Keeping The Virginia-Class Attack Sub On Track Should Be A Top Congressional Priority
By Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D.
Lexington Institute
October 18, 2013

When trouble breaks out in places like the Middle East, the media rush to describe what U.S. forces are available nearby to respond. However, one type of combat system is often left out of the coverage: the nuclear-powered attack subs that the Navy routinely operates close to hostile shores. In addition to policing the seas and being ready to launch cruise-missile attacks against land targets, these stealthy undersea warships also collect diverse intelligence about what is happening in a region -- which is one reason why the Navy often prefers to keep their presence secret. But when crises occur anywhere near the seas that might involve U.S. interests, there's a high likelihood U.S. attack subs are in the neighborhood and monitoring events.
You wouldn't think the current budget debate on Capitol Hill has much impact on these silent sentinels, but it does. The Navy needs to commence the next multiyear contract for construction of ten Virginia-class subs in fiscal 2014, and under the terms of the continuing resolution just passed, it can't until a formal appropriation is approved. Like previous stopgap funding bills passed by the Congress, the current law maintains military spending at last year's levels, and specifically prohibits signing new multiyear contracts. That means the nation's only active submarine construction program could be disrupted -- even though it is a paradigm of efficiency, and even though the Navy can't afford to lose any time in replacing its dwindling force of Los Angeles-class attack subs (a third of which have already been retired).
The Navy's minimum requirement for its attack-sub fleet is 48 vessels, the number needed to sustain a dozen boats in key operating locations around the world. The reason it takes so many to sustain so few is that subs are often in transit, in maintenance, or being used for training missions. But the subs that actually are on-station provide crucial intelligence and operational leverage. Using Northeast Asia as an example, what other U.S. combat system could operate in close proximity to China, Russia or North Korea without causing an international incident? You don't need to understand the atmospheric phenomena that enable subs to listen in on signals even when they originate over the horizon to see that submarines afford unique reconnaissance opportunities in hostile waters.
But the Pentagon waited too long to ramp up production of the Virginia class, so now the Navy is facing a shortfall in its attack-sub fleet towards the end of the next decade. One thing we don't need to do is make that shortfall worse by unnecessarily delaying construction of the only sub the Navy is currently buying. We also don't need to waste more money, which is a big reason why multiyear production contracts were invented in the first place; if a block buy of ten more Virginia-class subs is approved on time, taxpayers will save on the order of $5 billion from the resulting efficiencies, compared with buying the boats year by year. So whatever else Congress may manage to accomplish in providing funds for fiscal 2014, it really should try to make sure it keeps this vital military program on track.