Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


In order to thrive in the 21st century, the U.S. Navy’s submarine force must expand its vision of the future, taking into its grasp the full range of conflict. The submarine force is powerfully positioned to sweep the Soviet Navy from the seas. But now, without dropping track on the Soviet threat, it must engage a second target: low-intensity conflict (LIC). If the submarine force fails to prove its capability to hold a firing position simultaneously on both targets, it may place its future at great risk.

Is the Cold War over? Perhaps. To the extent that the quest for communist world domination fueled the East-West confrontation of the past four decades, Soviet actions have brought on a thaw. That does not eliminate the threat, however. Soviet power remains in place. At best, what we are witnessing is the return from black and white ideological conflict to the classic balance of power. The Russian bear was born well before the communist revolution, and he is still alive.

Obviously, the West’s policies have been effective. Containment has kept the Soviet Union in check, forcing the amazing retrenchment we now are witnessing. Military strength is the foundation of this success, with the U.S. submarine force a crucially important element. POLARIS, POSEIDON, and now TRIDENT assured the West three decades of nuclear deterrence, while the nuclear attack submarine sealed off Soviet options in the conventional realm. We must retain our submarine superiority and carry forward the new submarine programs currently in progress to continue to hold the Soviet Union in check.

Yet the submarine force should not base its entire future solely on its contribution to the conventional and nuclear deterrence of the Soviet Union. Defense dollars are very tight, and the Soviet threat is losing its sharpness, while new threats assert themselves. If the submarine force is to have a future, it must prove itself indispensable in a future world of diffuse and complex threats. The submarine force today must heed what Bob Dylan wrote in the 1960s: “The times, they are a changing.”

Future threats: Although the United States continues to contend with Soviet power, it faces new threats as the bioplar world we know is transformed by uncertain alliances, emerging power spheres, and changing economic dominations that may bring changes in the military power of other nations. The United States must cope more effectively with that swirling pot of poison made up of drug cartels, terrorists, religious fanatics, violent ethnic forces, powerful insurgencies, decaying dictatorships, and crazy rulers that crowd the lower end of the threat curve and collect under the label of LIC.

The term LIC has broad meaning in current defense dialogue, but to the U.S. Navy, LIC means peacekeeping and crisis response on a global basis. The defense establishment and the Navy in general have addressed LTC, but this mission has yet to be properly detected, tracked, and classified by the submarine force. The U.S. submarine force can deal elTectively with the high-intensity threat, be it Soviet or some new powerful national force of the future. Potentially our modern submarines can also make a significant contribution in LIC. We must exploit that potential much more fully and quickly than we have to avoid having the funding rug pulled out from under the submarine force.

Let me hazard a prediction: Defense funding is about to go into freefall. As it does, the combination of a reduced Soviet threat and the unavoidable price tag shock of modern submarine programs will bring projected submarine development to a standstill, unless the modern submarine can prove itself capable across the full spectrum of violence. In a nutshell, the submarine force must get into the LTC business in a big way.

But isn’t this just a parochial pitch for submarines in a world where they are now less relevant? Absolutely not. Our submarines already have capabilities for LIC. As the ultimate stealth platform, the modem submarine can threaten and execute strike missions with TOMAHAWK cruise missiles, insert and recover special forces, conduct clandestine intelligence missions, execute mine warfare, and control coastal waters through effective anti-submarine and anti-surface operations against enemy naval forces. These operations are less subject than those of other forces to hostage situations and combat losses which potentially restrict military action. Unfortunately, some of these contributions are underdeveloped. Even those we do exploit are kept hidden under a security basket, where neither potential supporter nor prospective victim may know they exist. It is time to take the wraps off what the modem U.S. submarine already can and does do in LIC.

A Dual-Capable Submarine Force: The current submarine force and its programmed future are prepared for highintensity conflict. But only a fool would think we could raise a second submarine force for low intensity. And only a bigger fool would replace the fully capable big-war forces we now have and are planning with a low-intensity force. The only way to accomplish both missions is to create a single submarine force inherently powerful in both big wars and LIC.

We need a dual-capable submarine future. How do we get it? I offer some concrete proposals. The first is absolutely essential to the success of the other — fully accept LIC as a major submarine mission.

If the leaders of the submarine force do so, and if defense planners in general can visualize the better possibilities inherent in an enhanced submarine force designed for both large and small wars, the other proposals follow naturally:

o Tell the public exactly what submarines can do now in crisis response and contingency operations, such as the Persian Gulf and Mediterranean operations of the last decade.

o Continue and expand submarine capabilities in special operations through force-wide training emphasis and through developmental programs that fall in place when the USS SAM HOUSTON (SSN-609) and the USS JOHN MARSHALL (SSN-611) leave service. Work directly with the Commander-in-Chief Special Operations Command on marrying special forces requirements with new submarine capabilities.

o Give the TOMAHAWK weapon system in submarines an organic targeting capability in conventional land attack as rapidly as possible.

o Review the weapon loads of submarines deploying to certain forward areas to provide greater strike capability, even at the expense of the anti-submarine warfare mission.

o Retain the options of post-START (Strategic Arms Reduction Talks) conversion of existing ballistic missile submarines to high-capacity strike warfare platforms for LIC.

o Buy enough submarine strike weapons to possess a robust capability in this area for LIC. Develop future submarine strike weapons with an eye toward affordability and mission needs in LIC.

o Seek the earliest real-world opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness of strike operations from the submarine.

o Evaluate the existing submarine capability to defeat small diesel submarines in coastal waters, this being the most likely ASW action in LIC. Undertake the improvements in training and equipment dictated by the results.

o Explore submarine force improvements and new mechanisms in submarine operational command, control, communications and intelligence to make assigned submarine assets fully responsive to theater and joint requirements in LIC scenarios.

o Evaluate submarine-launched remotely piloted sea and air vehicles for organic intelligence and targeting.

o Enlarge the emphasis on submarine operations in direct support of battle groups.

o Develop the doctrine, documentation, and training needed to conduct effectively all types of LIC operations from submarines. Require of submarine crews the regular demonstration of skill in LIC missions. Fully address these missions in basic, advanced, and seniorlevel submarine training curricula.

o Ensure that LIC capabilities are a major design consideration in future submarine programs. Review current programs for maximum LIC contribution within design limitations.

o Seek every opportunity to highlight, to defense planners and the public, the strong qualities of the modem submarine as a platform for LIC.

The submarine force brings to the defense table a combination of highly capable weapon systems; the stealth and endurance of the modem submarine; a proven record of technological progress; a well-trained, disciplined, and highly motivated team of warriors; and a credible position with the public and the defense leadership. Having demonstrated that they have a proper track angle on the Soviet fleet, submariners must now achieve a firing solution on the low-end threat.

The first hurdle is the toughest one: sufficiently moving aside the submarine force’s preferred mission against the Soviets to develop this needed second capability in LIC. This must be done. Both the threat possibilities and the funding realities of the future will demand that the submarine force have more to olTer than simply the ability to clean the Soviets’ clock.

Captain John Byron, USN

Captain Byron is a submariner on the faculty of the National War College in the Department of Military StraJegy. This article is reprinted from the January 1990 PROCEEDINGS, by special pennission.]

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League