After more than 23 years of service, the Los Angeles-class nuclear-powered fast-attack submarine USS Minneapolis-St. Paul (SSN 708) inactivated in a ceremony June 22 at Pier 3 at Naval Station Norfolk.Concerns remain that our shrinking fleet is going to leave us with our pants down at some point, and that our anti-sub warfare capabilities (or, rather, our lack thereof) could leave serious gaps waiting to be exploited. Two world wars showed that submarine fleets were able to have a drastic effect on the wider military and economic efforts of the combatants.While no one is going to challenge our supremacy in the realm of carrier-centered naval power, even just the threat of submarines could potentially keep those carriers from operating when and where we need them to. We've seen anti-mine capabilities whither over time. Are ASW capabilities going to suffer the same fate?The attack sub fleet is part of the ASW effort, and when you couple the shrinking hunter fleet with the retirement of the S-3 Vikings, the delays in the P-3 Orion's follow-on (the P-8A Poseidon MMA), and questions about the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program, I suspect that we've got reason to be concerned about our ability to combat enemy submarines that could threaten our surface forces and logistics fleet, let alone commercial ships.The USS Hawaii (SSN 776) was just commissioned last month, so it's not like the fleet just shrank the other day. USS North Carolina (SSN 777) will join the fleet next year. But the long-term plan is to reduce the number of attack boats in the fleet by a significant number. Not every boat retired in the coming years will be replaced by a new one. We currently have 53 operational attack subs in the fleet.A 2005 study by the Navy itself said that 48 is the "minimum number of attack submarines needed to maintain an acceptable level of risk at an acceptable cost." But the current plan to acquire Virginia-class subs like the Hawaii and North Carolina will put us under the 48-boat level for sixteen of the twenty-seven years between 2007 and 2034, bottoming out at 40 boats in 2028 and 2029. For more, see the Heritage Foundation articles The Navy Needs to Close the Projected Gap in the Attack Submarine Fleet and Congress Should Accelerate Submarine Procurement.--Murdoc
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