The U.S. Navy plans to begin constructing two nuclear-propelled attack submarines (SSN) per year beginning next year -- Fiscal Year 2010. For the past decade the Congress has authorized SSNs at an average of one a year. However, in response to the Newport News/Northrop Grumman and Electric Boat/General Dynamics shipyards reducing construction costs for submarines of the Virginia (SSN 774) class to $2 billion per submarine in then-year (FY 2005) dollars, the Department of Defense and Congress have approved the doubled construction rate.
Now some in DoD and Congress are having second thoughts about the increased submarine building rate. The reason is primarily money. The cost in today's dollars for a Virginia-class SSN is closer to $2.5 billion per unit.
The Navy's annual shipbuilding budget from FY 2002 through 2009 averaged about $10 billion. The FY 2010 budget is about $12 billion. The Navy -- which currently has 283 active ships -- has a goal of 313 ships. Navy estimates of the shipbuilding funds needed to reach that goal have been steadily increasing over the past few years and is now about $16 billion per annum. However, the Congressional Research Service, General Accountability Office, and other, non-government institutions and individuals, estimate the cost at more than $20 billion per year and possibly as high as $24 billion. And, these numbers do not include the "mission packages" for littoral combat ships (LCS), the planned new class of strategic missile submarines (SSBN), and the proposed ballistic missile defense cruisers (CG(X)).
This analyst believes that with the current financial situation in the United States, the costs of the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts, the Navy and Air Force shortfalls in aircraft, and other factors will make shipbuilding budgets of more than $12 billion highly unlikely; probably less money will be available for that purpose. Will DoD and the Congress -- and even the non-nuclear segments of the Navy -- permit almost $5 billion per year, i.e., some 40 to possibly 50 percent of the annual shipbuilding budget, to be spent on two attack submarines?
Today the Navy has 53 attack submarines; a building rate of two per year would increase the number to about 60 "boats." A rate of 1-1/2 annually would mean 45 submarines, while one per year would lead to a 30-submarine force.
The situation is exacerbated as some observers are questioning the role of the attack submarine on the "war on terror" -- a component of what DoD calls "irregular warfare." While SSNs are useful for clandestine surveillance in forward areas, and possibly for tracking North Korean merchant ships, their role in irregular warfare is not clear. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has called for a military force structure that is 50 percent focused on conventional warfare, 10 percent focused on irregular warfare, and 40 percent focused on dual-use capabilities. The category -- or categories -- for attack submarines is not completely clear.
Thus, with the current fleet of 283 or even the planned 313 ships, how many attack submarines are needed is not completely clear.
Also, increasingly the U.S. Navy is operating in relatively shallow, coastal or littoral waters. While nuclear submarines can operate there, some believe that their efficiency is limited for several reasons, and their vulnerability is increased. There have been three collisions of U.S. nuclear submarines with surface ships in the Gulf of Oman/Strait of Hormuz area in the past couple of years. Are those submarines there to support irregular warfare -- U.S. participation in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan? Or are they to deter or fight Iranian aggression? If the latter, what is their contribution when significant U.S. surface and air forces are also in the area? What is their contribution to the new U.S. Africa Command?
The larger SSN building rate and force level may well be justified. But questions of future SSN roles as well as the fiscal implications should be addressed before the United States begins a two-per-year SSN program.