Even the ambitious goals of the Trump administration for a larger Navy are running up against budget and industry constraints. Nowhere is that as true as with the “Silent Service,” submarines.
In World War II, workers around Puget Sound built ships large and small for the Navy.
Now it’s where many of the vessels come to die.
Specifically, they tie up at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, a piece of the multisite Naval Base Kitsap, the third-largest Navy base in the U.S.
Among its many tasks, the shipyard is responsible for deactivating and safely recycling nuclear-powered ships.
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This past week, the Pacific Command tweeted that the submarine USS Dallas had arrived in Bremerton “to begin decommissioning after 36 years in the U.S. Navy’s Silent Service.”
Here was a celebrity arriving at the graveyard. The Dallas had a prominent role in Tom Clancy’s authentic-feeling novel, “The Hunt for Red October,” and the 1990 movie of the same name. (Actually its sister ship Houston, decommissioned last year, was the one shown in exterior shots in the movie.)
Outside of pop culture, however, the decommissioning of the boat highlights a dilemma facing the Navy, the defense industry and taxpayers. The submarine force, among the most versatile and capable military assets in a conflict, is shrinking. And replacing it is growing much more expensive in a defense budget facing many demands.
The Dallas is a Los Angeles-class attack sub, meant to patrol, spy and, in wartime, destroy enemy ships and other assets. Its most important prey would be ballistic-missile submarines (“Boomers”). The goal: Sink them before they could launch a nuclear salvo at the United States or its allies.
The LA class, consisting of 62 boats, represented the height of American technological and manufacturing skill in the latter years of the Cold War. Dallas was the 13th laid down. Most of all, they were fast and very quiet.
The follow-on class, called Seawolf, were even better submarines. But of the 29 planned, only three were built, including the top-secret USS Jimmy Carter. (A Naval Academy graduate, Carter is the only president to have qualified in submarines.)
One reason was the end of the Cold War and Russia’s seeming transformation to democracy and free markets.
But another reason was prologue for today’s challenge. The Seawolf program, with General Dynamics Electric Boat as prime contractor, was plagued with cost overruns.
While a Los Angeles-class sub priced out at $900 million in 1990 dollars ($1.7 billion today), each Seawolf-class boat is estimated to cost between $3 billion and $4.4 billion (as much as $7.5 billion in today’s dollars).
Yes, the Seawolfs were better than their predecessors. But with the Soviet threat gone and perennial federal budget fights, the program was terminated. The Los Angeles class was improved and sailed on, although several were retired perhaps too early. Even maintaining a submarine fleet costs money.
Yet history never stands still. Great-power rivalry merely took a pause.
Russia has turned into an authoritarian state with interests to assert — not always in our interest — and a longstanding history of submarine expertise. China is perhaps even more consequential, with the world’s second-largest economy and a determination to build up the People’s Liberation Army Navy.
Among Beijing’s goals is a large submarine fleet, both nuclear-powered and less-expensive diesel-electric boats.
Defense experts have estimated that China could field almost twice as many attack subs as the United States in a decade or so. The U.S. attack sub fleet, now at around 52, is projected to dip to 41 from 2025 to 2036. American boats are superior but can’t be everywhere at once, while Chinese submarine technology is improving fast.
Anyway, as the military wisdom sometimes attributed to Josef Stalin goes, “Quantity has a quality all its own.”
It’s not unimaginable that this axiom could be hot-tested. Beijing might try to invade Taiwan or get into a scrap with Japan, which America is treaty-bound to defend. Submarines would be essential to defending aircraft carriers, as well as disrupting an invasion and even blockading China.
The Virginia class of subs, built by Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding, began entering service in 2004. With lessons learned from the Seawolf troubles, these are built with much more cost discipline. Still, each one costs about $2.7 billion. And between industry limitation and budget constraints, only two are being added each year. Most of the attack sub fleet is still Los Angeles class.
The Trump administration has proposed about a 10 percent hike in military spending for the new fiscal year, and some Republicans in Congress hope to increase funding even more. Defense contractors are salivating at the prospects.
But between the need to replace the nuclear arsenal, including building a new class of ballistic missile subs, as well as a next-generation bomber and requests from all armed services — even the most hawkish ambitions have limits.
We have come so far from President John Quincy Adams, who said of America, “ … she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”
Now monster searching is big business. Sometimes it is necessary, often not.
Nobody lately has answered the Churchillian question, “What is our aim?”
Credible deterrence is all well and good — and necessary. But is America really willing to pay any price and bear any burden in a murky “global war on terror” or to prevent China asserting itself as the prime power in East Asia and the western Pacific?
I don’t think so, particularly when it means savage cuts to Medicaid, education, health, research, transportation and, pretty soon, “entitlements” (read the earned benefits of Social Security and Medicare).
The real soul searching has barely begun. In the meantime, the fading stars and lesser-knowns of the nuclear Navy will make their last pilgrimage to the Puget Sound.