220 million per ship. The cost then flared to more than $600 million per vessel, which forced then-Acting Secretary of the Navy, Donald C. Winter, to put a stop order on the entire program in mid-2007.15 As of 2009 the program was operating under a congressionally imposed price tag of $460 million per ship, a cap whose effectiveness may be questionable.16 To date, no LCS has been built for less than $500 million.
If the will is there and the Navy can avoid a similar budget fiasco, it is possible that the money could still be found for a new submarine class. It’s often forgotten that during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the economic hardship the United States faced was far more severe than it is today, President Franklin D. Roosevelt oversaw a fairly significant naval buildup. Soon after taking office in 1933, he authorized a 32-ship boost in the Navy’s construction program.17 In 1937, America owned a total Fleet of 335 ships.18 Four of the eight carriers the Navy had in service the morning after Pearl Harbor—the USS Yorktown (CV-5), the Enterprise (CV-6), the Wasp (CV-7), and the Hornet (CV-8) were built during the 1930s.
A possible Virginia-class cruise-missile submarine would constitute only part of the architecture described in the pages of AirSea Battle. In the worst case, if war with China became a reality, such vessels would operate in concert with other Navy units, including regular nuclear attack submarines and carriers operating both manned and unmanned strike aircraft, the Air Force’s heavy bomber force, America’s own space and cyber-warfare units, and the forces of allies such as Japan. The goal of the modified Virginia-class boats, and possibly their newly converted Trident cousins, would be to operate stealthily inside the PLA’s future maritime perimeter and use their cruise missiles to help destroy China’s coastal defenses, thereby allowing the more heavily armed but more vulnerable carrier groups to close in and force Beijing to concede defeat.
A Virginia-based conversion could play other wartime roles as well. Instead of firing Tomahawk missiles from launch tubes, the new class of submarines could be fitted with large numbers of antiship missiles. The authors of AirSea Battle point out in their report that in the 1980s, the Navy actually had Tomahawk antiship missiles in its inventory but either removed them from service or converted them to land-attack models at the end of the Cold War.19 Antiship-missile capability since then has rested with the venerable 150-mile range Harpoon missile. In a renewed effort to enhance the Navy’s antiship-missile capabilities, in January 2011 the Navy and the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency jointly awarded Lockheed-Martin a $218 million contract to speed development of a long-range antiship missile.20
However, diverting the new class of cruise-missile submarine from its land-attack role, even if the boats’ warloads were simply divided between Tomahawk (or any future successor) and antiship missiles, would detract from their main purpose under the AirSea Battle concept—pummeling enemy shore-based assets. After all, the Navy and the Air Force have multiple ways of sinking hostile surface warships with antiship missiles, including attack submarines, surface warships, carrier aircraft, long-range land-based bombers, and likely in the future, advanced robotic aircraft.
In the first hours or days of a possible Sino-American conflict the only reasonable goal for American cruise-missile submarines would be to penetrate deep inside China’s maritime defenses and deliver punishing attacks against enemy airfields, naval bases, air-defense missile sites, command centers, and conventional missile bases. Because of the geographical disadvantages that would afflict U.S. forces operating in the western Pacific in the event of war, quick degradation of Chinese military capabilities would be vital to winning a decisive victory over enemy forces.
Building and deploying a Virginia-derived cruise-missile submarine would help achieve that goal by providing a timely, cost-effective source of potent and nearly undetectable firepower, and could be the extra piece in a system of non-nuclear deterrence to prevent a Sino-American war from ever taking place.
1. Mark Gunzinger, Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., Jim Thomas, and James M. Van Tol, AirSea Battle: a Point-of-Departure Concept, 18 May 2010, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, p. x, R.20100518.Air_Sea_.pdf. This “no-go zone” is built around the Chinese military’s oft-discussed “Two Island Chains” concept. The “First Island Chain” contains within its boundaries South Korea, western Japan, and Taiwan, and penetrates deep into the South China Sea. The “Second Island Chain” loops far out into the Pacific and overlaps the U.S. territory of Guam.
2. “. . . specific capabilities being developed and fielded by the PLA threaten to turn many of the U.S. military’s most expensive and hitherto most formidable platforms [carriers among other things] into ‘wasting assets’—that is, put them at such risk of damage . . . that they effectively become unusable.” AirSea Battle, p.3.
3. Ibid., p. 48.
4. Ibid. p. 91.
5. “Defense Secretary Gates: Navy Must Rethink Its Priorities,” National Defense, 3 May 2010, http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/blog/Lists/Posts/Post.aspx?ID=119.
6. Peter Baker and Dan Bilefsky, “Russia and U.S. Sign Nuclear Arms Reduction Pact,” The New York Times, 8 April 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/09/world/europe/09prexy.html.
7. Andrew Erickson, Lyle Goldstein, and William Murray, “Chinese Evaluations of the U.S. Submarine Force,” Naval War College Review, Winter 2008, Vol. 61, No. 1, p. 75.
8. “SSN-774 Virginia-class Batch 2/Block III,” GlobalSecurity.org, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/ship/ssn-774-spiral-2.htm.
9. “SSBN-598 George Washington-Class FBM Submarines,” GlobalSecurity.org, http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/systems/ssbn-598.htm.
10. “1921-1922 Washington Naval Conference,” GlobalSecurity.org, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/naval-arms-control-1921.htm.
11. “CV-2 Lexington Class,” GlobalSecurity.org, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/ship/cv-2.htm.
13. “C-141B Starlifter,” GlobalSecurity.org, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/aircraft/c-141b.htm.
14. “Navy Trident Submarine Conversion (SSGN) Program: Background and Issues for Congress, Congressional Research Service Report for Congress,” Ronald O’Rourke, 18 July 2005, Naval Historical Center, http://www.history.navy.mil/library/online/trident_conversion.htm.
15. “Littoral Combat Ship Costs, Issues Rising Again,” Defense Industry Daily, 11 February 2008, http://www.defenseindustrydaily.com/Littoral-Combat-Ship-Costs-Issues-Rising-Again-04730/.
16. Christopher P. Cavas, “U.S. Navy Orders another LCS Ship,” DefenseNews, 23 March 2010, http://www.defensenews.com/story.php?i=4002838.
17. “The Decline and Renaissance of the Navy, 1922-1944,” prepared by Senator David I. Walsh, Chairman of the Committee on Naval Affairs, United States Senate, 9 May 1944, 78th Congress, 2nd Session, Senate Document No. 202, No. 10862, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1944, http://www.ibiblio.org/pha/USN/77-2s202.html.
18. “U.S. Navy Active Ship Force Levels, 1917-present,” Naval Historical Center, http://www.history.navy.mil/branches/org9-4.htm.
19. AirSea Battle, p. 70.
20. Tamir Eshel, “Lockheed-Martin Awarded $218 Million to Test Six New Anti-Ship Missiles,” Defense Update, 21 January 2011, http://defense-update.com/wp/20110121_lrasm-tests.html.