The Buzz

The Verdict Is In: The U.S. Navy Needs to Get Bigger (And Needs More Submarines)

The U.S. Navy will submit three Congressionally mandated force structure assessments to Capitol Hill within the next two weeks. While the Navy is not releasing the details of those three assessments, one of the service’s top uniformed officials told an audience at the Naval Submarine League’s 34th Annual Symposium that all three assessments—one by a think-tank, one by a federally-funded research center and one by the Navy itself—call for a significantly larger fleet.

The Need for a Larger Navy:

“I expect those reports to be out in about two weeks,” deputy chief of naval operations Vice Adm. Joe Mulloy said on Oct. 26. “Those three studies will go to the Hill and they’ll come out about 80 percent similar, but there’ll some differences. But they’re all, I assure you, looking for a bigger Navy.”

The studies looked at multiple different fleet configurations, different technologies and even novel ship designs— such as large flattop helicopter-carrying destroyers, similar to several types of Japanese vessels. However, the Navy will not accept any of the three proposals without the service’s leadership undertaking its own review since none of them participated in the process. “It was Navy study, but it wasn’t Navy leadership,” Mulloy said.

Nonetheless, the Navy leadership will take a look at that studies and come to a decision by roughly March of next year on how to proceed, Mulloy said. Meanwhile, the Navy leadership is conducting its own separate force structure assessment (FSA)—but even that study will likely call for a force larger than the current requirement for 308 ships, adding more surface combatants and additional submarines. “The number is bigger, you’ll see all the architectures,” Mulloy said. “The FSA will come out when it comes out is all I can really say. Because we have to get it through this administration to the next administration because it is talking about a Navy that is bigger than what we currently have. And for the first time—or the first time in a while—we’ll actually have a Navy that’s in our plan that is not funded.”

Mulloy said that the fleet size the that service is currently looking at will not be affordable unless the new presidential administration that will take office on Jan. 20, 2017 and the new Congress can agree to lift spending restrictions that are mandated under the Budget Control Act of 2011. “This truly will be something that will not be affordable unless we change the 30/30/30/10 OSD or raise the Department of Defense topline.”

The Submarine Challenge:

But even with a larger Navy with a larger requirement for attack submarines (SSN), the service will not have enough submarines to meet the demands of combatant commanders around the globe. Even with a larger stated requirement for attack submarines, Mulloy noted the number boats might increase only by one or two vessels by late 2020s simply due to fact it takes 87 months to build an SSN. As such, Mulloy said that all future Block V Virginia-class submarines equipped with the Virginia Payload Module (VPM) must be certified to conduct Arctic operations so that those vessels can flow from one hemisphere to another under the polar ice cap. The Virginia-class is generally Arctic capable, but there are a few specific steps required on the VPM boats to certify those submarines for under ice operations, Mulloy said.

“A lot of the VPMs are going to be on the West coast,” Mulloy said. “That means they have to be able to go to the East coast if I need them and there are few VPMs on the East coast that have to go to the West coast. So every ship has to be fully Arctic capable as we step into this world. If we reach 2029, and we’re not fully Arctic capable across this force we’re fooling ourselves.”

But flowing submarines from ocean to ocean under the ice will not be enough to make up for the Navy’s increasingly severe shortage of submarines. Mulloy said that the Navy will likely utilize large numbers of unmanned underwater and surface vehicles to make up some of the shortfall. “More vehicles like that, that have netted systems onboard, that can report back what they’re seeing in the world—but they’re unmanned—is much cheaper,” Mulloy said.

That is one of the reasons that if the Navy does proceed with developing a SSN(X) rather than building a Block VIII version of the Virginia-class in 2034, Rear Adm. Mike Jabaley, the service’s program executive office for submarines, would want to develop such a vessel as a mothership for unmanned systems. Especially critical would be for the SSN(X) to be able to seamlessly launch and recover unmanned system. “We have to have the ability to work with unmanned undersea vehicles and unmanned undersea systems,” Jabaley said. “I don’t want anyone to think that we are not aggressively approaching the SSN(X), because the need for this type platform become significant.”

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.