China, Russia, and Iran pose regional and strategic submarine threats and are building up undersea warfare capabilities as the Navy is cutting its submarine force by 30 percent, the admiral in charge of Pentagon submarine programs told Congress on Thursday.
Rear Adm. Richard Breckenridge, director of Navy undersea warfare programs, said the decline of U.S. submarines is placing a key U.S. military advantage at risk.
"Our adversaries are not standing still, and so even though we have an advantage and we have a lead, we can't sit on our lead," Breckenridge told a hearing of the House Armed Services seapower subcommittee.
"We have to continue to move or we do have the potential within 20 years of losing this crown jewel, this advantage that we have in the undersea domain," he said.
Breckenridge then outlined advances in the submarine warfare programs of China, Russia, and Iran.
China’s submarine warfare power is advancing in both numbers of submarines and growing sophistication and missile capability.
Beijing’s submarines currently are "predominantly a maritime, regional undersea force," he said.
"They predominantly use their undersea forces to threaten the presence of our surface ships, to be able to shoulder off the positive, stabilizing influence of our naval forces in an anti-surface warfare dimension," Breckenridge said.
However, he warned that China’s submarine programs are "growing towards more of a global strategic undersea force."
China’s new Jin-class missile submarines are equipped with JL-2 missiles that "will put them into the stage of using the undersea for more than just maritime regional control," he said.
China’s navy is also building conventionally armed, guided-missile submarines, he said.
"I think that the capability, the quality of their submarines will improve as we march forward a couple of decades," Breckenridge said. "But right now, there is a capacity challenge that's unique to what the Chinese navy has."
Defense officials revealed to the Free Beacon in July that the first sea patrols of China’s new strategic missile submarines will begin next year, the first time Beijing will send strategic missile submarines far from its shores.
Currently, China has three Jin-class submarines each equipped with 12 JL-2 missiles. China calls the Jin-class the Type-094.
The National Air and Space Intelligence Center reported in July that the JL-2 will give China for the first time the capability to target portions of the United States from locations near China’s coasts.
After deploying at least five Jin-class subs, China currently is working on a more modern version missile submarine called the Type-096.
The Pentagon’s annual report to Congress said China has placed a high priority on building up its submarine force and currently has more than 55 submarines, including two new Shang-class attack submarines and four improved variants of that sub. It is building a new Type-095 guided missile attack submarine in the next decade, the report said.
The Chinese also have 12 Russian-made Kilo-class submarines, some armed with SS-N-27 anti-ship cruise missiles, 13 Song-class and eight Yuan-class attack submarines. Up to 20 Yuan-class subs will be deployed in the future.
Breckenridge said Russia is building two new classes of advanced submarines called the Borei-class nuclear missile submarine and a conventional, guided-missile class called Severodvinsk. He said the Russian submarine program is at the "global strategic level of power."
"It is more than just a region," he said. "It is the ability to control the seas, it is the ability to do land attack from covert positions. It has a much larger utility than just a maritime sea-control, sea-denial perspective alone, and the Russians have always maintained a very capable submarine force."
While the U.S. Navy currently has the advantage over Russia in submarine warfare capabilities, "they are a close second with regard to their capability and with regard to their shipbuilding industry and the capabilities they're putting into their new classes of submarines," he said.
Three Borei-class submarines are now deployed and at least five more could be built, he said.
"There's been talk of a higher number of SSBNs [strategic missile submarines] within their force," Breckenridge added. "But that machine is running. Those very good quality ballistic missile submarines are being produced in Russia."
The Severodvinsk class of guided missile submarines will have an "eight-pack" of missile tubes, twice the number on U.S. Virginia-class attack submarines.
"So they see the importance of the concealment of the undersea to bring potency with that, that can be threatening at a strategic level," Breckenridge said. "And again, we are mindful of that and we are prepared to be able to counter that."
Tehran’s submarine force of three Russian Kilo-class submarines, one indigenous Nahang-class submarine and an estimated 12 Ghadir-class midget submarines, poses a regional threat.
"If you look at Iran, they, like many other countries, use the undersea domain from a purely maritime, sea-denial local region type of influence, much like we did in World War II in the Pacific," Breckenridge said, "to hold at risk predominantly surface warships."
"It is a disruptive force, a challenging force and one that we deal with regard to our ability to project stabilizing influence around the globe," the admiral said.
Rick Fisher, a China military affairs analyst with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the "capacity" challenge mentioned by Breckenridge is real.
"The Chinese Navy may have up to 53 somewhat older to quite modern non-nuclear propelled attack submarines plus five more nuclear powered attack submarines for a total of 58," Fisher said, adding that the force could be much larger.
"A possible force of 92 Chinese submarines means that U.S. Navy today is facing a very formidable challenge that requires that U.S. submarine levels remain well above 50 ships in order to prevent rapid combat attrition," he said.
Breckenridge said the submarine programs of the three potential adversaries are advancing and "we have to be mindful of to make sure that we as a nation preserve this unique advantage that we have in the undersea domain."
By contrast, the U.S. submarine force will decline by 25 percent over the next 15 years as a result of a "gradual consequence of a long list of choices made over many years," he said.
The total number of submarines will drop from 75 to 52, a 30 percent decline, he said.
The missile-firing strike payload volume from submarines will decline by over 60 percent as the result of retiring guided-missile and attack submarines, he said.
The forward-deployed submarines around the world will decline by over 40 percent, despite building two Virginia-class attack submarines per year, he said.
To address the growing need for submarine power with the declining force, Breckenridge said the Navy has four priorities for its submarine strategy.
They include sustaining the sea-based nuclear deterrent with a new missile submarine to replace Ohio-class submarines. The follow-on has been delayed for 20 years and "it is now time to make the necessary investments to support procurement of the first Ohio replacement in 2021," Breckenridge said. "There is no allowance for any further delay."
To prevent the worsening decline in attack submarines, the Navy must continue the two-per-year pace of Virginia-class submarines, add a new more efficient missile launch payload module to Virginia submarine, and restart production of torpedoes.
Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Randy Forbes (R., Va.) said during the hearing that defense spending cuts are harming the Navy.
"It's apparent to me that the largest threat to the United States Navy is of our own making," Forbes said of the defense spending crisis.
"I continue to believe that the undersea warfare capabilities provided by our United States Navy provide a preeminent role in the control of the global commons," Forbes said. "These capabilities provide the United States with the key asymmetric advantage over any potential aggressor. Even in a time of declining resources, it's crucial that our nation continue to retain our strategic advantage in undersea warfare."