“We all need some more yellow submarines, yellow submarines,” famously sang The Beatles.
Alright, that is not how the song goes. But 2023 has arguably been the year of the submarine for the US Navy. The raft of new details the public learned about the trilateral security pact AUKUS in March is in turn bringing more public attention to the various issues plaguing both the US Navy’s submarine inventory and its shipyards’ woes.
In this reporter’s opinion, 2023 was the year that the Navy’s “silent service” began to seriously grapple with that moniker in the interest of both ensuring the fleet’s readiness as well as demonstrating to the public at large why its mission matters to the country, America’s allies and to AUKUS.
First, a step back. The title “silent service” stems largely from the need for submarines to be as quiet as possible when operating in the interest of stealth. But it has a double meaning: The submarine community is notoriously news shy. That’s not just the opinion of a reporter whose interview requests were scorned; the Navy itself acknowledges that fact.
Like it or not though, AUKUS has shoved this inherently quiet community into the national and international spotlight, and their struggles — be it on maintenance, production or otherwise — will now take on new scrutiny as those faults have the potential to publicly ripple across the world’s oceans and directly impact underwater allies.
The best example of a slightly-less-silent service at work is the $3.4 billion in supplemental funding the president submitted to Congress in October. Top submarine leadership subsequently went to Capitol Hill and publicly testified about why that money is needed to shore up the service’s shipyard infrastructure, which has been historically overburdened and backlogged by in-service submarine maintenance.
The Navy officials also expressed to lawmakers, and the American public, the exponential increase in workload that AUKUS will bring and why the industrial base must be strengthened. Due to the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, the Navy was already struggling to meet its prior goal of building one Columbia-class and two Virginia-class submarines annually. With AUKUS in motion, there will be additional work to do to help allies as well as added pressure to not let the Virginia class fall behind, given that three, or potentially five, will leave American hands in the 2030s.
While testifying on Capitol Hill may be a mandatory event for the Navy’s leadership given the cash they’d receive from the supplemental, there are other clues that the silent service reckoned with its name.
Matt Sermon, a senior Navy civilian overseeing submarine production, recently told reporters the Navy had spent more than $200 million contracting with BlueForge Alliance, a Texas-based non-profit company that is assisting the Pentagon with reaching out to the American public in an effort to cultivate a larger industrial base workforce.
Another example of that kind of public outreach is the website, buildsubmarines.com.
“The Navy is on a once-in-a-generation journey to completely transform its nuclear-powered submarine fleet and maintain its critical undersea advantage,” the website states. “However, this military mandate will require the addition of more than 100,000 skilled workers with the training and commitment to ensure success. And there’s not a moment to spare.”
In May, not long after the formal AUKUS rollout in San Diego, Breaking Defense’s Robbin Laird spoke to Rear Adm. Jeffrey Jablon, who at the time was one of the service’s most senior operational submariners. Jablon himself had been rethinking the moniker and whether it was serving the Navy’s — and the country’s — best interests.
“I would no longer characterize ourselves as a silent service,” said Jablon. “Deterrence is a major mission for the submarine force. You can’t have a credible deterrent without communicating your capabilities; if the adversary doesn’t know anything about that specific deterrent, it’s not a deterrent.”
Jablon was clearly not the only one who felt that way because in early November, the Pentagon publicly announced the arrival of a guided-missile submarine in the Middle East. The revelation made headlines, even at major TV news networks.
Operational submarine locations are highly classified, and the Defense Department does not point them out to the public arbitrarily. Vice Adm. Bill Houston, the Navy’s top operational submariner, told reporters in the weeks that follow that, indeed, the silent service was intentionally making some noise.
“Part of the messaging is, as submariners, we operate everywhere that we’re allowed to operate across the globe,” he said, comparing it to another event in July when an American boat surfaced at a South Korean port, a first in decades.
And, in the spirit of what Jablon said about letting the adversary know about the deterrent, Houston continued by warning that although other boats may not be announced, they are certainly still out there.
“And just like I wouldn’t answer [a previous] question [about] where my submarines that I haven’t reported are — nobody will know where my submarines that I haven’t reported are, because that’s our asymmetric advantage,” he continued.
This article was published on December 22, 2023 by Breaking Defense.