In July of 1989, a new five year GLOBAL War Game series was commenced at the Naval War College at Newport. In a nutshell, its objective was to investigate national security issues in an increasingly multipolar world as the hegemony of the Soviet bloc slowly unravelled. The five year nature of the series suffered an early death when virtually all of the “unravelling” spontaneously occurred in a 2-3 month period over the ’89 Christmas season.
During 1990, with the “fuzziness” of the future having been empirically demonstrated, a new series commenced whose central theme was to project a “set” of possible worlds which were overlaid with a relatively large group of possible crises. With the “warp and worf”r of these two sets of variables, a “tapestry” of credible scenarios was created in direct contrast to the more traditional fvced point of a specific crisis in a given world scenario.
Several macroscopic findings leapt from this excursion. Since the planning of force structure has a time constant of tens of years, the only reasonable assumption is that the specific (and properly economically limited) force structure that will exist for any actual future crisis it must cover within this tapestry will be non-optimal. The “vernier” vector which allows this nonoptimum set of forces to adequately deal with the actual emergent situation is tactics, ” .– the art and science of coping with the imperfect.” Fortunately, when properly done, the time constant of evolving appropriate tactical concepts into promulgated tactical doctrine is measured in months, not years.
Other insights included the observation that the term “Limited Intensity Conflict (LICt, as the events in and around Kuwait are dramatically proving, is a poor way to describe likely scenarios in any post-cold war world If anything must be limited, it is the duration of such conflict, and not the intensity. In fact, as in the Persian Gulf Crisis, the perceived high intensity of a likely response to adventurism is the deterrent factor in these scenarios. Ten thousand raps with a one pound hammer does not equate to one rap with a ten thousand pound hammer even though the work expended might be the same by the laws of physics. Third World Conflict (‘IWC) far better conveys the large spectrum of contingencies for which national political, economic, diplomatic and military force must be prepared. Also, the paradigm that “strategic” equals “atomic” must be broken. All TWC in which the U.S. chooses to participate is strategic in nature or we would not commit such assets to protect U.S. interests. “Nuclear” certainly remains a subset of “strategic”, and in a very real sense, all wars since August 1945 have been nuclear wars. As in chess, the fact that a piece is not played does not eliminate its participation in the game.
An observation of no small concern to submariners is that in both this year’s GLOBAL, and a ‘Technological Initiatives Game” that preceded GLOBAL at Newport by about a month, a perception was generated that U.S. SSNs did not contribute as significantly as would be expected from such a large chunk of U.S. force structure. In fact, a statement heard was that ” … present tactical doctrine precludes the effective use of U.S. SSNs in Third World Conflict!”
The above is a painful phrase for submariners to hear, particularly when we have fought so hard for so long to successfully protect the concept of a “multi-purpose” platform against those who would have had us tweak the “goodness” of the U.S./USSR “Battle of the Barents” naval laydown with a collection of mission-specific boats expressly tailored for certain precisely defined scenario-specific applications. To a certain degree, we are now at a point analogous to where we were in 1946. A victim of our own success, submarines largely won the cold war as an “uncorrelatable force,” and we now find ourselves focussed on a still important, but increasingly unlikely mission.
Other damaging perceptions seemed to be that we could if we wanted to, but would really rather not engage diesel-electric submarines. Also, a recent news release by the Gannet News Service quoted an “expert” retired nuclear submarine CO to the effect that it was unlikely that U.S. submarines would want to enter or operate in the Persian Gulf due to the “narrow” straits and “shallow” (300-600 foot) water depths involved. It must be remembered that we had fielded more than a dozen SSNs in an ASW role and were commissioning the 588 class before there even was a non-U.S. nuclear powered submarine; and remember that NAUTILUS entered the deep Arctic basin only after passing through uncharted waters of the Chuckchi and Beaufort Seas where clearances dropped to only a few feet under the keel and a few feet over the sail. There are more than a few of us who have made routine submerged passages through straights narrower and shallower than Hormuz.
As in 1946, it is of the highest possible urgency to review for continued applicability the “postulates” from which we have conceptualized, constructed and executed the most successful peacetime naval operation of modem history — the neutralization of the Soviet fleet. First, there is a subliminal feeling that if we could do the Battle of the Barents, than any other military employment would be a some lesser subset of that engagement This is as convoluted an assumption as made by SAC in the late 40s when the ability to deter the Soviets through threat of nuclear annihilation “certainly” included the ability to deter lesser powers (N. Korea, Cuba, N. Vietnam). For submarines, the answers to such basic operational issues as the degree of command and control or connectivity are dramatically different when the venue of the question is changed. We cannot afford to rest on our laurels at this point, and claim that our “contribution to TWC will be to land a few SEALS, shoot a few 1LAMs and to employ a whole family of as-yet undeveloped “widgets on a wire” ROVs/AUVs. We need to articulate a substantial and meaningful participation with what we now have on hand.
One such issue is “survivability” – submariners, even when victorious, have always taken huge losses when committed to significant combat use. The Germans lost more than 75% of their U-Boat personnel in WW II, and we lost about 20%. Virtually all credible evaluations of the now unlikely Battle of the Barents point towards a virtual destruction of the Soviet Northern Fleet quickly, but at the cost of U.S. SSN losses which are not out of keeping with historical precedent The attitude of “War is Hell, and we’ll take our lumps while getting in our licks” is entirely unacceptable in a 1WC context however, and unless Force Commanders can look the National Command Authority (NCA) squarely in the eye and promise virtually no reasonable probability of losses, the risk of domestic opinion and geopolitical response to such losses will strongly argue against SSN employment.
Fortunately though, other variables in the TWC combat algorithm change in addition to survivability. Masters of stealth warfare, we would use that characteristic in a general war with the Soviets to greatly enhance the probability of mission accomplishment through a platform intensive campaign in a “target-rich” environment. That same stealth can be used to buy great survivability — particularly since any likely 1WC scenario would not be target rich – and a weapons intensive campaign could be orchestrated, accepting a lower Pk per weapon launched in return for a near-zero probability of loss per encounter. As has been seen in recent years, TWC does tend to be a war of attrition, and even relatively few losses, imposed quickly and decisively, have a profound effect towards encouraging the “loser” to remove his remaining assets from harm’s way. This effect is particularly pronounced when he is obliged to carefully weigh his position in some local strategic balance. If four of six on-station KILO submarines returned to home port on the surface after the other two were lost in a day or so to U.S. SSNs, the SSNs concerned would not be taken to task for the fact that those two sinkings required six attacks with torpedo salvos fired from maximum range. One cannot sustain that level of weapon expenditure per kill in a Battle of the Barents, but it would certainly be acceptable in the Battle of the Indian Ocean or Yellow Sea. Such tactical doctrine against “quiet” targets might require the evaluation and refinement of doctrine from a tactical concept which involved opening to a maximum firing range position following detection — even though this meant that target contact would not be held at, or for some period of time prior to, the firing point. If cruise missiles can be fired at surface ships on statistical considerations of where the targets used to be by someone else’s report, why not torpedoes based on where you knew the target was a bit ago? It would appear that the only two tradeoffs necessary are the confidence level desired from some expanding “area of uncertainty,” and how many weapons one is willing to release to “cover” that area.
Tactical concepts such as these have historically spawned in the bright young wardrooms of the Submarine Force and at Submarine School. Those concepts that passed some credibility check, perhaps at SUBSCOL’s attack centers, were then handed off to DEVRON 1WEL VE for material possibly worthy of exercises, evaluation, refinement and eventual promulgation as available doctrine. Even if the attrition rate of concept to doctrine is 90%, that is both acceptable and desirable, and this fleet input from the LT/LCDR level remains a critical element if we are to avoid operational stagnation.
Since the requirement for U.S. participation in lWC can occur suddenly, and at virtually any place on the globe, other “truths” emerge. As with fires in the Main Lube Oil Bay, timeliness of response is critical. However, the only conservative assumption is that no U.S. forces will be in the immediate area. Historical precedent and recent exercises show that fully ready submarines can roll in hours to arrive in days. It is entirely feasible that desired missions (read as weapons loadout) would not have been determined by the time they are otherwise ready to depart. This consideration, plus the ability to release salvos of twice current size in a weapons-intensive encounter, is perhaps the strongest possible argument for SEA WOLF in the coming decades, since the doubling of her magazine capacity would allow her and her sister ships to be sailed with a large on-board mix of weapon types for greatest flexibility of NCA options while on station.
In all this talk of TWC, a tempting mistake is to claim that a type of weapon system can conduct it “better” than another. There are synergisms and complementary capabilities — for decades, the “Strategic Triad” provided both an intellectually satisfying and practical synergism in the spatial domain — land, sea and air. Certainly, the B2 is a survivable and quicker way than by submarine to deliver 20 tons of high explosive from CONUS to a distant target set, but does not have the presence and endurance of the SSN; the SSN, though much more responsive and covert than a Carrier Battle Group (CVBG), does not have nearly the firepower or the sustainability of the CVBG. This “quick, quicker, quickest” nature of three complementary capabilities could easily provide the core concept of a Strategic Triad for lWC in the temporal domain. Coordinated operations by no means need to be conducted simultaneously, and it can easily be envisioned that part of the mission of each subsequent “wave” would be actions that would enhance the survivability and effectiveness of the next.
The continuing occurrence oflWC is a reality. The U.S. will learn to do it well, or else we will do it frequently. Submarines have critical but as yet poorly identified or articulated roles in this lWC. If we do not effectively rise to correcting this oversight, submarine programs will suffer continuing budgetary pressures, much to the detriment of U.S. security.