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.