Why US Submarine Production Shouldn't Go Under

CONGRESS will soon face a critical decision concerning the future of the United States attack submarine fleet. The decision is whether or not we should proceed with the construction of a third Seawolf attack submarine.

Attack submarines, designed to destroy enemy submarines and secure the sea lanes, function as a necessary complement to our missile submarine fleet. Congress has authorized the construction of two Seawolf attack submarines to replace our aging Los Angeles Class vessels. The president has asked that a third and final Seawolf be built. These Seawolfs, the first two of which are under construction, are the most sophisticated submarines ever built, featuring great speed, superior weapons, and extraordinary stealth.

In addition, Congress has authorized the development of a successor to Seawolf, the New Attack Submarine (NAS). The NAS will take advantage of advanced Seawolf technologies, but will carry a smaller price tag by reducing some of Seawolf's performance characteristics, notably its speed and weapons payload.

Unfortunately, a small contingent of antisubmarine forces in Congress would like to prevent construction of a third Seawolf. The move to scuttle the Seawolf is shortsighted for several reasons:

*It would be more expensive to end the Seawolf program now than it would be to continue the program until construction begins on the NAS.

*Killing Seawolf will cost the US essential submarine construction skills.

*Terminating Seawolf will put the US at a disadvantage to a robust Russian submarine development program.

The industrial base for the construction of nuclear submarines represents a sizable investment by taxpayers in a unique amalgam of sophisticated machinery and facilities. For example, the Electric Boat shipyard at Quonset Point, R.I., has developed machinery which allows huge sections of the cylindrical hull to be formed and joined very efficiently. Such machinery can be used only for the construction of submarines. Without a third Seawolf, Electric Boat's submarine production line would be out of business. The investment necessary to restart submarine construction would be prohibitively expensive.

A RAND Corporation study confirms these observations. It concludes that delay or termination of our submarine program would result in excessive restart costs in the future.

More important than the machinery are the workers. The construction of a submarine requires careful craftsmanship: grinding huge metal valves to microscopic tolerances, welding hulls that will sustain intense pressure. The skills that produce a submarine take years to acquire and will be lost if production lapses.

Moreover, the nuclear submarine industrial base is composed of hundreds of specialized companies across the country. Few, if any, could afford to mothball their equipment (or their workers) until construction of the New Attack Submarine begins. Some argue that the changing world situation has eliminated the need for submarine production. While it is clear there have been profound changes in the world, these changes do not justify abandoning submarine production.

In 1971, when I graduated from West Point, I thought that my entire life would be dominated by superpower military confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union.

That has changed, but one constant remains in the equation between the Russians and the world: Russia's continuing need to maintain the fiction, if not the reality, of being a major power. It appears that Russia is continuing to invest scarce resources in improving and maintaining a nuclear submarine fleet.

Right now, the Russians are reconstituting their submarine forces to the exclusion of most other strategic programs and conventional forces. The Russian Navy has resumed submarine exercises at sea, and there are indications that they continue in the development of advanced technology for their submarine fleet.

As we begin the submarine debate here in Washington, there will be a temptation to forget the financial, skills-retention, and military reasons for continued submarine production in the US. If Congress gives in to this temptation, the consequences will be both expensive and dangerous.

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