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COMSUBFOR Connor: Submarine Force Could Become the New A2/AD Threat

The Ohio-class guided-missile submarine USS Florida (SSGN 728) arrives at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in April 2011. Florida returned after a 15-month deployment that included participated in Operation Odyssey Dawn, making the boat the first guided-missile submarine to launch Tomahawk land attack missiles. US Navy photo.

The Ohio-class guided-missile submarine USS Florida (SSGN 728) arrives at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in April 2011. Florida returned after a 15-month deployment that included participated in Operation Odyssey Dawn, making the boat the first guided-missile submarine to launch Tomahawk land attack missiles. US Navy photo.

Washington, D.C. — Targeted investments in improving weapons and decoys could propel the U.S. submarine fleet to be the underwater answer to anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) threats, the of the U.S. Navy’s Commander, Submarine Forces (COMSUBFOR) said on Thursday.

Vice Adm. Michael Connor, in contrast to those who talk about responding to the A2/AD threat and finding ways to get out of the asymmetrical cost curve adversaries impose on the U.S. military, said the submarine force is already causing enemies to spend more and is on the cusp of expanding its capabilities.

For example, today’s torpedo has an effective range of 10 miles, he said. But he challenged the research community to develop a propulsion system to bring the torpedoes miles, and one group delivered that. Another group delivered a 200-mile propulsion system.

“So what happens when you have a 100 or 200 mile torpedo? You start thinking, your whole picture of the world changes when you do that,” Connor said at an event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the U.S. Naval Institute.

“You stop thinking in terms of what is the bearing and range from my ship to the target, and you start thinking a lot more in terms of geographic coordinates. And the bosses that we work for start thinking of torpedoes as underwater Tomahawks because they can go to the appointed place at the appointed time, they can be potentially redirected and, although it’s our job to get them to the fight, we might easily hand over the terminal homing of one of our torpedoes to somebody else who happens to have better information at the time that that torpedo is going to do the last leg of its journey.”

An intermediate step between today’s “lead bullet” and the 100-mile “gold bullet” is a “silver bullet” idea to have the submarine launch an unmanned aerial vehicle to guide a torpedo over the horizon.

A second development effort is to take the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) and create a “multi-mission weapon” capable of striking land or at-sea targets. The importance is twofold, Connor said. First, submarines do not know what fight they may encounter when they deploy, and having a multi-mission weapon would create efficiencies and a boat better prepared for whatever situation arises.

Secondly, while the warhead the Tomahawk fields may not be as large as the one on a torpedo, “it forces an adversary who thinks that he might have a submarine somewhere within a thousand miles of him, he has to adopt an air defense posture, and therefore he has to carry defensive weapons. And every slot he fills with a defensive weapon, he will not be filling with an offensive weapon.

Vice Adm. Michael Connor, commander of Submarine Forces Atlantic, talks with Cmdr. Michael Meredith, commanding officer of the guided-missile destroyer USS Jason Dunham (DDG-109) on May 21, 2014. US Navy Photo

Vice Adm. Michael Connor, commander of Submarine Forces Atlantic, talks with Cmdr. Michael Meredith, commanding officer of the guided-missile destroyer USS Jason Dunham (DDG-109) on May 21, 2014. US Navy Photo

“Furthermore, he has to maintain air defense radars up, and that helps all of us in a variety of ways to track where he is. And if he wants to do that at a sophisticated level between ships, he ahs to maintain data links up to keep all the ships on the same page, and that provides all kinds of other opportunities for us to do things that are very difficult to defend against.”

Connor said an effort is underway now “to take some of the technology that exists to add, for a small cost, an anti-surface ship capability to our land-attack missiles.” For the small investment, he said the Navy receives a great boost to kinetic capability and the deterrence value of the subs.

Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) conducted a test of a Block IV TLAM striking a moving ship target earlier this year in a test Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work called, “a game changing capability for not a lot of cost.”

Connor told USNI News after the event that the area of decoys and deception ought to receive more attention and resources.

“I think we’re not doing enough with decoy and deception, which is absolutely the least expensive way to impose cost on your adversary,” he said.
“And it’s also an area that’s wide open to our creative people – most of what you do, you can do with a very simple platform and then some software.”

Some advancements have been made, including a floating periscope decoy that appears and disappears, much like an adversary might expect a submarine’s periscope to do.

“This is the type of thing we need the creativity to do and implement quickly,” he said during his speech.
“Those types of decoys cost a little less than $3,000. So if I can make people drop million-dollar torpedoes on $3,000-things that look like submarines, we’re on the right side of this asymmetric business. And when you leverage that with the ambiguity of, do I have a submarine or not, and the capability that you must worry about if you have submarines in a certain place, this is how we start getting to this deterrence, conventional deterrence theory, where we can make an adversary realize the cost of going to war at sea with us is severe.”

Connor said the Navy probably would have done some things differently if it had seen the current A2/AD threat coming a little sooner. However, he said the A2/AD threat is coming to the undersea domain, and the United States has a limited window of opportunity to alter how things play out.

If the Navy makes these targeted, small investments in decoys, and the enemy makes a large investment in detecting submarines, “we will put him, after the investment is done, right back in the same position where they are today – ‘I think I might have something, I cant really tell’.”

Connor said he hopes, in that situation, the adversary would drop bombs on the suspected – but false – submarine targets. He said he hopes this happens over and over, until the adversary realizes every attempt to hit an American submarine has failed.

“That is, we think, a key to how we get people who decide to go kinetic to come back off, because they’ll realize it’s a losing proposition, because the whole time they’re doing that we’ll be inflicting significant damage on their forces,” he said.

  • Curtis Conway

    With potential adversary submarines increasing in numbers and capability, its time to look at the curve of having enough to cover the West-Lant and Pacific patrol Areas, along with all the usual tasking.

    The subject matter of this article is probably the most relevant I have read to date. The Virginia Payload Module (VPM) on US Navy Block V Virginia-class attack submarines just became more important.

    • NavySubNuke

      Agreed – VPM submarines (and by that I mean 15 – 20 and not 5-10 of them) are going to be key to sustaining freedom of Navigation in the disputed areas of the pacific. We can’t allow China to even think they can push any and all comers out of the arena.

      • Ctrot

        Need VPN sooner and on more boats.

        • NavySubNuke

          Agreed – but that major of a modification is not easy — it is going to take time to finish the design and testing. Hopefully we can move it up a bit sooner – but congress will need to provide some $$$ to make that happen.

          • Ctrot

            USS George Washington (SSBN-598) was laid down as an attack sub, cut in half and had a missile bay inserted converting her to an SSBN, all within 13 months. And that was when engineers and draftsmen were using t-squares and slide rules. What happened?

          • NavySubNuke

            1. Acquisition bureaucracy is a big part of the answer/problem.
            2. The team behind the first SLBM/SSBN were also given nearly unlimited funding – if Congress was willing to throw a pile of money at the issue the Navy could get VPM done faster.
            3. Submarines today are a lot more complex – and the complexity is driven by the necessity of better stealth to make the submarine survivable enough to actually accomplish its mission. Adding 100+ feet to the middle of the submarine is not a small acoustic challenge.

          • Ctrot

            #1 is 90% of the answer, #2 is 10% ( I can’t find $ figures on SSBN-598 but I suspect they’re not astronomical, unless you count all Polaris $ toward her) and #3 should not exist given that we now have computers that would have been unimaginable in 1959 and should make us capable of designing systems 100 times more complex than SSBN-598 in the same time. I am old enough to remember those claims being made for CAD, but they’ve never panned out.

          • Curtis Conway

            How did we build nuclear submarines and moon landers with slide rules?

          • Curtis Conway

            With the Chinese PLAN looking to build four (4) aircraft carriers and a 100 submarines by the mid ’20s, I wonder if we have a winning plan?

          • NavySubNuke

            I’m not too worried about the carriers but the submarines are a real concern – quantity has a quality all its own and it is hard to imagine our boats doing well if they are outnumbered 8 or 10 to 1. We’d certainly go down swinging —- but the idea is to not go down at all!

          • Curtis Conway

            NavySubNuke . . . do you remember who originally spoke those words ? It was a high ranking Soviet Officer in their CoC that was describing their ability to destroy the ‘West’ with all their superior technology, using sheer numbers of platforms. The Soviet Union was selling Mig-21s at bargain basement prices to anyone who would take them. The we had this Israeli pilot who became an ace+ in one flight, and he returned to the base without any remaining ordinance (he might have had a 20 mm or two left).

          • NavySubNuke

            The kill ratios will be wildly disproportionate – but that doesn’t mean we will successfully defend the territorial integrity of our allies in the region. Having all our boats running back to Pearl to rearm (since everything closer has been flattened by SSM strikes) after shooting themselves dry is great but it is still a net victory for them since that removes the boats from the fight for weeks at a time and God only knows if we will even have any torpedoes left to rearm them all. Meanwhile they can move forces in and further expand their A2/AD umbrella.

          • Curtis Conway

            the question is . . .is this planning to fail?

          • NavySubNuke

            Oh I don’t think they are planning to fail at all — and I don’t think we are planning to fail either but that is because I don’t think we are actually planning. I think we have good thoughts but we fail to allow them to actually become plans. We have great tactical plans and we even have great ideas of what our fleet should look like —- but we don’t really have any plans on how to accomplish it (hence the 30-year ship building “plan” not making any hard choices but just requesting what we would like Santa to bring us).

          • Curtis Conway

            And reducing capability of and retiring a useful ship (FFG-7) and building LCS (that can outrun a Chinese frigate but not a cruise missile), building the expensive FORD Class in the face of current cost overruns and lack of maturity of the two primary systems (EMALS launch & AAG recovery system). How about them Light Carriers with the F-35B? Looks better every day.

          • NavySubNuke

            Agreed. A force of conventional light carrier that can carry 2-3 squadrons of F-35B and a few squadrons of helos is way better than a 1/3 as man Ford carriers.
            An actual frigate that can defend itself and excels at ASW would be a dream come true – especially when paired with the capabilities of a flight III DDG-51.
            Also, add in 20+ SSNs with Virginia Payload Modules (4 in-line 87″ x 36′ tubes) —- especially if we can arm them 2 – 3 with intermediate range prompt strike missiles per tube. 6-9 Prompt strike missiles, 12 TLAMs (forward tubes), and a large diameter long endurance UUV or two along with a torpedo room full of mines and torpedos and you are talking about something!

          • Curtis Conway

            I’m afraid the timeline for action is compressing, and our options are waning in the short term. We may not get to the long term solutions.

          • J_kies

            Cost plus contracts where fee is a multiple of costs. In that period the government owned the thought leadership and the contractors built what they were told to build.

    • PolicyWonk

      From this point – Block V and beyond – ALL Virginia’s should include the VPM.

      Furthermore, the US navy should start buying/building (maybe under license) AIP boats, for both coastal defense (the Chinese have been steadily increasing their nuclear sub fleet) and forward-basing in the western Pacific, near the S. China Sea. As an added bonus, we’d then have something to sell to Taiwan.

      • Curtis Conway

        Take a peek at the sub pens on Hainan Island?

  • Ctrot

    Adding a ship attack mode to the Tomahawk is all well and good but that missile is not exceptionally difficult for a target ship to defend against. What the US surface and subsurface fleet needs is a long range, supersonic (at least in the terminal phase) anti-ship weapon.

    • NavySubNuke

      LRASSM is coming and should solve most of those problems — TLAM will (hopefully) get us through the interim while we wait.

      • Ctrot

        LRAASM is still subsonic. Maybe they could rig it with some sort of RATO unit that could fire during terminal approach to give it a final burst of speed 😉

    • James Bowen


    • RobM1981

      I completely agree, but what the admiral appears to be saying is that the mere presence of TLAM as TSAM will put adversaries in the position of having to keep their radars lit and such. Yes, Tomahawk is a large, slow target (relative to other SSM’s), but it is very long range. Thus an adversary would have to think “if there’s an SSN within 500 miles of here, I’m in range. I’d better keep my AAW systems active.”

      Very asymmetric, indeed.

  • MNCMNavyRetired

    A 200 mile torpedo is not nearly as dangerous as a 200 mile SLMM. The mobile mine could be used to close any port and the launching vehicle would be nearly undetectable. A half a dozen submarines with 200 mile capable SLMMs could close the entire west coast weeks prior to any planned aggression in the Pacific. Of course the Navy is working very hard to erase all of our MCM capability and once the last Avenger Class MCM is decommissioned we are basically defenseless against the mine threat.

    • Vpanoptes

      No worries, I am sure (cough*cough) we can depend on the LCS to take up the slack…

  • criolle

    “that included participated in”

  • RobM1981

    Subs have always been the most asymmetric of assets. The mere threat of them will cause an adversary to react with far more assets than the sub. Given how dangerous subs truly are, this is not an unwise thing for an adversary to do.

    Which does make us ask:

    Why aren’t we following the admiral’s advice? Is Connor wrong, or should we be investing in more decoys and such?

    Why aren’t we building more, cheaper subs? We keep talking about how a modern SS is probably the best use of funds available. Paired with our ability to forward-deploy boats, this makes them tremendously effective. They are also highly cost-effective, which is why every nation with a coastline is trying to acquire them. Ask Taiwan.

    And lastly… I read an article this weekend about how there is a question about “why are we spending so much on CVN’s, again?” I realize that the battleship… I mean “Carrier” Navy views this as heresy, but it’s a question worth seriously debating.

    You can buy a lot of SS’s for the cost of one $17B CVN…

    • Curtis Conway

      You had that “Battleship . . .. I mean Carrier” mentality right! Light Carrier Battle Groups here we come . . . at a fraction of the cost no less.

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