There is nothing as predictable in Washington as the political firestorm that surrounds any proposed military base closing. Immediately following the announcement of the Department of Defense’s 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment plan, known as the BRAC, politicians from both parties raced to attack the Pentagon blueprint, especially if a base in their district was on the chopping block. For the most part, base closings are a necessary aspect of trimming the defense bureaucracy and providing for a more effective military infrastructure. As President Bush pointed out in a speech last week to graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy, the Pentagon stands to save an estimated 48 billion dollars over the next 20 years, money more wisely spent on equipment and servicemen. However, the tiresome bluster that purveys any discussion over base closings should not prevent observers from pointing out some of the BRAC’s more damaging recommendations.
Chief among the harmful BRAC advisories is the suggested closure of New London Naval Base in Connecticut. New London is often referred to as "the Submarine Capital of the World," a title it clearly deserves. Home to over 20 nuclear submarines of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, New London is the historic main base for the U.S. Navy’s submarine fleet, hosting the silent service since 1915. It is also the center for submarine related training for both officers and enlisted men, having housed the Naval Submarine School from its inception in 1916. New London has benefited by its proximity to the General Dynamics Electric Boat Company, the world’s premiere submarine construction shipyard. This closeness allows for a valuable synthesis between commercial concerns and the needs of the submarine community. New London also serves as a strategically important geographical station, allowing American submarines to rapidly deploy to the Pacific Ocean via the polar ice cap. All of these numerous advantages would go by the proverbial wayside were the BRAC recommendations concerning New London Naval Base carried out.
Another negative aspect stemming from a New London base closure is the increased danger faced by the submarine fleet from a terrorist attack. If New London is indeed shut down, the United States will possess only two submarine capable bases on the East Coast in which to house over 40 nuclear submarines. Therefore, if one of those bases suffered a major terrorist attack, a hypothetical enemy could conceivably destroy up to 20% of the entire US Navy submarine fleet. Such reasoning is hardly fanciful or alarmist, as the U.S. government has recently war gamed that very scenario. In April 2005, TOPOFF 3, the largest homeland security drill ever conceived, centered around a hypothetical massive chemical weapons assault on New London Naval Base. The strategic value of such an assault, especially if a base like New London is eventually closed and its large sub fleet based elsewhere, could prove irresistible to an unconventional enemy determined to cripple the U.S. Navy.
The closure of New London submarine base is only one aspect of the troubling large scale drawdown of the U.S. submarine force, one that our political leaders have done little to stop. The submarine fleet is a frequent Washington whipping boy, forced to give up more and more of its funding to pay for other Pentagon projects. These funding cuts have begun to seriously limit the future viability of the overall nuclear submarine program, with current expenditures only allowing for the construction of one boat per year. This paltry allowance would serve to cut the total force from the current 54 boat flotilla to a ridiculously insufficient 28 boats over the next two decades. In addition, the production limitation would call into question the current practice of utilizing two shipyards, Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut and Northrop-Grumman Newport News, Virginia, in the construction of nuclear submarines. One of these vital shipyards would probably be forced to close down, leading to a disastrous loss of highly skilled workers and engineers. The dispersal of this invaluable workforce would be irrevocable, forever damaging our ability to ramp up production in response to a future crisis.
The shutdown of the New London submarine base would be of limited concern were it to occur in a world that faced no significant submarine threat from a potentially hostile nation. Unfortunately, such a world does not exist. As the US submarine fleet suffers from cutbacks and harmful base closures, China’s People’s Liberation Army-Navy’s (PLAN) submarine fleet is growing at a historic rate. The speed and breadth of this buildup has surprised even seasoned experts, who had expected a much more modest escalation in construction and procurement. At the forefront of this effort has been the recent purchase of eight Kilo class submarines from Russia. The Kilo’s, representing the most modern incarnation of the extremely quiet diesel design, will bring the PLAN’s total Kilo fleet to 12. In addition, the Chinese are developing their own advanced diesel submarines, dubbed the Song class. The Song, an exceedingly stealthy submarine, is being constructed around a revolutionary propulsion system known as the AIP, or Air Independent Propulsion, which gives it significant advantages over other similar models. The Chinese hope to deploy ten Song class boats by 2010.
The development of Chinese submarines is not limited to diesel technology. The PLAN has been rapidly constructing a new line of nuclear submarines, some of which can launch ballistic missiles against the continental United States. Such a platform is the Type 094 submarine, which is scheduled to become operational this year. The Type 094 has been designed to emulate the small acoustic signature of the most modern Russian Typhoon designs, able to infiltrate foreign waters quietly and launch nuclear tipped missiles. The PLAN has also begun to deploy a nuclear attack submarine, the Type 093, which has been compared to the US Los Angeles class submarine in terms of overall performance. All of these new submarine designs are being armed with the latest in Russian naval weaponry, such as the Type 65/DT/DST 92 torpedo, which was specifically developed to destroy American aircraft carriers. An even more disturbing development is the Chinese possession of the Shkval super-cavitating torpedo, which are three to four times faster than any torpedo fielded by Western naval forces. The PLAN’s expanded submarine fleet will also wield highly advanced anti-ship missiles which could challenge and even defeat the U.S. Navy’s famed AEGIS defense system
The Chinese are hardly tight lipped about their new emphasis on submarine construction and development. Chinese naval journals have featured numerous articles from respected analysts and high ranking officers, all advancing the idea that the submarine should be the primary weapon against the U.S. Navy. In an article provocatively titled, “Aircraft Carriers: Suggest You Keep Out of the Taiwan Strait,” published in the official PLA Military Digest journal in 2001, analyst Wang Jiasuo extolled the virtues of an large submarine fleet which could destroy American aircraft carriers deployed around Taiwan. In an additional article, three high ranking PLAN argued that a future Chinese blue water navy should be based on submarines because of their “covertness and power.” Another PLAN analyst, writing in a PLA journal in 1999, advanced a strategy of numerical submarine parity with the United States, a blueprint that the PLAN has apparently embraced considering their rapid acquisition and production program of late. Subtlety is obviously not a valued characteristic among PLAN strategists and officers. We should heed these warnings very seriously, as they point to a highly developed Chinese stratagem which seeks to counter large American naval forces with advanced submarine capabilities.
The rationale for a massive destabilization of the U.S. submarine battle fleet in the face of a major Chinese buildup is dubious to say the least. At the same time, Chinese intentions for their own submarine fleet are frighteningly apparent. As the U.S.- China Economic and Security Review Commission suggested in their 2004 report to Congress, “China's quantitative and qualitative military advancements have resulted in a dramatic shift in the cross-Strait military balance toward China, with serious implications for Taiwan, for the United States, and for cross-Strait relations.” This precipitous shift in the regional military balance has been greatly accentuated by the massive Chinese investment in submarine technology. It would be a drastic error for American politicians to undermine the one force that can best counter a Chinese naval attack in the Taiwanese Straits. Our leaders should be reminded of the age old naval axiom “the best way to sink a submarine is with another submarine.”
Limiting deployment flexibility and damaging the relationship between the submarine fleet and boat developers are just some of the negative aspects that will result from the shutdown of New London Naval Base. At the same time, new basing strategies resulting from the closure of New London put the American submarine fleet at a heightened risk from a catastrophic Pearl Harbor style attack. Our nations military and political leadership should see through the veneer of BRAC based political rhetoric and understand that the battle for New London is not a fight over government largesse, but one over the future of our nation’s security.