The U.S. submarine fleet is in a dire state. The U.S. doesn’t have the domestic infrastructure to repair and sustain its existing subs, much less expand the fleet. America needs to get creative to sustain its undersea advantage. The Navy should procure conventionally powered submarines from U.S. allies, namely Japan and South Korea. The moment is ripe, given the leadership of Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, and a potential breakthrough in Japan-South Korea relations.
The U.S. faces a parlous Indo-Pacific position amid a shifting situation in the Taiwan Strait. A decade ago, the People’s Liberation Army was growing larger and more sophisticated but remained incapable of taking Taiwan. Today China has three aircraft carriers—two made domestically, one imported—and is building a fourth, its first true supercarrier. The PLA has a surface force larger than the U.S. Navy’s battle force—that is, the total number of combat ships in the U.S. Navy. It has eight guided-missile cruisers and dozens of destroyers and frigate warships—and its many shipyards aren’t idle. The PLA’s missiles generally out-range American ones even if its sensors are less sophisticated.
Asking if China is “ready” to take Taiwan misses the mark. China no longer lacks any crucial capabilities. China could invade Taiwan tomorrow and win, although its odds of success are between 30% and 40% if the U.S. resists. If the U.S. doesn’t join the fight, Chinese victory would be nearly certain. A below-half probability of victory should counsel caution in Beijing. But these odds are far greater than they were 10 or even five years ago. Rather than whether China is ready for a war, the correct question is: What circumstances might prompt China to wage a war, rather than expand its capabilities?
In the Sino-American military balance, America’s greatest advantage is its submarine fleet. Our 50 nuclear-powered attack submarines are heavily armed with torpedoes and missiles and soon will deploy unmanned underwater vehicles and more-advanced loitering munitions, a flying drone with a warhead that can wait some time before engaging a target. Our four nuclear-powered guided-missile submarines carry 154 cruise missiles each. Critically, China’s greatest weakness is undersea warfare. The PLA is building a fleet of antisubmarine surface-combatant vessels and procuring more maritime patrol aircraft.
China is expanding and improving a seabed sensor network to detect submarines within the First Island Chain. Significant gaps, however, will remain for at least another decade. This explains why the U.S. assumes that American attack submarines will play the greatest offensive role in an Indo-Pacific War, since they could stealthily disrupt a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and destroy the warships and ground-based targets critical to China’s reconnaissance-strike network. That would let heavy but vulnerable U.S. supercarriers and strategic bombers strike targets and avoid a Chinese counterattack.
The U.S. Navy’s submarine fleet, however, is in lamentable shape. Of the total U.S. fleet, about 40% of vessels are in maintenance and repair facilities at any given time. This puts the fleet at roughly 30 deployable boats at best, rather than the 40 to 45 expected at operating level. In addition, the Navy is retiring two submarines a year on average, but building only three every two years, leading to a net annual decline. U.S. production looks unable to reverse this. The issue isn’t yards—although another short-term maintenance yard would ease the stress on larger facilities—but parts. Submarines are extraordinarily complex, requiring components in a lengthy supply chain. It takes years to procure the specific undersea sensors, fire-control systems and other crucial internal parts for each boat.
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Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute.