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[Ed. Note: 1he following is a short, fictional account of Naval Warfare conducted in the not too distant future. Following the story is a brief assessment of the battle and the U.S. Navy in general, as seen through the eyes of an observer stationed in the year 2008.]

The U.S.  SSN was playing the same game she and many  others just like her had  played over the  years.   Alone, silent, patient, the submarine and her crew maintained a lonely  vigil  just outside  the principle  naval  port  of a  far  off enemy.  One of four submarines under the operational control of the distant USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN Battle Group Command-er, she had been sent ahead of the transiting main body to conduct the covert reconnaissance and reporting tasks at which SSNs are so experienced and expert.

The name of this game is Indication and Warning or, in military parlance, I&W. Simply said, she was to remain on station, invisible, watching for early signs of trouble. This SSN had been doing just that for over two weeks. She, or her relief, would continue to do so until the Battle Group Commander decided such monitoring was no longer necessary. In similar circumstances, at different places in times past, the nuclear submarine force had satisfied this little-heralded national need .

But today things were different. This particular nation, so peaceful and quiet looking to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs as he looked in on the live video patch the SSN beamed to all interested (and properly c1eared) parties, was about to send Marines against her neighbor to the west. A small parcel of land, common to both nations, whose ownership had been under dispute for well over 50 years, was the focus of the imminent hostilities. This neighbor to the west also happened to be a close ally of ours. The Chairman knew, from talks just completed with the President, that such an attack could not be allowed to occur. He also sensed, through nearly 35 years of naval experience and some 10 years close to the centers of power, that the carrier and her covey of support ships was not going to make it before all hell broke loose.

How did the SSN, the Battle Group Commander, the Chair-man, and the President all know this was about to happen? Quite simply, the submarine had picked off hand-held walkie-talkie communications. Orders directed the warships and troop trans-ports in harbor to prepare for an underway in advance of a land assault. As simple as this bit of eavesdropping may sound, it turns out that only a submarine on that particular coastal station at that precise time could have picked off that specific piece of information. Marine band VHF communications just don’t travel far enough for any other inteliigence collector to intercept. In fact, that’s exactly why the military harbor master chose that communications medium to transmit the critical instructions. he certainly dido ‘t consider that his simple instructions could turn the energies of the American Navy against his nation.

The SSN skipper had, of course, immediately reported the information back to his boss. Within 15 minutes of picking off the critical tipper, the President was fully informed of the imminent attack. As Presidents are still fond of doing, he directed the LINCOLN Battle Group to make all possible speed towards the crisis region. Unfortunately, she was still three steaming days away.

The Men of State roared into action . Words were smithed, drafts were issued, arms were twisted. The bottom line: within a day of discovering intentions, the President clearly signalled the Prime Minister, in words unambiguous enough to leave no doubt as to what he intended, that any attack against the neighbor to the west would elicit a swift military response from the U.S . The Prime Minister, fully apprised of the position and movements of the Carrier Battle Group through near-continuous CNN reports, responded by moving the Marine assault up two days. Net result: the I&W U.S. SSN was the only player we had there and, like it or not, the game was about to start.

Operating an 8000 ton warship submerged, in less than 100 feet of water, a mile off the beach was never easy. It was no easier now with the enemy armada bearing down. The Officer of the Deck, with his Full-Up Vinual Reality Tactical Display strapped on, focused every ounce of his energies on the task at hand.

With hostilities now imminent, it was imperative that the specially embarked SEAL team be deployed to wreak whatever havoc, and create whatever confusion possible in the enemy’s living room. The diversions would help to preoccupy and confuse the enemy while the SSN conducted its interdicting mission. As the submarine began to swing around, the 000 swivelled at the command console, looking over hs shoulder to examine the virtual image generated by the Blue-green Laser Imaging Projiler during the ship’s ingress to the drop-off point. He quickly identified a slight depression in the ocean floor, probably the long ago remains of a shallow river. As he steadied the ship on her inward leg, he ordered her down an additional three feet. It wasn’t much, but in water this shallow every inch would help to covertly deploy the SEALS and their equipment.

Unseen, invulnerable to attack, the SSN had made her way to within 1700 yards of the beach. Hovering this mammoth warship with less than eight feet of water beneath the keel and less than 20 feet to the surface, the SEAL team of 37 trained experts, their gear already staged and ready, made the walk up the after ladder from submarine to the advanced swimmer delivery vehicle (ASDV), a large, automated mini-sub mounted atop the submarine just astern of her sail. Within minutes the ASDV was away, carrying with her the forces and equipment needed to complete her mission. The Captain made a mental note to forward the mine map they’d just completed to the approaching Battle Group. It was sure to come in handy in the weeks and months ahead.

As the formation of enemy ships steamed by, the submarine signalled her intent to leave the SEALS behind for now and stick with the assault group. So began the 500 mile, 25 knot transit in company with the enemy.

Next day, just before dawn, with the SSN conducting all-sensor reconnaissance some 1000 yards abeam of the armada’s amphibi-ous assault ship, the first flight of armed helicopters was launched against its neighbor. Although not yet light enough to see the nearby horizon, the Captain, through the magic of VIEW, a synthesized full-spectrum imaging system, watched the pilots go from flight-deck to aircraft. He listened in on the pre-flight chatter. The lead helicopter indicated he’d be feet dry at 0610; over the target at 0650. That was all the Captain of the SSN needed. He had been directed to “do the best he could to slow down the enemy until the carrier could get into position.” He considered, for about a micro-second, a quick video teleconference with the Admiral to make sure. No need. He knew what was expected of him and his crew. The flight was airborne. The shooting began.                ·

The last of the enemy ships was sinking within two hours of the first submarine torpedo launch. Four of the six ships were lost when the submarine’s torpedoes detonated ten feet beneath their keels, cracking them open like eggs. Two of the enemy vessels grounded themselves in their frantic efforts to escape attack. Evading in the murky twilight while other ships around you are going down after having been broken in two is a mariner’s nightmare. For these two warships, evasion demanded more seamanship than their crews possessed. As the tide rose, the gored ships filled, rolled off the rocks, and sank, every bit as lost as those who were properly torpedoed.

The skipper immediately turned his attention to critical targets ashore, now nearly 600 miles to the east. After a brief video teleconference with the SEAL team leader ashore, the SSN captain ordered the first of the Tomahawk cruise missiles fired. Launch was timed to precisely coincide with SEAL team action inland that would debilitate the nation’s coastal power generating network. Real-time VIEW displays began within seconds of the missiles beginning cruise. While he hoped he wouldn’t have to, the Captain was fully capable of affecting targeting changes to these superb weapons at any time during their flight. The last of the Tomahawks would loiter briefly over each of the target areas, sending satellite linked VIEW imagery of the destruction each weapon affected back to military commanders and the National Command Authority (NCA). Having gathered the battle damage assessments (BOA) necessary for follow-on planning, the specially configured BOA Tomahawk reaches its final target, diving at high speed to destroy a key enemy communications relay facility.

In between, the SSN had destroyed critical surface-to-air missile sites, air control facilities, and early warning radar sites. The SEAL team had finished its work, ensuring that vital supply lines were no longer made available to the enemy. The team had in fact destroyed a key truck and rail resupply route. Air Force and Naval aviators, due to arrive early tomorrow, would have a much easier go of it with these defenses gone. Following this piece of work, which from first torpedo launch against the armada to last Tomahawk cruise missile away stretched over less than six hours, the submarine skipper sent this after-action message to the Fleet Commander:

“Have done the best I could to slow down the enemy. A waiting the arrival of LINCOLN.”

The above is, of course, fiction; a version of history that might-have-been! The reality is that in the U.S. Navy of 2008 there exist neither the quality nor quantity of submarines required to do what our make-believe heroes did. The victim of a cost-cutting mentality of the early 1990s, the U.S. Navy extant today, nearly a decade into the 21st century, consists of just over 40 SSNs, some 20 to 30 short of that required to fulfill even the most basic of national commitments. Of these 40 SSNs, only three, those making up the aging SEAWOLF class of submarines, have anything like the mission capability and flexibility required to succeed in today’s warfighting environment.

It might be argued that things didn’t have to come to this dismal state. About 15 years ago, in the early 1990s, the submarine force, anticipating the need for performance and flexibility in a new class of attack submarine, had proposed a full-mission capable submarine, to be called CENTURION in honor of the new millennium.

That proposal, as students of military history will recollect, was quickly dismissed by the proponents of cheaper, more affordable alternatives. We are today saddled with 21 of these cheap submarines that serve no useful military purpose. They lack the speed required to support the Battle Group, the speed to respond quickly, attack, and successfully disengage. They lack the flexibility necessary to accommodate the full range of warfighting missions required. Last but not least, these vessels have managed to compromise that most basic and fundamental of submersible advantages: stealth. Cheap, yes. Effective, NO!

And so, sacrificed in order to save money and meet other priorities, the submarine force was left to figure out how to meet the nation’s pressing commitments while maintaining the OP-TEMPO necessary to retain highly skilled people with a force that was cheap and small. The solution, reached at the turn of the century, was really no solution at all. The Navy began to default on commitments.

What started in 1996 as long tethers, pretending that a ship was on station fulfilling a commitment when in fact she was really some six or ten or even 14 steaming days away, tethered to the commitment, ended as it inevitably must. Gaps become accept-able, the U.S. Navy was in fact no longer present, and the NCA demurred to heretofore unthinkable requests that in essence turned what was the mightiest Navy this world had every known into a force in being.

Looking back today these decisions seem unconscionable. How could the national leadership of those years gone by have erred so badly in assessing the needs of this new, 21st century. How could they not have learned the lessons history bad to offer, not have seen the futility of pursuing the often misinterpreted Mahanian ideas of years gone by. In order to understand, you have to put yourself in their shoes, to walk their walk, and understand the forces they were up against.

The decision makers of that time were being squeezed, men caught in the jaws of a relentless vice. On their right was the jaw that screamed “There is no threat, the Soviets have gone!” On their left was the steel face of fiscal payback for the spending spree that defined America during the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The pressure these leaders found themselves enveloped in called for bold action, called for decisions that might relieve the strain. They had to do something.

Once you understand the forces acting on these decision makers, it becomes easier to understand their decisions. The Navy of the late 20th century remained a Navy defined by the Carrier Battle Group. It remained a Navy that saw itself in terms of high powered aircraft launched from the deck of monstrous flat-tops. It was a Navy that was comfortable with the paradigms of naval warfare past and, while recognizing a clear need to change size, saw no real need· to ‘thange shape. Combine the have to do something with the this is how it’s always been, and the motivation behind choices made during that tumultuous period begin to come clear.

Today, with the advantage of hindsight, it’s easier to see the enormous advantages that distributed, precision firepower brings to naval warfare, to see the revolution wrought by the introduction of long-range, beyond-the-line-of-sight munitions that can be retargeted real-time, during flight . It’s clear that the real force multiplier in the regional conflicts that have come to define our time are those small, clandestine squads of special forces, warriors who had come to rely on submarine insertion and extraction as the preferred means for getting in and getting out. It’s now patently obvious that stealth is invulnerability, that those weapons and platforms that could deliver while remaining immune to prosecution were going to hold sway during the high tech revolution of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

The Navy of the 1990s talked about an enabling role, talked about unlocking a littoral door and allowing the introduction of heavy Army and land-based air forces . Unfortunately for the residents of this century, they were simply unable to translate that strategic vision into a no-nonsense naval force designed to handle the demands of today.

Instead, the short little fictional war story told above didn’t happen. There weren’t enough submarines to do the job. The ones we do have are too slow and lightly armed and detectable to have done the job. The carrier wasn’t close enough to affect the initial action. The opportunity was missed, as it so often has been over the last couple of years.

And so, halfway around the world and yet only as far away as our video monitors, these two nations today remain locked in bloody conflict; thousands dead, hundreds dying every day while the United States fumbles through the agony of deliberations, through the utter futility of trying to decide just how to control events that have gotten so totally out of control. While we now understand just a little better the forces that led to the Navy-shaping decisions of the 1990s, this insight comes late and makes the world no better. It is a shame.


Lieutenant Gene M. Austin, USN(Ret.)

Commander Donald R. Briggs, USN(Ret.)

Captain William R. Crutcher, USN{Ret.)

Rear Admiral William D. Irvin, USN{Ret.)

Captain Russell C. Medley, USN(Ret.)

Richard Neuendorffer

Captain R. Williams, USN(Ret.)

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