If China decides to invade Taiwan, the torpedoes and cruise missiles of the U.S. Navy’s invisible attack submarines will represent the Pentagon’s most potent reply.
The timeline of the history of military submarines is dotted with some remarkable technological breakthroughs.
As long ago as 1776, during the American Revolution, American colonists built a submarine to attack British ships in New York harbor. The “Turtle” was basically a wooden sphere that was big enough to accommodate one person. It had a raised turret at the top that jutted out six inches above the water. This turret contained a small window that the operator used to steer toward the target ship. The operator would use a hand-driven propeller to position his wooden pod under the warship, at which point he’d use a large corkscrew at the top of the submarine to attach a time bomb to the bottom of the ship. Unfortunately, the Turtle never managed to damage its targets, partly because it could only be operated by its famous inventor, David Bushnell, who was too frail to operate the muscle-demanding propeller and controls effectively.
By 1914, at the beginning of World War I, the Germans already had “U-boat” submarines that could travel 8,000 kilometers before refueling. Just as importantly, the German U-boats already had effective torpedoes at that early stage, with which they sank hundreds of enemy ships.
The U.S. had useful submarines by World War II, but they dropped the ball badly by failing to spend enough time and money on developing an effective type of torpedo. At the beginning of the war, the Mark 14 torpedo was the most advanced torpedo the U.S. had, but many of these would explode too early, or would pass under their targets without exploding, while some even circled back around and almost hit the submarines that fired them.
In one infamous incident, an American sub fired fifteen Mark 14 torpedoes at a Japanese ship. Of those, 12 hit the target but 11 failed to detonate, while the one that did detonate, did so at the wrong time. The target ship eventually escaped unharmed. The Mark 14 fiasco remains a stark reminder of how important it is to spend enough time and money on developing effective weapons, and testing them exhaustively.
Then the Cold War dawned, and in 1954 the U.S. launched the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine. A few years later, the U.S. and Soviet Union both fielded nuclear-powered submarines that could fire huge nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles while hidden underwater.
Dawn of the ‘boomer’
In the mid 1970s, the Soviet Union built the massive Typhoon-class submarine. At 173 meters long and 23 meters wide it dwarfed every other submarine ever made. “Typhoon” was the NATO code name for this behemoth, but the Soviets called it the Akula, which is Russian for “shark.” (NATO then confused the heck out of everyone by giving another Soviet sub, the “Shchuka-B,” the NATO code name “Akula.”) The Typhoon was basically two very long submarines lying side by side and encapsulated in a connecting superstructure. It was so big that it even had a swimming pool and sauna inside.
Also in the mid 1970s, at about the same time the Soviets started building their Typhoons, the U.S. started building the Ohio class of submarines. While not nearly as big as the Typhoon, the Ohio was highly advanced at that time and more numerous. Like the Typhoon, the Ohio is a “boomer” — an oversized submarine whose only job is to disappear under the waves and stay hidden for months on end. Boomers like the Typhoon and Ohio are designed to house multiple large vertical launch tubes that each contain a large nuclear missile. Each of these missiles can destroy multiple cities with its multiple warheads. The function of the boomer is to disappear into the endless expanse of the world’s oceans, and to fire its apocalyptic weapons as a last resort.
Thus, the only role of the boomer is to threaten the enemy with total nuclear annihilation. With both sides fielding multiple boomers and thousands of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, the idea was that both sides would refrain from war, as the alternative would be M.A.D. — Mutually Assured Destruction.
The Soviet Union fielded six Typhoons during the 1980s, but had to start retiring them in the 1990s when the Soviet economic system collapsed, causing the collapse of the Soviet Union itself.
Today, the U.S. Navy still fields 18 Ohio-class boomers (classified by the acronym SSBN), out of a total of around 70 nuclear-powered submarines in its fleet. The other current members of the U.S. nuclear-powered submarine fleet are smaller attack submarines (SSN) — three of these are of the mysterious and deep-diving Seawolf class, and the remaining 50 are either aging Los-Angeles class attack subs or the newer Virginia class attack subs that are slowly replacing the Los Angeles class subs as they retire.
Attack subs are armed with many torpedoes and cruise missiles that they can fire while remaining submerged. Their job is to hunt and destroy enemy submarines and warships with torpedoes and cruise missiles, and to attack ground targets with cruise missiles.
As part of a nuclear non-proliferation treaty, four of the 18 Ohio boomers had to be refitted — keeping their four torpedo tubes but removing all their nuclear missiles and launch tubes and replacing those with 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles. These four are classified as “guided-missile submarines” (SSGN), which means they’re basically oversized attack subs that can fire more missiles.
Replacing the Ohio-class boomer
This is where we come to the next step in the evolution of the military submarine. And this is also where things get tricky for the U.S. submarine fleet.
The U.S. Navy has already prioritized the replacement of the Ohio class with a brand-new boomer called the Columbia class. The Columbia’s design phase is almost finished and now the sub-building industrial complex is getting ready to build the prototype, which would also become the first active version of the Columbia class.
The boomer is a doomsday device. It is not designed to attack anything other than ground targets with large nuclear warheads, so it is useless in a conventional war and needs to stay as far away from a conventional war as possible. Yet, the Pentagon has prioritized the building of the Columbia boomer because it has calculated that the threat of a doomsday response is an extremely valuable deterrent to anyone who might want to attack the U.S. well into the future. As each of the aging Ohios come off line, it would have to be immediately replaced by a new Columbia.
The problem is that the U.S.’ submarine-building capacity consists of two construction companies and a number of component suppliers, and they are currently struggling to build enough Virginia-class attack subs to replace the retiring Los-Angeles attack subs. Due to the effects of COVID and COVID lockdowns, plus a lack of skilled blue-collar workers in the U.S. in general, the construction companies are not currently able to build the required two Virginia class subs per year.
And now that the Columbia program is kicking off, things will get worse for the attack sub fleet, because the new boomers are top priority and the most experienced workers will be moved over to the Columbia program, requiring the Virginia program to scrounge for skilled workers while also using valuable time to train new workers in the rare art of building the most secretive machines in the world.
The Navy was lucky enough to find five unused reactor cores that it seemed to have forgotten about, which it will use to do an engineered refueling on five Los-Angeles attack subs that are still in good condition. It has also come up with some other novel techniques to stretch the lifetime of most of its Los Angeles subs.
So, the Navy says it managed to improvise to keep its attack sub numbers at a total of 50, after initially panicking when the slowdown in Virginia-class production looked like it was going to reduce the number to 41 in the next few years. This is important, because if a conflict breaks out over the Taiwan issue, the torpedoes and missiles of these attack subs will be a vital part of the U.S. response. China’s massive build-up of warships plus long-range anti-ship and anti-aircraft weapons has made it increasingly risky for U.S. warplanes, warships and aircraft carriers to get close to the Taiwan Strait in a theoretical war over Taiwan. Submarine warfare is the one area where the U.S. still has a significant edge in the Taiwan theater.
In other words, the U.S. sub-building industry now has the challenge to build more submarines with less manpower. The most obvious solution to this problem is to get more funding from Washington to hire and train more skilled workers.
The budget issue
However, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro told reporters last week that funding would be a huge issue for the service.
Currently the Navy needs to develop a next-generation destroyer ship code-named DDG(X) that would have a wider hull to accommodate larger hypersonic missiles as well as the large power and cooling systems for new directed energy weapons for the ship’s defense. It also needs to develop a next-generation attack sub code-named SSN(X) that would need to be much wider than the Virginia class to accommodate more torpedoes and the power systems needed to deliver faster speeds. The SSN(X) would also need to be more stealthy than the current designs.
Another pressing concern is the need to develop a next-generation fighter (FA-XX) and combat drones that can operate from carriers but with much longer ranges than the current F/A-18 fighter can deliver. The ability to fly much longer and farther is becoming crucial for carrier jets, as new weapons like China’s hypersonic anti-ship missiles have created the need for carrier-defending jets to patrol much farther away from the carrier.
But developing advanced new weapon systems is a very expensive undertaking. The previous secretary of the Navy, Thomas Harker, stated last year that the Navy cannot afford to develop all three these next-gen platforms at the same time, and that it will have to choose only one. The choice will depend on how vital the new platform would be in relation to new risks and on how effective the current versions would be at maintaining warfare competence in future scenarios. The cost of each proposed new program would also be weighed, as well as the maturity of the new technologies that would be built into the new platforms.
The current secretary of the Navy, Del Toro, said the focus will have to be on controlling cost and reducing risk. He pointed at the cost growth in the development programs of the Zumwalt-class destroyer and the Littoral Combat Ship as examples of situations that would have to be avoided.
The U.S. Senate passed a $858 billion defense spending bill yesterday (Thursday, December 15), sending the legislation to President Joe Biden to be signed into law. It remains to be seen which weapon systems get what funding. The Senate voted 83 against 11 to pass the bill, which mirrors a similar level of bipartisan approval from the House of Representatives.
Image: U.S. Navy