An internal Navy study proposes reducing the number of active-duty attack subs in the fleet by as much as one third, according to this story in the Boston Globe.
The classified study, which was described to the Globe by Navy officials who have seen it, proposes cutting the submarine fleet from 55 vessels to as few as 37. That reduction would be accomplished by retiring older Los Angeles-class submarines and buying fewer new Virginia-class subs.
The savings would come in reduced operating costs, fewer personnel required to man the sub fleet, and especially in reduced support and maintenance requirements.
Operating and maintaining nuclear subs is not cheap, and these days the military needs every dollar we can beg, borrow, or steal. Still, I’m not so sure about this plan. While it’s true that nuclear attack subs have little role in the current war except as cruise missile launchers (which can be performed by many other types of craft) and that no real threat to our surface fleet exists at this time, we shouldn’t be too quick to slash the sub force.
There’s virtually no chance that potential enemies, such as China or Russia, could build a surface fleet to challenge ours. Even if they tried, we would have the capability to match any increase in their strength with increases of our own. Never has a navy had such supremacy on the world’s oceans. Never ever ever.
However, there is one possible threat that we cannot ignore: enemy attack submarines. Especially diesel-powered ones.
A few good diesel subs with well-trained crews could sink a carrier or disrupt our seagoing lifelines to deployed troops. Although most personnel deploy via air, virtually all of the heavy equipment, ammunition, and supplies travels by sea. Even the threat of a couple enemy subs lurking beneath the waves would require us to alter our strategy.
What if there’s a war on the Korean peninsula? We’d probably want to deploy at least a few carriers to the area, even with access from Japan and other places by land-based aircraft. Even the rumor of an enemy sub would require the carriers to stand off. No one, and I mean NO ONE, is going to risk losing a multi-billion-dollar aircraft carrier, its air wing, and 5,000 men, to a couple of torpedoes.
Enemy subs could potentially threaten the US mainland with cruise missile attacks. Enemy subs could hamper the ability of our missile subs to provide effective nuclear deterrence. Enemy subs have nasty habit of wrecking havoc when and where it can be least anticipated.
We have the upper hand (by a very wide margin) in the sub competition, but we need to be careful not to squander the lead we have. Maybe retire older subs, but bring a few new more-capable ones in to take their place. Or, if we’re going to cancel some orders for new subs, maybe keep a few extra oldies operating. But don’t cut both. Not by too much.
The article goes on to detail how the plan might affect local shipbuilders and maintenance facilities.
But members of Congress from New England expressed dismay that the Pentagon is considering such a drastic reduction in one of the Navy’s bulwarks, while not cutting other programs they consider unproven.
“They have enough money,” said Representative John Tierney, Democrat of Salem, who has more than 100 constituents who work at the Portsmouth shipyard. “We have $410 billion [in the defense budget], and you don’t think there is enough money to protect our country?”
It’s not often you hear a Democrat complaining about the possibility of military cuts. But it seems that most of the Navy’s savings would end up occurring due to canceled contracts in Blue states. Suddenly it’s a big hairy deal.