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Sea Trials at sunset in the Atlantic ocean of a new Virginia class submarine

The Virginia-class attack submarine Pre-Commissioning Unit Mississippi (SSN 782) conducts alpha trials in the Atlantic Ocean. (U.S. Navy photo)

Here’s Why the US Navy Needs More Virginia-Class Submarines Now

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June 1, 2024

by Admiral James Stavridis (Bloomberg Opinion) My first job after graduating from the US Naval Academy in the late 1970s was as the anti-submarine warfare officer on a new Spruance class destroyer. The ship was bristling with equipment to hunt and kill submarines, including an advanced sonar suite to locate the thousands of tons of steel in the hull of a sub. 

But here is the truth: A destroyer on the surface is essentially little more than a target for a cutting-edge nuclear-powered attack submarine. Without a great deal of help from carrier-based anti-submarine aircraft or land-based maritime patrol planes like the P-3 Orion, destroyers are going to lose a fight with a sub.

Which is why a powerful and numerous force of the Navy’s new Virginia class attack submarines, the apex predator of the oceans, is crucial for US national security.

China’s Military Budget

Beijing’s defense spending as a percentage of GDP has been rising since 2020

So we should be alarmed that the Navy, in order to comply with congressional budget caps, says it will fund the purchase of only one Virginia class submarine in its 2025 budget, as opposed to the usual two per year. The Navy is requesting over $7 billion for subs, but it will buy only one boat, for around $3.7 billion, and lay out the remainder on advanced procurement of parts for a second.

This decision resulted in a very contentious hearing at the House Armed Services committee, in which several representatives took Navy leadership to task. One was Representative Joe Courtney, a Democrat from Connecticut, home to the Virginia class’s contractor, General Dynamics Electric Boat. He warned that the advanced procurement mechanism would create uncertainty for the defense industrial base in terms of supply chains and workforces.

Related Book: Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans by Admiral James Stavridis

Deciding how many attack subs to build is just part of a larger problem facing the Navy. In a recent article, retired Captain Jerry Hendrix (a good friend) lays out a challenging case for the service’s leaders. He points to the atrophying of the domestic shipyards and drydocks needed to maintain even the Navy’s relatively small force of around 70 nuclear subs. At the height of the Cold War, the US had 140 nuclear boats. (In the US Navy, submariners affectionately refer to their submarines as “boats,” while large surface vessels are always called “ships.”)

According to Hendrix, at least 16 of the current hunter-killer subs, nearly a third of the force, are undergoing extended maintenance or dry docking. This is going to be further strained by the planned AUKUS program, which will provide nuclear attack boats to Australia in a deal with the US and UK.

The already tight chokepoints of both construction and maintenance are going to constrict further just as Chinese production increases. Beijing is building many more ships annually than the US: Its front-line combatants outnumber the US Navy by roughly 350 to 290.

How serious is the threat of war? The chances of an overt conflict at sea in the next three to five years are low — Chinese President Xi Jinping is cautious and knows his force is not fully capable of taking on the US and its regional allies. But over the longer term, we should worry about war at sea with China — likely beginning in the South China Sea and fought along the so-called “first island chain,” running north-south from Japan to the Philippines to Indonesia to the Malay Peninsula. If the Chinese Navy were to breach that line of islands, US forces would be pressured eastward toward Guam or north to bases in Japan. Attack subs, which can hunt enemy subs as well as surface ships, could be decisive.

Territorial Claims Overlap in South China Sea

It took decades to dig the hole in which the Navy finds itself, and it will take time and resources to get out of it. The keys will be finding the money for an absolute minimum of two — and better yet three — nuclear attack boats annually; adding at least three large and two smaller dry docks to the Navy’s infrastructure; and consideration of adding additional shipyard capacity, perhaps by bringing back facilities at Mare Island north of San Francisco or building a new yard altogether.

War is unpredictable, but one thing is certain: To win — or even better, to deter China before the shooting starts — the US needs a robust submarine force and the shipyards to keep it in the fight. I’m an old destroyer admiral, so my heart wants me to think we can handle Beijing’s fleet with our surface ships. But my head tells me that more and better-maintained submarines will be the linchpin of a maritime war with China.

Related Book: Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans by Admiral James Stavridis

Admiral James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A retired U.S. Navy admiral, former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, he is vice chairman of global affairs at the Carlyle Group. He is the author most recently of “2054: A Novel ” @stavridisj 

© 2024 Bloomberg L.P.

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