Over the past few years, China has quietly improved the lethality and survivability of its attack submarines, building nine new nuclear attack submarines with quieter engines that will make Chinese submarines harder to locate and neutralize in a wartime scenario. Not to be outdone, Russia is embarking on its own modernization of its nuclear attack submarines.
But in the United States, our submarine force is shrinking. Currently, the Navy has just 52 attack submarines, far below the 66 the agency said are needed to meet its operational plans. Even worse, the fleet is scheduled to shrink by 20 percent over the next decade. In other words, while our adversaries are investing in a next-generation submarine force, we are letting ours wither. Without additional resources, we risk giving up a critical military advantage under the sea.
Attack submarines fulfill critical missions that lead to the success of our Navy. Our Los Angeles-, Seawolf- and Virginia-class submarines can perform surveillance, seek-and-destroy missions, covert troop insertion, mine and anti-mine operations, and more. They can also be armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles allowing them to fire on long-range, land-based targets.
Russia and China clearly understand the importance of attack submarines. Intestimony before the House Armed Services Committee this year, Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, one of the nine combatant commands, told Congress that China is actively expanding and upgrading its submarine forces. In addition to improving thesubmarines already in its inventory, China has embarked on a shipbuilding plan that would put it on track to surpass Russia as the world’s second-largest navy by 2020. Russia is expanding its submarine fleet as well, adding six modernized nuclear attack submarines by 2021. In addition, Russia is modernizing an older class of nuclear attack submarine, those tasked with missions such as attacking our nation’s surface ships and other priority land and sea targets. With these expanding efforts, our strategic competitors continue to make great strides in the undersea domain.
In order to maintain naval superiority, the U.S. must match, or preferably, surpass these adversaries. According to the Navy’s most recent Force Structure Assessment, which studied force levels by each ship class required to deter and defeat peer competitors, the U.S. needs 66 attack submarines to meet Navy operational plans. Unfortunately, our submarine force today stands at only 52. The problem is even worse than it may seem, as Harris and other U.S. combatant commanders, the leaders responsible for executing all military activity in their operational area, are increasingly demanding attack submarines as well.
Operational commanders have repeatedly complained to Congress about limited capacity. Harris, for instance, testified before Congress in 2016, 2017 and 2018 that he gets only half of the submarines he needs to perform his mission. “The numbers are low and getting smaller,” Harris said.
In February, the U.S. Navy released its 30-year shipbuilding plan but, surprisingly, it did not recommend an aggressive build schedule, despite repeated requests from the combatant commanders. Under the current plan, the attack submarine inventory would fall from its current 52 boats in fiscal year 2019 to 42 boats in fiscal year 2028; it wouldn’t reach 66 attack submarines until 2048. With a Navy requirement of 66 attack submarines, an increasing desire from combatant commanders for attack submarines and an expanding near-peer competitors’ output of submarines, this is unacceptable and puts us at a disadvantage in potential future wars. Conflict with near-peer competitors would necessitate an increased workload for the attack submarine fleet, and our U.S. submariners would be met with resistance because of China, Russia and other nations’ investments in their own submarine fleets and technology.
Fortunately, the Navy identified options to speed up this shipbuilding timeline, including an option to extend the service life of certain Los Angeles-class submarines, which would decelerate the downward trend we currently face.