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Submarine Ship Building

In the midst of significant changes in mission requirements spawned by advances in technology and the threat, the Navy's attack submarine (SSN) force remains an important multimission component capable of conducting covert operations in forward regions. SSN missions include gathering surveillance data, communicating tactical information, controlling the surface and undersea battlespace, and delivering strike weapons or special operations forces ashore in contingencies.

The May 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) reinforced the ongoing shift in SSN missions from open-ocean antisubmarine warfare and surveillance toward power projection, support of special operations forces, and littoral ASW, while making a modest reduction in force size by the end of the FYDP. The QDR directed an ongoing deactivation of older SSNs to decrease the force from 65 units in FY 1998 to 50 units in FY 2003. This force structure reflected continued deactivations of SSN-637 and older 688-class submarines, deliveries of the remaining two Seawolf-class (SSN-21) units through FY 2003, and subsequent deliveries of the New Attack Submarine (NSSN) Virginia class starting in FY 2004.

As of 1999 DOD guidance called for a force of 50 attack submarines, although some Navy studies suggest that operational requirements demonstrate a need for a force of at least 72 submarines. These studies, which included the Joint Staff Submarine forces of the Future Study (1992-93) and the Navy Fleet Commander's Study on SSN requirements (1996-97), concluded that 51-72 SSNs were required and that the peacetime requirement for forward presence was most limiting. The 1999 Joint Staff Attack Submarine Study evaluated exclusive SSN missions required by the warfighting CINCs. The study resulted in three conclusions.

  1. 68 SSNs in the 2015 and 76 SSNs in the 2025 time frame were required to meet all of the CINCs and national intelligence community's highest operational and collection requirements.
  2. A force structure of fewer than 55 SSNs in the 2015 and 62 in the 2025 time frame would leave the CINCs insufficient capability to respond to urgent crucial demands without gapping other requirements of high national interest.
  3. Countering the advancing technological threat requires 18 VIRGINIA class SSNs in the 2015 time frame.
The study was an extraordinarily detailed study that employed SSN mission data provided exclusively by the regional CINCs to determine future SSN requirements. The study results proved consistent with current operational experience, which shows a force structure-requirements mismatch. Theater CINCs are being forced to cancel or gap critical deployed missions with our current force structure of 55 SSNs. The Attack Submarine Study recommended that submarine force structure fall no further (below 55 SSNs).

As of 1999 plans were sufficient to meet the goal of 50 boats, although higher numbers would require modification to these plans. According to Navy secretary Richard Danzig, as of October 1999 the Joint Chiefs of Staff were studying options for increasing the size and capability of the submarine force. The three options under review included converting older Ohio-class SSBN submarines to so-called SSGNs at a cost of $420 million; refueling and extending by 12 years the service life of perhaps eight Los Angeles-class (SSN 688) subs at a cost per copy of $200 million; or building new Virginia-class (SSN 774) subs at a rate of at least four over five years, at a cost of roughly $2 billion per boat. The FY2000 Defense Authorization bill required the Navy to study converting four of the oldest Tridents to the new SSGN configuration.

In March of 1998 the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered a new study of attack Submarine Force levels as a follow-up to the QDR. Its goal was to determine the number of SSNs required for peacetime forward presence, national tasking, and warfighting in the 2015-2025 time frame. In determining this future need, the study will assess the importance of stealth in littoral regions and whether submarines will be required to assume new roles because of the vulnerability of other platforms. It also built on previous force level analysis and the Defense Science Board's study on the Submarine of the Future. In the context of the total DoD budget, affordability was a major consideration. The Joint Staff (J8) led the study, with participation by the Offices of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology (A&T), the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, and the Under Secretary of Defense for Program Appraisal and Evaluation (PA&E). The Defense Intelligence Agency and the Navy - particularly the Submarine Warfare Division (N87) in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations - also assisted. The results of the study were briefed to the Secretary of Defense in late 1999.

The JCS Submarine Force Structure Study, completed in November 1999, concluded that the optimal force structure would be 68 attack submarines by 2015 and 76 by 2025, with the minimum being at least 55 by 2015 and 62 by 2025. The first would be to refuel some Los Angeles-class submarines previously scheduled to be decommissioned. The report called for at least 18 Virginia-class submarines by 2015. The 2001 Navy acquisition plan called for ordering one per year through 2006, and two a year after that. The proposal in the Force Structure Study calls for the Navy to go to two a year in 2004, two years early, and to buy three in 2008. A final element was converting four older Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines to an attack role.

The Joint Staff study of Attack Submarine Force Structure articulated a mission requirement for 16 forward deployed SSNs. With then-current Submarine Force of 56 SSNs, about 48 were considered operationally ready on any given day; in other words, ready for sea in a short period of time. After factoring in crew training and leave, PERSTEMPO and OPTEMPO limits and required maintenance, the Navy was able to provide about 12 forward-deployed SSNs to the warfighting CINCs, not the 16 specified in the CJCS Study. Between 2000 and 2005 a large percentage of submarines were required to undergo extended shipyard maintenance availabilities, which will further reduce the number of available submarines to a low of 45 in 2004 - a year in which the Navy will only be able to provide 9 forward-deployed SSNs. In a major theater war scenario, the Navy can ignore normal operating limits and surge all of our operationally ready submarines to defend the nation's interests, but these operations cannot be sustained over the long term (greater than about six months).

Because of the mismatch between national and CINC requirements and the available force structure, the Navy must repeatedly say "no" to requirements in the interests of long-term sustainability. The following examples, all from COMSUBGRU TWO, showed the types of decisions the Navy was forced to make:

  • Unable to fulfill European Command's requirement for 4 SSNs in the Mediterranean.
  • Unable to fulfill European Command's requirement for a year-round Dry Deck Shelter capable SSN to support Special Warfare contingencies.
  • Supporting the bare minimum requirement for submarine contributions to counter narcotics operations in Southern Command, despite the Director of the Joint Interagency Task Force East's praise of submarines as the most effective platform for the detection and prosecution of "go fast" drug running boats. He cited submarines as the greatest force multiplier (by a factor of 4) that he can bring to bear in his anti-drug campaign.
  • In FY 1998-1999 the Navy routinely had to move our forward deployed submarines between the Atlantic, European, and Central Command Theaters to support Tomahawk contingency strike requirements and conflict resolution.

In June 2000 Rear Adm. Albert Konetzni, commander of submarine forces Pacific, testified that the Pacific fleet had 26 attack submarines, versus a requirement for 35 subs to provide CVBG support and engagement with allies. Rear Adm. John Padgett, commander of submarine group two and naval region Northeast, said that the Atlantic fleet could easily use 40 submarines to for surveillance, carrier battle group support and engagement with allies to fully support the requirements of the regional commanders-in-chief. Over the previous year the Atlantic submarine force has shrunk from 35 boats to 29.

A dual crew would enable the submarine to get back to sea quickly after returning its primary crew from a deployment. The Navy uses a dual-crew arrangement to man its 18 ballistic-missile submarines, but those larger ships are designed for quick turnaround. The SSBNs have oversize hatches that speed the replacement of parts and supplies between deployments, features that are not part of the design of the new Virginia-class attack subs. A dual-crew arrangement would not double each attack sub's time on station. With the extra maintenance needed to accommodate dual crews, the ships would be available for duty only about 40 percent more than single-crew subs. Dual crews also would burn up each sub's nuclear fuel more quickly, forcing the Navy to refuel the ships or decommission them well before their hulls reach their 33-year life expectancy. Currently there aren't enough mid-level officers to provide dual crews for three to five subs, and the Navy would need years to recruit and train the extra officers and sailors needed to give each sub an alternate crew. As of March 2004, the Navy projected that it would maintiain a fleet of 55 nuclear-powered attack submarines by the year 2024. In early 2005 the Navy lowered the projection to 45 submarines. By May 2005, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Vern Clark said he wanted 41.

The Navy announced in late March 2005 that it planned to reduce its attack submarine fleet to 41 from its current level of 55. The Navy plan calls for either 37 or 41 submarines in 2035. Both options envision four SSGN cruise missile submarines and 14 ballistic missile subs. Questions remain about the size of the future submarine fleet. In August 2005 Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Richard F. Willard suggested that the estimate of a 54- or 55-sub fleet is probably correct, not the 37 to 41 that other Pentagon officials have suggested.

Sustained building rates of one a year point to a fleet in the 30's.

As identified in the 30 year shipbuilding plan of 2007, even with a build rate of two VIRGINIA Class submarines per year commencing in 2012, the number of nuclear attack submarines will fall below the desired 48 submarine fleet identified in the 30 year shipbuilding plan from about 2020 through 2034. This apparent shortfall, however, can be managed through several risk mitigation efforts. First, stationing 60% of attack submarines in the Pacific, as recommended in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, will reduce critical response times in the Pacific. Second, by adjusting patrol times of attack submarines, the Navy can ensure greater operational availability without significantly impacting Sailors and their families. Extending the length of deployments would help produce more deployed days for meeting requirements, but skeptics wondered about the price that this could exact. The Navy's previous attempts to extend times on deployment (and reduce the amount of time spent at home) have resulted in retention problems. In fact, submarine sailors already spend much more time deployed on average than the rest of the Navy. But even if one assumes that these measures are successful, current deployments are not sufficient to meet all of the priority national requirements and less than 60 percent of the combatant commanders' overall requirements.

By pursuing an integrated approach to undersea warfare queuing through multiple sensors (e.g. Unmanned Undersea Vehicles, the P-8A Multi- Mission Aircraft, SH-60R/S helicopters) the Navy can improve critical target detection, tracking, and sensor to shooter response times to fully support the requirements of Combatant Commanders for attack submarine presence world-wide. Other initiatives under review in 2007 include reducing build time of the VA Class SSN from 72 to 60 months and considering modest hull-life extensions on a small number of SSNs.

As identified in the 30 year shipbuilding plan of February 2008, the Navy faced a shortfall in its attack submarine inventory from FY 2022 through FY 2033. The inventory will reach a minimum of 41 ships in FY 2028-2029. The Navy identified a strategy to mitigate the impact of this shortfall to include the following: (a) reducing build time of Virginia class attack submarines to 60 months; (b) extending the service life of selected attack submarines based on technical feasibility and affordability; and (c) extending, as needed, the length of attack submarine deployments from 6 to 7 months to meet operational requirements.

As the Virginia class construction rate ramps up to two submarines per year starting in 2011, the Navy will begin to rapidly recapitalize the attack submarine force. It's critical to maintain the two-per-year rate in order to achieve the Navy's force structure requirements.

The US Navy is implementing dozens of innovations to its fleet of attack submarines fleet in an effort to extend the service life of each vessel. Among the upgrades is a new painting process that helps keep marine life away from the hulls of the subs, which are coming out of service faster than they can be replaced. Other updates include water-resistant grease for hatches, a special coating on the metal rods that extend the bow planes to minimize deposits, and redesigned water-lubricated bearings to improve support of the propeller shaft.

Currently, submarines go six years between lengthy and expensive major overhaul periods. The Navy hopes these new updates can eventually extend that time to eight years. The Navy solicited the help of private and government shipyards in coming up with ways to extend the service life of each sub.

Electric Boat, a sub builder in Groton, Connecticut, presented the Navy with a list of 128 ideas whittled down from 800 for how to reduce maintenance needs. Nearly all of the changes have been incorporated into the design of submarines that are in the beginning stages of construction. The company had to make sure, however, that none of the changes interfered with the submarine's sophisticated capabilities. "That tenet of maintaining combat capability was first and foremost," said Ken Blomstedt, an Electric Boat manager.

The Navy says its fleet of 53 attack subs is already stretched too thin. Still, the fleet strength is expected to continue to decline, bottoming out at 41 in 2029 before rising again with ramped-up construction, according to the Navy's shipbuilding plan.

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