The Wrong Sub for New Warfare Era

With the paradigm shift from strategic to tactical warfare operations, the United States Navy has found itself with an aging fleet of virtually obsolete nuclear submarines designed to fight a war that never happened – and which they played a significant role in preventing. (For a review of the post-Cold War state of our nuclear submarine fleet and the modern alternatives waiting in the wings to supplement or even replace these aging behemoths, see my 2002 article, Tomorrow’s Submarine Fleet – The Non-nuclear Option,” DefenseWatch, Feb. 6, 2002).

In the two and a half years since that article appeared, the world of submarine warfare has changed significantly. This month, on Sept. 3, the nuclear submarine that eventually will be commissioned as the USS Virginia (SSN 774) underwent sea trials off the coast of New England .

According to Adm. Frank Bowman, director of naval nuclear propulsion, “This sea trial was an absolute success, a clean sweep, as we say in the Navy. It met every expectation of mine, for the propulsion plant and for the ship.”

It was, as the Navy says, a “clean sweep.”

The Virginia is the result of several years of round-the-clock efforts by thousands of people from 3,500 companies located in 46 states. It is an extraordinarily stealthy, futuristically high-tech, astonishingly expensive underwater marvel. To the tune of $2 billion.

What did we get for our hard-earned bucks?

The sub is 377 feet long with a beam of 34 feet, and it displaces 7,300 tons submerged. Compare this to the other “new” submarine – the USS Seawolf (SSN 21) – 353 feet long, 40 feet beam, displacing 9,137 tons submerged.

The Virginia carries a plethora of systems and weapons designed to keep the sub quiet, and to allow it to operate near-shore for battlefield support and for unmanned vehicle and Seal Team deployments.

A major element in the argument for canceling all but three of the proposed twenty-nine Seawolf Class subs was the substantial per-sub cost of about $2 billion. The new Virginia Class was supposed to cost less, but at you can see, it didn’t work out that way. Furthermore, the smaller Virginia Class was supposed to be better suited for operating close inshore, but – again as you can see – these subs are 24 feet longer. Because they displace significantly less, they are more maneuverable, but their added length limits their maximum angle when operating in waters about as deep as they are long.

In my earlier article discussing the non-nuclear submarine option, I pointed out that a typical modern Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) submarine costs about $250 million. As I related in that article, AIP design since the end of World War II has followed on four different fronts:


* German Thyssen Nordseewerke (TNSW) developed a closed-cycle diesel using liquid oxygen, diesel oil, and argon. The same diesel is used as a conventional air-breathing engine for surface propulsion. These systems are suitable for both retrofitting and new construction.


* Howaltswerke-Deutsche Werft (HDW) in Germany has developed a hybrid fuel cell system for a diesel-electric sub. High-speed operations run off the conventional battery, while the fuel cell recharges the battery, and provides energy for low-speed operations. Typical submarine cost using either HDW or TNSW AIP systems is $250 million.


* Hybrid diesel-electric units propel Swedish Gotland Class subs, supplemented with Kockum Stirling engines running on liquid oxygen and diesel oil to turn a generator to produce electricity for propulsion and to charge the vessel's batteries. Typical cost for a Gotland class sub is $100 million.


* The French “MESMA” (Module d’Energie Sous-Marine Autonome) AIP steam-turbine system burns ethanol and liquid oxygen to make steam to drive a turbo-electric generator. The design permits retrofitting into existing submarines by adding an extra hull section. Typical cost for a new submarine powered by MESMA is $250 million.

One could argue, therefore, that a potential enemy who is willing to spend $2 billion on submarine technology could deploy eight subs against a Virginia Class that are significantly quieter than a Virginia Class, significantly more maneuverable than a Virginia Class, and with every bit as capable in their weaponry as a Virginia Class.

Do I need to play out the battle scenario for you?

This potential enemy probably could do the same thing with just two or three AIP subs. In fact, even in a one-on-one situation, all other things being equal, he still has the advantage.

So tell me: Exactly why are we spending eight times as much for less than one-eighth the capability? It really doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies says that at least 300 foreign submarines ply the world’s oceans today. Unnamed Pentagon officials put the number at more than 400 owned by Great Britain , France , Germany , Russia , Sweden , Norway , Canada , Poland , Italy , Spain , Singapore , Indonesia , Algeria , Colombia , Croatia , Vietnam , Pakistan , India , Egypt , Chile and Turkey .

If we factor out our certain allies (as I see it: Great Britain , France , Germany , Sweden , Norway , Canada , Poland , Italy , and Spain ), and our probable friends ( Russia , Singapore , India , and Turkey ), that still leaves us a formidable list of potential adversaries with submarine capability: Indonesia , Algeria , Colombia , Croatia , Vietnam , Pakistan , Egypt and Chile .

France and Germany have been selling AIP submarines as fast as they can produce them. Sweden is about to enter the market. Russia has “leased” a nuclear submarine to India , and has plenty more in stock.

At least half of the known foreign submarines are in the hands of friendlies or are of the older, strictly diesel variety that pose no match for anything we have – even our oldest missile subs. That still leaves 200 or so highly capable submarines that are potentially every bit as good as anything we have. As an ex-submariner (pronounced submarine-er), I will pit our guys against anyone out there, even at two-to-one odds. Our guys are absolutely as good as they get.

But the odds aren’t two-to-one. They’re more like four-to-one. The bad guys can station one of the new ultra-quiet AIP subs at a choke point, and seriously damage or even sink a carrier. An AIP sub can sneak up on a Virginia Class deploying a Seal Team with devastating results. A hunter-killer pack of several AIP subs can take out any nuke we have, once they find it. They don’t have our sophisticated locating technology, but you don’t need sophistication at choke points – all you need is numbers, and they’ve got those, in spades.

Following the end of the Cold War, we downgraded the underwater SOSUS surveillance system, putting much of it in standby (see “Confronting Maritime Terrorism, DefenseWatch, May 12, 2004 ), but even if it were fully functioning, I’m not certain it could detect a properly configured AIP submarine.

In a phone interview early this month with the Newhouse News Service, Capt. Tom Abernethy, who commands the sub-hunting Destroyer Squadron 22 based in Norfolk , Va. , said: “Shallow water, you get a lot of noise reverberation and additional traffic, and you're fighting in somebody else’s back yard which they know pretty well …. [In that environment, even a diesel sub] is absolutely a real threat, a formidable threat …. ” By implication, he said that AIP subs were equal to or better than anything we have.

Vice Admiral Albert H. Konetzni Jr. of the Navy’s Fleet Forces Command wrote in the June 2004 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings: “The uncontested undersea superiority experienced during recent conflicts is not likely to be repeated against determined and capable adversaries.”

It’s time to reexamine our reexamination of our submarine fleet. We mustn’t allow our nuclear superiority to overcome technological common sense. We are spending eight times as much for arguably one-eighth the capability.

I know our school systems are not producing math whizzes, but even a Los Angeles South Central drop-out can figure this one out.