Congress Should Fund the Second FY 21 Virginia-Class SSN
The Pentagon’s decision earlier this year to drop the second Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) from its Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 budget request fails strategic, economic, and shipbuilding logic. It is inconsistent with the Administration’s own National Defense Strategy and could adversely impact the construction of the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) program. The Senate should join the House in over-ruling the Pentagon and insisting on building two Virginia boats in FY 21.
The 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) recognized, however belatedly, that the United States is facing an unprecedented threat to our own and our allies’ security. While the West was slow (and reluctant) to acknowledge that both Russia and China set out in the latter years of the previous decade to undo the post-World War II international world order, by 2017, it could no longer be ignored. The United States and its allies now face two nuclear-armed potential adversaries intent on expanding their own spheres of influence to the detriment of the rest of the world. Presidents-for-life Vladimir Putin and Xi Jin Ping have enlarged their freedom of action abroad by eliminating nearly any residual vestige of domestic political opposition. They have shown a willingness to use military and para-military force to change borders in Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and Hong Kong. They have rebuilt (and in China's case, significantly expanded) their conventional and nuclear military capabilities. And they are conducting on a daily basis a wide variety of agile “gray zone” activities against the United States and our European and Indo-Pacific allies: spreading lies, using economic coercion, exfiltrating technology, and undermining faith in our democratic institutions.
To combat and effectively deter these threats, the United States and our allies must dramatically increase our soft power capabilities and operations to offset and push back in the “gray zone." With respect to hard power, without taking away from the fact that ground forces would be needed to defend NATO in the event of Russian adventurism or aggression against the Alliance, we must recognize that to compete, deter, and, if necessary to fight effectively against either of these potential adversaries the United States must have superb power projection capabilities -- which means air and naval forces. Given the formidable anti-access/area denial (A2AD) capabilities of both Russia (in the Baltics and North Sea) and China (in the East and South China Seas), this places a premium on our naval forces, especially SSNs. SSNs will be vital to entering denied areas to suppress, reduce, and eliminate anti-air and anti-ship defenses to enable Joint Forces, including Air Force bombers and tactical aircraft and Navy strike groups, to conduct combat operations. Current SSN levels do not support Combatant Commander requests for peace-time missions nor Joint Force requirements for combat operations; the projected outlook – for the near- and mid-term – is even bleaker.
The Navy currently operates 50 SSNs: 28 Los Angeles-class, 3 Seawolf-class, and 19 Virginia-class boats. However, the Navy’s requirement for SSNs is 66, although a summer 2020 report by OSD, Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office is said to have proposed raising the requirement to 68 or 69. Moreover, under current retirement plans, the SSN force could shrink to 42 SSNs by FY 27, less than two-thirds of the required force level. Compounding this deficit is the impending retirement of the four Ohio-class SSGNs between FY 26 and FY 28, which creates a mission and strike capacity gap that will have to be picked up by the SSN force. Near-term stop-gap mitigation is the Navy’s current plan to refuel rather than retire up to seven Los Angeles class SSNs. A longer-term and parallel effort would be to continue the FY20 Long-Range Shipbuilding Plan to buy two Virginia-class SSNs every year, thereby preventing an even greater SSN capacity trough in the mid- to late-2020s while providing the Navy with a more advanced and capable SSNs force. Unfortunately, and for all the wrong reasons, the Pentagon decided to cut one of the two Virginia-class SSNs scheduled for procurement from its FY 2021 budget submission. The cut, ostensibly to offset $2 billion in important Presidentially-mandated initiatives, need not have come from the Virginia program (or indeed from any Navy program). Nevertheless, that is the path the Pentagon chose to take. The House has voted to fully restore the second Virginia-class SSN in FY 21; the Senate has not. The issue will be decided in Conference.
Given ongoing tensions with Moscow and Beijing, especially China's continuing improvements to its land-based A2AD capabilities and its Navy's rapid growth, deleting the second FY21 Virginia SSN defies strategic logic. If the proposed Pentagon cut from two boats to one is sustained, there will be economic and construction impacts, increasing risk to the Columbia SSBN program. Government policymakers and budget programmers generally operate in a cocoon in which they do not consider the real day-to-day needs of, and potential impacts to, American industry and the defense industrial base. The “two Virginia SSNs per year” program has been the basis for how the two prime manufacturers (General Dynamics’ Electric Boat and Huntington Ingall’s Newport News yards) have planned their workforce profiles, their workstreams, and their equipment and material orders to their various levels of industrial base suppliers. Perturbing those schedules will inevitably introduce uncertainty, added cost, and will likely delay future submarine delivery schedules. It will almost certainly disrupt planned workforce hiring and critical skill development, as changes to the two per year SSN build rate have shown detrimental “ripple effects” on workload demand and training opportunities. This same inefficiency and cost-imposing problem would inevitably flow down throughout the supplier base. Furthermore, because the Columbia and Virginia programs have integrated workforce planning, production schedules, and supplier bases to more efficiently and cost-effectively deliver these submarines, any negative perturbations to the Virginia build plan will increase risk and cost to the Columbia program.
It does not have to be that way. The Senate should join the House in over-turning the Pentagon’s short-sighted and counterproductive FY 21 Virginia build plan. This misguided decision needs to be corrected in light of the clear deterrent, warfighting, and industrial base benefits of building two Virginia-class SSNs in FY 21 and beyond.
Franklin C. Miller served as a senior policy official for over two decades in the Pentagon and on the NSC Staff.