The U.S. Navy's Dangerous Nuclear Attack Submarine Shortage
The U.S. Navy hopes to continue to build two Virginia-class attack submarines per year while also building the Ohio Replacement Program ballistic missile submarine starting in 2021. But does the United States still have the industrial capacity to build more than two nuclear submarines at a time?
The increased build rate would help to alleviate a severe shortfall in the number of available attack submarines in the Navy’s inventory—which is set to drip to 41 boats by 2029. But moreover, with the growing threat from a resurgent Russia and an increasingly hostile China, the service is recalibrating its stated requirement for 48 attack submarines.
It has become clear that the service needs more than 48 attack submarines. Even with 52 boats currently in service—four more than the stated requirement—the Navy is not able to meet the worldwide demand for submarine capability. “We have a compelling need for additional attack submarines,” Sean Stackley, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition told the Congress in late February. “Today, we have 52 boats, a requirement for 48, we have a valley of 41 boats in the 2030s, we start falling below the line in the late 2020s.”
The Navy is working on reducing the costs of the Ohio Replacement Program to pay for an additional Virginia-class boat when the new ballistic missile submarine enters production in 2021. “We’ve got to nail down what it’s going to cost to add a second Virginia in 2021 in POM 18. We’ve got to come to grips with that funding requirement, because it’s going to come out of somewhere else,” Stackley told the Senate on April 6. The service hopes to maintain a build rate of two Virginia-class boats thereafter until the future SSN(X) enters production in the mid-2030s.
The problem, however, is that one ORP and two Virginia-class boats is the equivalent of building four attack submarines—each boomer is more than twice the size of an SSN. Indeed, the question of if industry can handle the massive volume of work has come up. One also has to take into account the fact that the new Block V Virginia-class submarines are going to be fitted with a new module that increases their capacity to 40 Tomahawk cruise missiles. With the length of the boat increasing by 83-feet and displacement rising from 7,833-tons to 10,177-tons, the newer Virginia-class boats require much more work. That means the amount of throughput is essentially doubling. Can industry rise to the challenge?
The answer from both the Navy and industry is: Yes. The Navy is developing a plan called the Submarine Unified Build Strategy (SUBS) to spread the work between General Dynamics Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls Industries Newport News Shipbuilding intelligently. Once the Ohio Replacement Program starts being built, Electric Boat will deliver all twelve boomers while Newport News will deliver the majority of the Virginia-class boats. “We know with pretty high confidence they can handle two per year with Ohio Replacement,” Capt. Michael Stevens, Naval Sea Systems Command’s program manager for the Virginia-class told an audience at the Navy League’s Sea, Air and Space symposium on May 17. “But we’ll have to do some facilitization and, of course, hire people.”
Industry is also confident that it can handle the workload. “We feel pretty comfortable that we’ll be in a position to handle that,” said Will Lennon, Electric Boat’s vice president of engineering and design programs in an interview with The National Interest. However, both Electric Boat and Newport News will have to grow their facilities and hire more people to handle the enormous task—particularly during the 2020s. “We’re looking at what it would take to scale up to be able to handle additional Virginias during the time of Ohio Replacement,” Lennon said. “So adding the second ship in ’21 is really not a big impact to us. It changes the phasing of our facility expansion, but it doesn’t increase the number of facilities we have to have.”
But what if the Navy revises its requirements to a level such that production must be further increased? It might be possible to increase production beyond even three submarines per year. Stevens pointed out that during the 1980s, the United States was producing four attack submarines and two Ohio-class boomers at one point. “There is history that suggests we could build a lot more,” Stevens said. “But that would require more investment.”