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Pentagon Set to Do More Talking About Its 'Silent Service'

Submarine fleet has been cut severely. But the military says it needs more subs for a growing threat from Third World nations.

September 21, 2000|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — For a military organization long called the "silent service," the Navy's submarine fleet lately has become the object of a good deal of public discussion and debate--with more to come.

Where submariners once thought that remaining unseen and unheard provided their best chance for survival, they now have decided it's time for the public to know what they have done and what it is that they need for the future.

The end of the Cold War prompted a reduction in myriad U.S. weapon systems and programs, but nowhere were the cuts more severe than in the size of the submarine fleet.

The fast-attack submarine's reputation as a "platform" designed specifically to chase and snoop on the Soviet navy made it a prime candidate for cost-cutting when the Soviet Union imploded.

From a high of 98 fast-attack submarines in 1987, the fleet--split between bases in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; San Diego; Norfolk, Va.; and Groton, Conn.--has been reduced to 55.

Pentagon Sees New Threat

The Pentagon largely accepted previous reductions without protest. But now it's warning that the Navy needs more submarines to counter a growing threat from Third World nations that are buying and building subs and acquiring sensors, satellites and missile systems that could make U.S. surface- and land-based forces vulnerable.

A report forwarded to Congress by the Pentagon asserts that the Navy will need 68 fast-attack submarines by 2015 and 76 by 2025 to help gather intelligence--and, if needed, to fight wars using mines, torpedoes and Tomahawk missiles.

One of the hottest defense topics that the new administration will confront will be submarines: How many are needed, what kind and for what type of missions?

For all of their Hollywood glamour--there have been about 30 big submarine-themed movies since 1930--subs can be a tough sell in Congress.

At $2 billion per copy, a submarine is second only to an aircraft carrier in expense. Building a sub takes about six years--during which time national security needs and spending priorities can change significantly.

And then there is the problem of secrecy.

Much of what U.S. submarines accomplished during the Cold War is classified. The same is true of what they are doing today in tracking the remaining Russian submarines and gathering intelligence around the globe.

The press and public in San Diego routinely are invited by the Navy to watch surface ships depart or return from six-month deployments. The subs at Point Loma slip away without notice.

While secrecy may be prudent in the intelligence-gathering game, it makes it difficult to broaden the public demand for multibillion-dollar acquisitions.

"I don't blame the [Clinton] administration, I blame us [the Navy]," Rear Adm. Albert Konetzni, commander of submarines for the Pacific Fleet, told a congressional hearing in June. "I don't think we educated the American people well enough as to what we needed."

To change that, the Navy has begun inviting reporters to spend time at sea aboard submarines, both fast-attack and the nuclear missile-carrying Tridents.

The Navy also is midway through a yearlong centennial celebration of the U.S. submarine fleet--with exhibitions stretching from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington to the San Diego Maritime Museum.

After a decade of retreats, the submarine fleet scored a victory late last year when Defense Secretary William S. Cohen scrapped a plan to reduce the number of attack submarines to 50 by 2003.

To keep the fleet at 55, Cohen has suggested either extending the life of some fast-attack subs by refueling their nuclear reactors or by converting some ballistic submarines to attack models.

Of the fleet's 18 ballistic-missile submarines--based in Bangor, Wash.; and Kings Bay, Ga.--four must be removed from service by 2004 under 1993's START II, or Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

Another possibility would be increasing production of the Virginia class submarines now being built to replace the aging Los Angeles class subs. The Virginia class became the "sub of the future" after the Seawolf class proved too expensive for post-Cold War budgets, and production was curtailed from 30 to just three.

Although the Navy has "retired" 43 submarines in a decade, none is available to be returned to service. Alone among ships, retired submarines are immediately dismantled and cut up for scrap.

The Navy's request to beef up its fleet has run into stiff opposition from military watchdog groups, which claim that the quality of intelligence the subs can gather has been overstated.

An analysis by the Center for Defense Information--a Washington, D.C.-based group founded and led by retired senior military officers--concludes that the Navy's request for upgrading its submarine fleet "is like saying you need a high-performance sports car for deliveries so that the pizza doesn't get cold."

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