All of us remember that children’s game called follow the leader. Someone played the role as leader and of course everyone else had to follow their lead. During the Cold War the Soviets played this game and played it fairly well. The submarines they developed always seemed to be strikingly familiar with the boats we were putting to sea. Based on the number of high visibility incidents they had, its debatable whether or not their quality was quite to our standards but that has always been a hallmark of American shipbuilding.
I remember the end of the Cold War and had a strange feeling about the desire of some of the nation’s leaders to disarm us. Frankly I think the “surplus” that keeps getting credited to Bill Clinton was significantly enhanced by the drawdown and slowdown on ship building and development (not to mention the other savings in defense spending).
In the past few years however, China is starting to emerge as the new dragon on the horizon. While they may be far away from gaining parity in the traditional sense, they are well aware of our reliance on technology in both weapons systems as well as general sea command. The capability of our ships and submarines are the results of years of learning and continuous improvement. But the ability to respond and respond quickly will be limited as the numbers of subs and ships continues to shrink.
When America has faced threats in the past, the enemy was always separated by oceans and technological limitations of that particular age. Those of us who were Cold Warriors saw firsthand though that a dedicated foe could threaten the homeland even with technologies that were not as capable as ours.
The oceans that used to protect us now offer a greater threat than ever before. A ballistic missile submarine within range of our major population centers brings with it a threat that there is little defense for. Is it any wonder that that capability is high on the list of the Chinese military?
Even our mighty carrier fleet would be subject to the new type of weaponry that the Chinese are creating. If they were able to flood the immediate combat area with ship killing missiles, how capable are our defenses? How long would a traditional battle group be able to survive in an atmosphere where EMP and other forces which we may not even know about become the dominating force?
No, the modern nuclear submarine will be the most sustainable weapon of defense in the foreseeable future. The ocean still makes up 75 % of the earth’s surface and our ability to protect shipping in all sea lanes still represents our status as a world power. Four generations of my family have served to preserve that status and hopefully many generations to come.
The economic situation we find ourselves in is a problem but being subservient to any world power will be much more problematic. Continued investment in submarines and the technology they represent is vital to our future. In the end, they may be the last line of defense that allows us to freely fly the American flag anywhere, anytime and any way we choose. Other wise, we will be doing nothing more someday than Following the Leader.