Submarine Production Poised To Outpace Other Pentagon Programs Through 2030
Submariners have traditionally been the most secretive of the Navy’s warfighting communities. Their warships are stealthy and their missions are classified, so they are nearly invisible in Washington’s policy debates – unlike some other military programs I could mention.
However, undersea warfare is going to be hard to ignore in the years ahead because submarine production is poised to outpace other categories of weapons spending. The Congressional Budget Office projected last October that between this year and 2025, submarine construction will cost an average of $7.7 billion annually – as much as the Navy plans to spend on aircraft carriers and surface combatants combined. In the ten years after that (2026-2035) it will rise further to $9.2 billion annually, representing nearly half of the entire shipbuilding budget.
This stands in marked contrast to other categories of weapons outlays, which look unlikely to rise anytime soon due to congressionally mandated budget caps. The F-35 fighter program is an exception, but that is replacing the tactical aircraft of three military services and a dozen allies. Submarines are just for the Navy. And the Navy clearly sees submarine construction as a top priority: the $11 billion it plans to spend over the next five years gearing up to buy just one category of subs – ballistic-missile carriers – is about what it will spend on building its signature aircraft carriers during the same period.
The biggest beneficiaries of surging submarine production will be the Electric Boat unit of General Dynamics in New England, the Newport News Shipbuilding unit of Huntington Ingalls Industries in Virginia, and 5,000 suppliers scattered across all 50 states. Some of these suppliers are quite sizable, such as BWX Technologies – which was awarded a $3.1 billion contract for naval nuclear-reactor components in April. For the most part, though, they are small and medium-size companies that depend heavily on submarine work to stay in business.
The broad political footprint of submarine construction helps explain why it is the least controversial type of weapons spending on Capitol Hill. It also helps that the program to build Virginia-class attack subs shared by General Dynamics and Huntington Ingalls is a model of efficiency, delivering its last eight subs ahead of schedule and within budget (both companies contribute to my think tank). But there is a larger explanation for why submarine production will surge in the years ahead, one that is grounded in America’s global security strategy.
During the Cold War, the U.S. Navy operated two types of submarines: ballistic-missile submarines that were part of the nation’s nuclear deterrent, and attack subs designed for defeat of enemy warships, intelligence gathering, and cruise-missile attacks against targets ashore. After the Cold War ended, the four oldest ballistic-missile subs became a third type when they were converted to carry large numbers of conventionally-armed cruise missiles, increasing the undersea fleet’s relevance to conflicts on land.
Although they have distinctly different missions, all three types of subs in the U.S. fleet today share two critical features. First, they are stealthy – nearly impossible for enemies to track when submerged, making them by far the most survivable warfighting assets the Navy owns and uniquely suited to operating near hostile nations. Second, they are nuclear-powered, which means they have unlimited range because they only require one refueling during their lifetimes (or no refueling at all in the case of the Virginia class).
Unfortunately, the Cold War subs still in the fleet today have one other thing in common: they are all approaching the end of their useful service lives, and thus must be replaced soon. The Ohio-class ballistic-missile subs, which provide the backbone of the nation’s nuclear deterrent, will begin retiring late in the next decade. First the four ships converted to cruise-missile carriers will go out of the force, and then in 2029 the 14 subs equipped with nuclear warheads will begin retiring. The Navy views timely “recapitalization” of the latter boats as its top modernization priority.
The conventionally-armed attack subs – three dozen Los Angeles-class subs remain in the active fleet today – have already begun retiring. The Navy started buying Virginia-class successors to the Cold War boats in 1998, but until 2011 it only funded one per year. Since the legacy boats were typically built at the rate of three per year and are retiring at the same rate, the size of the attack-sub fleet has been shrinking despite the entry of a dozen Virginias into the force and more awaiting final testing. There are currently 52 attack subs in the force, but that number will shrink to 41 in 2029 unless plans change.
The Navy says it needs at least 48 nuclear-powered attack subs to meet global commitments and truth be known, it cannot meet all the demand for undersea missions from regional commanders even now, with a fleet somewhat bigger than its stated requirement. The biggest source of demand is for various forms of intelligence gathering, but the boats also are vital to assuring control of sea lanes, attacking targets ashore with cruise missiles, inserting special operations forces, and a host of other activities.
When you consider how vast the littoral seas of Eurasia are and the fact that only a fraction of subs can be where they are needed on any given day, it is easy to see why having a mere 52 attack subs in the fleet could cause problems. Falling to 41 would be disastrous in a big war. For instance, if a fight with China broke out, U.S. attack subs would need to quickly disable over-the-horizon radars on shore that might track U.S. surface warships and begin the task of tracking down enemy subs before they could pose a threat to U.S. warfighters.
The Navy saw all of this coming a long time ago, but getting the political system to grasp the long timelines involved in recapitalization of aged fleets was not easy until Russian and Chinese leaders began showing their hands. So now the Navy is playing catchup. Under current plans, by the end of the next decade all four of its dedicated cruise-missile carriers will be gone, its ballistic-missile subs will be retiring, and the number of available attack subs will have fallen to the lowest number in living memory.
With no margin of error for further delays, the Navy must push ahead with construction of both attack and ballistic-missile subs. It also must increase the land-attack firepower of future attack subs to compensate for the loss of 600 cruise missiles on those four converted boats. As if all of that were not enough, its plans to field an Ohio-class replacement that can sustain nuclear deterrence must be synchronized with Britain’s plans to modernize its own deterrent, since costs are being shared on a “common missile compartment” to house long-range weapons.
So there, in a nutshell, is the explanation for why submarine production will remain robust over the next 20 years. Not only will the Navy need to build two very different types of subs simultaneously – an Ohio successor will entail over twice the workload of a Virginia – but it can’t really afford to trade off the two programs against each other in shipbuilding accounts given the precipitous drop in attack-sub numbers. There is already widespread agreement about building a second Virginia-class boat in 2021 (the year construction of the first new ballistic-missile sub commences) even though only one Virginia is in the plan.
Chances are, the same addition will be made in 2024, the next year Virginia production is supposed to fall from two to one as an Ohio replacement boat is built. Nobody in the Navy at this point can say precisely where the money will come from, but keeping Virginia-class production at two per year would require only a few additional hours of federal spending annually – the ships currently cost $2.7 billion each, and the government spends over $11 billion each day. The money will be found, because the wartime success of the whole fleet, and the durability of nuclear deterrence, depend on timely modernization of America’s most survivable warfighting systems.
Loren Thompson is the Chief Operating Officer of the non-profit Lexington Institute and Chief Executive Officer of Source Associates. The Lexington Institute receives funding from many of the nation’s leading defense contractors, including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and United Technologies.