The dramatic success of power projection from sea and air platforms in Desert Storm — coupled with expectations that similar power projection capabilities will be vital in future conflicts in our multipolar world — have heightened the attention that military planners are giving to the strike mission. This article provides a perspective on the future role of submarine-launched cruise missiles in the power projection mission.
When identical cruise missiles can be launched from surface ships, when manned aircraft strike missions are rising to the fore as the raison d’etre for aircraft carriers and when power projection in regional conflicts is becoming a fashionable justification for manned strategic bombers, it is reasonable to ask whether cruise missiles on submarines are really needed. The answer lies in the one thing that is clear about military conflicts of the future — the uncertainty of their nature. Force structures need to be, above all, flexible so that they can be tailored to the political, geographical, scale and intensity realities of the situation. Each of the above-mentioned strike platforms has unique characteristics and advantages.
The submarine’s advantages accrue from its classic attributes of stealth, survivability, endurance, mobility and self-sufficiency. The submarine’s stealth and its consequent survivability provide a strike platform that can be poised in a firing location (at relatively short ranges if desired for minimal flight time) without indication or warning to the adversary. The strike planner gets to choose the timing and the launch location of the attack; there need be no warning whatsoever until the first cruise missile is in flight to its target. No other means of power projection provides the same degree of surprise. The uncertainty of launch location presents a complication to the defense because of the multitude of possible threat vectors. And, perhaps most importantly of all in future regional conflicts, the poised submarine risks neither lives uor assets; It presents ueitber a provocation uor a target. The latter factor should become increasingly important as both modem dieseVAIP submarines and anti-ship missiles of improved range, accuracy and stealth proliferate, as they seem destined to do.
The submarine’s mobility and readiness permit it to be deployed quickly to wherever it is needed. At the same time, the submarine’s endurance and self-sufficiency permit it to remain poised for times measured in months, if necessary, without making a statement (unless one is needed) and without requiring a logistics chain. The subsurface strike threat can be played, if it is needed, or it can be held while diplomatic or other solutions are tried. Its very existence, whether deployed or not, is a deterrent to untoward actions. The strike submarine truly Is a national ace in the hole.
WHY NOT JUST SUBMARINES?
Given these attributes, shouldn’t we consider putting all of our strike power on submarines? The one-word argument against this is – cost. The combination of a modem nuclear submarine and a sophisticated cruise missile constitutes an expensive transportation system for the delivery of a thousand pounds of explosive. The submarine missile capacity does not lend itself to the kind of sustained pounding that was employed in Desert Storm. The submarine will have a limited salvo size unless it is configured to do little except to cart cruise missiles. (And I have argued in a previous SUBMARINE REVIEW article that the attack submarine of the future needs to have ~multi-mission capability, not less.) As salvo size increases, the submarine may lose some of its stealth and survivability because of detectabilities of booster plumes and surface scars and the associated risks of lingering at datum. Additionally, while not a show-stopper, the CJ problem is certainly complicated by having a submerged launch platform.
As stated earlier, the overarching need is for flexible, configurable force structures. Submarine-launched strike can be, will be and already is a crucial and important component of the overall strike forces, particularly for selective, precise and pre-emptive covert attacks. Such attacks on defensive forces can provide great leverage by reducing or eliminating attrition of subsequent air and/or surface forces. The niche of covert strike is filled uniquely by the cruise missile-armed submarine.
One certainty of the future is that cruise missile technology advances will provide options for greater capabilities. Advances can be predicted with confidence in range, accuracy, stealth, terminal seekers and responsive targeting. These advances present both an opportunity and a challenge to the submarine force.
Increased range (a doubling or tripling of Tomahawk range is not unreasonable) is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it permits the submarine to include a whole new menu of deep strike targets in its target set. But increased missile range also permits cruise missile-equipped surface ships to stand off to safe (or safer) ranges, opening up additional scenarios that may favor the cost-effectiveness of that alternative launch platform.
Likely to be the most significant technology advance is a related set of developments in new search sensors, real-time target detection and recognition techniques, mission management software and the computer density, power and architecture to put it all together. Applicable advanced sensor concepts include multi-element imaging infrared, polarimetric synthetic aperture radar, millimeter wave radar and laser radar. The sum of these advances means that the cruise missile of the future will be capable of attacking fiXed or relocatable targets in all weather, and to retarget in a matter of minutes without a need to rely on terrain matching and optical target scene correlation. These advances will open up a new sphere of applications and scenarios.
Participation to the fullest extent in this expanded role for cruise missiles will require a new level of interaction and coordination of the submarine with theater and battle group command, control and intelligence systems. Strike operations are likely to be joint in nature and centrally controlled. A near real-time targeting capability is only useful if the submarine receives near real-time target information, i.e., timely communicated intelligence. The submarine component of the overall strike force will be just that — one component of an integrated strike system. Lone wolf submariners need not apply.
We are at the threshold of an era of heightened importance for the strike warfare mission. Cruise missile equipped submarines have a clear, unique and important role to play in expected future conflicts. Advances in cruise missile technology will offer opportunities to expand that role; the submarine force must seize them if it is to participate fully. With cruise missile submarines offering a high impact, low risk strike option, future presidents are likely to ask “where are the submarines?”
(Acknowledgement: The author wishes to acknowledge particularly helpful discussions with Dr. James R. Brooke of General Dynamics Convair Division and Admiral R. L. J. Long, USN(Ret).)[Note: The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not represent positions of General Dynamics Corporation.]