On July 26, 1987, The Washington Post printed a syndicated column by Jack Anderson and Dale Van Atta entitled “Submarines for the 21st Century.” The column’s criticism of the SSN-21 (SEAWOLF) program projected an authoritative ring that was enhanced by its spread on the editorial page. Revealed within the column, however, were the identifiable undertones of a few particular critics, none of whom has developed a convincing case among knowledgeable analysts and decision makers. Experience with their method of argument suggests that either those critics are unaware of the scientific approach to investigation, or they deliberately shun it in search of sensationalism. Unfortunately, such criticism of the Defense Sector is all too common. When it reaches the Public Domain it can undermine confidence in Defense decision making and erode support for important programs. The purpose of this article is to refute allegations of the kind contained in the Anderson-Van Atta column.
The column opens with the following salvo:
“The Navy wants Congress to spend billions of dollars on a submarine that will ensure that the United States remains dangerously behind the Soviet Union in the race for submarine supremacy.”
The column then states that the SSN-21 has “second-rate capabilities,” and adds that it “will be a full generation or more behind the latest Soviet attack submarines it will be expected to fight.” This generalization is evidently drawn from the accompanying observations that “Soviet submarines go faster, dive deeper, have greater survivability, are better automated, have more advanced nuclear reactor technology and carry more powerful torpedoes and missiles than their u.s. counterparts.” The Soviets are held to be “significantly ahead of the United States in submarine technology on their own,” without regard to acquisition of technology from the West via recently publicized illegal sales. As an example, the use of polymer liquid to reduce drag and noise is advanced.
Because of alleged inferiorities, Anderson and Van Atta propose that the SSN-21 program be cancelled on the grounds that it is a waste of money. In its place, they propose to improve the SSN-688 class and launch a substantial effort to develop a “truly 21st century submarine.” In their opinion, the improved SSN-688, being much less expensive than the SSN-21, would give the Navy “the numbers of submarines it needs to counter the Soviet submarine fleet” until a new submarine, technologically adequate for the world of undersea warfare fifty years from now, could be introduced.
Some of the Anderson-Van Atta observations about Soviet submarines are correct, although not all of those characteristics are contained in all Soviet submarines, nor even in any one class.
The flaw that I see in their analysis, conclusions and recommendations is that they do not deal adequately with the important parameter, quietness, and they fail to assess submarine capability in mission context.
By excluding the SSN-21, their prescription for a new submarine falls short of assuring the u.s. supremacy in undersea warfare capability. Instead, such an exclusion limits the U.S. Navy to the current 688 class and to future technology. Anderson and Van Atta appear to have overlooked two important points:
First, the SSN-688 is less expensive than the SSN-21 because it is less capable than the SSN-21. The unit capability of tactical submarines is in application. Differences in unit capability do not convert linearly to unit cost or to overall force capability. Thus, if the SSN-21 will be ineffective against the projected threat, the SSN688 will be even a less effective substitute.
Adequate improvements to the 688 at lower cost is not possible because of the fundamental limitations of the SSN-688 design.
Larger numbers of SSN-688s would not produce a more effective force than would fewer numbers of SSN-21s. Moreover, the per-unit difference in effectiveness between the two classes is substantial. ‘
Second, research and development beyond that of the SSN-21 involves uncertainties. To use these untested technologies in SSN-21 would be too high a risk to impose upon this high cost, quality platform. The ongoing program incorporates the Navy’s best ability to employ available technology to requirements.
The issues raised by Anderson and Van Atta have been considered carefully over the past five years by the Department of Defense and the Congress. For example, several years ago, as SSN21 development was approaching milestone-approval by the Secretary of Defense, the Navy undertook an extensive, searching examination of the adequacy of the SSN-21, as designed, to perform its missions. The recommendations of that study were reviewed by senior DOD officials and were accepted. It is not correct to say that SSN-21 will lag behind Soviet attack submarines, and it is unreasonable to call its capabilities “second-rate.” There is the temptation to measure u.s. submarines against those of the Soviets on the basis of comparative speed, depth, level of automation, survivability, reactor technology, and weapons. These factors cannot be taken in isolation or in combination, for this process does not yield the best tactical performance profiles.
Tactical performance capability depends on a complex relationship of many submarine parameters and to the ocean environment. Net assessments of weapons systems are not rationally developed in terms of “races” between similar capabilities and equipments. Rather, such assessments are based on the weapon or platform capability to perform as designed against the threat in specific fighting environments.
Soviet submarine technical and operational advances present significant problems for u.s. Navy planners and submarine designers. For example, any increase in operational depth or speed is of concern. The response to a deep submarine is not necessarily another submarine of equal depth capability. It might be an anti-submarine weapon is more effective at the deepest depths of an enemy submarine. To invest soley in depth capability without sound mission reasons is not cost effective.
A similar argument can be advanced in considering speed: It may be more effective to develop a weapon (such as SEA LANCE) that can reach a fast submarine at a long range, than to match submarine speeds. A weapon is best thought o~ as a system of Force (people, platform, weapons C I). Moreover, the relation of speed to mission application may be quite different for the U.S. than for the Soviets, leading to different conclusions. Thus some Soviet developments may not be matched by the same or similar developments in U.S. submarines. Rather, the u.s. might call for support of weapons programs or other anti-submarine warfare capabilities than depth or speed to match those of Soviet submarines.
Some Soviet advances are suited to their contemplated tactics. For example, increased automation in combat has specific purposes; reduce manpower, improve high speed control, etc. Automation may detract from efficiency, on the other hand, when improperly used where humans do a better job.
Some technical advances may be counterproductive for the Soviets. (The history of Soviet submarine development suggests that they are aware of this.) For example, high speed obtained at the price of high noise levels creates a serious disadvantage.
Other Soviet technical advances are made at the price of reduced safety and reliability, as in their nuclear reactor designs when compared to prevailing U.S. standards.
Finally, some alleged Soviet advantages are pure speculation and fantasies of a few well-meaning critics.
An important problem in warfare is asymmetry in performance, which is why net assessment in terms of similar systems can be misleading. For instance, battle tanks compete against not only tanks but also anti-tank systems. Aircraft carriers have to repel anti-surface warfare systems with limited counter force. Asymmetry in undersea warfare requires the capability for submarines to perform missions against a wide range of threat projections. These missions are of broader scope than anti-submarine warfare. Attention to mission performance leads to establishing the appropriate combinations of submarine design performance characteristics. A combination of speed, quieting and high performance reliable weapons provides advantages in tactical ASW operations. Flexibility to use these capabilities and others, like superior command and control systems, permit desired mission performance under changing circumstances.
Thus, the U.S. Navy does not copy all of the design techniques employed by the Soviets, since the advantages for their Navy does not necessarily apply to u.s. submarines and the disadvantages may be severe and costly.
The mission aspects of design and performance and their relationship to technological realities were considered in shaping the SSN-21 program. The SSN-21 will meet u.s. mission requirements in a cost-effective manner by providing achievable operational capability for the U.S. to about 2010, at which time its follow-on will be built.
The conclusion that the time has arrived to introduce a new submarine class by no means obviates the continued utility and importance of existing submarines. Improved Soviet submarines are fielded neither all at once nor necessarily in high quantities, and mission asymmetries will create a continuing role for the SSN-688 class for a long time. Besides, until the SSN-21 is fielded we will be dependent on the SSN-688. In recognition of that fact, contrary to the impression conveyed by the Anderson-Van Atta column, the Navy already has an improvement program underway tor the SSN-688. Even at its best, however, the improved SSN-688 will not be an adequate substitute for the SSN-21 in future undersea warfare.
It is not possible to improve an existing submarine of older design to the same level of performance that is achievable with a contemporary design. Thus, while there will remain many missions that the improved SSN-688 will perform well, there are some critical new missions connected with modern maritime strategy for which it will not suffice.
Research and development directed toward submarines beyond the SSN-21 will use new hull forms, hull materials, a~d propulsion systems, weapons and sensors and C • The importance of that effort must be publicized, for undersea warfare will be an increasingly dynamic activity in 21st century warfare. The significance of the submarine beyond SSN-21 is that it will probably depend for its success on evolutionary development that produced the series of prior classes. Past designs have evolved through stages of reactor power and efficiency, grades of steel for hulls, dimensions of towed arrays and sonars, automation of combat and control systems, all on and within the characteristic cigar shape with topside sail. However, it is conceivable that the SSN-21 will represent the practical limit to gains that can be reali~ed through evolution of designs built around particular controlling features.
Further gains in stealth and tactical speed, and thus to improved performance of on-board sensors, will depend on new designs. The design of hull and acoustic arrays will be developed jointly. Some of the research and technology will be quite radical. Researchers and sponsors will be well advised to make room for and encourage new explorations as they better understand the underseas world.
In summary, the U.S. is planning a submarine program with a three-pronged approach that includes SSN-21. The first prong is the improved SSN-688, which will meet the Navy’s needs for the next fifteen years. The final prong, imaginative research and development, will prepare the pathway to undersea warfare two generations hence. But the central prong is the SSN-21. By assuring our advantage through at least the next generation, SSN-21 may well assure our opportunity to have a more advanced program for the era beyond.
What are the returns from this three pronged investment strategy? One gain will be in antisubmarine warfare capability. Other gains, less obvious at present, will appear as submarines become increasingly stealthy and offensively capable. The design of the SSN-21 hints at the future with its unique capabilities to deliver weapons against surface targets from beneath the sea. The age of the true underseas tactical nuclear submarine is dawning; SEAWOLF is the first strong step.
David L. Anderson