March 19, 2019 | Policy Brief

As Threats Expand, U.S. Attack Submarine Fleet Shrinks

March 19, 2019 | Policy Brief

As Threats Expand, U.S. Attack Submarine Fleet Shrinks

In the fiscal year (FY) 2020 budget proposal it submitted last week, the Department of Defense (DOD) requested funding to build three Virginia Class attack submarines – up from the recent pace of two per year. This request comes at a time when the need for attack submarines is expanding but the U.S. attack submarine fleet is shrinking.

The nuclear-powered Virginia Class attack submarine is an important component of the U.S. Navy’s efforts to retain undersea supremacy and deter great power adversaries. The Virginia Class submarine can attack enemy ships and submarines, launch cruise missiles, gather intelligence, and deploy special operations forces. These undersea capabilities are particularly important, as China has fielded advanced anti-access area denial (A2AD) systems that would make it more difficult for U.S. surface vessels and aircraft to operate during a potential conflict.

Despite this, the Navy is not procuring enough Virginia Class submarines to prevent a reduction in the size of the fleet as the Navy’s older Los Angeles Class submarines reach retirement age. As a result, according to the Annual Long-Range Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels for FY 2019, the Navy’s attack submarine fleet is set to fall from 52 in FY 2019 to 42 in FY 2028 – a 19 percent decline. In addition to service-life extensions on some Los Angeles class submarines, funding a third Virginia Class attack submarine in FY 2020 could partially mitigate this decline.

Having fewer attack submarines negatively impacts U.S. undersea strike capacity. The Navy has attempted to address this problem by developing the Virginia Payload Module (VPM), which increases the submarine’s cruise missile capacity from 12 to 40. The VPM, according to DOD, is an “84-foot hull section with four additional payload tubes, each capable of carrying seven Tomahawk cruise missiles or various other payloads.” In DOD’s FY 2020 budget request, two of the three Virginia Class submarines would be equipped with the VPM.

In February, Admiral Philip Davidson, commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, called submarines America’s “most significant advantage in all domains right now.” Yet he warned, “The United States must maintain its advantage in undersea warfare – an asymmetric advantage that our adversaries are focused on eroding.”

China has sought to erode U.S. undersea supremacy by increasing both the size and capability of its attack submarine fleet, among other steps. In its report on China’s military power, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) predicted that China’s total submarine force may increase to 70 submarines by 2020. DIA also assesses that China is modernizing its Shang nuclear-powered attack submarines and will probably produce a nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine that “may provide a generational improvement in many areas, such as quieting and weapons capacity.”

These developments have created a more challenging undersea operating environment for the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific. “There are four-hundred foreign submarines in the world, of which roughly 75% reside in the Indo-Pacific region,” Admiral Davidson recently noted. “One-hundred and sixty of these submarines belong to China, Russia, and North Korea.” In fact, according to Admiral Davidson, potential adversary submarine activity has tripled from 2008 levels. Consequently, U.S. military leaders have testified that they have only half of the attack submarines they need in the Pacific.

A U.S. attack submarine fleet of sufficient size and quality is essential to protecting U.S. economic and national security interests in the Indo-Pacific. For these reasons, the Navy is right to request FY 2020 funding to build a third Virginia Class submarine. In addition, without jeopardizing efforts to modernize the sea-leg of America’s nuclear triad, the Navy should build a third Virginia Class submarine each year in which sufficient industrial capacity exists.

Bradley Bowman is senior director for the Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Andrew Gabel is a research analyst. Follow Bradley and Andrew on Twitter at @Brad_L_Bowman and @Andrew_B_GabelFollow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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