A Modest Proposal
by J. Scott Shipman
Our Navy has not experienced war against a peer competitor since 1945. War at sea differs significantly from what our Marine Corps and Army brothers have learned over the last 17 years. Naval warfare is attrition warfare, for at sea there is no place to hide. To quote the late strategist Herbert Rosinski: “At sea there is no halfway house between victory and defeat, because there is no difference between what is needed for defense and what for attack. One side only can gain security at the cost of the other—or neither.”
The United States Navy doesn’t have enough submarines (or surface ships, for that matter). Our highly capable fleet of SSNs is the best in the world, but we’re retiring the old LOS ANGELES Class boats faster than we’re replacing them with the VIRGINIA Class. These new submarines are expensive (~$2.5B USD) and the high costs are translating into fewer platforms with the number of attack boats shrinking from 50 today to as low as 42 by 2030—with only about 25 projected to operate in the Pacific—while China is building both SSKs and SSNs at a pretty aggressive rate with up to 70 attack boats on the horizon.
Under current forces structure plans and budgets the USN cannot afford the number of platforms needed to meet existing security threat requirements. Given our top-heavy force of large multipurpose warships, most are too expensive to send in harm’s way—but that does not change the need for presence. As William Beasley wisely suggested in the November 2015 issue of Proceedings, the US Navy needs to “close the presence gap.” Beasley “steals” a line from former Naval War College Dean CAPT Barney Rubel and defines “presence” — “it means being there.” Costs are limiting our numbers, thus our presence. As marvelous as the VA Class is (and it is a true marvel), it can’t be in two places at once.
The USN attack submarine force is all nuclear. These ships are complex and take years to construct—and only two shipyards are currently certified to build them. If many predictions are correct, in a future great power war we cannot assume the sanctuary of CONUS and these shipyards would make irresistible targets.
Our ally Japan may hold a potential subsurface solution which could be an almost “turn-key” solution to the USN’s presence crisis and the growing threat of China. The Japanese Soryu class submarine (pictured above) is the most advanced conventional submarine in the world and the first to transition to ultra-quiet lithium batteries for submerged operations. Further, these boat could be built for at least half the price of a VA Class.
Japan faces a common adversary in China, though without a Pacific Ocean buffer. What if we made a deal with the Japanese government to license the Soryu class design? Further, as part of the deal, construct boats for their navy in our shipyards. We would gain needed numbers and our ally would gain an “extra” production yard. This seems a great way to reassure our allies, increase our subsurface numbers, and send a message to the world that our bonds as allies are deep and resolute. This line of thought is not unprecedented, as we are building the next generation of SSBN (the COLUMBIA Class) in collaboration with the UK.
Whatever the USN decides (and doing nothing is a decision), time is growing short for alternatives and more of the same isn’t affordable.
May 24th, 2018 at 12:28 am
An excellent proposal that is long over due. Getting the current leadership in the DOD/Navy to shift $ away from their pet nuke boat projects will likely take presidential action. As Scott aptly pointed out we need to counter the rapid and massive expansion of the PLAN now, not after they outnumber our hulls by two to one.
May 24th, 2018 at 12:44 am
Indeed, Professor Tom, but don’t hold your breath. It is an article of faith in the USN that is a boat submerges, it must have a reactor. This myopic and continued devotion to nuclear or nothing is killing our future capabilities.
May 24th, 2018 at 2:11 am
Any thoughts on Sweden’s Gotland-class submarines? They have the range of nuclear but use an updated version of the old, old stirling engine technology.
More and more it looks like our insistence on a high tech answer to everything, our addiction to innovation, is going to defeat us before we ever enter any battle.
May 24th, 2018 at 2:24 am
The Japanese boat has longer range/endurance, though Gotland is a splendid SSK (and I have friends in the company). We need a boat with the Japanese volume—to break the nuke only restriction. We’ve designed a smaller, long range heavily armed addition.
May 24th, 2018 at 2:22 am
I can only assume that the modesty of this proposal is as satirical as Jonathan Swift’s famous essay.
Investments in diesel submarine technology are without question an excellent choice for South Korea, Japan, and our European NATO Allies, they have coastlines and extensive infrastructure within a few days of the potential conflict zone, but for the United States Navy this is at best dubious.
Nuclear reactors aren’t a luxury, even putting aside the enormous advantages in capability they free us from having an achille’s heel. A hugely important detail that has been omitted here is that while hull for hull Diesels might be cheaper, for those ships to take the fight to China’s own waters they will need a massive at-sea logistical tail. Specialized replenishment ships and tankers will have to transit to the zone of action and rendezvous with our Diesels on a regular basis which needless to say would make both submarines and their support ships vulnerable. While strictly speaking that is technically a way to get to the impressive but meaningless “300 ship Navy”, but largely by adding extremely vulnerable targets. An alternative might be leasing yet more ports from South Korea and Japan for military operations, but this merely restates the already existing problem in different terms more interesting to the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force while adding an altogether new problem of toxic political difficulties.
It is also, I think, itself a myopia to obsess over the growing size of the PRC’s submarine fleet when a significant number of those ships are essentially rebuilds of the ancient Soviet Romeo class.
By all means we should encourage our allies, with direct aid if necessary, to expand their diesel submarine fleets. Japanese, Taiwanese, and South Korean diesels would be the essential linebackers that enable the U.S. nuclear attack submarines to go on the offensive. But it is in my opinion clear that the U.S. and her allies have very little to gain from the USN procuring them herself.
May 24th, 2018 at 3:13 am
Hi PseudoNikephoros, Actually no–it was tongue-in-cheek, as the USN has no interest in conventional boats. Using a CONUS-based force projection model, I’d agree nukes are the best, but forward deployed, these conventional boats could punch above their weight/costs.
Numbers matter, and the odds say we will lose SSNs in a hot war. Cheaper substitutes would fill vital roles. Much of the SCS area is relatively shallow (too shallow), and risking VA Class boats in some areas isn’t optimal.
The ROK frigate Chosen, was sunk by a bag of bolts DPRK mini-sub—so high-tech isn’t as important as the ability to submerge. The PLAN have old boats that have embarrassed our Fleet before–without weapons, thank goodness.
While I appreciate your opinion, I’ll stick by the notion the USN need to diversify and add conventional boats to the order of battle.
May 28th, 2018 at 3:51 am
Ah, the ever lasting submarine gap.
“while China is building both SSKs and SSNs at a pretty aggressive rate with up to 70 attack boats on the horizon.”
Tell us how many of those submarines have performed a blue-water patrol lasting more than a few weeks.
The answer is zero.
May 29th, 2018 at 6:42 pm
Ask the skipper of the ROK frigate Chosen is he cared whether the bag-of-bolts DPRK boat had blue water experience. These boats are platforms for weapons and they have been very active in the SCS/ECS/YS areas. The PLAN has been making deterrent patrols since 2015, and no doubt sharing the experience with their attack boats.
June 7th, 2018 at 5:04 pm
We should be working on A2/AT countermeasures. It’s nice to have more hulls, but if we can’t protect them we are not better off. And the Chinese are hard at work on those kinds of systems. As to the use of Japanese subs, I think it will be very hard to get past “Not Invented Here” syndrome, although it IS ab excellent idea, Scott!