The Wrong Sub for New Warfare Era
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).
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
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.”
was, as the Navy says, a “clean sweep.”
did we get for our hard-earned bucks?
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
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
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
* 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.
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
I need to play out the battle scenario for you?
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.
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.
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
we factor out our certain allies (as I see it:
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.
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.
the end of the Cold War, we downgraded the underwater SOSUS surveillance system,
putting much of it in standby (see “Confronting
a phone interview early this month with the Newhouse News Service, Capt. Tom
Abernethy, who commands the sub-hunting Destroyer Squadron 22 based in
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.”
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.
know our school systems are not producing math whizzes, but even a Los Angeles
South Central drop-out can figure this one out.