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Opinion: A New Era in Anti-Submarine Warfare

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Graphic by Jeff Benson.

Graphic by Jeff Benson.

China and Russia’s submarine forces are flexing their prowess in the undersea domain by operating further from their respective country’s homeport – in some cases within striking distance of the United States.

Given the expansion in operations, anti-submarine warfare (ASW) platforms on both coasts of the United States will be required to monitor and defend the nation more frequently.

Foreign submarine operations near the homeland are not necessarily immediate threats, but do require careful thought as the Navy prepares to execute future ASW missions. As budget and naval policymakers continue to plan for the future, ASW must remain a high priority for either homeland or overseas defense. The good news is that the U.S. Navy has new platforms and technology coming online that can provide a significant advantage in the undersea domain.

China

An undated photo of a Jin-class Type 94 nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN). PLAN Photo

An undated photo of a Jin-class Type 94 nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN). PLAN Photo

Adm. Sam Locklear, Commander, Pacific Command, earlier this year stated, “China’s advance in submarine capabilities is significant. They possess a large and increasingly capable submarine force.” China has expanded their undersea reach as evident in this year’s deployment of a Chinese nuclear submarine to the Indian Ocean. The deployment demonstrates extended submarine operations and the capability for China to deploy nuclear submarines within ballistic missile launch range of the United States, within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), or potentially closer to territorial waters. As China continues sustained undersea operations, proficiency will likely improve with time as well.

The expansion of China’s nuclear submarine fleet will also allow operations further from the Asia Pacific region in the coming years. China is in the process of building four new improved variants of the Shang class nuclear submarine and working on a robust diesel submarine fleet. Given China’s submarine capability to transit and operate in the Indian Ocean and with continued submarine growth, a future nuclear submarine deployment off the West Coast of the United States may occur in the next five years or possibly sooner.

The purpose of future submarine deployments may serve as a deterrence, presence or collection mission against the United States – creating an increased requirement for naval assets to monitor and ensure security for the nation. This development should not come as a surprise to those in the national security community. Senior policymakers and naval leaders should develop an operational and strategic plan in how to deal with Chinese submarine operations closer to the United States.

Russia

Russian Borey-class (Project 955) ballistic nuclear missile submarine Yuri Dolgoruky during sea trials. RIA Novosti Photo

Russian Borey-class (Project 955) ballistic nuclear missile submarine Yuri Dolgoruky during sea trials. RIA Novosti Photo

As China increases their submarine role in maritime operations, Russia is simultaneously increasing their Navy’s importance. “The navy, for our country, is her pride, strength and dignity,” Russia’s President Vladimir Putin last month said. “The power and strength of the Russian navy will only grow.”

The Russian submarine force is also set to grow.

In the next two years, Russia will begin construction on nine submarines. Russia has already commissioned two Borei class nuclear submarines and plans to build six more. This new submarine is a notable threat carrying sixteen SS-NX-32 Bulava intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and six SS-N-15 cruise missiles. In addition, the Russian navy plans to add seven Severodvinsk class nuclear attack submarines by 2020 with intentions for reaching a total of sixteen.

With Russia’s construction of new submarines and leadership touting naval strength, more submarine operations near the United States are possible. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia for the most part has been non-existent in operating nuclear submarines near the United States, but that may change. In 2012, a Sierra class nuclear submarine operated off the east coast of the U.S. – a trend that could continue in the future. In addition, Russia recently increased rhetoric against possible U.S. submarine operations. Russia publicly stated an IL-38 ASW aircraft chased away a U.S. nuclear submarine that was operating in the Barents Sea – a claim U.S. naval leaders quickly rebuked.

American ASW

P-8A Poseidon, operated by Patrol Squadron (VP-16) in February, 2013. US Navy Photo

P-8A Poseidon, operated by Patrol Squadron (VP-16) in February, 2013. US Navy Photo

A future increase in submarine construction and operations by both countries are not the only development of concern in the undersea domain. Internationally, the development and use of unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) for military, education, and commercial use are expanding. In the military realm, developed countries are exploring UUV deployment from submarines that will create a new dynamic in the undersea domain. As autonomous technology becomes more mature, UUVs will also operate independently in areas of potential crisis or strategic importance. With a future increase in UUV operations, the ability to track UUVs in the undersea will be equally difficult and require improved sensor and processing capability.

To meet expanded foreign submarine operations and UUV technological advancements, the U.S. surface naval force employs state of the art ASW technology aboard numerous Arleigh Burke class destroyers. The SQQ-89A(V)15 Combat System, which will be aboard 64 destroyers by 2020, and the new Multi-Functional Towed Array (MFTA) are game changers in ASW operations. The combined capabilities alter how the surface navy searches and tracks submarines. With enhanced sensor capability and data processing, the surface naval forces have an increased role in integrated ASW operations. ASW surface ships can remain longer on station in comparison to aircraft and also provide real time command and control capability beyond that of a submarine.

In stride with the surface navy’s technological advancements, the aviation community has new platforms to meet the ASW mission. The MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter and the P-8A Poseidon aircraft are to be fully integrated in the fleet by 2020. The new platforms are already providing an improved ASW capability in fleet operations. The MH-60R has been forward deployed in Japan and operating in the Asia Pacific region since 2012.

Additionally, the rotary aircraft has an enhanced active dipping sonar advertised to increase detection ranges from three to seven times compared to legacy systems.

Earlier this month six P-8A aircraft completed an inaugural and successful deployment to the Asia Pacific. The P-8A adds an improved sensor search capability by utilizing a multi-static active coherent (MAC) system, which is comprised of sonobuoys (source and receiver) and advanced processing. In addition to the new platforms and technological advancements, all ASW ships and aircraft in the future will employ the Mk 54 lightweight torpedo, which integrates several years of weapons technology. By 2020, these new improvements collectively in the surface and aviation communities will create a powerful ASW capability. However, the Navy must further improve requisite training to meet the new capabilities, and foster a fleetwide culture that prioritizes the ASW mission.

The CNO’s Sailing Directions offers, “The Navy will continue to dominate the undersea domain using a network of sensors and platforms.” The navy is building a fleet (sensors and platforms) with enormous ASW capability that will create an integrated ASW machine. Additionally, the CNO has articulated that warfighting is the Navy’s primary mission and people are the Navy’s foundation. To ensure the U.S. Navy succeeds in ASW, a focus on warfighting and people must occur in tandem.

Training

Lt. Richard Ray discusses the bi-lateral U.S. and Republic of Korea Navy's Surface Ship Anti-Submarine Warfare Readiness and Effectiveness Measure (SHAREM) exercise with Lt. Hyeoung Seok Noh, Republic of Korea Navy, in the combat information center aboard USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) on June 3, 2014. US Navy Photo

Lt. Richard Ray discusses the bi-lateral U.S. and Republic of Korea Navy’s Surface Ship Anti-Submarine Warfare Readiness and Effectiveness Measure (SHAREM) exercise with Lt. Hyeoung Seok Noh, Republic of Korea Navy, in the combat information center aboard USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) on June 3, 2014. US Navy Photo

ASW is a complicated warfare area, and proficiency can only develop through extensive textbook and practical training, at both the officer and enlisted levels. In his book, Destroyer Captain, Adm. Jim Stavridis (retired) described that “submarines are like steel sharks – quiet, silent, and deadly. They are designed to hunt and kill. Occasionally, it becomes necessary to find and destroy them – to keep open sea-lanes of communication, to sweep an area and make it safe for Allied shipping. Destroying a submarine is the hardest task in naval warfare.” Learning ASW takes time, training, and experience to fully understand how to plan and execute ASW operations. Of all the topics associated with ASW, oceanography (undersea environment) is the most difficult to grasp and essential in dominating the undersea domain.

When comparing the undersea with other warfare area such as anti-air warfare, the science and understanding of the ASW operating environment is a more complex tactical problem. Given the complexity of ASW, training personnel in mastering oceanography and anti-submarine operations must remain a high priority. For the last twenty years or more, ASW has not been a significant operational requirement as a result of the Cold War ending and a decade of fighting in the war on terrorism. A culture change from a primarily air warfare centric navy to an emphasis more in ASW must occur to improve proficiency among naval personnel at all ranks. This culture change must occur from the top down led by the Navy’s senior officers afloat and ashore.

Today and in the future, ASW will be required to deter and deny future foreign submarine operations against U.S. national interests at home and abroad. Combatant and Fleet Commanders must carefully balance the allocation of naval forces in both these areas to sustain undersea dominance. The navy’s new platforms and technologies in the surface and aviation communities increase the ability to detect, localize, and track submarines. These new platforms and technologies have established a new era of ASW operations from the days of the Cold War. As the U.S. Navy moves forward, officers and enlisted personnel must have the necessary training to operate the improved platforms and sensors given the potential rise in foreign submarine operations as well as unknown UUV technological advancements.

  • john

    Luckily Moore’s law is still in effect. Digital processing of analog signals will increase radically in speed over the next six years. My understanding is that current technology allows a US submarine sitting off of New Jersey’s coast to detect an ocean liners propellers off the West coast of Scotland. Hopefully US ASW will soon allow the detection of a modern diesel-electric submarine at significant distances.

    The US military is a decade behind corporations in designing complex platforms. Soon we will view submarines as a software platform with attached hardware rather than an engineered physical device. I believe that is the ultimate vision of the F-35. Unfortunately complex software development is excruciatingly difficult, and hardware design simplifications compromise the F-35s future.

  • Chesapeakeguy

    Might there be a need to reconstitute the ASWOCs, or something similar? Thoughts anyone?

  • Secundius

    @ Chesapeakeguy.

    As far as I know, the ASROC, Anti-Submarine Rocket Torpedo System. Is still being used by the US. Navy!!!

    • anon

      Ask a submariner if they are worried about ASROC lol.

  • Alex Smith

    Commendable writing LCDR Benson – I think you’ve successfully outlined exactly why we need to continue funding ASW platforms / technology. We should also address the impending uncertainty that surrounds the mid-term point in our arctic circle road map . . . total gamechanger.

  • SlickMick

    Love those clam shells.