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Prokhor Tebin

PhD in Political Science, RIAC expert

In June 2016, Proceedings, the US leading naval magazine, published an article by Vice Admiral James Foggo, a Commander of the US 6th fleet, and Alarik Fritz, a senior research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA). The article titled “The Fourth Battle of the Atlantic” is dedicated to the growing threat posed by the Russian submarine fleet and to the measures the US needs to take to counteract the threat. Foggo and Fritz write that once again, “an effective, skilled, and technologically advanced Russian submarine force is challenging” the US.

An enemy you know is better?

In June 2016, Proceedings, the US leading naval magazine, published an article by Vice Admiral James Foggo, a Commander of the US 6th fleet, and Alarik Fritz, a senior research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA). The article titled “The Fourth Battle of the Atlantic” [1] is dedicated to the growing threat posed by the Russian submarine fleet and to the measures the US needs to take to counteract the threat.

Foggo and Fritz write that once again, “an effective, skilled, and technologically advanced Russian submarine force is challenging” the US. The authors cite Viktor Chirkov, former Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy, who had previously stated that “the rate of submarines going on deployment has increased by nearly 50%” [2] . Foggo and Fritz concur with Clive Johnstone, British Vice Admiral, Commander of the Allied Maritime Command, who believes that Russian submarines’ activity is at its peak since the Cold War.

Foggo and Fritz think very highly of today’s Russian submarines. They call them “one of the most difficult threats the United States has faced.” Moreover, the article states directly that “Russia is rapidly closing the technological gap with the United States.” Foggo and Fritz are particularly concerned with the modernization of the Black Sea Fleet at the estimated cost of $2.4 billion. Subsequently, the fleet will receive frigates and six Kilo-class “more advanced and significantly quieter attack submarines” armed with long-range Kalibr cruise missiles.

The article ties Russia’s development of its submarine forces with its policy “aimed at challenging the United States and its NATO allies and partners.” Moscow “now employs ‘an arc of steel’” from the Arctic via the Baltic Sea and down to the Black Sea, and the Russian Navy increases its presence in the North Atlantic, in the Norwegian and Mediterranean Seas. Moscow’s actions are ascribed to its leadership’s political adventurism, not to protecting Russia’s national interests.

Vice Admiral James Foggo

“The Fourth Battle of the Atlantic” agrees with the current American military policy, especially in its European part; the policy is aimed at attracting greater attention of the public and Congress to the reality of the so-called “Russian threat”. It should be noted that nearly in the same breath, the article suggests uniting “to deter Russian aggression” and offers a highly respectful assessment of the Russian Navy and statements on the readiness to cooperate with Russia on a whole range of issues [3].

Thus, on the one hand, Foggo and Fritz indicate that the US once again finds itself in “a technological arms race” with Russia, but on the other, they try to avoid an over-the-top anti-Russian rhetoric.

Apparently, Foggo and Fritz were guided by a whole spectrum of reasons. Undoubtedly, they are concerned that Moscow’s actions pose a real challenge to the national interests of the US. However, this is hardly their only motive. Another important consideration is uniting “partners and allies” around Washington, both NATO members and non-allied countries. Besides, like many other top US military officers, Foggo has his corporate interests at heart, particularly the interests of the Navy as a branch of the US military, and the interests of the European Command which lags behind the Pacific and Central Commands in navy strength.

It is not accidental that Foggo and Fritz compiled the following list of measures intended to defeat the Russian submarine fleet in what has been pompously termed “the fourth battle of the Atlantic”: “to leverage allied navies to enhance our maritime security,” to increase their naval presence in Europe, and “not lose our technological edge.”

To understand the stance the US naval leadership takes on the development of the strategic situation, it would be important to look at the statement made by Rear Admiral Charles Richard, the director of undersea warfare of the US Navy Staff: “I see a future that has … ‘competition short of war.’ … We’re not exactly at peace with somebody, but we’re not exacting winging guided missiles back and forth at each other just yet. So what can we offer combatant commanders in these type of environments?”

Although Richard believes the problem to be particularly relevant for the Pacific, we could confidently suppose that his words apply to Europe as well. The elegant expression “competition short of war” appears to disguise what Russian media traditionally call the “Cold War.” By “competitors,” the Admiral obviously means China and Russia.

The US Command clearly subscribes to this idea. Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that “traditional approach” which entails either peace or war between countries is insufficient to deter Russia and China. He described the current situation as “an adversarial competition with a military dimension short of armed conflict.”

And where are the submarines?

Flickr/ Official U.S. Navy Page
ПЛА USS Minnesota (SSN 783), Virginia class

Quite often, some analysts disregard the fact that both Russian shipbuilders and their American counterparts had a “hiatus” in the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s. In the early 1990s, the US Navy still regularly received submarines procured during Ronald Reagan’s presidency and the “600-ship Navy.” Yet over the span of 10 years, between 1997 and 2007, the US Navy received only five submarines (three Seawolf-class submarines and two Virginia-class submarines). Virginia-class submarines are built since 1998, but up to 2011, the Navy purchased one submarine a year. Since 2011, the US Navy procures two submarines annually.

Today, the US has 54 submarines with the desired number being 48. Two of them have finished their operational service and will soon be written off. But by the late 2020s, their number will have dropped to 41, and all the Ohio-class cruise-missile-carrying nuclear submarines will have been decommissioned as the life cycles of many submarines mostly from Reagan’s times will have expired, and building two submarines annually will not offset all the decommissioned vessels.

By now, the operational submarines do not meet all the needs of the regional commands. According to the statement made in Congress by Harry Harris, Commander of the US Pacific Command, the Navy meets about 70% of the regional commands’ requirements. This figure may drop to 42% in the fiscal year 2017. Later, Philip Breedlove, Commander of the European Command, like Admiral Harris, also noted that the Navy Command’s requirements on the number of submarines were not being met. The impending drop in the number of submarines and sea-launched cruise missiles carried by submarines (by about 60%) will exacerbate the problem even more.

To compensate for the situation, since the late 2000s, the US implements a series of measures such as building Virgina-class nuclear submarines at a fast pace, extending the life of some Los Angeles-class submarines, extending deployment up to seven months and more. Besides, the Navy increased the number of submarines stationed at US Naval Base Guam Naval three to four, thereby somewhat expanding ship availability for the Pacific Command since there was no more need for a long sea passage from the continental US or Hawaii to the western Pacific. Nonetheless, strategically, this decision did not bring about much change, and one should hardly expect a further increase in the number of forward-deployed submarines at Guam or anywhere else.

Given the current situation, it is also pointless to expect a greater pace of ship-building beyond what is stipulated in the 30-year shipbuilding plan. The plan entails building two submarines annually up to and including 2025 (with the exception of 2021 and 2024). In 2026–2035, the plan entails building only one multi-purpose submarine a year due to the implementation of a very expensive program of building strategic Columbia-class missile carriers. The spending on the program, including design and building, could be up to $113 billion in the 2017 fiscal year prices.

Today, the Navy is fighting to have a second nuclear submarine built in the fiscal year 2021. If Congress agrees and allocates the necessary funds and the Navy procures one submarine in 2021, that will reduce the submarine shortfall between 2025 and 2041 by one third, from 51 SSN-year shortfall to 35.

The more the better

Flickr/ Official U.S. Navy Page
USS Tennessee (SSBN 734), Ohio class

One of the elements of long-term shipbuilding planning in the US is the so-called “force-structure goal.” During the last 15 years both the force and structure changed on a fairly regular basis.

The 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review gave the goal of 310–312 ships. In 2002, with the George W. Bush Administration and his Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld starting to increase the US military spending, the US Navy became far more ambitious and spoke about 375 ships, but this goal only lasted for three years.

In 2005, the Navy suggested to Congress two variants of the number of the ships by 2035: 260 or 325 ships. After a lengthy discussion and the adoption of the first 30-year shipbuilding plan in 2006, the goal stabilized at 313 ships. It remained unchanged until 2010 when it began to oscillate again: 322–323 ships in 2010, 328 in 2011, 310–316 in 2012, but 306 ships already by 2012 and 2014 in 308. As we can see, in the early 2010s, the Navy attempted to make another bid at increasing its ship numbers, but when budgetary problems emerged and the military expenses were sequestered, they rolled back their plans and even dropped their expectations below the old “magic number” of 313 ships. Remarkably, against this background the desired number of nuclear submarines according to Force Structure Assessment (FSA) has remained unchanged since 2006 at a 48 pieces.

And now, in early 2016, the Navy started talking about revising the FSA, that is, clearly manifesting its intention to increase the goal attempting to translate it at least partially into real ships. The reasons are obvious: the growth of real and imaginary threats on the part of Russia and China. The new FSA was published in mid-December, 2016. The document presupposes a large 15% increase of the desired fleet—from 308 to 355 ships. The largest increase regards the number of nuclear submarines—from 48 to 66 pieces, which is more than a third.

It seemed that the promised increase in ships and submarines should be implemented as bringing the fleet to 350 pieces was of Donald Trump’s election campaign’s key points. However, these plans are difficult to bring into life. The new Administration will have to lift the military spending limitations imposed by 2011 Budget Control Act, find the funds and pass it through the Congress.

Then the industry will have to solve the issue of intense nuclear submarines building together with the active stage of new generation ballistic missile boats construction. The industry has already declared its readiness to simultaneously build two or three Virginia nuclear submarines and new ballistic missile boats. Still, the docks have already faced certain problems regarding high speed of Virginia missile submarines and the search for qualified workforce.

Trump’s Administration is at the very beginning of its path. The fact that the new Secretary of the Navy has not been appointed yet is telling. For some reason Trump did not like the candidacy of James Randy Forbes powerful Republican Congressman in the past who served as the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces.

USS Seawolf (SSN-21), Seawolf class

It was James Randy Forbes who was tipped for becoming new John Lehman. Even before Trump’s victory, in an interview to Defense News, Forbes said that the Navy should aim for a fleet of 346–350 ships. He also noted that, “I do not think anybody can answer whether we need more carriers or not, but what we clearly are going to need is more submarines.” Noting the growing power of the Chinese submarine fleet and the impending drop in the numbers of the US submarine fleet, Forbes proposed starting with procuring a second nuclear submarine in 2021. Forbes proposes increasing shipbuilding expenses up to $20 billion a year (current 30-year shipbuilding plan entails spending $16.5 billion annually).

Clearly, the force-structure goal is a rather abstract and simplified indicator, the result of compromises, it is mostly political in nature and intended for domestic consumption, mostly for Congress. The US Navy has hard time reaching its current targets, and setting higher goals will require a significant increase in military spending. Therefore, in and of itself, the desired number of ships is of little interest, despite all the campaign ambitions of Trump, Forbes and the Navy. Of far greater importance is the determination and consistency the new administration and the top officials at the Navy and the DoD will show in defending this goal.

It can be supposed that a 350-ship fleet will be the goal and it will be used as an instrument to talk Congress into allocating enough money to achieve the more modest indicators of 310–320 ships. Yet in this event, too, the US naval power will increase significantly.

The time has been chosen rather well—after 2023, military budget restrictions imposed pursuant to the 2011 Budget Control Act will expire. The time before 2023 is enough for the government, the military, and the industry to prepare for increased shipbuilding spending, if the decision will indeed be made. At the same time, this is a rather lengthy period of time, and for the plan to be implemented, the (high) level of tensions in the US-Russia and US-China relations must still be present; it would be ideal if these tensions increased, too. While the US tries not to play up the Chinese threat too much in the public space, out of fear of damaging the economic cooperation between the two countries, the US military can exaggerate the Russian threat all they want since the US-Russia economic ties are minor.

Despite Trump’s team being unequivocally supportive of Russia, rapprochement between Moscow and Washington in the near future is highly unlikely. In the best scenario, competition short of war between Moscow and Washington and “the fourth battle of the Atlantic” in particular will continue. American submariners and shipbuilders will only benefit from this scenario.

1. The first three battles of the Atlantic were the campaigns against the German Empire during World War I, against the Nazi Germany during World War II, and the confrontation between the Soviet and US submarine fleets during the Cold War.

2. Between January 2014 and March 2015 compared to 2013.

3. Such as preventing incidents on the sea, fighting ISIS and other extremist organizations.

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  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
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