Submarines' Role Being Reduced To Fit In With New, Leaner Military
By JESSE HAMILTON
Courant Staff Writer May 22, 2005
Nobody hunts for Red October any more.
U.S. submarines that for decades have silently ruled the world's oceans
have slipped quietly out of favor. Hollywood depictions of their Cold War
exploits are more historical footnote than current-affair documentary.
And in the steady decline of the U.S. submarine fleet, specifically the
nuclear-powered fast-attack subs designed to hunt other vessels, nothing
is sacred - certainly not the Naval Submarine Base in Groton.
The proposal to close the country's first sub base - where 90 years of
undersea service have encompassed two world wars, the birth of
nuclear-powered subs and shadowy missions against the Soviets - has
provoked probing questions: If this hometown of the submarine goes dark,
what's in store for the Silent Service? What is the U.S. Navy's future
under the sea?
And, foremost: Is the world moving beyond nuclear submarines?
The U.S. fast-attack fleet - the hunters, which outnumber the
nuclear-missile subs - counted almost 100 boats in the 1980s. Since their
Cold War height, the number has been cut almost in half, in step with the
waning power of the enemy with whom the fleet was once closely matched.
Navy projections for 30 years from now suggest there could be as few as
Those who still believe in subs have searched hard for new missions in
the war against terrorism. These days, it's about operating in the
"littorals," the shallow areas hugging the coastlines, said Lt. Cmdr.
Jensin Sommer, spokeswoman for Commander Naval Submarine Forces in
It's about putting special-operations commandos or missile attacks
exactly where they are needed. It's about catching drug and weapons
traffickers and listening in on communications.
That is a complex array of mission for boats originally designed with a
simple aim: to hunt enemy ships and submarines. It was a job they
excelled at in the deep-ocean cat-and-mouse played with the Soviet fleet.
They tracked less sophisticated Soviet subs around the world, even in the
enemy's own ports. A sideline developed, too, that drove submarines
deeper into the espionage game: tapping underwater communications
But when those missions faded, the Navy was left with a big fleet of
submarines and an industrial base - including Electric Boat in Groton -
that relied on the Navy's appetite for more.
Adm. Vern Clark found himself arguing last week for closing the base in
Groton. But nine months earlier, the chief of naval operations stopped at
the sub base and talked about the new roles for its submarines, "to
project more offensive punch with the Tomahawk [missile] capability and
the surveillance capabilities the submarine forces bring to bear."
"This is what tomorrow is about for the U.S. Navy - the ability to
project credible combat power to the far corners of the earth," giving
the president options "around the world and around the clock," a Navy
scribe reported Clark as saying.
Sub supporters point to a number of military studies and reports
justifying an even larger fleet in the future, including a 1999 study
released by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff saying 76
fast-attacks would be needed by 2025 to work critical peacetime
They refer to the fact that naval commanders who request submarine
support are routinely turned down. They talk about the growth in sales of
advanced diesel subs around the world, including fleets belonging to the
remaining two members of President Bush's Axis of Evil: Iran and North
Russia is still in the sub game, too, with Akula-class boats that rival
U.S. advancements. And China's fleet gets bigger and more advanced every
But opponents say the U.S. sub fleet is bloated and expensive. A 2002
report from the Congressional Budget Office said each of the latest
submarines costs about $2.7 million for every day it conducts active
operations, an average of 35.7 days a year.
Christopher Hellman, a defense analyst at the Center for Arms Control
and Non-Proliferation, is no fan of the Virginia class subs, which he
said have run up a price tag that is "beyond stunning."
There's more, but that is all I can post for now without heaving....