by Rep. Randy Forbes and Rep. Joe Courtney
For a host of security and economic reasons, American foreign and defense policy will increasingly focus on the Asia-Pacific region in the decades ahead. With over 60% of all U.S. exports going to Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) countries and 40% of total global trade emanating from Asia-Pacific, the United States cannot be an impartial observer of events in the region.
That interest should be heightened by the accelerating military and particularly naval buildup that is playing out across East Asia and the Western Pacific in response to China’s rapid and opaque military modernization efforts. Countries from Vietnam to the Philippines to Japan are responding to Beijing’s recent assertiveness and growing military capabilities by investing in advanced systems of their own, fostering a potentially volatile climate in the economically-essential waters of East Asia.
President Obama’s announced “rebalance” to Asia, while not solely a military strategy, has placed a new emphasis on resourcing the security elements required to maintain a robust balance of military power in the region. The United States Navy, and in particular our submarine force, will be called on to be at the center of this effort. While the Navy fleet has atrophied to an alarming level over the past two decades, nowhere is this diminution of resources more clear than in the Navy’s submarine force.
Traditionally, the submarine service has been one of the Navy’s greatest advantages, deterring aggression in peacetime and delivering superlative combat capabilities in times of war. From playing a vital role in achieving Allied victory in the Pacific during World War II, to providing our principal nuclear deterrent during the half-century of cold war, to offering a flexible host of capabilities to manage the complex challenges of the last two decades, the submarine force offers a national advantage that successive generations of Navy and civilian leaders have taken care to preserve and expand. That is why all Americans should be gravely concerned by the current submarine force’s rapid decline in numbers and the potential for further erosion over the coming decades.
Attack submarines, known as SSNs in Navy parlance, are the workhorses of the submarine service. Designed for both offensive and defensive purposes – from conducting intelligence and inserting Special Operations Forces to launching targeted missile strikes and countering enemy submarines and surface vessels – SSNs and their diverse capabilities will be essential in the future Asia-Pacific security environment. Yet their numbers have declined dramatically in the last generation, from nearly 100 in 1987 to just 53 today. Even more alarmingly, the Los Angeles-class of SSNs, which comprise the majority of Navy attack submarines, are retiring faster than they are being replaced. The Navy has stated it requires 48 SSNs to execute current missions, but given the current rates of replacement, the SSN force is scheduled to drop below the stated minimum in less than a decade. Indeed, if current levels of procurement are unaltered, the SSN fleet will fall to roughly 40 boats in the early 2030s.
The Navy’s attempt to rectify this dangerous path is the Virginia-class SSN. The most technologically advanced attack submarine ever built, the Virginia offers the Navy a tremendous array of capabilities across a wide-range of mission areas. After a concerted effort by the Navy and industry to reduce costs and improve delivery schedules, not to mention significant bipartisan support from Congress, the program finally hit the doubled production goal in 2011. And, just last month, Congress reaffirmed its broad support for the program by backing sustained two-a-year production of this submarine in the next multi-year procurement (MYP) contract, which is currently being negotiated by the Navy and industry.
The importance placed on the role of our submarine force in our national defense strategy demands that we continue forward with steady and predictable procurement of at least two Virginia-class submarines a year. As important, we must ensure that these platforms remain relevant to both our current demands and those we may face in the future.
Some may argue that the submarine force is so capable that it could afford to shrink. But the demand signal from our military leaders paints a different story. According to testimony from the Navy, global demand from the Combatant Commanders for SSNs is for roughly 16 or 18 boats at any one time; but the Navy can only afford to deliver about 10 SSNs. The importance of the Virginia-class submarine to our Fleet is most apparent in Asia-Pacific. At present, the Pacific Command has 32 submarines located in the Asia-Pacific region, with roughly 6 SSNs operating at any given time. By contrast, China’s submarine force now numbers over 60 increasingly modern vessels and this number could grow to as high as 80 by the 2020s.
While the U.S. still maintains a competitive advantage in the undersea domain, without a sustained commitment it could gradually slip away. Building a sufficient SSN fleet takes patience and decades of sustained, predictable funding. With the defense budget suffering under the weight of sequestration cuts, sustaining the SSN fleet and modernizing its capabilities in the decade ahead must remain a top priority.
Rep. Forbes (R-VA) is Chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee and Co-Chairman of the Navy-Marine Corps Caucus. Rep. Courtney (D-CT) is Vice-Ranking Member of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee and Co-Chairman of the Congressional Shipbuilding Caucus.