By Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D.
The U.S. Navy is planning to launch a major outreach effort this year to reacquaint the nation with its maritime needs. Navy leaders correctly perceive that the political system has become so absorbed by Iraq and the global war on terror that it has largely ceased paying attention to other challenges.
Furthermore, because coverage of current conflicts is so focused on the activities of ground forces, the public has very little awareness of the contributions air power and sea power make (or could make) to defeating unconventional adversaries.
So the Navy is sending admirals to communities across the nation to explain its missions and describe how emerging threats are driving changes in maritime strategy.
As this conversation unfolds, part of the discussion ought to focus on the future of the Navy's neglected undersea warfare community. Among the Navy Department's four war-fighting communities -- aviation, surface warfare, undersea warfare and marines -- submariners have been the big losers in recent years.
The disappearance of submarine admirals from the ranks of senior leaders is so pronounced that some undersea warriors say their community is the victim of "ethnic cleansing." That's an exaggeration, but there's little doubt that undersea warfare is at a low ebb in terms of influence and funding.
For example, the Bush Administration has repeatedly delayed raising the rate of submarine production above one per year for the Virginia class, the nation's last remaining sub construction program. With ramp-up to two per year now deferred until 2012, the nation faces the prospect of a continuous decline in submarine numbers beginning in the next decade, because existing attack subs will begin wearing out at the rate of three or four per year.
The current shipbuilding plan envisions that the number of attack submarines -- conventionally-armed boats not reserved for nuclear deterrence missions -- will fall from 55 in 2013 to 50 in 2017, 45 in 2024, and 40 in 2028. The downdraft is inexorable because subs that have reached the maximum service lives of their nuclear reactors must be retired.
If the Navy continues building only one sub per year in the next decade, the size of the attack-sub fleet could shrink to less than 30 boats. But why should anyone care when the Red Navy is a fading memory? Here are three reasons to care.
First, submarines are often the only intelligence-gathering assets with sufficient stealth and persistence to get within range of enemies such as Al Qaeda and North Korea. In fact, most submarine mission days in the Central Command area of responsibility are dedicated to intelligence collection such as eavesdropping on shore communications (Centcom has recently signaled increased demand for intelligence generated by undersea systems).
Second, submarines are one of the few reconnaissance assets that can act on the information they collect. Their cruise missiles can reach a thousand miles with pinpoint accuracy, their torpedoes can sink ships transporting weapons of mass destruction, and the special operators they put ashore are able to conduct a diverse array of missions.
But the third and most important reason why policymakers should care about declining submarine numbers is that someday soon, they may be the only U.S. warships that can survive hostile action in places like the Arabian Gulf or Yellow Sea. Not only are those places becoming more dangerous for surface vessels, but without an adequate fleet of subs the U.S. will lack its most effective tool for countering the submarines that countries such as China and Iran are buying.
Under current plans, the U.S. sub fleet shrinks to its smallest size just as those threats become most pressing.