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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

The U.S. Navy Needs Diesel-Electric Submarines Now

SSK acquisitions would promise not just capable and affordable platforms but a diplomatic boon. Indivisible alliances stand the best chance of weathering peacetime strategic competition as well as hot war.

Taigei-Class Submarine. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Taigei-Class Submarine. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Navy news has been a mixed bag of late; is it ever otherwise?

The U.S. Navy delivered a classified shipbuilding plan to Congress this week espousing a 381-ship fleet, not counting uncrewed vessels, of which it wants 150 or so. That’s up from 299 in service today, and it would exceed the 355-ship fleet mandated by U.S. law by 26 hulls.

This is good news. Or it’s good news provided the shipbuilding complex can handle the extra load. And provided Congress levies enough taxpayer money at last to construct, operate, and maintain such a fleet.

Whether lawmakers will follow through remains a nettlesome question. After all, it’s pushing seven years since they imposed the 355-ship mandate. Yet the ship count dawdles around where it was back in 2016, even as Chinese shipyards mass-produce new surface combatants like sausages enroute to a 500-ship People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy fleet

Submarine maintenance woes have also been much in the news, and in a doubleplus-ungood way. Navy leaders have pegged the target percentage of nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) in upkeep and overhaul at any given time at 20 percent of the fleet, which currently stands at 49 SSNs.

At present, though, nearly 40 percent of the attack-boat fleet sits idle. That includes USS Connecticut, one of three of the navy’s baddest-*** (badass-est?) Seawolf-class subs, and USS Boise, a Los Angeles-class SSN sidelined since 2015. That leaves just 31 boats to cover U.S. undersea commitments spanning the seven seas.

Clearly the republic’s shipyards are struggling to maintain a submarine inventory the navy considers too small by 17 subs. (Last year’s unclassified shipbuilding program called for a 66-boat fleet.)

And, also in submarine news, the navy released the first images of its Orca extra-large unmanned underwater vehicle (XLUUV) at sea. At first the 80-foot Orca will serve as a covert minelayer while defense manufacturers and the navy work to add new missions to its operational repertoire.

The Orca constitutes promising tech as the U.S. Navy tries to make good on its plan to disperse combat power among a much more numerous fleet rather than concentrate it in a few large, pricey, multi-mission hulls. Sinking a guided-missile cruiser or destroyer or knocking it out of action deducts a major share of the fleet’s overall battle strength across multiple missions, meaning anti-surface, anti-submarine, and anti-air warfare along with ballistic-missile defense. By contrast, dispersing firepower, sensors, and command-and-control functions imparts resilience. The fleet fights on despite losing individual units.

And fighting on in the face of adversity is what it’s all about in battle.

This roundup of the latest news adds up to a compelling brief on behalf of acquiring conventionally powered attack submarines (SSKs). Fleet numbers are stagnant, the silent service needs at least 17 more attack boats according to last year’s shipbuilding plan, and no one pretends an 80-foot XLUUV, no matter how capable, can replace a manned sub displacing thousands of tons.

If the navy needs boats on the cheap and it needs them quick, why not procure diesel-electric SSKs in bulk?

We should. Think about the advantages that would accompany an SSK flotilla:

It would fit the mission

U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and joint concepts for future maritime warfare envision using the fleet in concert with ground and air forces to deny an aggressor access to vital waters and skies, chiefly those around and between the islands comprising Asia’s first island chain.

Subs constitute a major part of the scheme. Seal the first island chain and you bottle up the PLA Navy and Air Force, not to mention the Chinese merchant fleet, within the near seas and deny them maneuver space. Patrol duty is fairly static duty, an assignment well-suited to diesel subs. And submarine services operated by the likes of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and Republic of Korea Navy, which rely on SSKs, have long excelled at it. The U.S. Navy could follow suit—and it should.

Proven designs exist, and so do builders

Japan’s Soryu– and Taigei-class subs are acclaimed the finest large conventional attack boats in the world.

If the U.S. shipbuilding sector is under severe strain, and it is, it makes sense to turn to major shipbuilding nations that happen to be longstanding and loyal allies.

China may be the world’s largest shipbuilder, but the next two largest are Japan and South Korea. Together they slightly eclipse China’s shipbuilding capacity. One imagines, say, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which produced the Soryu and produces the Taigei, would be receptive to the idea of laying keels for the U.S. Navy.

Construction could take place either in Japanese yards or under some arrangement to manufacture them in North America. It’s worth at least making the inquiry to probe interest. Let’s buy foreign!

SSKs are cheap compared to SSNs

The Japanese Diet budgeted a reported $602.3 million for the latest copy of the JMSDF’s Taigei-class boats, which come equipped with lithium-ion batteries to enhance their on-station staying power. Contrast that with the whopping $3.45 billion per hull that the next “block” of Virginia-class SSNs will apparently cost the U.S. Navy.

Looks like five-plus SSKs for the price of one SSN by my tally. Making up that 17-sub deficit between the current fleet and navy aspirations would run the taxpayers about $10.24 billion as opposed to the forbidding $58.65 billion price tag for 17 Block V Virginias. That figure should please frugal budgeteers in Congress, returning adequate bang for a fraction of the bucks.

An SSK buy would enhance AUKUS

Under the AUKUS accord, the United States will reportedly furnish the Royal Australian Navy with three to five Virginia-class SSNs, tiding over Australia’s navy until such time as Australian shipbuilders manage to construct the infrastructure and amass the expertise to build SSNs of their own. If the U.S. shipbuilding industry is struggling to keep up the current U.S. submarine fleet, let alone expand it, let alone supply Australia with nuclear boats, it makes eminent sense to turn elsewhere to advance the U.S. silent service’s quest for numbers. Doing so would meet the navy’s needs while letting America keep faith with arguably its closest ally.

Parting Thoughts

And lastly, buying Japanese would refortify the U.S.-Japan alliance, radiating a powerful deterrent signal to Chinese Communist Party leaders. If the U.S. Navy permanently forward-deployed its SSK contingent to the Western Pacific, the boats would be based close to potential battlegrounds along the first island chain as well as to yards capable of maintaining and refitting them. And if Washington agreed to place U.S. SSKs under the command of a truly combined U.S.-Japanese fleet, giving Tokyo a say in what they do, it would become plain to China and Japan that the United States has skin in the game of the common defense. No amount of bombast out of Beijing or bullying out of the PLA would loosen or break the alliance. U.S. sailors will be in harm’s way, and thus the U.S. armed forces will be there when the chips are down. Knowing that, and cowed by adverse geostrategic circumstances, communist chieftains ought to desist from aggression.

Would I like a submarine force made up entirely of SSNs?

Sure, in a perfect world.

But that’s not the world we dwell in. Such a fleet will not take to the sea within an operationally relevant timeframe, while lawmakers will almost assuredly balk at the expense of building it. I would like a plentiful force more. We need numbers, and we need them fast. SSK acquisitions would promise not just capable and affordable platforms but a diplomatic boon. Indivisible alliances stand the best chance of weathering peacetime strategic competition as well as hot war.

So let’s dive into the Pacific depths . . . in conventional submarines.

Author Expertise 

Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Distinguished Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Future Warfare, Marine Corps University. The views voiced here are his alone. Dr. Holmes is also a Contributing Editor to 19FortyFive. 

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”