There are not enough fast-attack and guided-missile submarines in the Navy’s arsenal to meet the needs of combatant commanders around the globe, senior service officials said at the 2013 Naval Submarine League symposium, Falls Church, Va.
“Combatant commander demand for these ships far exceeds what we can supply,” said Vice Adm. Mike Connor, Commander, Submarine Forces, speaking to audience members at the symposium.
Connor detailed this need while delineating a host of desired investment priorities to include maintaining undersea nuclear deterrence, continuing weapons or “payload” development and meeting commanders’ needs for submarine missions and technologies.
“The submarines are needed because they provide very real things, like the awareness of activity in terrorist network, over-watch for special operations forces and knowledge of potential adversary weapons capability and intentions,” Connor added. “We cannot do all of these things at the same time with one or two ships in theater.”
In total, the Navy has 73 submarines, including 14 nuclear-armed Ohio-class submarines, or SSBNs; four Ohio-class submarines converted to conventionally armed guided-missile boats, or SSGNs; 42 Los Angeles-class fast attack submarines, or SSN; three Seawolf submarines and 10 Virginia-class submarines, also SSNs.
Even though the Navy is currently producing two new Virginia-class attack subs each year, an anticipated shortfall of submarines is expected to grow worse in coming years as more Los Angeles-class fast-attack submarines retire at a faster pace than Virginias are added. Due to this phenomenon, some senior Navy leaders have suggested that the service may delay retirement of some Los Angeles-class boats.
By comparison, the Navy operated many more submarines in the 1980s, operating a fleet of more than 100 SSNs, among others, Navy officials said.
One analyst said fast-attack submarines are used much differently than they were in the 1980s, in part due to the increased technological capabilities of the Virginia-class boats.
“Combatant commanders use these for intel. One of the real advantages we still have in [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] is with the subs – particularly the Virginia-class. The new subs provide greater capability,” said Daniel Goure, vice-president of the Lexington Institute, a Va.-based think tank.
Goure went on to explain how the advent of newer technologies such as sonar, sensors and improved surveillance gear has changed the mission-set for fast attack subs. In the 80s, they were used to counter adversary subs, whereas during the post Cold-War era they are used more often for ISR and land strike, Goure added.
As a result, demand for these subs is vastly increasing concurrent with a decrease in fleet size.
Out of recognition of this need for submarines and a desire to lower production costs, the Navy’s new Virginia-class fast-attack boats continue to be produced ahead of schedule, said Rear Adm. Dave Johnson, Program Executive Officer, Submarines.
Seven out of the last 10 Virginia-class submarine deliveries have been early, Johnson said. The next boat, the USS North Dakota, is slated for delivery six months early in Feb. 2014.
“In terms of relevance to the warfighter, these submarines gave the fleet over four years of additional Virginia-class submarines because of the early deliveries,” Johnson said while speaking at the Naval Submarine League.
The anticipated decreased fleet size is part of the rationale for the Virginia Payload Modules, or VPM, a plan to add a section or “module” to the now-under-construction Virginia-class attack submarines by fiscal year 2019, Johnson explained.
The current Virginia-class submarines are able to fire 12 or more missiles per boat; the VPM, once complete, will configure the Block V fast-attack Virginia-class subs with an ability to fire 40-missiles, Navy officials explained.
“We will execute VPM affordably and make it into the FY19 Block V contract. We intend to keep working and make this critical insertion capability as cost-effective as possible,” Johnson said. Addressing the current budget uncertainty, Johnson also added that $59 million in research, development test and evaluation funds will be needed in fiscal year 2014 to keep the program on track.
The idea with VPM is to bring weapons, fire-power and payload back into fleet at the same time the four large SSGN guided-missile submarines begin to retire from the fleet.
“We also need to make sure the Block V Virginia-class includes the Virginia Payload Modules. It is essential to preserving the payload volume that will start to go away when the current fleet of SSGNs starts to retire starting in 2026,” said Connor. “While the platforms are higher on my priority list, there is nothing that gets more capability per dollar than the money we spend on payloads.”
Connor also emphasized that “payload” or weapons development for submarines needs to be a large investment priority, particularly in light of often-discussed “Anti-Access/Area Denial,” or A2/AD threats.
“There are many situations wherein a submarine will be the only at-risk asset. We need to do everything that we can to extend the reach and the influence of each submarine because it will be the submarine force that opens the door to the greater joint force,” Connor explained.
If technologically advanced air-defenses and precision weaponry are used by potential adversaries to try to deny planes and surface ships the ability to project power or operate in certain strategically vital areas, quiet, stealthy well-armed submarines equipped with sensors might prove to be an invaluable tactical asset.
Connor talked about the Navy’s plan to re-start production of the Mk 48 Heavyweight Torpedo by 2016, weapons carried and fired by submarines to protect against surface and undersea threats. In the case of the Ohio-class ballistic missile nuclear-armed submarines, the heavyweight torpedoes are purely defensive. Connor said it is important to ensure that these weapons don’t’ become obsolete but rather leverage recent technological advances in autonomy, communications, precision-navigation and timing.
“We have the ability to turn the torpedo of the future into a precision over-the-horizon weapon. This is about more than torpedoes -- we need a portfolio of payloads to expand our capacity in intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance realms, electronic warfare, offensive mining and strike,” he said.
Connor also talked about potential future upgrades to the Tomahawk missile, the nation’s premier precision-strike weapon.
“We currently only carry a land-attack variant. We need to reconstitute anti-surface missile capability,” he explained.