There’s Nothing the U.S. Navy Can Do to Avoid a Submarine Gap
Fleet's focus is on mitigating a 25-boat shortfall
In 2018, the U.S. Navy has finally begun to come to terms with a long-term problem that has been decades in the making.
The fleet has too few attack submarines. And arresting the growing shortfall — never mind reversing it — could prove too expensive.
The Navy needs 66 nuclear-powered attack and guided-missile submarines according to a 2016 assessment by then-Navy secretary Ray Mabus. But in mid-2018 the sailing branch possessed just 56 attack and guided-missile boats — SSNs and SSGNs, respectively, in Navy parlance.
The current force includes 13 Virginia-class vessels, 36 boats of the Los Angeles class, three Seawolfs and four former Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines that, in the early 2000s, the Navy converted into SSGNs carrying non-nuclear Tomahawk cruise missiles.
Despite the Navy purchasing two new Virginias every year on average since 2012, the 10-sub gap is likely to widen in the 2020s as older Los Angeles boats, which the Navy bought at high rates during the 1980s and 1990s, reach the end of their useful service lives.
Likewise, the converted Ohios are scheduled to decommission in the late 2020s.
The submarine shortage is the result of a long break in U.S. submarine production in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. The fleet received just five new SSNs between 1990 and 1999. “In the 1990s, the Navy took a procurement holiday,” the Congressional Budget Office explained in a 2003 report.
The Navy anticipates that, with current average production rates, the combined SSN and SSGN force could decline to just 41 by 2029, a staggering 25-vessel shortfall.
“Where we sit today is, we can’t build ships and deliver them in time to fill in that dip,” Vice Adm. Bill Merz, a deputy chief of naval operations, told U.S. senators.
The Navy has, for years, known that it could suffer an attack-boat shortage. Prior to 2016, the Navy believed it needed just 48 SSNs and SSGNs over the next 30 years. But with the resurgence of Russia’s undersea fleet and China’s sustained production of better submarine models, the U.S. Navy’s needs changed — and underpinned Mabus’s new, larger force-structure goal.
Growing military budgets in recent years have allowed the Navy to invest in the submarine industrial base, which centers on General Dynamics’ Electric Boat shipyard in Connecticut and the Huntington Ingalls’ Newport News yard in Virgina.
Newport News alone began hiring 7,000 additional workers.
But much of the new investment is flowing into the expanding effort to replace the Navy’s 14 1980s-vintage Ohio-class ballistic-missile boats — the Navy’s contribution to America’s nuclear deterrent — with a dozen new Columbia-class vessels starting in the mid-2020s.
In 2018 the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated it could cost $128 billion to develop and build the Columbias — more than $10 billion per ship, compared to an average cost of $2.7 billion for a Virginia.
The high cost of the Columbias has stymied Congressional efforts to add Virginias to the Navy’s shipbuilding plan. The House of Representative’s Armed Services Committee voted to spend around a billion dollars buying long-lead components for a third Virginia each in the 2022 and 2023 budgets, potentially cutting the 2029 shortfall to just 22 vessels.
But the full House voted to strip that funding. The Senate has an opportunity to restore the funding, but it was unclear as of July 2018 whether senators would approve such a measure — and whether the House would ultimately agree to the change.
In the absence of dramatically larger budgets, the Navy is struggling to make up the attack-boat shortage in other ways. The fleet has five spare nuclear reactor cores and could use them to extend, by a the lives of five younger Los Angeles-class boats starting in 2019.
“That will not solve the problem,” James Geurts, an assistant secretary of the navy, told senators. “It will mitigate a little bit the worst part of the dip.”
The decommissioning of the SSGNs starting in the late 2020s poses its own unique problem, on top of the overall loss of submarine hulls. The SSGNs carry as many 154 Tomahawks apiece, compared to just 12 on an early-model Virginia.
Submarines account for around a fifth of the fleet’s total cruise-missile capacity.
The Navy has a vague plan to build new SSGNs on the Columbia-class production line sometime in the 2030s. But those boats wouldn’t be ready until the 2040s. In the meantime, the service is buying as many as 20 enhanced “Block V” Virginias that can carry 40 Tomahawks apiece.
The Navy hopes the Block V boats will help to mitigate a looming cruise-missile gap, in the same way that longer-serving Los Angeleses and a few extra Virginias might partially alleviate a shortage of attack submarines.
But no one pretends that the U.S. fleet will have nearly enough submarines over the next two decades.