Submarine Construction Is Necessary

Posted May 20, 2007 at 11:00pm

America needs to build more submarines faster if we are to maintain naval supremacy in future decades. That is why I urge the Senate to follow the House’s lead and accelerate the construction of Virginia class submarines.

Some argue that the improved combat capabilities of today’s modern warships permit a much smaller Navy than would have been required only a decade ago. However, the size of the world has not changed. With the ongoing war against terrorists, the Navy’s forward presence requirements have expanded since the Cold War. We must maintain sufficient submarine force structure and capabilities to meet current and future challenges that lie ahead.

Submarines are integral to maintaining a forward presence and warfighting capabilities under our national defense strategy. Submarines provide a unique combination of unparalleled stealth, speed and duration on mission. No other platform can perform many of its critical and classified, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. Even today, our current fleet is unable to meet all of the urgent requests by combatant commanders. That ability will decline and deteriorate and produce increasing gaps to meet other national defense priorities as the fleet of attack submarines continues to decline. From a build rate of four to five Los Angeles class submarines per year during the 1980s, the U.S. is building only one Virginia class submarine each year.

The Navy’s 313-ship building plan fails to provide a sufficient number of submarines to meet the Navy’s own requirements. Last year’s National Defense Authorization Act expressed the opinion by Congress that the Navy should maintain no less than 48 operational attack submarines. The Navy will fall below that level in 2020 under its current plan.

The Navy consistently plans to delay building two Virginia class submarines until future years, currently 2012. Without accelerating procurement of the Virginia class submarine, the Congressional Research Service projects that the Navy will fall below the 48 attack submarines needed, for 16 of the years from now to 2034.

That would not be the case under H.R. 1585, The fiscal 2008 National Defense Authorization Act approved by House. This bill recognizes the greater “mobility, endurance, and electric power generation capability of nuclear powered warships.” The bill authorizes procurement of one Virginia class submarine. It also approves multiyear procurement of Virginia class submarines and takes steps to increase the procurement of Virginia class submarines to two per year prior to the Navy’s current plan of increased procurement in fiscal 2012. To provide the flexibility to increase the procurement rate of submarines in the coming years, it recommends an increase of $588 million for the procurement of long lead-time items including an additional ship-set of reactor plant, main propulsion and prefabrication of Virginia class components.

The bill also gives the secretary of Defense the authority to transfer up to $20 million from any appropriation account to the Shipbuilding and Conversion, Navy, account, for unanticipated or emergent maintenance or repair requirements providing the maintenance or repair requirements are necessary to return submarines to full operational capability at the conclusion of an overhaul.

The third and fourth Virginia class hulls by the two manufacturers in the team are scheduled for delivery on time. The fiscal 2008 requested ship, the SSN-783, should be within 20 percent of the $2 billion cost cap mandated for the fiscal 2012 ship. Increasing the build rate would lower the per-boat costs by millions of dollars.

Rising China. China is aggressively building a blue-water navy. Last year, China launched 14 submarines compared with one for the United States. Granted, the U.S. Virginia class submarine is far superior. However, with a 14-1 ratio, China’s submarine fleet will outnumber the U.S. in future decades.

I visited China over the holidays with a delegation of nine members from the House Armed Services Committee. The Chinese officials we met with emphasized that they are planning for a post-oil world. A Government Accountability Office report I commissioned found that most experts project that world oil production will reach its maximum between now and 2020. The Chinese understand the threat the world faces from a future where oil production is declining instead of increasing to meet growing demand. Only a blue-water navy can protect international shipping lanes and choke points. China’s military expenditures are probably two or three times more than the $35 billion in spending it disclosed in a white paper released this spring. China is scouring the planet to acquire oil assets. China is now the world’s No. 2 oil importer. Most oil is shipped by sea, and oil facilities are increasingly the target of terrorists.

Additional insights about China were provided in an article by George Friedman, “Space and Sea-Lane Control in Chinese Strategy,” published by Stratfor: Geopolitical Intelligence Report on Jan. 23.

“The threat to China is the U.S. Navy. If the United States wanted to break China, its means of doing so would be naval interdiction. … For China, freedom of the seas has become a fundamental national interest. Right now, China’s access to the sea-lanes depends on U.S. acquiescence. … China may not be able to control the sea itself, but it cannot live forever with U.S. control.”

We need more, not fewer submarines because they are disruptive technologies. Virginia class submarines can get anywhere quickly with no need to stop to refuel in their lifetime. Nuclear submarines have no logistical tail. Nuclear submarines have incomparable stealth and perform unique intelligence missions for our combatant commanders. A Navy with more submarines will remain the best in the world, equipped to defeat any adversary and successfully defend the United States.

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) is ranking member of the Armed Services subcommittee on seapower and expeditionary forces.