The U.S. Navy has for many years now been vocal and transparent about its submarine fleet deficit, specifically making clear that combatant commander demand for submarines far exceeds available boats.
Submarines Submerged in Deficit
This predicament has been anticipated for several years, following the premature cancellation of the Cold War era Seawolf-class boats and the rapid retirement of aging Los Angeles-class boats.
The pace at which Los Angeles-class submarines are ending operational service life cannot be matched by a sufficient number of arriving Virginia-class submarines.
This dynamic, which has been understood for years, was anticipated to worsen in coming years with the pace of retirement of existing boats, and the industrial need to add new Columbia-class nuclear-armed submarines.
The Navy and Pentagon have wrestled with this mounting issue for years, as evidenced by 30-year shipbuilding plans, which have anticipated and tried to mitigate the growing submarine deficit. With this in mind, the Navy has in recent years performed numerous industrial base analyses to determine if indeed the capacity is there to massively increase and “uptick” production of Virginia-class attack submarines.
Addressing the Submarine Deficit
In recent years the Navy has determined that the submarine industrial base could “flex” to accommodate an increased pace of production for the Virginia-class boats, and the service has for years been working with Congress to secure additional funding to make this possible.
Late Virginia-class subs?
The intent, plan, and Congressional will has been present to support an increased Virginia-class attack submarine production plan. Yet, an interesting report from the U.S. Naval Institute from March of 2023 quoted Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro telling Congress that Virginia production was behind. The USNI report cited Navy sources explaining that the Navy’s submarine construction apparatus will need about five more years before it can deliver and build two Virginia-class boats per year. This may be due to available funding, yet the growing submarine deficit has been anticipated in the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan for many years now.
In response to this concern, General Dynamics Electric Boat and HII submarine building infrastructure has been “flexing” and expanding in recent years to accommodate increased demand. Efforts have been challenged by delays, according to USNI, and there is also the added complexity of needing to build equally high-priority new Columbia-class submarines. The first patrol for Columbia-class boats is slated for early 2030s, and the first several boats are currently fully under construction, a critical high-priority endeavor requiring many available resources.
New attack submarines are needed for a range of tactical and strategic reasons, such as the increasingly urgent U.S. Navy’s need to counter the fast-emergence of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, which is now numerically larger than the U.S. Navy. There is therefore a need to have attack submarines forward positioned to deter, slow down, or if needed destroy a Chinese amphibious assault on Taiwan.
Advanced quieting technologies, Large Aperture Bow sonar, and undersea intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) technologies are increasingly enabling Virginia attack boats to conduct forward surveillance missions in high-threat areas. Quiet sub-surface attack submarines would certainly be more difficult to detect than easily “seeable” large surface combatants or surface drones.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.