[UPDATED]: WASHINGTON: Tomorrow is a big day for Navy submarines on Capitol Hill. A hearing of the House Armed Services seapower and projections forces subcommittee will focus on some of the knottiest issues in undersea warfare:
- staying ahead of the Russians and Chinese.
- getting extra funding for the Navy’s new ballistic missile submarine, the SSBN-X.
- keeping the production rate of the Virginia-class attack sub at two a year despite the sequester.
- pushing ahead on the Virginia Payload Module, a multi-purpose launcher for both missiles and unmanned vehicles. Senate appropriators stripped all funding for the VPM.
Those are the top issues Rep. Randy Forbes, seapower chairman, outlined to me ahead of his hearing tomorrow with two-star admirals Richard Breckenridge and David Johnson. Notably absent: the usual congressional complaints about the shrinking sub fleet.
There’s a good reason for that: We can’t do much of anything about it because of decisions made 20 years ago. The Bush and Clinton administrations only bought two subs in the entire period from 1991 to 1998. That gap means almost every submarine in the Navy today was procured either during the 1980s or the 2000s. When the Reagan-era subs wear out, there is no 1990s cohort behind them. Short of World War II-style crash production, which would require massive spending just to rebuild the much-shrunken industrial base, there’s no way to build new submarines fast enough to replace the old ones.
There is wiggle room. Forbes said he wants to take a hard look at “the retirement rates of some of our existing boats” to see if we can keep them longer. That’s something the Navy is studying for the Los Angeles attack subs, which first entered service in 1976. (The Ohio missile subs, first deployed in 1981, have already had their service lives stretched out from 30 years to 42). Meanwhile, the shipyards are building Virginias faster than expected, and both HASC and House appropriators voted for hundreds of millions in extra funding to keep that program on track. (Their Senate counterparts fully funded the President’s 2014 request but added no more, so we’ll have to see how that goes in conference). The Navy is also looking at longer deployments – up to seven months – and forward-basing an additional sub in Guam to get more patrols out of a smaller fleet. But the Navy estimates that all these efforts put together still only make up for about a third of shortfall.
So we come back to the number of hulls. Even if sequestration leaves the Navy with two subs a year – and there is considerable support in Congress for various fiscal gimmicks and workarounds – the fleet is going to shrink. The attack sub (SSN) force will fall from 55 today to 42 in 2029. The four guided-missile subs (SSGNs) will go away altogether in 2028: They were built by converting spare nuclear-missile subs (SSBNs) at the end of the Cold War, and now there are no SSBNs to spare. In fact, the 14 Ohio-class SSBNs will start retiring in 2027 at the rate of one a year.
It’s those painful trends that make the Ohio replacement and, less obviously, the Virginia Payload Module so important. Until we achieve President Obama’s dream of “global zero” – the hope that, someday, somehow, we might rid the world entirely of nuclear weapons, a goal on which the president has placed some very careful caveats – national security experts consider a nuclear deterrent non-negotiable. Missile subs lurking underwater are the one part of that deterrent that can survive even after America’s cities and missile silos are baked to glass by a surprise first strike.
The Navy thinks it can replace 14 Ohios with 12 new SSBN-X missile submarines. (For one thing, the new subs won’t need as much time for their mid-life overhaul as the four years required for an Ohio, so more SSBN-Xs will be available for duty at any given time). The Navy has also postponed the first SSBN-X patrol to 2031. Even so, to be ready on time, the Navy says it needs Congress to give it $787 million for research, development, and design in fiscal 2014 alone – the total development cost will reach $4.6 billion – and $7.4 billion by fiscal 2021 to build the first actual sub. (Later SSBN-Xs will cost less, an estimated $5.6 billion). For comparison, in a typical year, the Navy gets at most $14 billion for its entire shipbuilding program, from subs to destroyers to Littoral Combat Ships.
[Updated: Overall, Rear Adm. Breckenridge said at the hearing, the Navy needs an additional $60 billion over 15 years -- "less than one percent" of the Defense Department's spending over that time -- to afford the SSBN(X). Otherwise, since the nuclear deterrent is non-negotiable, the Navy will have to pay for the ballistic missile subs by cutting approximately 32 other ships, he said]
“I don’t think there’s anybody in their right minds that would say we should take away our entire shipbuilding budget,” Forbes told me. “The Ohio class replacement [SSBN-X] is an enormously big ticket item… I have advocated very strongly for not taking that out of the Navy shipbuilding budget and looking at that as a strategic asset that should come out of DoD as an additional line item.”
But how does Forbes plan to convince the other parts of the Pentagon, or for that matter the other subcommittees of the HASC, to give up budget share to save the Navy? They certainly won’t go quietly. “I think we’re going to ultimately see the need for this is so compelling that that squawking is toned down a little bit,” Forbes told me.
At least, there is consensus among the four key committees – authorizers and appropriators, House and Senate – to support the Navy’s 2014 request for funding to develop the SSBN-X, give or take a couple million. There’s no such consensus on the other big-ticket, long-term item that Forbes considers “an absolute necessity” for the future fleet: The Virginia Payload Module.
The current version of the Virginia class, like 31 of the later-model Los Angeles subs, carries not only torpedoes to sink enemy ships but Tomahawk cruise missiles to attack targets deep inland (in Afghanistan or Syria, for example). But each attack sub can only carry 12 missiles. For comparison, a single Ohio converted into a conventional missile sub – an SSGN – can carry 154 Tomahawks. When all four SSGNs retire, that takes 616 Tomahawk launchers out of the fleet.
To replace that firepower, the Navy wants to start building Virginia boats that are 25 percent longer to accommodate more missiles. The hull extension, called the Virginia Payload Module, would use new and larger launch tubes that could hold several Tomahawks at a time, some bigger future missile, or even an unmanned vehicle plus the gear to launch and recover it. The Navy argues the VPM would get a lot more out of each sub, for a wider range of missions for only a 13 percent increase in cost. The modules’ flexibility is great, Forbes argues, and “as we see some of the [SSGN] retirements taking place, I think it’s going to be an absolute necessity.”
But Senate appropriators aren’t convinced. Unlike the three other defense committees, the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee whacked the president’s request for $90 million in 2014 to develop the VPM to zero. The appropriators were uneasy about modifying a well-established design to insert a 94-foot-long module in the middle of the sub and they’re not confident the Navy knows what it’s doing.
“The committee believes that the module’s requirements are not defined, and will result in instability to a proven submarine design, disrupt a stable production line, and add significant cost risk which is not affordable in these difficult fiscal times,” SAC-D said in its August 2013 report, “[and] Joint Requirements Oversight Committee validation is still incomplete.”
“We’ve created an environment where change is not something that’s normally promoted, where innovative thinking is not promoted,” Forbes laments. That’s true not just for the Virginia Payload Module but across the board, affecting “the kind of innovation and capability to change that I think is going to be dramatically important for us to meet the [challenges] that could take place from the Russians, Chinese, down the road [from] things that we don’t even know about today.”
But long-range research, Forbes acknowledges, is one of the easiest cuts to make when budgeteers look for short-term savings. How can he defend any of his priorities when sequestration and the uncertainty it creates looms over every item in the budget?
“I can’t make good decisions on defense based on bad decisions that have been made on budget issues,” Forbes says. “I’m not going to try to fit a round peg in a square hole. What I’m going to try to do is say, ‘here’s the capacity that we need,’ and then go back and try to change some of those budget decisions.”
In a bit of classic understatement, Forbes notes: “It is not easy.”