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31 January 1992

This paper provides a condensed version or “Submarine Roles in the 1990’s and Beyond,” issued by the Assistant Chief of Naval Operations, Undersea Warfare.

ABSTRACT: With the Cold War ended, roles for submarines in support of U.S. national security objectives are examined. Roles are identified which are necessary in a world chilracterized by change and regional crises, and which are enhanced by the enduring characteristics of the nuclear submarine — stealth, endurance, and agility. These roles are: Forward Presence, Surveillance, Deterrence, Regional Sea Denia~ Precision Strike, Task Group Support, and Ground Warfare Support.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union into its constituent states at the end of the Cold War compels a reassessment of U.S. military requirements. As a part of that reassessment, it is necessary to examine the roles that will best be executed by the submarine force.

By statute, the mission of the U.S. Navy is to conduct prompt and sustained operations at sea in support of all aspects of the national military strategy. Traditionally, seapower has been essential in maintaining freedom of the seas and protecting sea lines of communication to the United States, and this has become even more important in a world of global economic interdependence. Further, since World War II, naval forces have expanded their core missions through technology to include projection of power over land. The seas are no longer a self-contained battlefield, but a medium from which warfare is conducted. Submarines are essential to the successful conduct of these central missions, but their employment in support of American interests is not widely understood.

Historically, the effectiveness of the submarine in combat has often been underestimated and submarines have repeatedly achieved significant success in roles not envisaged in pre-war plans. In World Wars I and II, the Germans intended to use submarines to sink enemy warships. Instead, the U-boat was almost successful in defeating England by interdiction of merchant shipping. Prior to World War II, the U.S. submarine force was planned to be used primarily as a scout for the battleship fleets; nevertheless, U.S. submarines were instrumental in the defeat of Japan by the attrition of shipping and supplies needed by the Japanese war machine.

Following World War II, the self-contained nature of our major adversary, the Soviet Union, diminished requirements for interdiction and attrition. The large Soviet submarine fleet and the utility of the submarine as the best defense against another submarine led to a new assignment for the U.S. submarine force — antisubmarine warfare (ASW).

As Soviet forces evolved to nuclear weaponry in ballistic missile submarines within layered defenses of mines, surface ships and submarines, and under a powerful air-defense umbrella, U.S. submarines became the only force capable of operating in this threat environment. The U.S. submarine role of forward area operations at the van of the Maritime Strategy, became the central element in the design, operation, and sizing of the attack submarine force.

Now that the Cold War has ended, what roles should be planned for the submarine force? To avoid mistakes in addressing this question, it is important to assign roles that are enhanced by the submarine’s unique characteristics that will endure in the future.

ENDURING SUBMARINE CHARACTERISTICS The submarine has demonstrated a number of characteristics which provide critical advantages and which are unlikely to change over time. The most significant of these are stealth, endurance, and agility.

Stealth – This most basic and important characteristic derives primarily from the fundamental ability of the submarine to submerge and become virtually invisible to threat sensors. U.S. submarines also have a detection advantage so that they can detect other forces first and maneuver to avoid being detected. With nuclear propulsion, submarines are continuously stealthy. Extraordinary efforts in ASW have not significantly diminished submarine stealth. The cost of such efforts should preclude any possibility of eliminating submarine stealth in the future. The advantages of stealth are so pervasive that considerable efforts are being expended to provide aircraft and surface ships with defensive measures and only a fraction of the stealth that the submarine can achieve by simply submerging. These advantages are:

Covertness – Stealth allows submarines to conduct assignments without any indication that American forces are present or involved. The amount of involvement to be disclosed can be controlled.

Surprise – Stealth allows the submarine to retain the initiative, conducting missions or engaging threats on the submarine’s own terms when the adversary may not be prepared. The utility of surprise in warfare is well known.

Survivability- The submarine cannot be readily attacked because it cannot be readily detected. Stealth allows the submarine to select the conditions of battle so that it can fight when outnumbered, prevail, and live to fight again. It can be depended upon to continue its assignment. It is not likely to become a debilitating loss that could undermine the American will.

Freedom of movement – Because of stealth, the submarine can operate almost anywhere, including areas that are denied to other forces.

Self-defense – The submarine’s primary defense is its stealth. It does not need other ships or aircraft to aid in its defense and can employ the majority of its weapons in offensive attack.

Uncertainty – Stealth can create uncertainty because an adversary cannot determine where, when, or how many submarines are in opposition.

Non-provocation – Submarines can be moved into position, remain on station, and be withdrawn without implications that might cause a crisis to escalate or result in an adverse response.

Eudurance – The nuclear submarine can remain on station for several months, limited only by onboard food supplies or weapons expenditure. Submarines do not need to rely on forward bases, logistics trains, or prepositioned supplies, and therefore do not place taxing requirements on the theater commander. Endurance provides the following advantages:

Continuity – The submarine can remain where needed for long periods of time, including before a crisis develops, during a crisis, and afterward until stability is restored. Continuity of presence can be critical to operational effectiveness.

Independence – Endurance allows the submarine to operate largely unencumbered by requirements to resupply, relocate, or rendezvous to remain ready.

Agility – The submarine can arrive quickly where needed and act promptly in response to a broad range of situations. Agility is much more than mobility. It results from four factors: (1) nuclear propulsion, which provides high speed for an unlimited time; (2) the multiple mission capability provided by the ship design, weapons, sensors, and crew training; (3) a proven readiness posture, and (4) reliable shore or tender-based submarine command, control, and communication facilities, which allow submarines to rapidly receive directives and to make timely reports anywhere in the world. Agility provides the following advantages:

Mobility – High speed allows submarines to arrive promptly in any area needed and to be quickly repositioned in response to an evolving situation. With forward deployment, nuclear submarines could be almost anywhere in the world within 48 hours.

Flexibility – Without changing typical loadouts, the attack submarine can execute warfare tasks of ASW, anti-surface ship warfare (ASUW), strike warfare (STW) surveillance and electronic warfare. Submarines can also be provided specialized loadouts quickly so that they can land special warfare forces or conduct mine warfare. This versatility allows submarines to meet a variety of operational requirements, so that the military response can be tailored to the situation. Submarines provide a wide range of options for action.

Readiness – Results of exercises and real-world crises have shown that typically the first submarines can sail in 1 to 2 hours and a large number of the operational SSNs can be at sea within 48 hours.

Responsiveness – Robust world-wide two-way communications links allow submarines to respond promptly to any directive and with flexibility to multimission tasking.

SEA POWER Stealth, endurance and agility each provide significant capabilities to the submarine. The submarine is the only force that combines these three characteristics in a single unit, and this provides exceptional value. This combination allows the submarine to perform a variety of missions which are vital elements of American sea power. Submarines can go wherever they are needed. Each submarine can maintain positive, precise control over the tactical situation, so that it is exposed to risk only when warranted by the gain in mission execution. Submarines can be particularly effective in forward crises because of their striking power, relative immunity to attack, and ability to operate without support. All submarine weapons are precisionguided munitions, allowing effective attack on specific targets with high reliability and precision.

Although the value of the combination of stealth, endurance, and agility has historically been underestimated, the submarine has always exploited these characteristics to achieve exceptional results in every role assigned. Future roles must focus on the effective use of these enduring characteristics.

Recent events have left the world with only one true superpower – the United States. The demise of the otherwise stabilizing bipolar world order has, to a great extent, made the world safe for regional conflict. The exact scenarios and orders of battle in such conflicts cannot be predicted. History suggests that in the future there will be frequent crises and conflict, fueled by ethnic and cultural differences, changing geopolitical structures, or competition for control of economic resources. The global interdependence of nations and nearly instantaneous communications implies that many of these crises and conflicts will have consequences for the security of the United States.

With the spectrum of threats so much less well defined and more broadly based, alertment to an impending crisis may be only several days. With foreign basing for U.S. forces curtailed, most forces that will be needed to respond to a crisis will be physically located in the United States.

The future defense agenda has been defined to consist of deterrence, forward presence, crisis response and reconstitution. These four pillars represent the military requirements to support our national interests and objectives and are so basic that they are likely to endure. The unique combination of stealth, endurance, and agility enables the submarine force to perform critical roles in implementing this defense agenda.

These roles are:

  • Forward Presence
  • Surveillance
  • Deterrence
  • Regional Sea Denial
  • Precision Strike
  • Task Group Support
  • Ground Warfare Support

It is emphasized that a role is a part played by a force to achieve objectives. Military operations generally require that multiple forces, each with distinct characteristics, accomplish their parts in order to achieve objectives. Roles are assigned in consideration of both strategic objectives and capabilities of a force to contribute to achieving those objectives. Thus, the above roles will not necessarily be performed exclusively by submarines. For example, nuclear deterrence will continue to be performed by the triad of bombers, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, and ballistic missile submarines. Similarly, submarine operations and missions in each role complement and enable those of other forces as part or a balanced joint force structure.

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The circumstances in which these roles are likely to be required of submarines and the nature of operations conducted in each role are discussed below.

Forward Presence -In this role, the submarine, as a U.S. capital asset, will support the defense agenda of forward presence through a spectrum of activities, such as forward deployments, combined exercises and operations, port visits, and military-tomilitary relations. These will be used to strengthen alliances, influence events, and foster regional stability, while complementing the more limited navies and military forces of many friends and allies.

Although this is not a new role for the submarine force, a greater degree of visibility will likely be needed to enhance the perception of global U.S. presence and commitment, to counter the image of American withdrawal as force reductions occur and fewer forces are forward deployed. The submarine’s endurance aJiows it to perform this role without forward bases or logistic support. Stealth and agility can be used to orchestrate the image of the omnipresence of U.S. forces.

The visible presence of submarines in the Forward Presence role will be an unmistakable symbol of U.S. commitment to regional peace and stability. The potential presence of invisible submarines can multiply the effect of this symbology.

In the past year, submarines have conducted port visits in over 200 foreign cities around the world and operated with tuJval forces in a number of nations. These visits and operations clearly demonstrate American commitment to and interest in variow regions of the world.

Survelliance – Covertness makes the submarine an exceptional maritime surveillance platform. The submarine can transmit real-time information to the National Command Authorities in time to avert or mitigate crises. The value of information derived from submarine surveillance operations will increase as available warning time decreases.

The submarine can also collect intelligence of long-term value because the adversary cannot tell when or if a submarine is present, so that information can be collected without affecting the observation. Submarines can conduct covert surveillance of surface ships such as the tracking of vessels suspected of carrying illegal arms or terrorists. Only the submarine can conduct covert surveillance of other submarines.

The Surveillance role can be executed in situations across the spectrum of levels of violence, including forward area surveillance to transmit early warning of threatening activities by potential adversaries and surveillance of forces that could conduct hostile acts against the United States or our allies.

An example of such operations occurred during the Falklands War. Two British submarines conducted surveillance from locations just outside Argentine tenilorial waters that were not safe for other surveilhmce assets. They were able to provide timely warning to the British Fleet of enemy aircraft sorties towards the Falklands.

Deterrence – The submarine force will play a critical role in deterrence of both nuclear and conventional conflict The normal peacetime role of the ballistic missile submarine will continue to be nuclear deterrence, and, as long as a substantial nuclear strike capability against the United States exists, deterrence of nuclear attack will be the highest defense priority. The stealth of the submarine will make this component of the nuclear-deterrent triad the most survivable element against any eventuality.

The attack submarine will also contribute directly to nuclear deterrence by holding threat missile submarines at risk and indirectly as one of several means to verify arms control agreements. Attack submarines will simultaneously continue their important role in conventional deterrence. In the role of conventional deterrence, the submarine force contributes by being an ubiquitous threat. Any potential adversary will be uncertain about the location of U.S. submarines, but will be certain that a submarine can deny use of the seas or conduct precision strikes ashore. Heretofore, the presence of a torpedofiring submarine might not evoke the fear that is the comerstone of deterrence; however, the current capability of the attack submarine to launch surprise precision cruise missile attacks, perhaps decapitating command and control, now adds another element to be considered by potential aggressors.

The stealth of the submarine allows it the freedom of movement to go where deterrence is required and to apply direct pressure anywhere needed. The deterrence provided by forward deployed submarines is analogous to that provided by unmarked police cars patrolling the highway. In this analogy, battle groups are the police cruisers.

Submarine stealth can also create uncertainty in potential adversaries. The ability of the submarine to choose to reveal itself, coupled with its mobility, can evoke the appearance of a large force. The submarine’s stealth could be used to create deterrent pressure without any forces actually being present .

When used to increase deterrent pressure in an escalating crisis, the submarine’s relative invulnerability can be vital in avoiding undesirable events that might occur if m~re vulnerable forces were present. In addition, the absence of a visible presence precludes inciting opinion against American gunboat diplomacy.

In short, the submarine has value as a perceived, but nonprovocative global presence. While the submarine alone may not cover the full spectrum of conventional deterrence sought through presence, its unique combination of capabilities provides significant support of this element of the defense agenda.

Regional Sea Denial – Submarines will be a lead force in establishing local sea superiority, which is necessary to conduct all naval operations, except submarine operations. The first step is to deny access to the area of interest by threat surface and subsurface forces. In contested areas, this is most readily accomplished by submarines because of their stealth, endurance, and agility.

Stealth enables submarines to operate in areas of interest where risks to friendly surface and air forces are unacceptable. In crisis situations that have escalated to conflict, the preeminent capability of the submarine for antisurface and antisubmarine warfare would be exercised to clear the area of threat maritime forces. Key forces to be defeated are likely to be diesel submarines and surface ships equipped with surface-tosurface and surface-to-air missiles. Further access to the contested area would be denied by interdiction of maritime forces departing port or by maintaining barriers around the area. Such operations would be enhanced by the submarine’s endurance. The important offensive mining capability of the submarine could also be used to deny enemy use of the seas by closing ports or straits.

The utility of the submarine force in this role will most likely be greatest in areas close to an adversary’s coast, where other forces may be at risk.

In the Falklands War, the sinking of the Argentine capital ship GENERAL BELGRANO by a British submarine had such a devastating impact that it was sufficient to deny the use of the seas to the Argentine Navy, essentially establishing Royal Navy sea superiority. A principal use of submarines in regional conflict would be the early application of force to keep an adversary’s maritime forces in port.

Precision Strike – This has become a new role for the attack submarine, with the accuracy and effectiveness of submarine-launched cruise missiles graphically demonstrated during Operation Desert Storm. The submarine can strike targets within 650 nautical miles of the coast with cruise missiles. This encompasses about 75% of the earth’s landmass and includes most of the important potential targets.

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The submarine provides a nonprovocative, low wlnerability, flexible method for conducting precision strike. The principal utility of submarine-launched precision strikes is to destroy ftxed targets of significance, such as command and control facilities; to destroy targets that pose significant threats to other attacking forces, such as enemy air defense installations; or to destroy targets for which surprise is essential, such as offensive missile facilities. The number of missiles that can be fired at one time by a single submarine is not conducive to achieving saturation effects; however, a cruise missile attack using a force of submarines, composed of ten to twenty ships, can provide substantial land attack capability.

As an element of a coordinated strike, submarine-launched cruise missiles would be the vanguard element that attacks air defense, early warning, and communications facilities to reduce the threat against follow-on aircraft. The submarine enhances the performance of tactical air forces by suppressing air defenses, aUowing more tactical air assets to conduct missions other than the suppression of those air defenses.

The stealth of the submarine allows it to get into position without pre-alerting or provoking the intended adversary. Just as important, stealth allows the submarine to exploit the element of surprise and to launch the attack without risk to the launching platform. The endurance of the submarine allows it to be on station ready to conduct strikes for an extended period of time. The agility of the submarine allows it to get on station promptly and to respond quickly to launch directives and targeting changes. The precision weapons carried onboard allow the submarine to strike the designated target while minimizing the possibility and extent of any collateral damage.

During Operation Deserl Storm, nuclear attack submarinu LOUISVILLE and P/Tl’SBURGH conducted effective Tomtlhawk strikes at key targets.

Task Group Support – This role would utilize the multimission capability of the submarine to enhance the effectiveness of task force operations. The task group might typically be a carrier battle group, but it could also be an amphibious force or underway replenishment group. The carrier battle groups of the future are likely to be fewer in number and smaller in size. In some cases, smaller task groups comprised of two or three cruisers, destroyers or frigates, and one or more submarines may be tasked to establish local sea superiority, provide forward presence, or project power in smaller regional conflicts or crises.

The submarine can operate in the Task Group Support role either independently or as an integrated componenl The stealth of the submarine allows it to be the unseen eyes and ears of the task group. In this capacity, the submarine can operate with relative impunity in waters controlled by hostile forces, allowing U.S. surface ships to stay out of range of hostile fire. Its endurance allows the submarine to arrive on the scene before the task group, remain on station throughout the crisis, and depart well after the task group departs, if necessary. H the task group moves, the submarine can also move as directed. The agility of the submarine allows it to perform a number of missions as needed by the task group commander. For example, while conducting surveillance, the submarine could attack antiair capable surface ships, eliminating that threat to friendly air forces and allowing tactical air assets and surface ships to conduct other missions. The submarine can provide friendly surface ships with over-the-horizon targeting for anti-ship missiles, intelligence reports on hostile force movements, and combat search and rescue. The submarine enables the task group to conduct its oiJerations more effectively, while minimizing the risk of attack on elements of the task group.

During the Falklands War, the Royal Navy positioned submarines to shadow and report the movements of Argentine forces to protect the flank of the Brilish task force.

Ground Warfare Support – The ability of the submarine to operate covertly close to hostile coastlines allows it to insert small groups of special operations forces for which surprise or secrecy is essential. Once ashore, these forces can perform critical missions in support of amphibious assaults or ground campaigns, including gunfire spotting, forward air control, target designation for air strikes, tactical intelligence, sabotage, and insurgency support. Although a single submarine is limited in the number of personnel it can carry, a recent exercise demonstrated that a group of these submarines could deliver a substantial force ashore. These types of covert submarine operations can also be used for the insertion or extraction of non-combatants. The submarine can also perform ground warfare support missions such as the collection of tactical intelligence or coastal reconnaissance in advance of amphibious operations.

The Ground Warfare Support role may overlap with the Precision Strike role, allowing the submarine to complement other available forces in conducting strikes ashore in support of ground combat Submarines could provide the firepower for extensive destruction of key targets that pose difficulty for ground or air forces.

The Ground Warfare Support role of the submarine is essentially offensive in nature and would likely be conducted in crises that have escalated to conflict or in those in which conflict is imminent.

During World WAR II, submarines were used to insert and extract Major General Mark Clark into North Africa, behind enemy lines in preparation for the Allied invasion.

SUBMARINE ROLES SUMMARIZED Future submarine roles will be significant contributors to establishing and maintaining stability in an era of uncertainty. These roles will complement other military forces in achieving national objectives, yet the inherent combination of stealth, endurance, and agility allows the submarine to perform missions which no other force can accomplish. Versatility allows the submarine to perform more than one role simultaneously, if tasked. The following figure illustrates the way that submarines can execute vital roles across the spectrum of levels of violence in the operational continuum.

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The foregoing roles for submarines were derived from consideration of the effective use of their unique combination of stealth, endurance, and agility to implement the defense agenda in a new world order in which the former Soviet Union is not a threat to U.S. interests. Threat implies some malicious intent. At this time, the states which comprise the Commonwealth oflndependent States demonstrate little malicious intent toward the United States, but retain formidable military and naval capabilities. These capabilities represent a potential ‘hazard’ to our national security, but not a malicious ‘threat’. Until those capabilities diminish significantly, it is prudent to continue to plan for the primary attack submarine role that evolved during the Cold War — antisubmarine warfare – while shifting our emphasis to account for regional conflicts. As the former Soviet military capability declines, submarine roles will evolve as discussed in this paper.

In spite of the capabilities provided by the submarine force, there remains the issue of affordability. Although an in-depth consideration of this issue is beyond the scope of this paper, there are two points that should be made. First, submarines cost less to operate than do other capital ships. In the 1992 budget, submarines comprised over 30% of U.S. Navy combatant ships, but required only 17% of the operating funds. Submarine manning requires only 7% of the naval personnel and only 11% if tender support personnel are included.

The second point is that like other modem ships, submarines must go to sea to sharpen professional skills. Unlike other ships, however, the cost of operating a submarine at sea is only slightly greater than keeping it in port, and, once a submarine is at sea, it does not cost any more to forward deploy it than it does to operate it locally.

The U.S. submarine force will have critical roles to perform as a component of a balanced force needed to provide a variety of responses in the future. Specifically, nuclear submarines are uniquely capable of operating in harm’s way with minimal risk. They can provide the first sustained presence in a contested region for surveillance, indication and warning, neutralization of diesel submarines and missile-firing surface ship threats to our task groups, insertion of special forces for clandestine operations, and/or launching the first precision salvo of a coordinated strike ashore. The submarine along with other joint forces allow the National Command Authorities and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to take a variety of actions with positive control, deter crisis development, tamp down a smoldering conflict, contain conflicts that do occur, and quickly prevail if conflicts encompass U.S. forces and interests. Because of the options for action that can be executed using the submarine, the submarine force provides a large number of arrows for the quiver needed to achieve our national objectives.

When costs of submarines are analyzed and compared to the benefits these ships provide, the submarine is a bargain. Most importantly, the costs of world events that might occur without the balanced forces needed for the new world order make it unaffordable not to maintain an effective submarine force.

It should not be forgotten that the Cold War was won through strength: political strength, economic strength, military strength, and strength of resolve. Weakness in any of these areas at many points along the way might have resulted in a far different outcome. These same strengths will surely be required to maintain our national security in the future. The characteris· tics of the submarine enable it to serve in critical roles needed to provide the military strength and options for action that will be necessary in the future. Failure to provide an adequate submarine force that is capable of performing these roles would be shortsighted and reminiscent of strategic errors made following wars in the past.

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