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.
“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.