The Future of US Submarines
One of the United States Navy’s most valuable assets, since its founding in 1775, is its fleet of submarines.
The current generation of Virginia class nuclear-powered submarines have come a long way from the submersible ‘American Turtle’ in 1775.
The U.S. Navy commissioned its first undersea submarine, the USS Holland, in 1900.
While U.S. submarines played a limited role in the First World War, they were critical to American victory in World War II -- especially in the Pacific Theater. Even though less than two-percent of U.S. Navy personnel were deployed on submarines during the war, they accounted for over half of enemy ship sinkings.
Their importance continued to surge after the war ended.
To learn more about the importance of submarines post WW2 and in the modern day, Rebellion Research spoke with former US Navy Officer Brian Linville. Linville spent over seven years serving as a submarine officer in the U.S. Navy.
Prior to being an officer in the Navy, Linville grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and attended the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland and then spent over a year becoming a nuclear engineer before serving aboard nuclear submarines.
Linville explained that submarines support U.S. defense and security needs in a multitude of ways. There are two primary categories of submarines: “fast attacks” (SSNs) and nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs).
SSN missions include anti-submarine warfare (ASW), anti-surface warfare (ASUW), intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) collection, and mine warfare.
Additionally, these submarines carry cruise missiles which enable precision targeting of ground targets, and are often used alongside special operations forces to carry their gear and are equipped with specialized vehicles to insert and extract them from behind enemy lines as well as provide support.
The Ohio and Columbia class SSBNs equipped with nuclear warheads are primarily focused on ensuring nuclear deterrence.
Throughout history, the main use of submarines by the U.S. Navy has evolved with shifts in conditions on the battlefield. During the Cold War, the primary role of U.S. submarines was countering the Soviet Union through nuclear deterrence, ASW and ASUW.
When the Soviet Union fell and the Cold War ended, the submarines’ primary focus shifted to suit the new Global War on Terror.
While the submarines were still used for anti-sub and anti-surface warfare, most vessels played significant roles in ISR, striking enemy ships, and supporting special operations forces.
Currently, with the renewed focus on the power struggle between China and the U.S., the main role of submarines has been to counter China and the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
With this new focus on countering China, the importance of fast attack submarines has only become more apparent.
Since Chinese hypersonic missile capabilities make it perilous to bring surface ships near Chinese territory, fast-attack subs are the best tool to deter the PLAN.
In recent years this shift has begun to revert. As the War on Terror has receded and the rising challenge from China has increasingly alarmed U.S. officials, the critical role of submarines -- and particularly of SSNs -- ensuring dominance of the seas is again apparent.
There are increasing concerns about China's growing inventory and sophistication of hypersonic anti-ship missiles, in addition to increasing doubts about the U.S. Navy's ability to operate surface warships safely within range of these missiles, which could mean that SSNs are the most effective tool the Navy has to counter the PLAN.
Linville explained to us that while Navy submarines still play a supporting role to troops deployed across the world, the rising global threat posed by China and Russia has made the role of submarines shift to the Cold War role of deterring enemies.
Attempts to gain control of the contested South China sea only increase the importance of U.S. submarines in deterring Chinese warships and projecting power in the region.
This is because the U.S. retains a significant advantage in submarine technology and training, and American SSNs can operate undetected in areas too risky for surface vessels due to Chinese hypersonic missile capabilities.
Particularly early in a conflict, it would be largely up to American submarines to destroy the PLAN, cut off trade and importation of oil, prevent amphibious attacks in the region, and gain valuable intelligence which would otherwise be unobtainable.
The critical role of submarines in such a scenario, however, also comes with a stark warning: we don't have enough of them, and the shortfall is going to worsen before improving. Projections show that if a conflict arises, the U.S. will need at least 66 fast-attack submarines to properly respond to a Chinese threat.
Presently the US Navy has 50 SSNs in service, and this number is expected to drop to 42 by 2027.
The combination of early retirements of submarines at the end of the Cold War, the cancellation of the Sea Wolf class after only 3 submarines were built, and the slow start to the Virginia Class program afterwards combined to create this issue.
To assure America’s ability to effectively stand up to China and ensure victory in the case of an eventual conflict, it is imperative that the U.S. increases efforts to maintain undersea dominance with our submarine fleet and identify ways to address the looming shortage of SSNs.
Options to address this shortfall include (a) increasing the construction of new Virginia Class submarines, (b) extending the service life of older Los Angeles Class submarines, or (c) extending deployments of existing submarines to ensure more are on station at any given time.
Linville spoke positively of his time at Annapolis and as an Officer in the U.S. Navy, saying that it showed him his capabilities and made him into the man he is today.
In particular, he noted the more relaxed separation between officers and enlisted sailors, driven by the existence of a relatively small crew in tight quarters for an extended period of time. He also commented on the high quality of the crew in general -- the submarine force is all-volunteer, receives higher pay, and only selects sailors who score highly on military entrance exams.
He says that some of the smartest people he's ever known were not fellow officers, students at the Naval Academy or at Harvard, but electricians and mechanics he led in the Submarine force.
His service also allowed Linville to gain a lot of experience in responsibility and leadership, because where else would a 24-year-old with little prior experience be given control over a two-billion-dollar submarine and left responsible for over 130 crew members when the commanding officer takes a nap?
Written by Thomas Braun
Edited by Gihyen Eom, Alexander Fleiss, Michael Ding, Jared Nussbaum & Jeremy Knopp