US Navy’s submarine fleet is too small. Here’s how selling some may help.

US Navy’s submarine fleet is too small. Here’s how selling some may help.

This is the first story of a two-part series on how the U.S. submarine force is participating in the trilateral AUKUS alliance. Click here to read the second story.

ABOARD THE SUBMARINE DELAWARE OFF FLORIDA’S COAST — The attack submarine Delaware silently pulled away from the pier at Port Everglades, past the pleasure craft and the cargo ships, and then sank beneath the waves.

The U.S. Navy’s Virginia-class submarine was showing off for VIPs on board, performing “angles and dangles” — diving sharply and listening for anything not safely stowed to go tumbling — piping simulated targets into its combat system, and taking simulated torpedo shots at the imaginary surface ships.

Though the April 4 demonstration is a far cry from the complex training Delaware’s crew will conduct later this year ahead of the boat’s deployment to U.S. European Command’s theater, leaders said any at-sea opportunity benefits the crew.

But the need for at-sea time butts up against a problematic reality for the Navy: It has 49 attack submarines, despite a formal requirement for 66.

The fleet size has remained stagnant for at least a decade, even as demand for these stealthy forces increased. Attack submarines would be pivotal in a conflict against China. They’re also in high demand within the European theater in order to counter Russia’s sophisticated submarine fleet. And they’ve even made history in the Middle East, with the Virginia-class sub John Warner becoming the first in its class to fire Tomahawk missiles in combat during a 2018 strike on Syrian chemical weapons facilities.

The situation will worsen before it improves, according to the Navy’s long-range shipbuilding and fleet inventory plan, which shows the force dipping to 47 later this decade before hovering in the mid-50s for many years. The fleet isn’t projected to hit 66 until 2054, well beyond the “decade of concern” — when military officials say the threat of conflict with China will peak.

Furthermore, the U.S. Navy intends to sell at least three, and as many as five, of these attack submarines to Australia as part of the trilateral AUKUS pact that also involves the U.K.

Still, Vice Adm. Rob Gaucher said that, perhaps counterintuitively, selling the submarines to Australia will help the strapped undersea fleet.

By delivering the boats to an ally who will operate them in coordination with American boats, “we get more submarines far forward. We get a port that gives us access” to the Indo-Pacific region, the commander of naval submarine forces said during a panel at the Sea-Air-Space conference in April.

“We get the opportunity to leverage an ally who can help us with manning and operating. We get surge capacity because now I have another area [where] I can do maintenance.”

Crewing and maintenance woes

Gaucher told Defense News the submarine fleet faces two vexing problems today and into the coming years: crewing and maintenance. But bringing Australia into the fold could help with both.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the submarine force stepped back from recruiting. More broadly, as the Navy’s overall crewing levels have been tight, the force opted to focus on operations at sea rather than recruiting ashore.

“We’ve put a focus back on that,” Gaucher said, though he declined to discuss the size of the submarine force and to quantify its shortfall. But already “we feel the impact of that recruiting shortfall.”

Offsetting that will be Australia’s growing nuclear-trained submarine force, as the nation builds a cadre of sailors and officers who will crew its Virginia-class submarines in the 2030s and its SSN-AUKUS boats in the 2040s.

The U.S. has already graduated the first Australian naval officers from nuclear power school. Gaucher said during the panel discussion that, by the end of this year, the Navy would graduate about 50 nuclear-trained operators and another 50 submarine combat operators. Those numbers are expected to grow in the coming years.

Gaucher told Defense News these sailors will train on American submarines for the rest of this decade, increasing the number of individuals qualified to stand watch on American boats, which in turn produces some flexibility in crewing.

Similarly, the submarine force is strapped for maintenance capacity. Getting boats out of maintenance on time is Gaucher’s top focus, but it’s an issue across the Navy and won’t be fully achieved until perhaps 2027 or 2028, service officials have said.

However, around 2027 the Navy will begin operating as many as four Virginia-class subs out of the HMAS Stirling submarine base in Western Australia, with local personnel conducting routine maintenance on the boats as they grow their repair capacity. That will reduce pressure on the maintenance system back at home, Gaucher said.

Bryan Clark, director of the Hudson Institute think tank’s Center for Defense Concepts and Technology, told Defense News that offloading four subs’ worth of routine maintenance to HMAS Stirling will ease the pressure on the Navy’s Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility in Washington state, allowing the workforce there to more quickly get other subs through refits and overhauls.

While there are typically concerns about sending surface ship repair work overseas, Clark said the Navy and its industry partners, General Dynamics’ Electric Boat and HII’s Newport News Shipbuilding, simply do not have enough capacity for all the needed submarine repairs.

A 50-sub force in a 66-sub world

A 2016 Navy force structure assessment called for 66 attack submarines. That requirement has remained steady since — and the fleet size has also remained steady around 50, despite a number of efforts meant to help grow it, including extending the lives of older Los Angeles-class attack subs and pouring billions of dollars into the submarine-building industry to increase output.

With 50 boats, “we’re able to realistically meet what we’ve traditionally met in our global force management,” Gaucher said. But “if you ask me if I want more submarines, of course. And there’s never going to be enough.”

Today, it takes everything going right — a submarine coming out of maintenance on time and not unexpectedly having to surge forward for an overseas mission — for a submarine crew to get the desired number of training days.

But, Gaucher said, “if you throw a perturbation into that … that’s where you have to make those trades.”

Currently, some submarines are on routine deployments for which they fully planned, trained and certified.

Other boats are considered “combat surge ready” and are eligible to scramble into theater if needed. These boats are trained and certified to a smaller number of core missions, but may not qualify for the full range of tasks a routine deployment could require.

A larger fleet would mean more boats on routine deployments and fewer scrambling to surge. It would mean satisfying more requests by combatant commanders and having more boats already forward in theater — rather than the surge boats at home taking perhaps a week to prepare for deployment before traveling.

It would also allow the boats at home to further develop tactics as well as train alongside surface, aviation and special operations forces, rather than potentially surging forward for an overseas mission.

“There’s just really countless things you can do if you have more,” Gaucher said. “But we can still get the core things done. … So we pick the best things for those submarines to do that best satisfy what the combatant commanders need us to do.”

Clark, however, said his team at Hudson is wrapping up a 2045 fleet design study for the Navy that will call for 54 attack submarines. The study will contend the service needs a larger fleet of attack submarines to address the most vexing operational problem: a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

But increased development of unmanned systems, including the Replicator initiative at the Pentagon and the Hellscape effort through U.S. Pacific Fleet, could help deter or stop an attack, as well as reduce the need for crewed attack submarines.

“If you’re aiming for [54] submarines in 2045, then you can get away with selling three to Australia, and the net benefit is positive because you’re bolstering the alliance,” Clark said. “Three submarines, now somebody else is paying for the maintenance, manning them, sustaining them, and the U.S. benefits from them being out there as part of the alliance force.”

‘Continuously ready’

The top officer on the attack sub Delaware, Cmdr. Rob Low, said having an in-demand asset as part of an insufficiently sized fleet weighs on him.

Speaking to Defense News during the April embark, Low said the deployment rotation is the same today as it was when he was a junior officer, but that submarines are more often called to surge. As a result, there’s now a greater need to be “a lot more focused on making sure we’re continuously ready.”

“We all know that there’s not a lot of backup if we have a problem. So we really pride ourselves on making sure we’re material-ready to be in mission at any moment,” he said. “And the second we have something that’s minor break on board, we immediately go into repair mode to make sure that the second we pull [into port in Groton, Connecticut], it’s not going to impact us in our ability to get deployed if we needed to at any moment.”

This hyperfocus on readiness extends to the crew. Low said crew members have been receptive to cross-training, even teaching the nuclear-trained operators to stand watch at the sonar or fire control console in the control room “so that if I end up having a shortage in one rate, I can move people around and continue to operate without any problems.”

Low said he has trained his junior sailors to the maximum qualification point allowed, with junior sailors sometimes standing watches that are normally reserved for chief petty officers. This allows the chiefs to focus on mentoring and developing junior sailors, even as the watch bills are still filled with fully qualified personnel.

Low also noted he empowered his senior enlisted sailors to have “ownership of material” and run the sub’s machinery with little oversight from officers. This frees up his officers to focus on tactics, which Low said is vital given the strategic competition the U.S. Navy is in with Russia and China.

In the immediate term, Low is focused on getting his boat ready for deployment: He and the crew will continue training at sea, come in for two remaining maintenance periods, go through full training and qualifications, and then head to European waters later this year.

But the operating environment and the risk of a surge deployment remain on his mind.

“We have to be ready,” he said. “Three weeks from now, we can be sent to someplace, and we have to be completely ready.”

This is the first story of a two-part series on how the U.S. submarine force is participating in the trilateral AUKUS alliance. Click here to read the second story.

Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.

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