The problem for the submarine force is that the need for attack boats is rising precisely as the Los Angeles class is being retired. According to recent Congressional testimony, U.S. Pacific Command operates about half the number of SSNs it requires and this is in peacetime. At the same time, both China and Russia are building large numbers of advanced conventional and nuclear-powered attack and cruise missile submarines.
The Navy once believed that 48 SSNs as part of an overall force level of 308 ships would be enough into the middle of the century. The Navy’s new goal is to maintain a 355-ship fleet, of which 66 would be SSNs. Unfortunately, the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan does not build enough Virginias even to meet the prior, lower goal for the SSN force. At currently proposed building rates, the SSN fleet will decline to a low of 41 boats in 2029, seven short of the Navy’s original force structure plan and 25 below the new, higher target, before rising to 51 boats at mid-century.
66 attack boats seems like a reasonable number. But we need to get there sooner rather than later. The fact that the building plan never gets us there should be troubling. The proposal to keep building two Virginias a year even as Columbia-class SSBNs begin construction is the obvious answer.
And the Block V Virginias will be the most-capable SSNs ever built. The Virginia-class program is one of the few bright spots in the Navy and in military procurement. So, of course, the decision makers want to scale it back.