The United States Navy is known for its diverse capabilities, employing personnel who may find themselves in combat on land (such as Navy SEALs), in the air (aviators), and on or under the oceans. One crucial aspect of the Navy’s arsenal is its submarine fleet, often referred to as the “silent service” due to their stealthy nature. However, recent scrutiny has arisen over the Navy’s expenditures on submarines, particularly in terms of their utilization and effectiveness.
A recent exclusive story published by Newsweek magazine delved into how the Navy’s submarines, especially the fast attack variety, are being used and how much time they actually spend on their intended missions. Modern submarines are highly complex, equipped with advanced electronics, nuclear reactors, and weapons systems tailored to the mission requirements of each class.
Currently, the Navy has 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) in service, commonly known as “boomers,” which are designed to be difficult for the enemy to detect. In addition, the Navy’s attack submarines (SSNs) are divided into three classes: Los Angeles, Seawolf, and Virginia, with the Virginia-class boats being the newest and most technologically advanced, intended to replace the aging Los Angeles class.
For the FY2024 budget, the Navy plans to procure the 39th and 40th Virginia-class submarines, with an estimated combined total cost of just over $9.4 billion, as reported by the Congressional Research Service. However, the Newsweek article raises a significant concern that the Navy has been reluctant to address directly. According to an unnamed retired Navy captain interviewed by the author, over the anticipated 30-year life cycle of the submarines, their time on deployment would only amount to approximately 90 months, or 25% of the time.
Further analysis conducted by the researchers revealed that out of the 50 attack submarines currently on active duty, only 32 of them actually deployed in 2022. By comparing the theoretical total time the submarines could have spent at sea against the time they actually spent in transit and at their duty stations, the researchers estimated that the final rate of effective use was approximately 20%.
Given the Pentagon’s identification of Russia and China as the two major adversaries where the submarine fleet would likely be needed in case of hostilities, the question arises whether the Navy’s expenditures on submarines, which constitute only 4.6% of its massive $202 billion budget, are being utilized efficiently. While there is no doubt about the growing military capabilities of countries like China and Russia, concerns have been raised about the cost-effectiveness and operational efficiency of the Navy’s submarine fleet, considering their limited deployment time and the evolving security challenges in the modern era.