Maybe It’s Time for Tiny Submarines?

David Axe

The U.S. Navy already is beginning to plan for its next class of attack submarine, a high-tech -- and potentially very expensive -- new vessel to succeed the Virginia-class boats that the sailing branch currently is buying.

The new SSN(X), which could begin production in the early 2030s, should be something radically new and not a mere upgrade of an existing submarine, James Holmes argued.

Holmes, a frequent contributor to The National Interest, is a professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island. He argued that the submarine the Navy might need in the 2030s and beyond won’t necessarily look like the submarine the fleet needs in 2019.

The new boat perhaps should be smaller. It maybe should work closely with unmanned vessels. It might not even need to be nuclear-powered. For the Navy, buying a diesel-electric submarine rather that a nuclear vessel would shatter decades of tradition and open up new strategies and tactics.

“Sea power is undergoing a phase change with the inception of ultra-long-range precision weaponry, unmanned aerial, surface and subsurface vehicles of many types, land forces able to strike out to sea and on and on,” Holmes wrote. “Submarine warfare is not exempt from this incipient revolution.”

Today the Navy possesses 65 submarines. All of them are nuclear-powered. They include 14 Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines, or "boomers," which the Navy expects to begin replacing with the 12 new Columbia-class boomers starting in 2021.

There also are four old Ohios that the Navy converted into cruise-missile carriers during the early 2000s, and which the sailing branch plans to replace with a new “large payload submarine” beginning in the 2030s.

The balance of today's submarines include 35 1980s-vintage Los Angeles-class attack submarines, three attack boats of the 1990s Seawolf class and 13 newer Virginia-class attack boats. As of 2017, the Navy planned to upgrade the Virginia design and continue buying vessels of that class though the late 2040s, at least.

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