When Cutting Defense, Consider Subs' Strategic Value
January 4, 2012
As Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta prepares to unveil his strategy to balance national defense priorities with a need to slow the growth of military spending, guiding his assessment should be an emphasis on deterrence and the ability to react quickly and strategically to emerging threats. A strong submarine force is a critical component to such a strategy.
That may sound self-serving coming from a news company located in a region with an economy dependent in large part on a submarine builder - Electric Boat in Groton - and home to a Navy submarine base, but in this case the region's economic self-interest dovetails with national security priorities.
Current planning calls for $450 billion in reduced defense spending over the next decade. That number could roughly double, however, because of the failure of the so-called super committee to agree on a deficit-reduction plan.
Personnel costs account for roughly one-third of defense spending, meaning substantial reductions in the number of military personnel in uniform will be necessary. The U.S. cannot afford to maintain a standing army capable of fighting multiple wars. Tomorrow's military must be mobile, strategic and versatile.
The nuclear powered Virginia-class attack submarine, built cooperatively by EB and Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, is a versatile weapons' system. The Navy can stealthily dispatch these attack submarines to hot spots globally, where if necessary they can deliver a salvo of Tomahawk cruise missiles with devastating accuracy.
These technological marvels also have the ability to launch mini-submarines that can bring a group of Navy SEALS ashore for special operations aimed at terrorist targets or other military objectives. They have the capability to eavesdrop on communication networks, providing mission-critical information.
The Virginia-class's more traditional mission in anti-submarine warfare and serving as a threat to enemy surface ships provides a deterrent to other countries that might contemplate the investment necessary to match U.S. naval strength.
Congress and the administration appear to recognize the importance of these submarines to modern warfare and antiterrorist efforts. Commitment to building two Virginia-class submarines a year remains strong, leading to a goal of 53 to 55 attack submarines patrolling the world's oceans.
EB and Newport News have proved they can deliver these ships within budget. The Mississippi, christened a month ago, came in $50 million below budget and roughly a year ahead of schedule. Compare that to aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford now under construction, expected to be as much as $1.1 billion over budget.
More vulnerable to defense spending cuts could be the next generation of ballistic-missile submarines that would replace the aging Ohio-class, Trident submarines. EB has begun design work, but these ships will be enormously expensive, perhaps $5.6 billion per ship. A proposal to instead stretch and retrofit Virginia-class submarines to carry ballistic missiles appears impractical because the Virginia hulls could not accommodate the current Trident II (D5) missiles.
In a nuclear world in which proliferation is the likely forecast, the United States cannot do without the deterrent value of these underwater nuclear missile launch pads. But in a post-Cold War era, the Navy may have to do with less. Fourteen Ohio-class Tridents now perform this mission, while Navy plans call for 12 new ballistic-firing submarines to replace them. Depending on how deep the budget cuts go, the number could drop to 10 or even less. At those levels, long-term national security comes into question. While striking the proper balance of cost and deterrent value will be a challenge, deterrence must be the priority.
In the coming high-stakes political game of how to trim defense spending, advocates for the submarine force hold a winning hand, but they must play their cards well.