The Patriot Post® · How a Sub Shortage Happened

By Harold Hutchison ·

In the past, The Patriot Post team has noted how the Navy is in desperate need of hulls in the water. While the mismanagement of our carrier force has been in the headlines, it was not the only part of the Navy to take a hit — and now, that fact is becoming apparent.

According to a report by, the commander of United States Indo-Pacific Command has reported he is only able to meet roughly half of his day-to-day operational requirements. This is a big deal, since the People’s Liberation Army Navy can throw as many as 70 submarines out there.

Now, while there is, at present, a decent capability gap in America’s favor (China has very few nuclear attack submarines), and one that long-term economic trends will make difficult for China to close (thank you, Marcus Island motherlode), this is not a good situation. But it was one that was a long time in the making, and politicians in both parties are to blame.

When the Berlin Wall fell, the United States sought a “peace dividend.” Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton both slashed a lot of ships. Many submarines were also cut, including a number of reasonably modern Los Angeles-class vessels. In fact, some of the decommissioned Los Angeles-class vessels were simply retired when they were due to have their reactors re-fueled.

As a result, of 62 nuclear attack subs — most of which could still be in service today — nearly half have been retired and are in various stages of scrapping. Right now, Admiral Philip S. Davidson could have used some of those subs. But it gets even worse.

In the latter stages of the Cold War, the United States had developed the Seawolf-class submarine. This was a performance beast, and according to the 13th Edition of the Naval Institute Guide to the Ships and Aircraft of the United States Navy, the fleet was due to get 30 of these vessels. These were to replace 50 older vessels of the Sturgeon and Permit classes.

Well, they only got three, and the third, USS Jimmy Carter (SSN 23) survived a mid-1990s cancellation effort led by John McCain (one of many weapons programs he targeted). Then there was the promise of a new nuclear attack submarine, which became the Virginia class.

The problem was, the retirements kept coming. Today, the Navy has 17 Virginia-class subs, the three Seawolf-class ships, and 34 Los Angeles-class vessels. That number for the Los Angeles-class ships is misleading, since the Navy doesn’t actually decommission nuclear-powered vessels until they are completely de-fueled.

Admiral Davidson, though, says he wants 30 subs working in the Pacific. Giving him that leaves precious little to help contest Russian ambitions in the Arctic or to handle other requirements in the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and elsewhere.

As of now, the Navy is building two Virginia-class subs a year. That is a ridiculously low number. The good news is that it only takes five and a half years to build a new Virginia-class sub. So, if President Donald Trump could triple the number of Virginia-class subs being ordered over the next six years, it would give the Navy an extra two dozen subs by the end of the 2020s — enough to avoid a catastrophic shortage.

In addition, the Navy could also commit to keeping some of the older subs in service longer. There are 30 Los Angeles-class attack subs with the vertical-launch tubes to fire Tomahawk cruise missiles. These could be given a second refueling to also hold the line.

America’s nuclear attack submarines are marvels of technology. But there is one thing they can’t do — be in two places at once. Still, the United States has time to put some real pressure on Russia and China by a massive submarine building and overhaul program. The money spent on that could prevent a war.