In the Navy’s Forecast, a Shrinking Attack Submarine Fleet
By Grace V. Jean
The Navy two years ago planned to procure 54 attack submarines through 2040 in order to maintain its desired fleet size of 48 ships. In its latest 30-year shipbuilding plan, however, just 44 boats are included.
Given that the average life of an attack submarine is 30 years, cutting 10 ships equates to a 20 percent reduction in the attack submarine force, said Rear Adm. Richard Breckenridge, deputy director of the Navy’s submarine warfare division.
As a result, the Navy faces a 23-year period when the number of attack submarines in the fleet falls below the desired 48 ships.
The Navy is buying Virginia-class fast-attack submarines to replace the Los Angeles-class submarines. Beginning in 2011, it will procure two Virginia-class ships a year for an expected $2.5 billion per ship.
The new long-term shipbuilding plan incorporates the procurement of 12 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine replacements beginning in 2019. Initial estimates show that the ships will cost roughly $6 billion to $7 billion each. To afford those ships, the Navy had to bump 10 attack submarines from the previous 30-year shipbuilding plan, including the second Virginia-class
submarines in 2018 and in 2023.
“Fiscal constraints during the period in which the SSBN is being procured will necessitate reducing procurement to one Virginia-class submarine per year,” the plan stated.
Navy officials are hopeful that a second Virginia-class submarine can be added to the annual budget beginning in 2018.
“There are strong reasons to add that back in, and we hope the budget will support that,” said Capt. Michael Jabaley, Virginia class program manager at Naval Sea Systems Command.
New construction submarines in the coming decades will come under growing fiscal pressures.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates specifically has asked the Navy to rethink its shipbuilding plans and budgets. “The Navy has been most consistently concerned about its size” instead of coming to grips with the asymmetric threats it will face in the future, Gates said in a May speech to the Navy League.
There has been heated debate on Capitol Hill over how the Navy will fund the construction of the 12 Ohio replacement submarines. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the total cost for the class is $99 billion. This program would hamper the service’s ability to buy more Virginia-class boats.
Breckenridge said he is concerned about the dwindling fleet numbers considering the Navy’s expected commitments and global engagements in the years ahead.
The Navy typically deploys 10 attack submarines to support worldwide operations. “It’s going to be very difficult for me to sustain that kind of a demand,” said Breckenridge. He added that regional commanders actually could use more submarines but the Navy can only provide 10. “When I’m down to a 39 number, I’m going to be able to provide less than eight submarines forward deployed,” he said.
Buying a second Virginia-class ship in 2018 would allow the Navy to continue building two submarines per year through 2022 uninterrupted. “That would be at a point in the program where the ship would be at its cheapest,” said Jabaley.
The second 2018 ship would be the tenth and final ship of the block four buy.
“It’s not quite buy nine get one free, but I think we can do a pretty good service for the Navy in showing that the cost of that submarine will be greatly discounted with the efficiencies of going for a two-per-year in that timeframe,” said Breckenridge. “We’re going to build that case and present it to the Navy as we move forward.”
The second Virginia boat in 2018 would help ease the transition to the Ohio replacement program, he said, by keeping the shipyard work force stable. He does not regard the two programs as being in competition. “I see it as part of an integrated strategy between the SSNs and the Ohio replacement,” said Breckenridge. “That provides stability not only for the shipbuilders, but their prime vendors and further down into the supply chain for this class of ships.”