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The US Navy Combatant Commander requests for submarines have now for many years exceeded the service’s available supply, particularly in the Pacific.
The US Navy, members of Congress and industry builders are all accelerating a revved up effort to add more attack submarines in coming years, to help offset an anticipated deficit expected to emerge as more Los Angeles-class submarines are retired from service. Previous publications of the Navy’s 30-year Shipbuilding Plan have indicated a substantial drop off in coming years as legacy submarines retire, so there has been an intense Navy and Congressional effort to “uptick” Virginia-class submarine production and strive toward building 2 or even 3 per year in many instances.
Clearly a big part of the impetus here is to close a submarine gap with China. A publication called ussjpkennedydr.org cites China’s submarine fleet at 79, compared to a US fleet of 68. Without a substantial acceleration of US attack submarines in coming years, the number of US Navy attack submarines may lower into the low 50s.
These are the likely reasons why Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday’s Navigation Plan 2022 cites an attack submarine capacity goal at 66. This many attack submarines, when supplemented by 12 Columbia-class, nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines, would bring the Navy’s entire fleet up to 78 submarines, roughly comparable to China in terms of size.
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The Navy plan calls for 66 Nuclear-powered fast-attack and large payload submarines “to hold adversaries at risk in both contested seas and open oceans. We will continue to build the Virginia-class at a sustainable rate while developing the SSN(X),” Gilday’s Navigation Plan states.
However, a time frame is not given and of course China is well know to be quickly building its own submarines with an intent to expand both regional and global strength. Therefore, it is certainly conceivable that the pure size of China’s fleet may remain larger than the US Navy. However ,there are many key variables to consider here, as actual numbers of submarines or fleet size does not instantly equate to undersea superiority.
Virginia-class attack submarines
US Navy Virginia-class attack submarines, now being added to the fleet at a quick pace, incorporate a number of as-of-yet-unprecedented technologies. Some of these submarines, particularly Block III and forward, operate with a new generation of quieting technologies, coating and communications equipment to ensure improved undersea connectivity and stealthy properties to help the boat elude detection. Virginia class submarines are also increasingly capable of performing surveillance missions as well as attack, due to a Large Aperture Bow sonar system and an ability to launch surveillance drones from the missile tubes. The boats operate with fiber-optic cables and a digital, automated computerized “fly-by-wire” navigation system so depth and speed can be set with a much smaller degree of human involvement.
The Virginia-class boats are also introducing a paradigm-changing measure of firepower, as the Block V boats are being built with an 80-foot long added mid-section called Virginia Payload Modules able to increase the boats Tomahawk missile firing capability from 12 up to 40.
While there is likely very little known about the specific technologies woven into Chinese submarines, the PRC Navy may not be able to match the performance parameters, sensing and firepower built into the US Navy Virginias. Nonetheless, the specific capabilities of China’s new Type 039C attack submarine may not be fully known, yet multiple reports cite some advanced technology on the boat and an English publication called The Mirror said China’s new attack subs were patrolling waters near Taiwan in response to the Pelosi visit.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven - the Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.