Submarine force is preparing for a changing landscape

McLean, Va. - Vice Adm. John M. Richardson, commander of the submarine force, said he is struggling to come up with a name for the new era of undersea warfare, but "post-Cold War" just doesn't do it.

He and other leaders of the submarine force say they are entering the next generation of warfare, marked by fewer resources, the proliferation of long-range, precise weapons and battles in cyberspace.

They will have fewer submarines at their disposal as the aging Los Angeles-class submarines retire more quickly than they are replaced in the fleet. The budget is shrinking as the entire federal government looks to cut spending.

At the same time, more nations and groups will have access to long-range weapons because the technology is getting cheaper, Richardson said, and they will increasingly use cyberspace to try to harm U.S. interests.

What China can do today with its weapons, Richardson said, "Hamas will be able to do in the very near future."

This fall the submarine force will exercise its war plan in a maneuver they are calling "Agile Dagger," to prepare in case all of the submarines need to get to sea quickly.

And Richardson said the submarine force is "starting to man the ship to fight in the cyber domain."

More than 300 submariners changed their jobs to serve as information systems technicians, a new position on subs for experts in information assurance and networks.

Submarines will be needed for the fight in the cyber domain, and to make sure the military can get to places where adversaries try to deny access to surface ships and aircraft, Richardson said.

"It's only going to get more complex," Richardson said last week at the Naval Submarine League's 29th Annual Symposium. "I don't see a simplification of the security environment on the horizon."

Ballistic-missile sub needed

Three U.S. submarines launched more than 100 Tomahawks into Libya in March to take out the war-torn nation's air defenses as part of Operation Odyssey Dawn.

The conflict came to a head Thursday with the death of Moammar Gadhafi.

Rear Adm. Barry L. Bruner, director of the Undersea Warfare Division, wonders what would have happened if the scenario had unfolded elsewhere, if the submarines were off the coast of a nation that had the latest missiles and top-notch submarines. What if submarines were the only forces that could get close enough to strike? he asked.

"There is no doubt we would do well," he said at the symposium, held Wednesday and Thursday at the Hilton McLean Hotel, Tysons Corner, outside of Washington, D.C. "The question is, how are we going to do in the future? That's my dilemma."

The strategy in this new era, Bruner said, has to be "all about priorities."

At the top of the list is the program to build a new ballistic-missile submarine, Bruner said. Keeping the production rate for Virginia-class submarines at two per year is next, followed by developing a module to add more missile tubes to Virginia-class submarines and developing payloads, he added.

Bruner stressed that this was a strategy- "that doesn't mean we're going to be able to do it all."

Leaders in Congress and the Defense Department have said that everything will be scrutinized as they look to reduce the mounting national debt.

The program to replace the 14 current Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines is a target because of its price: $5.6 billion in fiscal 2010 dollars for each submarine after the first ship, a figure the Navy is trying to pare down to $4.9 billion each.

But there has also been talk about reducing the production rate for Virginia-class submarines back to one submarine annually.

The Navy's Virginia-class program manager, Michael E. Jabaley, said he's always concerned that current events and fiscal pressures will hurt the program, and two per year is the best way to build these submarines.

Richardson said he plans to use a "very tight narrative about what the undersea forces can do" to make the case that the nation "gets a tremendous return" on its investment in the submarine force.

The decision makers need to know the submarine force's story, said retired Rear Adm. John B. Padgett III, national president of the Naval Submarine League.

"The submarine force has a strong story to tell, and it's incumbent on the submarine force to get that strong story out in the public so that those who are in the position to make decisions, whether they're voters or congressional representatives, will have the facts in place," said Padgett, who lives in Old Lyme.

"If you do an assessment - what do you get for the money you invest - submarines come out on top," Padgett said. "Whether they come out on top enough to be able to get all the things we need, that's the question."

More deployments a goal

Electric Boat's design for the new ballistic-missile submarine is the first new submarine design in 20 years.

The Navy plans to buy the lead ship in 2019 and construction is expected to take seven years. Richardson said that it is still early, but the submarines will "most likely" be built under an arrangement between Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, the two shipyards that construct the Virginia class.

And the Navy now wants to buy 45 to 50 Virginia-class submarines instead of 30, Jabaley, who has been selected for promotion to rear admiral, announced at the symposium.

Extending the class gives the Navy and EB flexibility to change the design and introduce new technology efficiently because there will be more submarines on which to recoup the upfront costs, Jabaley said.

EB is also working on a concept for a module with missile tubes that could be added to the Virginia submarines to boost firepower, known as the Virginia Payload Module. Bruner said the module is not a program, but he is trying to make it one.

Future Virginia-class submarines will not only look different with these innovations, but they could also spend more time at sea.

Jabaley said the goal for the next group, or block, of the class, is to reduce the number of major maintenance periods during the life of the submarine from four to three so they will be able to deploy 15 times instead of 14.

Some of the current submarines may also deploy for longer periods to compensate for fewer submarines in the fleet, Richardson said, but this would be done judiciously, on a case-by-case basis, in response to emergent demands.

There is no plan to extend deployments beyond the traditional six months force-wide, he added.

There will be ongoing fiscal troubles and emerging threats, Bruner said, but the submarine force has technology that it hasn't had in the past and the newest submariners have talents and traits previous generations didn't.

The next generation of warfare is here, along with the "generation of warriors who man those ships.

"And they're awfully darn good," Bruner said.

"The question is," he added, "how do you tap all that talent, all the technology, and how do you fund it in a fiscally constrained environment to get us where we want to go strategically?"

The submarine force, Rear Adm. David C. Johnson said, has the "strategic advantage in the undersea realm."

"And," he said, "we do not intend to give it up."

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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