Return to SOS

Copied from the Saturday, May 13, 2000 on-line  San Antonio Express
Presented here for educational and informational purposes only

Debate centers on need for more attack subs

By Sig Christenson -- Express-News Staff Writer

The USS Houston had a high-risk Cold War task in the 1980s -- to shadow Soviet ballistic missile subs and, if need be, destroy them before they could rain nuclear destruction on America.

But today, ironically, the Houston may be vaporized by the nation she protects and serves, not by Russians.

Debate has swirled about how many subs are needed in the wake of the Soviet Union's demise. Meanwhile, a drive to save the Houston -- coupled with Pentagon concern over the growth of subs fielded by such fleets as China -- may have turned the tide, although its fate remains in doubt.

"I think the value of the attack submarine is becoming realized, and we're starting to say, look, we don't have the ships to do all these things that we took for granted," said the Houston's former skipper, Cmdr. Michael A. Zieser. "We're a small unit, but we carry a big punch."

President Clinton's $305 billion defense budget, to take effect Oct. 1, includes funding to refuel the Houston and six other Los Angeles-class subs, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jack Todd said. The budget was unveiled weeks after a Pentagon report warned against plans to cut the attack sub fleet to 50 boats by 2003.

A $200 million nuclear reactor refueling tentatively planned for 2003 would give the Houston another dozen years or so on patrol. But while Clinton's budget would fund the refuel -- and the U.S. Pacific Fleet's Rear Adm. Al Konetzni said he's been assured it will take place -- no official decision is likely until fall.

As debate continues, Navy advocates welcome the likelihood of Houston's survival and a rise in the number of attack boats in the coming years from 56 today to as many as 76 in 24 years -- 17 fewer than at the Cold War's peak.

The Cato Institute's Ivan Eland, a vocal critic of maintaining current levels, said he'd like to cut the attack sub fleet by half. He dismissed Navy warnings that reducing the number of boats to 50, as called for in the Pentagon's 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review, would jeopardize its ability to keep up with potential adversaries.

"I happen to think the real rationale is there is a federal surplus and they're interested in getting some of it," said Eland, who studies defense policy at the institute, a Libertarian think tank. "A dash for cash, as it were."

To be sure, more money is available. Clinton's budget is about $12 billion higher than this year's Pentagon blueprint, the first major rise in defense spending in more than a decade.

An expansion of the sub fleet would be an abrupt about-face from the defense review, the Pentagon's master plan for future needs. After a study of peacetime requirements, it called for a cut to 50 attack subs by 2003.

But the new study, a Joint Chiefs of Staff report made public in early January, recommended expanding the fleet. It said a force of fewer than 55 attack boats in 2015 and 62 in 2025 would leave the United States unable to respond to "urgent" crucial demands. The study also said the Pentagon could meet all its needs with 68 attack subs in 2015 and 76 in 2025.

Though the Pacific sub fleet has a 60 percent first-term re-enlistment rate -- more than twice the average of the Navy's 315 vessels -- longer stretches at sea have worn on sailors, especially those with families.

"My dad was TDY (on temporary duty) to Thailand -- he was in the Air Force -- and when he came back his younger brother didn't know who he was," said Ensign Dan Stauffer, 29, of Dallas.

By holding the line at 55 attack subs, the Navy could see sailors spending more time at home and less at sea, and the boats' lifetimes would be extended, said Konetzni, commander of the Pacific Submarine Fleet in Hawaii.

"It would be a national security tragedy to throw those ships away when the nation needs far greater in peacetime than 50," he said.

Konetzni is an outspoken advocate for saving the Houston and two other boats due for refueling in the next few years, the USS Jacksonville and USS Bremerton. He spearheaded a Web site, "S.O.S." -- Save Our Subs -- in hopes of rallying the public to "salvage" eight Los Angeles-class subs pegged for early retirement.

The high-profile public relations campaign surfaced as the Navy struggled to define the role of the Houston and boats like it after the Cold War, a time when the "peace dividend" waxed and defense funding waned.

A growth in the number and quality of submarines in the Pacific, Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf, however, has sparked alarm in some quarters

Earlier this year a San Antonio Express-News team spent 48 hours aboard the Houston. As the trip began, word spread of the 40-page Joint Chiefs report, prompting hope among the Houston's crew.

"You're going to either have to lower the amount of commitments we have already or you're going to have to give us more submarines," said Lt. j.g. Michael Coursey, 29, a Mustang (enlistee turned officer) living in Coronado, Calif. "There's no way to get around that."

The Pacific fleet's 26 nuclear submarines, Konetzni said, must face more than 260 fielded by a variety of nations, among them China, India, Indonesia, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan and Russia. Technology transfers will improve those vessels, he said, most of them diesels but some sporting technology that can let boats stay submerged for weeks, rather than days, long the norm for such subs.

A skeptical Eland branded the bulk of subs fielded by potential U.S. foes as substandard boats used for coastal defense. China, for example, has 71 subs, more than half noisy, 1960s-era Soviet-built Romeo-class vessels, he said, adding that its sole ballistic missile boat is so problem-plagued it's spent most of its time dockside. He said the Navy could do its job with just 25 attack boats worldwide, augmenting them with sub-hunting ships and planes.

But 25 attack subs would represent an isolationist United States that "doesn't go anywhere or do anything," the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Dan Goure said. He said a "qualitative change" is under way, with China, India and Iran acquiring modern diesel subs.

By simply sneaking into South Korea's port of Pusan, and surfacing at an opportune moment, one of North Korea's four, half-century-old Soviet Whiskey-class subs could wreak havoc, said Goure, the nonpartisan center's acting director for international security programs.

"Even they can be a threat," he said. "Think of them being a very large mine with people on board."