A Navy proposal to speed up the purchase of three Virginia-class attack submarines is a welcome step but would make only a modest dent in the military’s shortfall of those vessels, according to the head of U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM).

“They would clearly increase our nation’s capability and, if assigned to PACOM, PACOM’s capability,” said Navy Adm. Harry Harris, PACOM’s commander. “But three or four are inadequate in the grand scheme based simply on my requirements, which have to be adjudicated with the requirements of all the other combatant commands, who have legitimate needs for submarines in their regions as well.”

USS Washington (SSN 787), a Virginia-class submarine, completing initial sea trials. Photo: Ashley Major/Huntington Ingalls Industries.
USS Washington (SSN 787), a Virginia-class submarine, completing initial sea trials. Photo: Ashley Major/Huntington Ingalls Industries.

Harris made his comments before the Senate Armed Services Committee April 27 in response to a question from Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who has called the Navy proposal “hugely important” to national security and a potential economic boost to his state, which is home to submarine builder General Dynamics [GD] Electric Boat. The admiral’s remarks came a day after he told the House Armed Services Committee that he can meet only half of his attack submarine requirements due to a shortage of those vessels.

The Navy proposal, or “accelerated fleet plan,” which Acting Navy Secretary Sean Stackley sent to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in February, would buy 88 ships from fiscal year 2017 to FY 2023, 29 more than currently planned. The increase includes the three Virginia-class submarines, as well as several other ship types, such as Arleigh Burke-class DDG-51 destroyers. The plan would also procure 998 aircraft, 342 more than planned, with the Boeing [BA] F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35B and F-35C Lightning II accounting for most of the increase.

The 15-page proposal says it would “relieve some of the current pressure on the fleet, enhance the credibility of naval forces seeking to deter potential aggression, and create opportunities to drive down costs.”

Harris expressed support for the Navy’s longer-term, 2016 force structure assessment, which calls for expanding the total fleet to 355 ships, up from 275 today. The assessment calls for 66 attack submarines, 18 more than the previous version of the study (Defense Daily, Dec. 16, 2016). The Congressional Budget Office wrote in a recent report that it would take the Navy at least 18 years to achieve a 355-ship fleet (Defense Daily, April 25, 2017).

Harris testified that the United States “reigns supreme in the undersea realm and in anti-submarine warfare” today, but he cautioned that China and Russia are modernizing their forces to close the gap.

“They understand that the gap exists, and they’re working to reduce our asymmetric advantage,” Harris told the Senate panel. “I think that we have to continue to keep that advantage. I don’t want it to be a fair fight if we have to go into a fight with these folks. That means that we have to continue to resource the development and the continued development of our undersea capability and our anti-submarine capabilities.”