WASHINGTON: As nations like China build up their anti-access/area denial defenses to keep the US out, “the submarine force is the key that unlocks that A2/AD bubble,” Rear Adm. Joseph Tofalo once said. “We’re the folks that are expected to get in underneath.”
As the two-star director of Undersea Warfare on the Navy’s Pentagon staff (directorate N97), Tofalo has been the leading advocate for the future of the submarine force in annual budget battles. When he pins on his third star and becomes Commander of Naval Submarine Forces and of Submarine Force Atlantic, he’ll become the chief champion in the day-to-day battle to keep sub forces functioning.
In contrast to the stereotype of the quiet, stoic submariner, Tofalo has the sharp elbows and sharp tongue required to fight for resources. At the same October 2014 conference where he made the “get in underneath” comment, Tofalo urged a room full of contractors and retired officers to start “calling your own congressman” in support of submarine programs.
“Get that word out, and I am committed to help you do that. If anybody needs help in strategic messaging, then you call 1-800-N97 and let us know,” Tofalo said. “If you need trifolds, priority briefs, talking points to your Congressman, whatever, we are more than happy to support you.”
Why such urgency? Tofalo and the submarine community in general have three big bills coming due in short succession:
- -continued production of the Virginia-class attack submarine (SSN), the offensive part of the sub force that goes out to “get in underneath” adversary defenses;
- upgrading of select Virginias with additional cruise missile launchers, the Virginia Payload Module (VPM), to give them more firepower against land targets and, ultimately, enemy ships; and
- -building the Ohio Replacement Program, the new nuclear-missile submarine (SSBN) that will be the mainstay of the nation’s deterrent.
The ORP subs will have to stay in service through the 2080s, so we’ve got to get them right, Tofalo said at a conference last April. “Who will our enemies be seven decades from now?” he asked rhetorically. It’s impossible to predict, he said, noting the global shock when Russia had invaded Crimea just two months earlier. That means the ORP has to be capable and adaptable enough to face a wide range of potential threats.
That also makes the missile sub painfully expensive. To get it built, Tofalo has argued publicly that the Navy shipbuilding budget needs to go up to levels higher than it has been in 20 years, to the levels it was when we built the last SSBN class, the Ohios.
The House and Senate Armed Services Committees have been receptive, last year creating a National Sea Based Deterrent Fund to pay for the Ohio Replacement Program outside the Navy shipbuilding budget. But it’s a controversial gimmick, and they’ve put no money in the fund as yet. This year’s House bill would move $1.39 billion already being spent on the Ohio Replacement under R&D accounts into the fund. But the House Appropriations Committee just passed language that would prohibit such moves: “None of the funds provided in this or any other Act may be transferred to the National Sea Based Deterrent Fund.”
“The NSBDF is a bipartisan, bicameral solution to a unique problem that was overwhelmingly endorsed by the House last week by a vote of 375-43,” House Seapower subcommittee chairman Randy Forbes told us in a statement. ” I will vigorously oppose any effort to undermine the NBSDF and treat the Ohio Replacement like any other shipbuilding program.”
Soon, though, none of this will be Tofalo’s problem. As Commander, Naval Submarine Forces, he’ll be the “type commander” responsible for readiness of the force we have today, primary for training and maintenance. Instead of trying to get the Ohio Replacement funded, he’ll be trying to keep the old Ohios running for an unprecedented 42-year service life until the new subs come online.