[Ed. Note: Dr. Thompson received his Ph.D. from the University of ilinois. He served six years at the Naval Research Laboratory and is currently a faculty member of the University of Maryland.]
As all readers of the SUBMARINE REVIEW are aware, the sweeping changes amongst the former Warsaw Pact states have already bad an enormous impact on the submarine force, and these changes are likely to continue. The purpose of this essay is to try to anticipate some of the changes (technical and political) which will affect the Navy and Subma-rine Service and the effects these will have on their roles, missions, and force levels.
Perhaps the major consequence of the fragmentation of the old Soviet Union for our Navy and Submarine Forces is the rapid drawdown in the Commonwealth of Independent States (C.I.S.) armed forces, both conventional and nuclear. In particular, the land forces formerly part of the Red Army and Warsaw Pact have degraded to the point that it would take some years at least for these forces to reconstitute a threat. Similarly, much military hardware from existing stocks is for sale at giveaway prices, as has been widely reported in the press. These developments have dramatically reduced our requirement for a European forward-based military presence. Much of the former Soviet Navy has been scrapped, or is for sale, and the remainder seems to be operating at a lower tempo than before.
The situation of the former Soviet submarine force, from our perspective, is less rosy. Certainly, scores of older units have been discarded, with attendant concern in the West about the disposition of nuclear reactors. Submarines of many types are evidently for sale, including nuclear boats like the Charlie I leased to India. The size of the old Soviet Navy submarine force was so large, however, that the Russians could discard or sell everything but their most recent SSNs, SSGNs, and SSBNs, and still retain a very credible capability. In particular, the C.I.S. could get rid of hundreds of hulls and still retain rough number parity with our attack and strategic submarine fleets.
What reason is there to suspect the Russians will retain even a token submarine force? Historically, the Soviets (and the forces of the Czar before them) have always operated large submarine forces compared with other nations. The Soviet fleet grew rapidly after the Soviet Civil War and was the largest submarine fleet in the world when the Germans invaded in 19411. Strategically, the C.I.S. will be less in a power projection posture than a defensive posture for some time to come. Classically, submarines have been used by minor powers as a defensive weapon for sea denial to prevent invasion and blockade, and the C.I.S. will probably wish to retain this capability. Additionally, a viable submarine force gives the C.I.S. a means of vetoing overseas power projection by other nations. As has been pointed out by others as well, if the C.I.S. had chosen to interdict the buildup of Coalition forces in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf War might have turned out very differently. Moreover, a substantial fraction of C.I.S. nuclear weapons still reside on SSBNs, and it seems likely that the C.I.S. will retain them to deter attack, primarily by ourselves or the Chinese. It should be noted that even if the Delta IVs and Typhoons do not go to sea, their missiles can still reach many targets in the U .S., and thus they still represent a threat (like a missile silo) even tied up at the pier. Of course, it is impossible to tell where the Russian SLBMs are currently targeted. Even if one believes the columnists, that the C.I.S. is now a friendly nation, tbe uncertainty regarding C.I.S. command and control arrange· ments (not to mention their intentions) together with a retained nuclear capability and the other reasons cited above suggest that the C.I.S. submarine force remains a threat to tbe U.S., and therefore a concern of the U.S. submarine force.
Amongst the other likely consequences of the world’s emerging into a New Order will be a new level of disorder; armed conflict on limited scale, but literally in dozens of places worldwide. In the last several months fighting has broken out or continued in Liberia, the remains of Yugoslavia, the Kurdish regions of Iraq and Turkey, Thailand/Cambodia, Arme-nia/Azerbaijan, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and tensions are simmer-ing in many other places as well. The reasons for this are evident; the relaxation of Soviet domination has eliminated the restraints that kept religious, ethnic, and nationalist impulses in check in the old Soviet bloc and added to the normal level of conflict. The fifty-odd ethnic groups officially recognized in the old Soviet Union now have nothing in principle to prevent them from seeking to establish independent nations. The parallel to post-colonial Africa, with its scores of tnbes and externally imposed borders which resulted in decades of war and revolu-tion is frightening. The twenty-five or so newly autonomous states, together with a number of American and Soviet allies and client states which will no longer consult the home office before acting, virtually guarantee an unprecedented number of armed conflicts in the decade ahead.
One important consequence of increased conflict around the world will be a proportionate need for intelligence about the conflict, the combatants, and their military and political activi-ties. While some of these small ethnic and religious conflicts will have little impact on us or our security, probably the majority will be of some interest, and some will be of vital interest. Unfortunately, the shrinkage of our overseas base structure will have a crippling effect on our ability to collect intelligence, especially using aircraft. Of course, satellites can make up this shortfall to a degree, but their times of passage overhead are widely known in the Third World. Surface vessels such as warships can provide continuous coverage, but they are hardly discreet and may even be provocative. In this case, as in many others, a suitable platform for intelligence gathering is a submarine, which provides continuous, discreet, nonperturbing intelligence collection. Similar examples can be found else-where of conflicts erupting long distances from U.S. bases, but close to the sea. The likely increased volume of conflict, taken together with our reduced ability to monitor it due to a shortage of overseas bases, means that intelligence collection will comprise a much greater fraction of SSN missions than it does today.
The probable drawdown in overseas bases has consequences for the projection of power as well as intelligence collection, as has been noted by others.2 A portentous example of this was the attack on Libya by FB-llls based in the United Kingdom. These aircraft were refused overflight rights over France and were obliged to take a circuitous, overwater route that required many night refuelings. As the world becomes more multipolar, we may anticipate that our diplomacy will seldom be adroit enough, fast enough, or discreet enough to secure overflight rights or permission to use bases, even from allies. The overseas base shrinkage will limit the effectiveness of our bombers in that their ranges are intercontinental only with modest (i.e., nuclear) bombloads. To carry large conventional bombloads long distances, substantial air-to-air refueling of the bombers is necessary; however, the tankers themselves require secure bases to operate from, or tankers to refuel the tankers. For tactical aircraft with shorter ranges, the need for nearby basing for effective use is even greater. The Gulf War is widely and correctly viewed as anomalous because the Saudis had constructed superb airbases which were immediately available to the Coalition forces, and could be supplied easily with fuel and bombs by sea.
The short answer to all the problems of employing land-based air power without overseas bases, which has been pointed out by Friedman and others, is sea-based air power. Primarily, this means aircraft carriers and ftxed wing aircraft, and in view of our likely need for presence at, or intervention in, limited conflicts in the next decade, we will find it prudent to maintain our capabilities and force levels in naval aviation.
Unfortunately, two technical developments may conspire in the next century to put our carriers at substantially greater risk than before, and thereby jeopardize their effectiveness. The f”li’St development is ocean surveillance satellites, and the second is ballistic missiles with terminal guidance. Of course, the Soviets operated nuclear-powered radar ocean reconnais-sance satellites for some years. While it is likely that these radars could identify aircraft carriers and detennine their position, their choice of radar rather than an optical sensor probably was due to the prevalent cloud cover over the North Atlantic and Norwegian Seas. A satellite employing an optical sensor, however, might be perfectly satisfactory for surveying most of the Earth’s surface, and in particular observing aircraft in revetments, troop deployments, or ships in harbor. Apart from a larger telescope with solid state detector, a tactically useful reconnaissance satellite might be very similar to the earth resources remote sensing satellites such as the French SPOT 1 or the Indian IRS-lA launched by the Soviets; such technology is or shortly will be within the grasp of many nations. One can imagine widely separated regional powers fanning consortia to jointly launch and operate satellites monitoring their respective areas of interest
Such technology would require very little improvement to tell the position (and probably course and speed) of an aircraft carrier and its consorts, and to provide this infonnation in real time to the customers on the ground Such a capability would substantially degrade the threat posed by an American aircraft carrier to a determined adversary. At the least, the information could be used to guide a strike by aircraft carrying seawskimming missiles. Accurate, timely target position data would probably enhance the effectiveness of even dieselwelectric submarines. Possibly most important to an adversary would be the eliminaw tion of the unknown about our strength, if not our capabilities and intentions, and the difficulty of concealment or deception. The need to find and ftx the enemy, a problem as old as war at sea, might be pretty much eliminated. Of course, such recon-naissance satellites might be eliminated by an antisatellite weapon, but it would take some time to reconstitute our capabilities in this respect.
more grave threat to aircraft carrier battle groups in the next century would be the emergence of ballistic missiles with terminal guidance, similar to the Pershing II or reputedly, the Soviet SSwNX-13. Long range ballistic missiles date back to the v w2, of which the Scud family represents only slightly improved ICBMs and SLBMs, like the Vw2, are aimed at a fixed point on the Earth’s surface. How much the impact point of a ballistic missile differs from its aimpoint depends upon the quality of the guidance system, the accuracy of the geodetic data, and in some cases midcourse correction. Inasmuch as a ship like an aircraft carrier is a moving target and not a fixed point, it is ordinarily not at risk from ballistic missiles. Pershing II (and probably SS-NX-13) was different from other ballistic missiles in that it had an active sensor akin to that on a Harpoon to guide it to its target during the terminal phase of its ballistic flight. The Pershing frightened the Soviets because its mid-yield, multi-kiloton W-85 warhead could be placed within a reputed 100 feet of its target, thus holding their hardened targets at risk. H its early and midcourse guidance could be reprogrammed in real time and the terminal guidance sensor taught to recognize a ship, a weapon like a Pershing IT might represent a real threat to a carrier battle group. While the Pershing II ordinarily carried a nuclear warhead, even a conventional 800 pound warhead plunging into a carrier deck at hypersonic speed clearly would be very destructive. More-over, the 1800 kilometer range attributed to the Pershing II would permit it to attack the CVBG at ranges beyond which the carrier aircraft can be effectively employed. The technology of the Pershing IT is not currently within the grasp of potential aggressor nations apart from the C.I.S., but the proliferation of such technology is harder to control than that of nuclear technology. Probably within the next twenty years nations capable of launching satellites today could develop terminal guidance technology like that of the Pershing ll.
It is impossible to predict the degree to which such develop-ments will represent a threat to the aircraft carrier in the next century. The Strategic Defense Initiative Organization’s protestations notwithstanding, even point defense against ballistic missiles remains a substantial technical challenge, and providing such defense within the weight and size constraints of a warship would appear doubly difficult We should not deceive ourselves that the Iraqi Scud-Bs are an accurate measure of the threat potential of ballistic missiles in conventional conflicts. In general, we cannot assure that Saddam’s incompetence In not defending his littoral sea- and airspace will be repeated by other regional powers. · Ultimately, we cannot predict if the aircraft carrier will be substantially more wlnerable than it is today, but as the principal instrument of American power projection, any nation in conflict with America will seek to make it so.
What then of the submarine force? It would seem foolhardy to draw down our attack and strategic force much further until we can be sure that the C.I.S. strategic and attack submarine forces are incapable; clearly, further mutual reductions could be negotiated. Increased tasking for intelligence collection and survelllance might also suggest a slower drawdown in attack submarines than currently planned; until now, intelligence gathering was not widely viewed as a driver in submarine design or force levels, but it seems to be a significant portion of the submarine force mission. If the effectiveness or our long range bomber force and carrier aircraft are compromised by geogra-phy and technical developments, then a larger fraction of our striking power must be submarine-borne. A regional power determined and able to defend its littoral air and sea space might be a very tough nut to crack unless substantial numbers of submarine-launched cruise missiles were available to suppress air defenses. At present, attack submarines cannot match the weight of ordnance deliverable by a carrier’s attack aircraft, but this seems unnecessary as the submarine’s targets will be the command and control centers, radars, and missile batteries whose destruction will permit the attack aircraft to carry out their missions. Nevertheless, the number of precision-guided munitions launched from stealthy platforms in the early air campaign of Operation Desert Storm suggest that scores to hundreds of missiles might be necessary against a determined opponent, and that in the future many of these will be launched from submarines.
Finally, what does the foregoing say about force levels, particularly of attack submarines? Ultimately, this is a political and economic question as well as a strategic one, so other factors will be included in force level decisions. Never-theless, some of the above strategic factors may help shape the required force levels in the next century. For strike missions, we might take as a benchmark the ability to launch a coordi· nated (e.g., nearly simultaneous) cruise misslle attack consist-ing of sixty missiles against a capable opponent. This pre-sumes that the targets are out of range of, or are too numerous for other stealthy platforms such as B-2s, F-117s, or in the future, AXs. A total submarine force of sixty SSNs using current technology in a surge mode is clearly capable of launching sixty cruise missiles in a coordinated attack (taking into account boats refitting, in port, and on other missions), whereas a total force of twenty SSNs probably could not. From the standpoint of intelligence collection and surveillance, details are unavailable regarding taskings of submarines. However, if our need for survelllance becomes greater and our non-submarine means cannot fulfill an increased requirement such that submarine tasking grows, some compensating adjustment should be made in force levels. Finally, the force level should not be permitted to decrease below that necessary to address the capability of the C.I.S. forces or, in the future, those of another power. As in other correlated forces, this means rough numerical parity and qualitative superiority. The bottom line is that if the C.I.S. essentially scraps its submarine force and no other potential opponent attempts to construct a numerous, capable submarine fleet, then we can probably get by with no fewer than thirty SSNs. If, as argued above, the C.I.S. retains a relatively numerous and capable force (about forty SSNs, twelve SSGNs, all modern), it would appear risky to maintain fewer than sixty U.S. SSNs for the foreseeable future.