Why America Needs as Many Nuclear Attack Submarines As It Can Get

July 17, 2017 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: NavyBudgetSubmarinesNuclearVirginia-classMilitaryTechnology

Why America Needs as Many Nuclear Attack Submarines As It Can Get

Thanks, China. 

The U.S. Navy wants to buy a lot more of its most advanced stealthy nuclear-powered attack submarines.

In a small note in its Fiscal Year 2018 budget request, the Navy revealed that Allison Stiller, the assistant secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition, has approved an update to the Virginia-class submarine program's Acquisition Program Baseline. The update, which was approved back in February, extended the Navy’s acquisition target from thirty to forty-eight submarines, a whopping 60 percent increase.

The update to the Acquisition Program Baseline was first reported by Inside Defense, an industry online news source.

The extra submarines will not come cheap, as the Navy increased its expected total procurement costs for the Virginia class to roughly $162 billion, up from $104 billion last year. That makes it the second most expensive procurement program for the military, after the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The Navy has also struggled to fund its Columbia-class ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs), the replacement of the Ohio-class SSBNs.

As Inside Defense noted, the new target number is identical to the one set by the Navy in its 2012 force structure assessment, but four more than the service outlined in its 2016 thirty-year shipbuilding plan. At the same time, Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations and a former submarine commander, suggested last year that the Navy’s ultimate goal is to have sixty-six attack submarines (SSN).

The Navy currently has fifty-three SSNs, but Admiral Richardson has testified to Congress that the service is only ‘‘able to meet about 50 to 60 percent of combatant commander demands right now’’ for SSNs. The first Virginia-class vessel was ordered in 1998 and commissioned in 2004. So far, the Navy has launched eighteen Virginia-class SSNs, including one last month. Twenty-eight submarines have been purchased or are under contract.

As Dave Majumdar noted last month, the Navy would have to build three Virginia-class SSNs a year to have a realistic shot of reaching the figure of sixty-six advocated by Admiral Richardson. Previously, the U.S. Navy had said that during the years when it would be building the Columbia-class SSBNs, it would only build one Virginia-class boat annually. Recently, it revised this figure to two new Virginia-class SSNs.

The Virginia-class SSNs are 377 feet in length and thirty-four feet by beam. Each ship displaces 7,800 tons while submerged, far less than America’s Seawolf SSNs, and cruises at more than twenty-five knots. The submarine boasts twelve vertical launch tubes and four 533-millimeter torpedo tubes. The latest boats also come equipped with the Virginia-Payload Module which, according to the website Military Technology, “has the capacity to launch 16 Tomahawk submarine-launched cruise missiles (SLCM) in a single salvo." The same source notes the ship could also hold up to twenty-six Mark 48 mod 6 heavyweight torpedoes heavyweight torpedoes and Harpoon antiship missiles.

America’s latest attack submarines will eventually replace the Los Angeles–class SSNs currently in use. The Seawolf SSNs were initially slated to be the Los Angeles class’s replacement, but that plan was nixed because of cost overruns and strategic considerations after only three boats were built. The Navy has touted a number of innovations that the Virginia class brings to the table, including an enhanced ability to operate in littoral waters and the ability deliver more Special Operation Forces ashore. It also has improved eavesdropping capabilities.

The service has especially emphasized that the ship’s “extensive use of modular construction, open architecture, and commercial off-the-shelf components” will allow it “to remain state-of-the-practice for its entire operational life through the rapid introduction of new systems and payloads.” This feature has led some to question whether the United States actually needs to build a new-generation SSN, which it is currently scheduled to begin doing some time around 2034.

What is certain is that the Navy will increasingly rely on submarines as its surface vessels become more vulnerable to antiship missiles, especially from China. As Pacific Command chief Harry Harris told Congress in 2016: “The Pacific is the principal space where submarines are the most important warfighting capability we have. As far as Virginia-class submarines, it is the best thing we have.” He added “As I mentioned before, we have a shortage in submarines. My submarine requirement is not met in PACOM (Pacific Command).”

Besides China’s antiship capabilities, one reason that America’s undersea vessels are so important in the Pacific is because Beijing’s antisubmarine warfare capabilities are also considered weak. It is unclear how long this will continue to be true as China has been actively trying to improve them in recent years. Most notably, Beijing has announced plans to build a massive underwater monitoring system in the East and South China Seas.

Zachary Keck is the former managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

Image: This conceptual drawing shows the new Virginia-class attack submarine now under construction at General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton, Conn., and Northrop Grumman Newport News Shipbuilding in Newport News, Va. ​