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[Ed. Note: This a condensed version of an article by the same name originally published in AIRPOWER JOURNAL, the journal of the Air War College, Maxwell Air Force Base. Republished wiJh the permission of AIRPOWER JOURNAL.]

One would hardly expect a submariner to advertise himself as an expert on the developing advanced tactical fighter (ATF), and that is not the intent, but there are some parallels between the nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) and the ATF, based on the evidence that the ATF is revolutionacy and represents as dramatic an advance over previous fighters as did the SSN over conventionally powered attack submarines (SS). It should be kept in mind, however, that in addition to other dramatic differences, there are orders of magnitude between the time constants of the two platforms. For example, the running time of an SSN-launched torpedo from one’s own ship to the target, following a 12-24 hour approach from the point of target detection, can easily be longer than the total mission time of an air superiority fighter from takeoff to landing.

It is interesting to note that not until the Air Force developed the B-2 bomber did the submarine community realize (and find the words to describe) just what we have been doing all these years — practicing stealth warfare. Since then, the more that has been revealed about the application of stealth technologies and tactics in the air, the more it becomes apparent that concepts and principles of stealthy operation long taken for granted by submariners are now being rediscovered by aviators.

Of course, a considerable level of appreciation for the value of surprise among fighter pilots has long existed (and stealth is nothing more than the substitution of technologically-assured expectations as the source of surprise rather than a mix of consummate skill and blind luck). The U.S. Navy’s TOPGUN syllabus from the mid-1970s has emphasized that 82% of all airto-air victories during the Vietnam war were attributable to the victor’s being able to attack prior to the opponent being aware of his presence. It would appear that what aviators call situational awareness is much like (and clearly related to) stealth under the sea – a zero-sum game – only one in a given duel can have it; the other is detected first and probably destroyed. The best past practitioner of stealthy tactics in the air may have been German WWII ace (with 352 victories!) Erick Hartman whose personal doctrine was SEE. DECIDE. A TrACK, BREAK. TOPGUN instructors have interpreted that terse guidance based on interviews with Hartman – to mean that a pilot should attempt to detect without being detected, judge whether he can attack covertly, close to a point that would assure a kill, and then disengage rapidly to repeat the process, rather than hanging around in what submariners would call a melee, and fighter pilots term the visual furball.

When I reported to the USS SCORPION (SSN-589) at the Electric Boat Company in Groton, Connecticut as an Ensign in 1961, it had just recently joined the fleet as the 12th U.S. nuclear submarine. During the next 13 months, while qualifying in submarines, I watched some early Navy attempts to determine just how the SSN fit into the scheme of things. At that time, enthusiasm for SSNs within the Navy and the Submarine Force was far from universal. Except for the small but growing cadre ofRickover-trained disciples, most people viewed the SSN as a somewhat faster SS whose greatly increased procurement, training and maintenance costs made its justification questionable. Indeed, the increased cost and trouble of an SSN did not compete well with those of the tried and tested SS if all that was expected of the SSN was to perform the mission set of the SS a little faster.

Aboard SCORPION, new and more dominant missions began to emerge. In one particular operational exercise, SCORPION was tasked to operate in a somewhat constrained area while Task Force BRAVO – a premier Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) group of that time centered on an ASW carrier (CVS) – would demonstrate just how easy it was to detect, track and simulate the SCORPION’s destruction. At periscope depth, SCORPION’s skipper, Buzz Bessac – a tiger of a submariner who had previously commanded an SS – saw them come over the hill with active sonars blasting away, then raised the radar mast and radiated. (Fully realizing that every Electronic Support Measures (ESM) set in the task force would be tuned exactly to SCORPION’s frequency). While painting the task force disposition, two escorts (the “pouncers” of that period’s doctrine) were seen to break off from the rest of the group and race down the line of sight towards their ESM intercept. In a controlled manner shortly after that, masts were lowered, full rudder and a Dank bell were ordered, and SCORPION corkscrewed down to test depth leaving the world’s biggest knuckle of turbulent, bubble-filled water as a sonar-reflective column. Heading toward the battle group, SCORPION slowed, came back to periscope depth, and simulated shooting both destroyers as they raced past towards their target. Oblivious to their simulated destruction, they passed, detected the knuckle and began a series of attacks on it.

SCORPION then turned towards the remainder of the approaching battle group and increased speed to almost twenty knots. Still at periscope depth, he began raising and lowering the many masts of that class capable of operating at that speed. Marked by the incredible rooster tail of wake and spray that this produced, SCORPION passed directly through the task force formation, and passed a few hundred yards abeam of the carrier. When the shock of the situation passed, the lead escorts turned around to chase the contact, and the pouncers were called despite their objections of having pinned down SCORPION. With several destroyers now charging back in the direction of the carrier, the organization of the group of warships deteriorated dramatically and soon turned into a frenzied melee. SCORPION meanwhile had slowed and was watching this from a moderate distance. When the confusion reached its peak, SCORPION moved back in and simulated emptying her torpedo room against the warships. From start to finish the encounter bad taken less than an hour, each unit of Task Force BRAVO was attacked at least once, and no valid attacks or even sonar detections had been made against SCORPION.

One would think that this would have shown that the SSN was not just another SS whose only hope against a collection of ASW forces was to employ its stealth in a defensive manner, husbanding a limited quantity of stored energy while carefully extricating itself from danger. In fact, however, the emotional and angry debrief of the exercise all but condemned SCORPION for ā€¢unfair and dangerous” maneuvers that jeopardized the safety of Task Force BRAVO units. The CO of SCORPION remained completely unrumed by this criticism, and ridiculed his colleagues for not appreciating that undersea warfare bad taken on a significantly different aspect.

Unfortunately, some continued to pound the square peg of the SSN into the round hole of ss employment doctrine. The primary tactical submarine mission in wartime was then seen as the banier, where SS/SSNs set in assigned geographical areas at choke points such as the GIUK Gap and waited for transiting Soviet submarines to drive in front of their torpedo tubes. Little or no difference was drawn between the SS and SSN regarding the assignment of areas or operational employmenl Even vestigial remains of a wolf pack concept were to be found in the original design concept of the SSN-593 THRESHER class, where operational employment assumed two such units operated together and triangulated targets over secure underwater communications and data links.

In all, about 20 years passed before the Navy found the optimum impedance match between intrinsic platform capabilities and mission defmition. This best [ll occurred with what is now commonly referred to as the “Maritime Strategy” when exploiting expected intelligence and warning of an impending Soviet attack in Central Europe – U.S. SSNs were to be scrambled to individual areas deep in Soviet home waters. If hostilities did commence, the SSNs would have quite simply destroyed the Soviet Navy — surfaced and submerged – with an absolute minimum of communications. Some authorities view this exploitation of the principal characteristics of U.S. SSNs as having created an uncorrelatable force which did much to unhinge Soviet military theory. Further, they maintain that in conjunction with other developments – this force precipitated Glasnost, Perestroika and the outbreak of peace between NATO and the WARSAW PACf. As might be expected, submariners are prepared to humbly accept their share of the credit for winning the Cold War.

These principal characteristics of a modem SSN – defined several years ago by Admiral Bruce DeMars in testimony to Congress – are stealth, mobility, firepower and endurance. In retrospect, what delayed the appreciation of the vast difference between an SS and an SSN was an understandable lack of foreknowledge about the synergistic and nonlinear effects resulting from adding greater mobility and greater underwater endurance to already existing stealth. Another such dramatic and nonlinear catalytic expansion of intrinsic capabilities will likely occur when the advanced tactical fighter adds stealth and the ability to supercruise (exceed Mach 1 without resorting to the extraordinary fuel demands and greatly increased thermal signature of afterburners) to the existing mobility (agility and maneuverability in fighter pilot terms) of current fighter aircraft. With luck, the best and brightest of the fighter community will conceive and implement the right new concepts in only two years instead of the twenty it took for the SSN.

One interesting but non-intuitive phenomena seen during the continuing development of subsequent classes of U.S. SSNs is that among the most reactionary of opponents to new or improved capabilities are the people who currently operate the present versions. Because submariners are in an incredibly introverted and externally cohesive organization, however, their objections to proposed developments are rarely heard outside the confines of submarine wardrooms. For example, those serving on NAUTILUS, the first SEA WOLF, and the SSN-578 SKATE class saw the breaking of submarine construction rules on the SKIPJACKs (single versus double huU, one main propulsion shaft instead of two) as radical and even dangerous – although the results of these dramatic changes made the platform far quieter. While I served on SCORPION – a SKIPJACK class SSN – the SSN-593 TIIRESHER class was being developed. Internally, officers expressed concern about why so much money was being spent on her quieting – surely SCORPION was quiet enough. Further, they thought at the time that putting torpedo tubes in the middle of the ship instead of the bow was a dumb idea, that installing such a big sonar array was unnecessary, and that trading any of SCORPION’s speed for THRESHER’s increased depth capabilities was foolish.

When building and serving on FLASHER – a THRESHER class SSN — the wardroom was convinced that the changes in that class had been worthwhile, but questioned the increased cost, greater size and even further quieting of the SSN-637 STURGEON class. A few tours later, having served on two STURGEONs, I was now senior enough to lead discussions rather than just listen, and actively participated in wardroom belittling of the even more stealthy 688 LOS ANGELES class then under development and construction. Why was it so big and expensive? Who needed that much more horsepower? Why give up some depth capability for increased speed? (Complaints had come full circle!) At this moment, I suspect many 688 class submariners are questioning why in the world we should stop building the world’s perfect subiTUlrine in favor of the SSN-21 SEA WOLF- a platform “too big, too expensive and quieter than neededi besides, why do we need to double the torpedo tubes and number of weapons carried?” Throughout all these submarine developments, other important characteristics such as firepower, speed, and depth may have been traded off, but never, thank goodness, stealth itself– the Mother of all capabilities.

In retrospect, the U.S. policy of stealth first in successive generations of attack submarine classes was money in the bank against the first incremental, then dramatic improvements made by the Soviets. As a result, U.S. SSNs commissioned more than a quarter of a century ago remain as quiet as anyone’s newest and best.

I cannot authoritatively comment about professional discussions in fighter squadron ready rooms, but it would seem almost a violation of human nature if some of the hottest F-15 and F14 jocks were not somewhat skeptical about why their aircraft needs to be replaced by an advanced tactical fighter. However, as Air Force fighter pilots begin to realize and implement the advantages that stealth brings to the arena of air superiority, doubts will soon vanish. Submariners have found intrinsic stealth a valuable asset across the entire spectrum of conflict. As a primary characteristic, stealth provides not only greater probability of mission accomplishments in general war scenarios, but also offers incomparable survivability in regional conflicts, when domestic intolerance of American personnel losses becomes a primary constraint on military action. Thus, rather than focus on and optimize for present or extrapolated expectations of usage, proper design policy should be to expand the set of all possible employments, particularly when dealing with breakthrough technologies such as stealth. Undoubtedly, future users will determine a purpose for what is currently excess capability. These as-designed excess capabilities become ever more critical as weapon systems are expected to last longer in a fast-changing world.

The unique and potentially revolutionary characteristic of stealth is about to invade the military fighter aviation community. Without being so presumptuous as to predict just how stealth will modify air superiority operations and tactical employment, let me briefly review a few lessons learned (sometimes painfully) as submariners coped with and exploited the stealth characteristics of modem nuclear submarines. Fighter pilots can judge for themselves whether the lessons apply to them.

Stealth is a zero-sum game. In a given encounter, one platform has it and the other does not. The tactical advantage accrued by being able to detect, close and attack from a covert stance completely dominates all other factors in any encounter algorithm.

Stealth is a commodity that can be employed towards different objectives. In an offensive sense (i.e., SSN) it can be employed to improve dramatically first-shot probability of kill. In a defensive sense (i.e., fleet ballistic missile submarine — SSBN) it can be employed to dramatically improve survivability

Stealth significantly increases the emphasis on planning specific operational employments. That is, one must consider as many contingencies and provide as much pre-mission guidance as possible to greatly reduce two-way communications in support of real-time command and control.

Stealth, which demands a greater degree of flexibility in the time domain, significantly reduces the desired degree of scheduling. The on-scene commander must be able to exploit stealth in support of both mission accomplishment and survivability by picking the right time and place for an encounter. Precise scheduling can create the illusion of professionalism, but — for a stealth platform – too much is forfeited if an action is directed to occur at “1032 hours” when it is really needed sometime on Tuesday morning.

Stealth requires a dramatic change in concepts of command, control and communications. Since all stealth platform energy emissions jeopardize its covertness, these emissions must be eliminated or kept to an absolute minimum. Great benefits are gained from exploitation of the broadcast mode of command and control where a non-stealthy component (ground controller, airborne warning and control system, etc.) directs actions that the stealthy components execute but do not acknowledge. If this link is up continuously -whether or not operational traffic is being sent — this methodology even denies traffic density analysis as a heads up to imminent actions.

Stealth places an extraordinary premium on the employment of passive sensors for detection, tracking and attack. As in the case of platform-initiated communications, active sensors with a low probability of intercept may be present, but none that are covert or secure by the absolute definition of the terms.

Stealth dictates as high a probability of survival per engagement as possible. This generally translates to religiously avoiding a melee — a situation whereby each platform is aware of the other’s presence and each is within the other’s weapon range. This concept is often implemented by doctrine which encourages the release of more than enough ordnance in the initial attack from a covert stance if it will even marginally obviate a subsequent melee.

Stealth is greatly enhanced by the ability to reestablish a covert stance after the conscious decision to reveal one’s presence through weapon release. The Battle of the Atlantic was won not by preventing a U-Boat’s flfSt attack, but by denying a second or third. The U-Boat simply Jacked the requisite mobility to reliably extricate itself from reactive ASW units that first noted a submarine when it was detected by an exploding merchant ship within the convoy.

Stealth, by itself, provides survivability and, therefore, does not require mutual support. Little is gained and much can be lost by operating with other friendly units. When a stealthy platform is assigned independent areas of operation in which no friendly units are present, it can avoid the problems associated with friendly fire. As an oversimplification, one might state that when non-stealthy platforms operate together, the tradeoffs between mutual support and mutual interference are such that one + one is greater than two. When stealthy platforms operate together, or with nonstealthy platforms, one + one can easily be less than two. As in chess, however, the fact that actions do not occur simultaneously does not mean that they aren’t coordinated.

Stealth requires a near-absolute understanding and knowledge of the surrounding environment to properly exploit low observability within it. For submarines this includes historical, synoptic and in-situ knowledge of temperature, salinity, bottom type, ocean currents, fronts and eddies, conditions at the air/water interface. It can even include wind speed, cloud cover and radio-frequency propagation characteristics of the column of air above and around the unit’s position as well as predictive orbital data for satellites –U.S. and others.

Which of these parallels of stealth best transfer from the SSN to the ATF? Bright aviators will have to determine that. What does seem to be a valid observation is that air combat is at the doorstep of dramatic change. If the F-117 A was the NAUTILUS of airborne stealth warfare, and the B-2 the GEORGE WASHINGTON (the strategic nuclear counterpart), then the ATF is the SCORPION. While all but the brightest saw NAUTILUS as a better SS — more easily accomplishing the same missions — all but the dullest saw the SCORPION and the Polaris submarines as revolutionary developments — new types of platforms which gave birth to entirely new employments and missions.



Captain James B. Hagen, USN

CWO John Robert Holmes, USN(Ret.)

Mr. Frank W. Latson

Mr. Sam Painter

Mr. John Walter Prill

Mr. Walter I. Wittmann

Naval Submarine League

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