There are at least four main parts to current discussions regarding special emphasis on attack submarine missions other than ASW or ASu W. First, a new mission has to be understood so it can be determined what has to be done. Next, the question will arise concerning who is going to pay for whatever that special emphasis will cost. In addition, at some point an objective assessment has to be made about the ability of submarines to take on the given task. Lastly, the leaders of the Submarine Force have to question whether a particular new mission should be given special emphasis.
It probably should be recognized that almost everyone involved in any discussion of low intensity conflict has their own definition of just what that means. Opinions vary as to the type of action (or level of violence) which constitutes such conflict, the size and capability of the countries which are potential targets, and the appropriate kind of U.S. force which should make up our national response capability. To the extent that national policy makers see the 1990’s future mainly in terms of Special Forces, such as the Green Berets or the Seals, conducting low level operations in third world countries, the general purpose forces may well have trouble acquiring new systems tailored to enhancing their effective involvement in Low Intensity Conflicts. Achieving wide understanding of the submarine mission in this case, therefore, may be more than usually difficult and the discussion itself may be critical to ensuring that the funding is obtained so that the Force is ready for all the action which is called for.
The Presidential definition is that ” .. .low intensity conflict typically manifests itself as political-military confrontation below the level of conventional war, … , and ranging from subversion to the direct use of military force. These conflicts, generally in the Third World, can have both regional and global implications for our national security interests.” The President’s Commission on Integrated Long-Term Strategy concluded that to help protect U.S. interests and allies in the Third World, we need “Versatile, mobile forces, minimally dependent on overseas bases, that can deliver precisely controlled strikes against distant military targets.” This suggests that general purpose forces are needed and meant to be included in our national planning. By the same token, nothing in any of the authoritative discussions by the President, the Congress, or special commissions would seem to rule out the use of submarines when appropriate. Moreover, those specifications appear tailor-made for the Submarine Force.
The general view, however, seems to hold with the position of the Regional Conflict Working Group of the Strategy Commission that because the emphasis of U.S. forces engaged in low intensity conflict in the third world should be put on nation building tasks, ” … U.S. General Purpose Forces are usually too heavily or inappropriately equipped, and too elaborately manned, for probable third world missions … “. That group also construed the Grenada operation of 1983 as beyond low intensity conflict The point here is not to argue with the authorities but to note that there is a significant gap between what might have to be done and what is being prepared for in this arena.
Several broad principles of operation for low intensity conflict can be deduced from a consideration of the past decade of U.S. experience. First, it can be inferred that there is a real need to carry out any operation with a minimum cost in U.S. men and material. That means the avoidance of any possibility of leaving behind American servicemen as hostages to the regimes being operated against Second, and as a corollary to the first principle, whatever covering force is sent in support of the operations should not be put at the risk of unacceptable damage – which is a political rather than a military consideration. Third, those who direct such actions have to realize that almost all military operations are Combined Ops and much more is involved than just the basic operation. Also, since submariners are arguably the leading experts in covert operations, they can appreciate as a principle that covertness can be very important to some of these low intensity (but high importance) affairs, because it lends itself to plausible deniability. Lastly, it may be worthwhile to observe that not all low intensity conflicts, i.e. “political-military confrontations below the level of conventional war”, take place in the third world. The blockade of Cuba during the missile crisis of 1962 is a case of deliberately non-violent military action with extremely high stakes. It is thus postulated that the submarine equipments which could make a similar operation a U.S. success in the future are the same as those which could be used in third world situations.
If we now see that Low Intensity Conflict (LIC), as practiced by the U.S., might have a job for modem nuclear attack submarines, the question is, who is going to pay for developing mission-unique systems, and the additional force level numbers to make up for distractions from primary missions. The problem seems to be two-fold: (a) that general purpose force sponsors now have more priority requirements on their plates then they can handle in an era of very real bl dget a nstraints; and (b), the new SO/LIC organization, specifically established by recent law and composed of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict and the new specified Special Operations Command, appears focused on the needs of Special Force components. Because of the latter, acquisitions to enhance general purpose force contnoutions to low intensity conflict probably will not be considered from that special part of the defense budget. In that regard, it should be noted that the Regional Conflict Working Group estimated that the strategy of selective involvement which it recommended ” … could be underwritten by $12 billion per year.” That’s a big number and one that should not be discounted too quickly.
The next question has to do with the credible potential for equipping submarines to take an effective low-intensity conflict role. Perhaps the cleanest way to look at that is from the aspect of exclusive use rather than as a competition with other types of military force; i.e. the employment of a submarine is necessary when the application of other forces is clearly inappropriate. By reviewing three 1980’s operations with a view to improving the effectiveness and/or significantly reducing risk, this can be appreciated: –
First, the 1986 operation against Libya – a pure strike action with clearly defined objectives. The forces of choice were, appropriately, Navy and Air Force strike aircraft. Had Sixth Fleet submarines however, been equipped for such an independent selective strike, the risk and cost could have been reduced. Perhaps fewer weapons would have been needed had cruise missiles been used instead of bombs, but in any case the necessary strike loading probably could have been carried in two, three, or four boats. What was missing from the submarine inventory that could have permitted a lower risk operation is a submarine-launched, unmanned air vehicle capable of covert approach for immediate pre-strike reconnaissance, real-time targeting, and post-strike damage assessment. –
The Grenada operation of 1983 apparently could have been improved in many ways but for illustration the covert insertion of Seals sometime prior to the main assault can be examined. There are many reasons for getting a small force ashore without alerting the enemy, but to do so means that ships or aircraft would have to drop insertion teams far enough off shore to avoid detection. Obviously, there are limits to the distance swimmers can cover on their own. Sea temperature and surf conditions can further constrain movement to the beach. What is needed is a swimmer delivery system that protects the Seals from the environment anywhere, and has enough range to permit the mother unit a sufficient stand-off. That’s a recognized requirement and it is being worked on. What may not be so well recognized is the desirability of using a submarine as the base unit and launching platform for the swimmer delivery vehicle. In an area other that the Caribbean it might be difficult to mask the approach of a U.S. Task Force to within the 50 miles or so that might be required even for the transit of a new swimmer delivery vehicle. In addition, any equipment acquisition for special force insertion should take into account the possibility of conducting an operation without a subsequent full force landing. For that type of covert insertion it means that such a swimmer delivery vehicle would have to mate with the submarine and perhaps the submarine would require some special communications to perform as an on-scene command post.
– A third example of a low intensity conflict situation in which a properly configured submarine might have been of great use to national authorities was the anti-terrorist effort subsequent to the highjacking of the cruise ship ACHILLE LAURO in October of 1985. Again, any approach to the ship itself would have to be covert to avoid triggering unwanted action by the highjackers against their hostages. It would have been desirable to stop the ship and immobilize it so that it could not proceed to a safe haven for the terrorists — like Benghazi or Tripoli. Today one can envision a submarine using a remotely operated underwater vehicle to attack the ship’s propulsion means and leave it dead in the water without causing any other damage that would impair seaworthiness or involve loss of life. Then Seals launched from the same submarine could make a night boarding of the highjacked ship. A ship-stopping capability would certainly have been most welcome during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
Another potential use of SSN’s in low intensity conflict situations has to do with the covert mining of waters to be denied to others for some reason. The mines themselves might be self-propelled, but there is a practical limit to the distance from which they can be delivered. That practical stand-off probably always will be within the perceived political risk-range for surface ships used in these types of actions. Direct delivery of today’s mines by the SSN may similarly not present an acceptable risk for the benefits to be achieved. However, it is possible to postulate some type of submarine launched undersea autonomous vehicle which could make the desired transit, lay the mines in the proper place, and return to the mother ship without calling any attention to the seeded area. Such a vehicle probably should be fairly large to carry enough mines to be effective. It has been estimated that a DSRV-sized UUV could carry, and lay sufficient mines to cause the closure of most third world ports.
The four different systems suggested above could be developed for enhancement of the submarine’s contribution to the U.S. Low Intensity Conflict posture. A short look at each should demonstrate their feasibility, or at least prompt a deeper examination. A strike-aiding, sub-launched autonomous air vehicle could actually be a modification of one of the current submarine cruise missiles. It stands to reason that other folding wing designs could be tailored to meet whatever specifications of endurance, speed, and payload can be packaged into the volume dictated by a torpedo tube or vertical missile launch tube. If the airframe has to be too fragile to take the submerged launch, then some canister system can be devised. A workable communications link between bird and boat is clearly possible in the same manner in which SSN’s talk to manned aircraft. Obviously, mission information needs which expand bandwidth, data rate, and long-range, real-time requirements will complicate the link/sub covertness problem, but no real stoppers are apparent.
The swimmer delivery vehicle suggested earlier might be nothing more than a small, mateable submarine optimized for carrying men. We’ve done that before with our DSRV’s. Propulsion, navigation, and life support are considerable engineering challenges, but they are not insurmountable. Since the payload is human, the control can also be by a live crew, thereby reducing the reliability problems inherent in unmanned oftboard vehicles. The soft-kill remotely operated vehicle suggested as a ship stopper, also minimizes the potential control problem because it can be tete-operated over some hard link, such as a fiber optic cable — putting a man in the real-time loop. Endurance should not be a big problem because mission duration would probably not exceed a few hours at most. It seems very likely that the ship stopper can be carried internally and launched through a torpedo tube when needed. The covert mining vehicle, however, has been stipulated as fairly large to accommodate its required load. Its very size, however, should guarantee the propulsion and energy storage space necessary for a considerable round-trip mission. The navigational accuracy required might be met with periodic near-surface excursions for GPS satellite updates.
In consideration of the above observations, it may be concluded that the development of special systems for submarine Low Intensity Conflict is both feasible and practicable. There is a special caveat that has to be emphasized, however; these systems are all proposed as submarine systems, and they will all affect the safety and operational effectiveness of the submarine. Therefore, their development has to be conducted accordingly.
We have left only the question of why submariners should want to take on such developments outside their mainstream missions. First, there’s a national need and submarines offer a natural solution. On a more practical level, all of the systems suggested can be used in big confrontations as well as little ones — particularly when it is considered that there are areas in big wars where normal forces can’t operate because of enemy dominance, rather than just political preference. Moreover, if the budget crunch gets any tougher, one suspects that national acceptance of the need for submarines in Low Intensity Conflicts should help validate current force levels.
To bring about meaningful participation of the Submarine Force in Low Intensity Conflicts, through proper development of appropriate systems, all interested parties are going to have to pull together. The submarine community can not do it alone; but they probably have to be the ones to lead the charge. Those in Congress who see the need will have to support specific add-ons to the budget and should be shown that the cost of this work should not come from basic platform money. Most particularly, Special Ops leaders will have to be convinced that it is in their best interests to support submarine Low Intensity Conflict enhancement so that their own operations have a more complete base.