Few weapons better illustrate the challenges now facing the US military than the Navy's attack submarines.
Stealthy, heavily armed, and expensive, they once patrolled the seas searching for Soviet ballistic-missile launchers, ready to strike in the event of a nuclear showdown.
Today, 100 years after the Navy purchased its first underwater craft, submarines face a reversal of fortune: They are the hunted.
Indeed, arguments to shrink the size of the America's submarine force are intensifying, even as the Joint Chiefs of Staff advance a proposal to expand it.
The disagreement is rooted in a larger debate about the role of the US military in the post-cold-war world. Supporters say the subs' intelligence-gathering capability is particularly well-suited to today's challenge of keeping tabs on so-called rogue states. Detractors, however, say that there are better - and less expensive - ways to accomplish that objective.
Compared with other projects, such as a national missile defense and new lines of stealthy aircraft, submarines hardly seem to be a priority in 21st-century warfare. Russia's fleet has eroded, and, as a result, the role of the US attack submarine has diminished. Today, their responsibilities are primarily intelligence gathering, fleet support, and even monitoring the earth's polar ice caps.
Then, there's the money problem, something shared by the entire Department of Defense. While a report by the Joint Chiefs recently recommended a hefty increase in production of attack submarines, a large fleet could break the Navy's budget.
"The force goals that the [Pentagon] is talking about are going to be very expensive," says Eric Labs, a Navy budget expert at the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Paying for a larger fleet "will take a dramatic change in the budget picture."
At issue is how many attack submarines the Navy needs. The current number, 56, is down from 93 a decade ago. The Joint Chiefs of Staff report, however, recommends that the Navy have 68 by 2015, and as many as 76 by 2025.
Advocates of cutting the force, on the other hand, argue that 25 submarines could do the job - and fit projected defense budgets. New subs cost close to $2 billion each, and bringing the fleet up to 68 would require a spending increase of about $15 billion. Yet, while the overall defense budget has been cut about 44 percent since the end of the cold war, the submarine budget has gone down less, by 40 percent.
"Many of these decisions [that the US needs more attack submarines] are based on congressional and Pentagon politics, rather than what we actually need," says Ivan Eland, a defense specialist at the Cato Institute here, who favors a smaller fleet.
Those who back the idea of a larger fleet say submarines are suited to both old and new dangers. They say the threat against the US remains high, with Russia unstable, China on the rise, and so-called rogue nations like North Korea, Iran, and Iraq getting easier access to new technology and weapons of mass destruction.
FURTHERMORE, says Rear Adm. Malcolm Fages, who heads the Pentagon's program on submarine warfare, one of the greatest threats to national security today is global instability and its possible effect on the US economy. Thus, extensive forward deployment to numerous regions of the world - and intelligence gathering - is essential, Admiral Fages says.
"We are finding ourselves having to [turn down] intelligence assignments," he says. "The fleets are simply stretched to the limit."
On the other side of the argument, advocates of less spending accuse the Pentagon of perpetuating a cold-war mind-set at a time when US military superiority is unquestioned. Also, they say, defense money could be better spent to meet modern challenges, such as peacekeeping and defending against terrorism.
Retired Rear Adm. Eugene Carroll, for one, says that attack submarines, just like other expensive military programs, are taking on new roles more for self-justification than for real strategic need.
"I don't believe that today the national [intelligence] requirements have gone up that much, [or] that submarines can add much to that picture," he says.
If there is a greater need for submarine missions, Admiral Carroll suggests, the Navy could meet it with today's fleet. He says the Navy could extend the time each unit spends at sea by airlifting fresh crews to the submarine. Under current regulations, a submarine can be deployed for only one six-month stretch during a two-year period. That means that a fleet of 68 has just 16 subs deployed around the globe at any one time.
But, says Fages, there are problems with rotating crews. Having the submarine deployed for more time means a shorter engine life. Refueling a nuclear core to increase its life span costs around $300 million. And the Navy, like other armed forces, is struggling with recruiting and retention, making it more and more difficult to assemble new crews.
Another dispute over submarines is whether they should launch cruise missiles. When NATO bombed Yugoslavia, about 25 percent of the Tomahawk missile launches came from submarines.
To Carroll that is "the least efficient way we can think of" to launch an attack, especially considering the effectiveness of stealth aircraft like the B-2 bomber. He likens underwater missiles to using a race car to drive to the convenience store.
For Fages, however, submarines are the best way to launch cruise missiles. "Our stealth bombers have been shot down," he says. "That could never happen with a submarine."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society