In his January 1994 SUBMARINE REVIEW article Defensive Anti-Air Warfare for SSNs, Jim Patton provides an elegant description of how technology could be applied to solve the airborne threat to attack If the Navy had ever actually had to execute the Maritime Strategy of the 1980s, with its emphasis on attacking submarines within protected bastions, such an AAW capability might have been extremely valuable. Soviet protection of ballistic missile submarines in home waters relied, in part, on air cover; while Soviet airborne ASW was not a huge threat to attack submarines, there is no inherent reason for that limitation to be permanent. In the forward ASW world of the
Maritime Strategy, an SSN AAW capability made sense. Unfortunately, given the end of the Cold War, the proposal is a technology cure for which there is no longer any known disease. If ,From the Sea really does represent the future, it is difficult to see a need for such a system. This is not because there is no role for submarines in littoral warfare. On the contrary, the CSIS study, Anack Submarines in the Posr-Cold War Era, summarized in the same issue of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW, clearly documents that the stealthiness and multi-mission flexibility of nuclear attack submarines ensures them an important role in a defense planning environment characterized by uncertainty and built around regional conflict.
That role is, however, unlikely to expose submarines to airborne ASW attack. In littoral wnrrare, the first and most important characteristic or attack submarines is stealth. Whether conducting covert intelligence gathering, covert strike, or covert insertion of special warfare forces, the submarine must remain undetected. If a situation arises where AAW defense comes into play, the submarine has already failed. Fortunately, prospective targets for littoral warfare are not likely to be able to detect a submarine that wants to remain undetected. While Tomahawk launches could, in theory, provide a datum, such launches normally take place well off shore and thus offer limited opportunities for detection.
Even after overt hostilities begin, there should be little need for submarine-based AAW. It is virtually certain that the United States will have control of the littoral air space in such operations, precluding effective airborne ASW directed against U.S. subma-rines. In short, either submarines will remain covert and undetect-ed or the United States will have control of the air. As a result, it seems doubtful that SSN AAW will be crucial for executing the missions envisioned by … From the Sea. At a time of drastic reductions in submarine force levels and of serious debate about the future of attack submarines, adding nice-to-have features such as SSN AA W is simply not warranted.
The fact that there is no current need for submarine-based AAW does not, however, mean that there never will be. The new post-SEAWOLF attack submarine will still be in service 40 years hence. Who knows what our defense needs will be in 2035? Forty years ago the Korean war had just ended. Defense planning was dominated by fears of a confrontation with international communism leading to a global nuclear war in which nuclear weapons would be used more or less like any other weapon. Ahead lay insurgency, counterinsurgency, the concepts of nuclear deterrence, the strategic Triad, the loss of energy independence and consequent importance of Middle East oil, the information processing revolution, the nuclear submarine, and a host of other factors-some foreseen, some not-that have shaped today’s defense environment. Given this history, only a fool would claim to be certain of future defense needs.
The best course would appear to be to design the new, 21st century attack submarine to make future backfits and updates of the weapons system as easy and cheap as possible. Such an approach would be analogous to that used with the design of the SPRUANCE destroyer, where the basic hull and propulsion plant has been continually adapted to new weapons. While we may not be able to afford the full modular approach suggested by Bill Houley in his October 1993 Proceedine;s article, 2015, such a modular design should be our goal .
Adapting submarine design to emerging requirements is nothing new, of course. Neither a requirement for Arctic operations nor vertical launch of cruise missiles figured in the initial LOS ANGELES design. What is important, however, is to recognize that, at the same time basic hull designs must endure longer and longer, world conditions are changing more and more rapidly and unpredictably. Design flexibility to adapt to future requirements including as-yet undefined requirements for AAW -should be an integral part of future submarine construction.