Commander Hart is the Executive Officer of Battle Group Support Unit COMSUBLANT BGS 106. He qualified in LOS ANGELES, served as an instructor at S8G prototype, and was Engineer in KAMEHAMEHA. After leaving active duty he went to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and is now Technical Coordinator for the Secretary to the Commission. He has been selected for Captain.
I am prompted to respond to an article appearing in the October 1995 issue of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW by Lieutenant Mike Dulas, USN, entitled The Battlegroup Commander’s Most Unused Asset: The Submarine. The author states that
… examining the tactics used by today’s battlegroup commanders, evidently they still do not understand the versatility of all assets at their ready. Specifically, it appears that battlegroup commanders do not understand the multi-mission capability of a submarine. This results in failure to use the submarine to its maximum effectiveness.
My observations over the last two years yield different conclusions which are most likely attributable to a different perspective.
Lieutenant Dulas is correct in bringing up the problems encountered by the potential for BLUE on BLUE engagements. This issue has been a nagging problem for many years and requires careful thought and planning to prevent. He also correctly identifies communications as a serious drawback to employment of submarine assets. Both issues have created a great deal of hesitation and reluctance on the part of battlegroup commanders to work with submarines, but I believe the evidence is clear that the Submarine Force has responded and addressed these difficulties to the point where current battlegroup commanders are very comfortable employing submarines in solving the battle problem. As usual, I have never known a submariner to shy away from a problem because it seemed difficult and these issues are no exception.
In the past, the employment of submarines by the battlegroup commander was met with reluctance because it often meant sacrificing the use of other assets to allow the submarine to conduct its mission. The solution to the BLUE on BLUE encounter was to separate the units by as much space as possible. As a result, the submarines were relegated to the periphery or only used when nothing else was available. Compounding the problem was poor and unreliable direct communications with the submarine.
Also, contributing to the hesitation of battlegroup commanders to use submarines was the lack of direct control of the submarines. If it became necessary to change the tasking, a frequent occurrence in a dynamic scenario in littoral waters, the battlegroup command-er was required go through SUBLANT (Commander Submarine Force U.S. Atlantic Fleet) in order to get the tasking changed. While the battlegroups may have lacked full knowledge about the capabilities or employment strategies of submarines to solve their battle problems, that was not the primary reason for their lack of desire to use them. In the final analysis, the result was that true integrated operations involving submarines were simply too hard.
In order to bridge the gap, the knowledge of submarine-experienced officers was required on the battlegroup and DESRON staffs. SUBLANT has recognized that need and is detailing post-command submariners to the battlegroup staffs and submarine-qualified officers to the DESRON staffs. Also, a few years back, SUBLANT established three reserve units to establish a cadre of submarine experienced personnel to man the Submarine Element Coordinator (SEC) and Submarine Advisory Team (SAT) positions during battlegroup operations involving submarines. These reserve units have proven so effective that additional units are in the process of being stood up and SUBPAC (Commander Submarine Force U.S. Pacific Fleet) is implementing a similar program.
As a reserve submarine officer, in the past two years I have been to sea and served as SEC in several exercises with both the George Washington Battle Group (GWBG) and the Eisenhower Battle Group (IKEBG). In all cases, the battlegroup commanders made excellent decisions, effectively employing their submarine assets in numerous different missions. The battlegroup command-er and the ASWC (Anti-Submarine Warfare Commander-soon to be renamed the Under Sea Warfare Commander (USWC) and more recently combined with the Surface Warfare Commander in the role of Sea Combat Commander (SCC)) very clearly under-stood the submarine capabilities and were well versed in how to employ signed submarines. Not only did the battle staff recognize the submarine multi-mission capability, but they did not hesitate to shift the submarine mission as changing circumstances dictated. In fact, they were anxious to employ the submarine, often taxing the boats to their limits.
Some difficulties still exist, but with a properly manned and trained SAT and an experienced SEC, these problems can be effectively managed and controlled. The submarine becomes an integral part of the battlegroup, helping to solve the problem, and not a hinderance to the other assets trying to accomplish similar or supporting missions. I have seen it in action and it works. I admit that it is· still a demanding job and problems abound, but with experienced personnel on my watch team, the difficulties were managed and the results were extraordinary.
To be effective, the strategy in establishing Joint Tactical Action Areas (JTAAs) and Submarine Action Areas (SAAs) must be well planned and clearly thought out. That strategy plays a significant role in resolving BLUE on BLUE encounters, a key piece of the waterspace management puzzle. SAAs should be based on local acoustic conditions, expected threats, and many other factors. Operating in the littoral, geographic constraints will surely play a role. Importantly, SAAs should be kept as small as practical consistent with the mission assigned and the duration until the next communication window and certainly no larger than can be searched in the time allowed.
Guidelines for establishing and using these areas are set forth in a classified publication and have been developed through many years of practice and coordination. As in most cases, the rules have been laid out for good reason, but have also been designed to permit the battlegroup commander a great deal of flexibility. In a dynamic situation, flexibility requires all players to understand the rules and to communicate often.
Communications are key. The submarine CO must be willing to communicate frequently in order to be a useful and valuable asset to the battlegroup commander. The use of BGIXS (Battle Group Information Exchange System) for coordination and control of the submarines is very effective and BGIXS II holds the promise of an even more reliable communications link with the submarine. This means the SEC/SAT must be ready to communicate with the submarines at any moment, providing them with the most current tactical information and instructions. Typically, the submarines that have been most effective in supporting battlegroup operations have been the ones that maintained frequent communications with the battlegroup. Even if tasked with a below layer search for the next four hours, a prudent submarine CO might consider reporting in after two hours with a negative contact report. The ASWC may have updated contact information to pass along or a change in the tactical situation may call for a change in mission. While methods exist to contact a submarine when it is not at communications depth, it may not always be practical and very little time is lost in a quiet trip to periscope depth. There is certainly a trade-off in lost search time for a trip to periscope depth but if changes have occurred, it could save two more hours in a fruitless search. Certainly any contact on a hostile submarine should be reported immediately. Use of a slot buoy may be the best approach to avoid breaking contact. As always, the particular situation must dictate the CO’s response and the best method to relay the information to the battlegroup.
In the last few paragraphs, Lieutenant Dulas notes the reluctance to hand off the submarine to control by the battlegroup. I have seen both tactical ·command and tactical control provided to the battlegroup commander, depending on the situation, and it has worked very well. I believe that, as more experience is gained by the battlegroups and their staffs, increasing amounts of control of submarines will be assigned to the battlegroups.
Lieutenant Dulas is also fully correct in acknowledging the commitment of SUBLANT in providing submarine expertise to the battlegroup commander as demonstrated in the establishment of three additional battlegroup support units in the submarine reserve program and the assignment of submarine officers to the battle-group and DESRON staffs.
In his conclusion, Lieutenant Dulas states that ” … warfare commanders and battlegroup commanders must realize and truly understand the robust multi-mission capability of the submarine”. While I agree wholeheartedly with the statement, I would add that, in the cases I have observed, the battlegroup commander and the ASWC fully understood the various mission capabilities and were well versed in the employment of submarine assets.
Having said that, I also agree that more cross-deck training of officers is required at a more junior level with SWOS and SOAC (Surface Warfare Officers School and Submarine Officers Advanced Course-pre-department head courses for surface and submarine officers) being the logical point in a career progression to include some of that training. We should also include the air community as well as special operations and even the other services to provide an introduction to joint operations.
Lieutenant Dulas’ second concluding remark is that “the battlegroup commander must surround himself with submariners during the tactical planning phase of a mission”. While I’m certain the author did not mean to imply that submariners should be there to the exclusion of all others, he is correct in that experienced submarine officers must be integral players in the planning phase of a mission. I believe the assignment of a post-command subm3riner to the battlegroup staff will adequately meet this need.
Also, the battlegroup commander needs a proficient SEC/SAT to handle the details of waterspace management and prevention of mutual interference when operating with and controlling submarines. The submarine experienced personnel, trained by SUBLANT for the SEC/SAT role provides both SUBLANT and the battlegroup commander with a level of comfort when the submarines are being controlled by the battlegroup. While understanding the multi-mission capabilities, the battlegroup commander (and ASWCIUSWC/SCC) do not have a thorough appreciation for the detailed problems and impacts being faced by the submarine in meeting those taskiogs. The SEC/SAT can provide that level of detail such that the battlegroup commander can knowledgeably assume control of submarine assets and make full use of that potential in a complex, multi-mission and multi-asset environment.