SILENT SERVICE EBBS
SUBMARINES' ROLE BEING
REDUCED TO FIT IN WITH NEW,
The Hartford Courant
May 22, 2005
GROTON — Nobody hunts for Red October any
U.S. submarines that for decades have silently
ruled the world's oceans have slipped quietly out
of favor. Hollywood depictions of their Cold War
exploits are more historical footnote than current-
And in the steady decline of the U.S. submarine
fleet, specifically the nuclear-powered fast-attack
subs designed to hunt other vessels, nothing is
sacred -- certainly not the Naval Submarine Base in
The proposal to close the country's first sub base
-- where 90 years of undersea service have
encompassed two world wars, the birth of nuclear-
powered subs and shadowy missions against the
Soviets -- has provoked probing questions: If this
hometown of the submarine goes dark, what's in
store for the Silent Service? What is the U.S.
Navy's future under the sea?
And, foremost: Is the world moving beyond
The U.S. fast-attack fleet -- the hunters, which
outnumber the nuclear-missile subs -- counted
almost 100 boats in the 1980s. Since their Cold
War height, the number has been cut almost in half,
in step with the waning power of the enemy with
whom the fleet was once closely matched. Navy
projections for 30 years from now suggest there
could be as few as 37 submarines.
Those who still believe in subs have searched hard
for new missions in the war against terrorism.
These days, it's about operating in the ``littorals,''
the shallow areas hugging the coastlines, said Lt.
Cmdr. Jensin Sommer, spokeswoman for
Commander Naval Submarine Forces in Virginia.
It's about putting special-operations commandos or
missile attacks exactly where they are needed. It's
about catching drug and weapons traffickers and
listening in on communications.
That is a complex array of mission for boats
originally designed with a simple aim: to hunt
enemy ships and submarines. It was a job they
excelled at in the deep-ocean cat-and-mouse played
with the Soviet fleet. They tracked less
sophisticated Soviet subs around the world, even in
the enemy's own ports. A sideline developed, too,
that drove submarines deeper into the espionage
game: tapping underwater communications cables.
But when those missions faded, the Navy was left
with a big fleet of submarines and an industrial base
-- including Electric Boat in Groton -- that relied on
the Navy's appetite for more.
Adm. Vern Clark found himself arguing last week
for closing the base in Groton. But nine months
earlier, the chief of naval operations stopped at the
sub base and talked about the new roles for its
submarines, ``to project more offensive punch with
the Tomahawk [missile] capability and the
surveillance capabilities the submarine forces bring
``This is what tomorrow is about for the U.S.
Navy -- the ability to project credible combat
power to the far corners of the earth,'' giving the
president options ``around the world and around
the clock,'' a Navy scribe reported Clark as saying.
Today's U.S. sub force -- all nuclear-powered --
has 54 fast-attack submarines of three classes: Los
Angeles, Seawolf and the new Virginia class. There
are 14 ballistic-missile subs, a number expected to
hold steady. Four of those former ``boomers,'' as
the ballistic-missile subs are called, are now under
conversion to allow them to fire guided missiles
and carry special-operations commandos.
All of these subs, among the most lethal weapons
ever devised, are virtually undetectable. They
prowl the world's seas like phantoms -- and
predicting their future can be just as elusive.
The U.S. submarine fleet is being pulled by
opposing currents. To maintain its numbers would
require a big boost in the construction schedule,
which now hovers at one Virginia-class boat per
year. Without that increase, and with Los Angeles
subs being decommissioned faster than Virginias
are launched, the fleet won't sustain many more
than 30 fast-attacks in the long run.
So, what's the right number for the fast-attack fleet?
Sub supporters point to a number of military
studies and reports justifying an even larger fleet in
the future, including a 1999 study released by the
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff saying 76 fast-
attacks would be needed by 2025 to work critical
They refer to the fact that naval commanders who
request submarine support are routinely turned
down. They talk about the growth in sales of
advanced diesel subs around the world, including
fleets belonging to the remaining two members of
President Bush's Axis of Evil: Iran and North
Russia is still in the sub game, too, with Akula-
class boats that rival U.S. advancements. And
China's fleet gets bigger and more advanced every
But opponents say the U.S. sub fleet is bloated
and expensive. A 2002 report from the
Congressional Budget Office said each of the latest
submarines costs about $2.7 million for every day
it conducts active operations, an average of 35.7
days a year.
Christopher Hellman, a defense analyst at the
Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, is
no fan of the Virginia class subs, which he said
have run up a price tag that is ``beyond stunning.''
The last of the Seawolf class, the newly
commissioned USS Jimmy Carter, came in over $3
billion following a major enhancement of the boat,
and the two other Seawolf subs, the USS Seawolf
and USS Connecticut, cost about $2 billion each,
according to the Center for Defense Information.
The Virginia was billed as the lower-cost
alternative but failed to prove it with its $2.1
Meanwhile, the Base Realignment and Closure
Commission recommendations released this month
by the secretary of defense said there is excess
capacity in the seven U.S. sub bases: Groton; San
Diego; Norfolk, Va.; Kings Bay, Ga.; Bangor,
Wash.; Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; and Guam. The
Navy's latest force structure plan released in recent
weeks calls for a 21 percent reduction in the future
sub fleet. For a fleet that has already shrunk so
much, that leaves unused piers in bases on both
That led to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's
position that an old single-use base like Groton has
declined in military value to the point where it's
not worth keeping open.
Would-be submariners walking into Groton's Naval
Submarine School these days are too young to
remember the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
The new submariners enter a service that defense
industry experts say struggles under two self-
defeating paradoxes: It helped win a peace with the
Soviets that chipped away its own relevance; and
its devotion to secrecy undermines the chance that
the public could redeem it.
Sommer knows she is playing into that old trap
when she says of the sub force, ``We're actually
contributing a whole lot. Unfortunately, we can't
talk ... ''
They can't talk. Submarines are extremely
expensive, but the Silent Service can't talk openly
enough to answer the question: What are you doing
with the money?
``That's the $64,000 question,'' Hellman said.
He's not convinced the submarine's intelligence-
gathering abilities are unique. And he's never seen
confirmation of a special-operations mission. So
there seems little to argue against his position:
``We can do with a smaller fleet.''
``The Navy doesn't tell us much,'' Michael
O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings
Institute, echoed, saying that the sub force is the
toughest part of the military to study. ``We have
At $2.7 million per active day, is a sub still the
best bet for surveillance? Is the money better spent
on new satellite technology, or on the increasingly
popular unmanned drone aircraft?
The Navy and its two big sub-building contractors
-- Electric Boat and Northrop Grumman Newport
News -- say their newest boats are a great fit for
the war against terrorism -- especially the new
Virginia-class sub, which the builders claim will get
cheaper as construction is streamlined. It can pick
up terrorist cellphone calls, they say, and find the
newest mines and quietest submarines. It can
broadcast up-to-the-second information back to
base and get special-operations troops where they
need to be.
``The Virginia-class submarine was designed after
the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold
War,'' said Becky Stewart, vice president of the sub
program at Northrop Grumman, which builds one a
year with Electric Boat. ``It was designed
specifically for the future.''
What is the future? Is it al-Qaida in the desert or a
naval clash with China sparked by a wrestling
match over Taiwan, or something outside the usual
forecasts of doom?
Eric Wertheim, the U.S. Naval Institute's editor of
the Combat Fleets of the World reference, says
shifting the Navy more toward fighting
international terrorists may be shortsighted.
Transformation is good, he said. But maintaining
``core capabilities'' is vital.
``As a superpower, we have to do it all,'' he said.
In his view, thinking that U.S. forces will never
again be threatened at sea is unwise. ``We have
come to expect a best-case scenario,'' he said. So
the submarines, the ``secret agents of the naval
world,'' might seem unnecessary in the times they
aren't desperately needed.
The risk, Wertheim said, is that ``you can't just
build a submarine like you build extra airplanes. ...
If we don't have them available, then it'll be too
Across the Pacific, the Chinese navy, with some
help from Russia, is refurbishing its aging force of
more than 60 subs with a mix of the latest diesel
subs and newly designed nuclear subs -- including
ballistic-missile boats. In the coming years, its fleet
could be among the most potent in the world.
``That's a threat we haven't had to worry about for
a long time,'' Wertheim said.
Former U.S. Secretary of the Navy John Lehman,
in a recent pass through New London, talked about
the Chinese navy and the reduction of U.S. forces.
``We're creating a vacuum in the Pacific,'' said
Lehman, who preaches that ``shortsightedness
creates the next war.''
Also, a number of the most advanced sub-building
nations have been improving diesels and selling
them to the tiny navies of developing countries.
Luckily, as O'Hanlon pointed out, they have so far
gone mostly to friendly navies or those too small
to be a threat.
Long ago, America gave up diesels for nuclear
reactors -- freeing its subs from constant refueling
and giving them almost infinite ability to stay
submerged. Diesel boats had to come up for air to
run their engines and recharge their batteries. But
today's diesels have come a long way. Experts say
they are quiet and can stay down for weeks. And
they are available to anybody who can afford them.
It's ``certainly something that the Navy is
concerned about,'' Sommer said. Extensive training
has been done with the diesel subs of allies, to be
ready if America ever has to fight such vessels for
All those diesels running around is another good
reason to maintain the best submarine fleet,
Wertheim said. ``As we become faced with smaller
nations acquiring submarines, we have to be ready
for any kind of threat.''
So, should America take another look at diesels?
The navy's seeming reluctance ``may end up
hobbling them in the long run,'' Hellman said.
``Because of the cost reasons, it behooves you to
start looking at a force mix.''
Sommer couldn't discuss whether the Navy would
reconsider them, but both Electric Boat spokesman
Dan Barrett and Stewart said the Navy hasn't
asked for a new American diesel.
``Do we have the capability? Of course,'' Barrett
The same goes for Northrop Grumman. Stewart
said, ``We'll build what the Navy requires and
requests of us.''
They are cheaper, yes, but diesels lack the oomph
the Navy has come to expect from its subs,
Wertheim said. ``We can make a 30-knot run to the
other end of the world,'' he said. ``You can't do that
with a diesel boat.''
Lehman would like to see a blend of both worlds.
``We've gotten one-dimensional,'' he said. ``There's
no high-low mix now,'' he added, arguing that the U.
S. military needs to balance its technologies better,
including in the sub fleet. He thinks the U.S. should
get back to diesel submarines, mixing the cheaper
and shorter-ranged diesels -- and lots of them --
with the nuclear boats.
``We still need 100 attack subs,'' he said. ``We've
just got to be in a lot of difference places.''
Whatever fuel is running the subs, Wertheim says
there is always a place for operating under the
oceans. He draws a parallel to a police force's
undercover officers. The guys in uniform -- in this
case, the surface ships -- are needed to advertise a
police presence around the world. But sometimes
somebody needs to get closer to the criminals, to
mix with them under cover. To hang silently below
The U.S. military is well on its way to slashing
deep into its undercover force. In 2035, the Navy
estimates it will have between 37 and 41 fast-
attack subs to rule the nearly three-quarters of the
world covered by seas. In that time, the surface
warship number is set to rise.
Wertheim cautions: ``There are times when stealth
is more important than presence.''
Subs are all about stealth. Even the culture
surrounding them is secretive. The neighbors of
Groton's Thames River base, for instance, have
little idea where its 18 fast-attack subs are heading
when they slip quietly down the river and out to
What those future missions 20 years from now will
be, whether launched from Groton or some other
port, is anyone's guess.
``We don't know what the ocean of 2035 is going
to look like,'' Hellman said.
And from Wertheim: ``The people who are doing
some of this predicting seem to be so confident.''
But those who claim to see the future of war, he
said, are truly ``toying with disaster.''