Foreign Policy Briefing No. 47

Subtract Unneeded Nuclear Attack Submarines from the Fleet

By Ivan Eland
April 2, 1998

Executive Summary

In its 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Department of Defense decided that the decline of the U. S. nuclear-powered attack submarine force from its Cold War level of 100 boats would stop at 50 vessels. By 2012, the Joint Chiefs of Staff require 10 to 12 of those ships to be very quiet. Both of those conclusions should be reexamined.

The nuclear attack submarine force remains too large. To justify keeping more submarines— even as the undersea threat declined after the Cold War—the Navy began assigning two boats to protect each of the 12 aircraft carrier battle groups from enemy attack submarines. That mission is unnecessary and impractical. Also, the recent elimination of the outdated mission for U.S. attack submarines to hunt Russian ballistic missile submarines in the arctic makes the requirement for very quiet submarines obsolete. Therefore, the number of submarines could be cut to 25 modern boats, while still fielding the best force in the world. Because all nuclear-ship production and overhaul could be consolidated at one shipyard, no new submarines need to be produced purely to sustain the current bloated submarine industry—the Pentagon’s other prominent justification. Thus, the nascent production of the $56 billion New Attack Submarine program—the successor to the aborted Seawolf submarine program—should be cancelled.

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Ivan Eland is director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.