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The Issues Facing Policymakers

[Published by The Center for Strategic &: International Studies, Seminar Director, Don M. Snider, Ph.D., ISBN 0-89296-236-3]

In June  1993, the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) published a timely new SSN study that provides valuable information to defense decision makers at the Pentagon and Capital  Hill.   This  condensed  version  is provided for the readers of The Submarine Review. Due to space limitations this condensation is limited to those portions of the report that deal with the operational aspects of the attack submarines in the post-Cold War era. For full coverage of this timely important topic, the reader is referred to the complete document which is available through CSIS ((202) 775-3119).


Why debate the future of attack submarines? One reason is that it has been argued that the number of nuclear attack submarines (SSNs) should be drastically reduced, perhaps to as few as 20 ships. With the vast reduction in threat posed by what remains of the former Soviet Union’s large submarine fleet, the argument goes, there is little reason to maintain a weapon system whose primary function was to counter that very specific threat and whose role in a world characterized by regional conflicts would be marginal at best. As the United States labors to define its role in the post-Cold War world and politicians decide investment priorities, there must be a careful and reasoned look at a major weapons platform that appears threatened with marginalization.

Our approach in addressing these issues has been to focus on the climate of opinion that runs through the various offices and corridors of U.S. government and the larger policy-making community, with the understanding that most defense policy is made not on the basis of analytic assessments or strategic insight, but evolves from the process of building an effective political consensus. Such a consensus usually emerges from what is known as the conventional wisdom-a set of statements that may or may not be true but have the potential to develop into a political consensus.

This report thus examines the conventional wisdom, reinforcing those elements of the wisdom that the study group believes to be true and seeking to disabuse the policy community of those elements it believes to be false. In a manner that is informative, balanced, and concise, the report focuses on the 20 most important questions whose answers best inform the policy debate. (Nine of the twenty questions are included in this condensation.)

The Changing Security and Policy Environment
Questioning the relevance of the most expensive military assets is hardly a new dimension of U .S. defense policy. Today’s defense policy decisions, however, are made in an environment radically different from that of even a few years ago. This new environment is characterized by the following factors:

  • The United States has shifted its focus from a global military competition to regional threats within more narrowly defined U.S. interests. Defense planning is no longer dominated by a monolithic threat, but must consider military operations in diverse locales, with different mis-sions than those considered the norm in recent decades.
  • Historically, there have been two different modes of U.S. defense planning; one that is resource driven, and the other that is strategy driven. The current and foreseeable environment is resource driven. Rather than the 25 percent cut in military force levels presented in the Bush Administration’s base force, the military is more likely to experience nearly a 40 percent cut from Cold War force levels.
  • A broad shift is occurring from single service operations to joint operations. Although a degree of service competition will invariably persist and remains desirable, there is an unmistakable trend, as exemplified by recent regional operations such as Desert Storm and Somalia, towards more narrowly defined roles for the individual services and more broadly defined roles for joint military institutions .
  • For maritime forces, a shift in focus from open ocean warfare to operations in littoral areas has occurred. Previously measured by its ability to defeat other ships in the open ocean, a vessel’s relevance will now more often be measured by its ability to influence operations and events inland.
  • The proliferation of advanced weapons and weapon related technologies is rapidly altering the threat environment. In the case of naval warfare, regional states that previously possessed little capability are making significant gains in undersea warfare.

This new strategic and policy environment is clearly one of transition, and it is not certain what the result will be in terms of either the international security situation or the U.S. role in promoting and defending its interests within that environment. One thing is clear, however: the United States will have, either by choice or by default, a superpower role. That role will require strategy and accompanying military force structure unlike that of any other nation. Decisions concerning maintenance of current weapons systems, force levels, and future investment must be made with this unique role in mind.

Attack Submarines. the New Strategic Environment. and U.S. Strategy

  1. The new regional orientation or U.S. strategy implies that the roles previously performed by SSNs could be per-formed in the future by non nuclear powered submarines.

False. The shift in U.S. military strategy to a focus on regional conflicts and contingencies has changed the mission emphasis for U.S. attack submarines, but this new mission does not call for a return to non nuclear powered submarines. For the United States, with global interests ranging from the Persian Gulf to the Adriatic to the Southwest Pacific, nuclear powered subma-rines are essential to support those interests. The site of future engagements will not be off U.S. shores, but on the other side of the globe.

As U.S. forces are returned to the United States, overseas bases are closed, and future threats become more dispersed geographically, the SSN’s ability to quickly deploy to any region becomes even more important. SSN operations before and during future regional contingencies will often require rapid deployments from U.S. home ports for other operating areas to the crisis region. These operations will place a premium on sustained high speed transit and submerged endurance, qualities that are the distinguishing characteristics of the nuclear submarine. As U .S. – attack submarine numbers decline from the 80s to 50s and deployed forces are spread more thinly, it will become even more important for each submarine to be capable of responding quickly to contingencies throughout the world and remaining on station for extended periods. Only nuclear submarines can provide that kind of capability, whether acting independently or in conjunction with other forces .

The main advantages of a non nuclear powered submarine are lower cost (about one-third to one-half that of a nuclear subma-rine), smaller size and hence reduced potential for detection in some circumstances, and quietness (although most nuclear submariners argue their submarines are as quiet). The non nuclear powered submarine is an effective system for coastal defense where it can act as a mobile minefield or disrupt local sea lanes. It is not a system designed for long open-ocean transit. Even with the new air independent propulsion (AlP) technologies now in development, non nuclear powered submarines will have limited submerged endurance at higher speeds. Thus, although modem non nuclear powered boats are very capable submarines, they are primarily suited for operations in a theater of limited dimensions. Such a capability does not suit the global role of U .S. maritime forces .

  1. SSNs in the post-Cold War era should be viewed primarily as antisubmarine warrare (ASW)

False. A prevalent stereotype regarding SSNs, and one of which policymakers should be disabused, is that SSNs are an ASW system and beyond that have little real utility. The U.S . nuclear attack submarine has been cast in the ASW role since the late 1960s because of a unique circumstance-the rapid expansion of the Soviet ballistic missile and attack submarine force and the need to counter that potent capability. ASW is a relatively recent primary role for submarines, made possible by technological advances in the 1960s. Historically, the submarine has proved a flexible and adaptable platform, performing a wide variety of roles as warfare and technology have changed. Submarines have evolved from their early limited role as coastal defense vessels into independent raiders, fleet scouts, and coordinate torpedo attack forces. The historical and inherent flexibility of submarine operations should return as SSNs are no longer slaved to their Cold War ASW role.

Post-Cold War ASW operations will likely present a very challenging but different problem than hunting very capable, deep diving Soviet submarines. Contrary to conventional wisdom, U.S. attack submarine operations during the Cold War were not carried out independent of other forces. SSN operations were in fact coordinated with other forces and relied on information sharing with various sources and national assets. The SSN will continue to be a full partner in coordinated ASW operations in both deep and shallow waters. There are those environments, however, such as sensitive peacetime operations, crisis management situations, and distant areas not fully controlled by friendly forces, where the SSN will likely remain the ASW platform of choice.

  1. Any role SSNs might have in a possible regional conflict is not important or unique enough to warrant buying more submarines or the current or future design. Any future missions SSNs perform can be filled well enough by aircraft, surface ships, the residual submarine force, or some combination of those platforms.

Party true. There is little reason to continue procuring an extremely costly submarine optimized to fight a foe that to a substantial degree no longer exists. Limiting the Seawolf program to only two or three ships acknowledged that reality soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Seawolf, like existing U.S. attack submarines, was not optimized for regional conflict; it was designed to penetrate Soviet submarine bastions and destroy the Soviet submarine force. A submarine designed specifically for regional conflicts would be more effective in those situations than the Seawolf design or existing U.S. attack submarines.

A strategic rationale-discounting industrial base and other concerns-for continued design and eventual construction of the Centurion submarine as a follow-on to Seawolf depends largely on an assessment of the second part of statement number three. Well enough is a difficult unit of measurement. If a comparison is made between an SSN and other systems, it should strongly consider the SSN’s primary characteristic: its stealthiness. Some missions performed by submarines-missions that require a combination of stealth and extended time on station-cannot be performed by other platforms, at least not in the same way and with the same efficiency. Such missions include covert intelli-gence and surveillance, mine laying, special forces insertion, and stealthy, passive ASW.

The unique role for the attack submarine in regional crises or conflicts lies in its ability to approach a nation’s coastline undetect-ed and position itself close-in for extended surveillance and monitoring or, if needed, precision cruise missile strikes. With the Tomahawk cruise missile. the submarine can attack land targets hundreds of miles inland without alerting the enemy until the missiles are detected in flight or upon impact. The submarine also can enter hostile waters undetected and launch other stealth platforms, such as unmanned undersea or air vehicles, expanding the submarine’s capability in surveillance, mine clearing, and targeting.

With the benefit of stealth, a state or people’s activities can be monitored without their being aware they are under observation. Otherwise they might modify their behavior, particularly if they are covertly developing a military capability, preparing a military action, or carrying out some other illicit activity. The communications that take place at sea and ashore can be an invaluable source of information, particularly if the subject is unaware of the surveillance. The submarine can also insert special forces into a country with less risk of detection than any other platform, expanding intelligence collection and other covert operations well inland. These covert operations can continue across the continuum of peacetime surveillance, crisis monitoring and management, deterrence, and, if necessary. into hostilities. Such operations can remain entirely covert, or can be made known privately to the hostile nation. Currently, no other military platform can provide these capabilities with the degree of stealth offered by the submarine.

  1. If the principal attribute or the SSN is its stealthiness, then it follows that the SSN will be unable to contribute to the forward presence mission because or its covert, or invisible presence.

False. SSNs can contribute to the forward presence mission precisely because of their ability to operate either covertly or ovenly. The conventional wisdom of forward presence remains unduly influenced by its Iinkage to gunbom diplomacy. Historical-ly, the battleship silhouetted against the skyline was ideally suited for showing the flag, the type of presence that has characterized great power diplomacy. Such gunboat diplomacy, however, has given way to more subtle and limited uses of military power in pursuit of specific political objectives.

Attack submarines are not as easily or consistently visible as surface ships, but this doesn’t mean they cannot contribute to the presence mission. A major element of presence operations are pon calls; each year U.S. attack submarines make approximately 200 visits to 50 foreign ports. The announced presence of a U.S. attack submarine in a region can generate much effect, as seen recently in the case of U.S. attack submarine deployments to the Persian Gulf. With a sudden appearance in an area, submarines can generate a stronger impact than the gradual approach of surface ships. Conversely, the presence of a submerged submarine in an area can be disclosed to selected military and political leaders in that region, thus providing an option for a low profile, less provocative presence.

The unique option of employing SSNs either covertly or overtly as a crisis unfolds provides U.S. policy makers with a needed range of response options that can be applied with or without public notice, depending on whether the object of the deterrence is the man in the street, the leader in the palace, a political or military faction, or some combination thereof.

5. Attack submarines have difficulty operating in conjunction with other sea, air, and land forces and thus have limited utility in future joint military operations.

Mostly false. Currently, many U.S. attack submarines have limited capabilities to communicate with the broad range of other U.S. forces, thus inhibiting their ability to work with these forces in some respects. But even with these limits, attack submarines operate effectively in conjunction with other naval forces. Moreover, the U.S. submarine community recognizes the imperative to improve communications and data sharing capabilities with other U.S. forces in the regional warfare environment and has given high priority to such improvements.

Rather than operating independently, SSNs now routinely operate as an integral part of a larger task force conducting advance reconnaissance, screening fleet movements, and working in regional environments in close coordination and cooperation with other task force components.

  1. Attack submarine have contributed little unique capability in past regional operations.

False. The sinking of the Argentine cruiser ARA BELGRANO by a British SSN during the early stages of the Falklands conflict and the subsequent withdrawal of the Argentine fleet for the duration of the conflict dramatically exemplifies the combat effect of SSNs in regional warfare. By virtue of their mobility and endurance, the British SSNs were the first forces on station, 8,000 miles from home, and the last to leave. The stealth and endurance of these SSNs made possible their invaluable-but largely unher-alded-support to the British battlegroup, including early warning of inbound Argentine air strikes, surveillance, and insertion of special forces. The Royal Navy submarines were an indispensable element of the British victory.

SSNs were also an integral part of the joint U.S. Navy and Air Force strike in April 1986 against Colonel Muammar Qaddafi in retaliation for Libyan-sponsored terrorist activities. Libya had dispersed its six Soviet built diesel electric submarines in several ports along the North African coast. The fact that the Libyan submarines remained in port during the pre-strike positioning of the Sixth Fleet and the raid itself was in part due to the presence of SSNs in the area. In addition, SSN surveillance of the Libyan coast provided the Sixth Fleet commander with timely and important information on Libyan activities.

Including submarines operated by U.S. coalition allies, at least 15 SSNs participated in Desert Shield/Storm conducting surveil-lance, intelligence collection, embargo enforcement, and precision strikes. Although the SSN Tomahawk strike was limited in numbers, the capability of the submarine launched cruise missile (SLCM) was proven. Moreover, future regional conflicts and contingencies may differ from Operation Desert Shield/Storm in ways that lead to a broader role for sea based forces in general, or attack submarines in particular.

  1. Threats from technology diffusion in the area of under-water operations will be limited and come primarily from the former Soviet Union.

Mostly false. Despite the much publicized Russian sale of newly built Kilo Class diesel electric submarines to Iran, the former Soviet Union is only one of many contributors, albeit an important one, to the worldwide diffusion of new undersea warfare technology. Germany leads the world in providing modem submarines and submarine weapons to developing nations. French SLCMs and Italian mines and torpedoes are available to cash customers. The mine that damaged the Aegis cruiser PRINCE-TON during Desert Storm was an advanced mine made in Italy. The AlP technology being developed by Germany, Sweden, Italy, the Netherlands, and others will soon be on the market. The diffusion of Western computers, electronics, sensors, and signal processing technology will pose a considerable challenge in the future. Sophisticated technology for modem undersea warfare is available around the world today for use by any nation that has the funds to acquire it and the will to apply it.

  1. Submarines are too technologically sophisticated given the nature of the developing world threat-technological sophistication along the lines or Seawolf will be unnecessary.

Partly true. The United States is currently in the comfortable position of possessing military capabilities that exceed those of any single potential enemy. In light of this advantage and the constraints imposed by a limited defense budget, the follow-on to Seawolf must, if it is to have any realistic chance of being funded, be less expensive than Seawolf. Although technology advances will remain essential to maintaining tactical and operational advantage over potential adversaries, the mix of technologies embodied in a follow-on submarine must be different than those developed for Seawolf. In addition, in the changed security environment, technology should be equally focused on achieving maximum affordability as well as capability improvements.

The mission of submarine forces has shifted to operations in littoral areas. The design of the next generation submarine, Centurion, therefore, mu~t reflect the new regional orientation of U.S. strategy and focus technology development on capabilities in those environments. Modem diesel electric submarines operating in coastal waters pose a difficult challenge to today’s ASW technology focused on open-ocean operations, and it is reasonable to assume that challenge will become more difficult as submarine technology and operational expertise become more widespread.

Even when designing a submarine that may be operating against an unknown opponent 20 or 30 years from now, the basic submarine characteristics that provide tactical advantage over an opponent will remain its stealth, sensors, and weapons. Technical advances in these qualities have been developed for Seawolf, and a new submarine design should take maximum advantage of these technologies. This does not imply that a new submarine should look like, be as large as, or carry as many weapons as Seawolf, but it should not represent a step backward in those fundamental combat qualities.

  1. SSNs cannot operate in shallow water because they are too big and unmanueverable.

False. U.S. nuclear submarines have been operating routinely in shallow waters for decades and have accumulated years of operational experience in shallow seas around the world. One example has been in the Arctic, where SSNs have explored the unknown waters beneath the ice, often threading narrow channels only 30 or 40 feet under the ice and scarcely that distance between the keel and the ocean floor. In fact, the SSN”s size and endurance provide it with two particular advantages in shallow or coastal waters. First, the SSN can remain on station almost indefinitely, often within sight of the coast, whereas the non nuclear powered submarine must periodically reveal its presence by snorkeling, either while on station or withdrawn offshore. Second, the SSN’s size permits it to carry a swimmer delivery vehicle, or manned mini-sub, which can penetrate very shallow coastal waters and harbors on a variety of missions.

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