In the world of federal contracting, success seldom goes unpunished. Take the Virginia-class attack submarine, currently the U.S. Navy's only undersea-warship construction program.
Since the program began in the 1990s, prime contractors General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman have gradually cut the number of man-hours required to build each new vessel from 15 million to 10 million. Costs have fallen correspondingly, so that it is now feasible to afford two boats annually, rather than the one-boat-per-year construction pace sustained for the first dozen subs in the class.
But just as the companies are about to ramp up to two Virginias in fiscal 2011, a funding crisis in Congress reduces the availability of funds, potentially putting the second boat in jeopardy. The Navy and its contractors are struggling to keep the second boat on schedule, but you can't build two subs if the controlling source of funds is a "continuing resolution" based on a year in which money for only one sub was appropriated.
Not Just a Problem for Contractors
This isn't just a problem for two of the nation's leading defense contractors. If the Navy can't get to two attack subs per year, its ability to control the sea lanes in the future will be very much in question.
The reason why is that the Los Angeles-class attack subs that the Virginia class replaces were built at a rate of three or four per year during the Cold War. After three decades of use, the nuclear reactors in their propulsion systems must be retired due to embrittlement and other age-related problems.
Obviously, if the undersea-warfare fleet is retiring three or four boats per year while only acquiring one or two, then it has to get smaller. In fact, it already has. But at the rate the fleet is shrinking, it will soon fall below the 48 vessels the Navy says it must have to cover all areas of interest around the world. Current projections show the number of attack subs bottoming out around 39 boats even if the Navy manages to keep the ramp-up to two Virginias on track.
In other words, waning U.S. sea power is already programmed into the current submarine-construction program. If the pace of new construction slips even more than it already has -- the service originally envisioned moving to two subs per year in 2007 -- then there will be long stretches of time in the future when vital areas of the world are not covered by a nearby U.S. submarine. Attack submarines, especially the super-quiet Virginia class, are by far the stealthiest warships in the fleet.
Other warships could become sitting ducks in the future as countries like China orbit ocean reconnaissance satellites and develop long-range ballistic missiles with maneuvering warheads that can hit surface vessels. But nobody has figured out a way of continuously tracking U.S. submarines.
In addition to being survivable even in contested waters like the South China Sea and the Persian Gulf, attack subs are versatile: they are equipped to defeat both undersea and surface warships, attack distant land targets with cruise missiles, collect diverse types of electronic and acoustic intelligence, deploy special operations personnel, and conduct an array of other missions.
So if the undersea warfare fleet is cut below minimal operational requirements, it will be quite a blow to America's global military presence. That's especially true when the subs lost are Virginia-class boats, because the Virginia is better equipped than earlier classes for conducting shallow-water operations near enemy coastlines.
But the government's failure to provide timely funding for the Virginia class has to raise larger questions about the fate of undersea warfare, since the Navy also needs to replace Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines that are the backbone of the nation's nuclear deterrent. Because submarines are so stealthy, they provide the secure basing mode for a second-strike capability essential to effective deterrence.
Unfortunately, nobody in the Pentagon has yet come up with a clear plan as to how the Ohio-class replacement -- known as SSBN(X) in naval nomenclature -- can fit into already-tight shipbuilding budgets over the next two decades.
Everybody simply assumes an answer will be found, but the message the political system has been sending lately is that you can't count on Congress to get anything funded on time. So whatever you may think about the federal fiscal crisis or the proper role of government, the possibility that America will gradually lose its edge in undersea warfare over the coming years now has to be regarded as a real possibility.
Loren Thompson, Ph.D., is chief operating officer of the Arlington, Va.-based non-profit Lexington Institute and chief executive officer of Source Associates, a for-profit consultancy. Prior to holding his present positions, he was deputy director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and taught graduate-level courses in strategy, technology and media affairs at Georgetown. He also has taught at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.