Mr. Blazar is a Senior Fellow at the Lexington Institute. He holds a Master’s degree in National Security Affairs from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He covered the Pentagon for the trade and national press for over ten years.
Though ten years have elapsed since the Cold War’s end, the Pentagon still struggles to orient itself to changed circumstances. Long-held assumptions about what war would look like-armored divisions rolling across Germany’s Fulda Gap and war on the high seas-have been jettisoned like the dozens of military bases and tens of thousands of service members deemed excess in today’s global military environment.
Fashioned for a half century towards fighting a high-end war against the Soviet Union’s mighty arsenal, the Pentagon is in the midst of figuring which of its Death Star weapons are worth keeping and improving upon in an age when not every enemy intends to fight along high technology’s lethal frontier. Defining precisely what those battlefields of tomorrow will look like is a tough task. However, study after study issued by American military analysts have concluded that three main characteristics have emerged.
First, the United States will face no equally-equipped military power for, perhaps, a generation. No country can today afford to shoulder the financial and political burden of building and fielding a military force that matches America’s in quantity and quality.
Second, notwithstanding the first, many nations are selectively equipping their militaries with widely available high technology. These countries do not seek to counter U.S. military crown jewel
weapons-like stealth planes, aircraft carriers, airlifters and satellites on a one-for-one basis. Instead, what potential enemy states are buying and fielding is specifically intended to blunt or
defeat America’s high-end military systems while freeing those nations from the costs of such weapons. For example, Iran need not design, build, launch, and man aircraft carriers and cruisers to challenge the U.S. Navy’s dominance of the Persian Gulf. Instead, all that is needed is a string of anti-ship cruise missile batteries dug into bunkers along Iran’s Western coast linked to an effective targeting and communication system-precisely what Iran fields and improves upon today. Countries watched the 1991 Persian Gulf War and learned a lesson: do not match American strengths. Target its weaknesses.
Third, some potential enemies will seek to counter American military hegemony with low technology, like the 1998 twin truck bomb attacks on U.S. embassies, or with weapons of mass destruction like chemical, biological or nuclear bombs.
While these trends are clear, the Rubik’s Cube circumstances in which they will manifest themselves is not. Consequently, military experts have tied them together with a ribbon prominently marked “Uncertainty”.
It is with these conclusions and little else that the Pentagon tries to confront its future. What Cold War strategies, weapons and posture must be shed? Which can still be used, with modification, to win tomorrow’s unknown battles?
Last summer, the Pentagon cracked one of these tough nuts. The nuclear powered attack submarine, a sophisticated weapon that helped keep the Soviet Union’s Cold War naval ambitions checkmated, retains its relevance in the coming decades of uncertainty. In fact, a study dedicated to examining the utility of these undersea craft found they are going to grow in importance.
“(T)he emerging politico-military environment and the rapidly changing technology environment are such that the nuclear attack submarine will remain an essential and enduring element of our naval force structure,” concluded the Defense Science Board, a group of uniformed and civilian military experts who give advice to Pentagon leaders.
“Technology advances and proliferation will make the submarine’s stealth, endurance and mobility even more important attributes in the future as (naval) surface and air forces become more wlnerable.” Read the report, titled Submarine of the Furture.
The submarine’s stealth, that is its ability to escape detection by operating quietly in a medium that defies penetration by most types of sensors, was a design feature demanded by the cat-and-mouse moves played out under the Cold War’s seas. Specifically, it was needed when U.S. submarines were mainly dedicated to hunting, tracking and practicing how to kill Soviet submarines.
What the new Pentagon report says is that a submarine’s stealthy advantages, built and honed for the Cold War, have great application across today’s global military demands. This is not a case of reinventing the nuclear powered attack submarine’s mission. Rather it is a recognition of the submarine fleet’s inherent wider usefulness now that it has been freed from the narrow band of missions to which it was dedicated during the Cold War.
That understanding of the submarine’s use outside of strict Cold War missions began first to change at the start of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Joining in the first strikes against Iraq on January 17, 1991, a number of U.S . submarines fired Tomahawk missiles against Iraq, for the first time proving the submarine’s ability to apply significant tactical military power against land targets-a mission still in its infancy.
It is this submarine mission which the Defense Science Board report found for several reasons to offer the most promising area for continued growth.
First, the Navy’s surface ships, in which the bulk of available Tomahawk land-attack missiles now reside, are at growing risk. That is because potential enemies are taking advantage of twin global trends. First. the information revolution is giving all nations growing access to the computer hardware and software needed to create greater technical awareness of their surroundings. Specifically, they are increasing their ability to detect, track and target U.S . military troops and gear.
One has only to recall American fears that Saddam Hussein would take advantage of widely available commercial satellite imagery to discover the American “left hook” maneuver at the outset of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. And that was almost a decade ago.
Secondly, the collapse of the Soviet weapons complex has spurred a jump in the number and quality of sophisticated weapons widely available for sale on the international market.
The Defense Science Board found that these trends will “reduce the effectiveness of surface ships significantly within 30 years, while leaving the [attack submarine] relatively immune to threat escalation”.
Even in cases where surface ships are immune to attack, they may still be vulnerable to detection which may block such ships from launching surprise missiles attacks.
“In these scenarios, the (attack submarine) becomes the perfect launch platfonn,” the DSB report found. “Its ability to sail within relatively close range of the target undetected furnishes it with a unique ability to gain the element of surprise.” Also, a submarine’s ability to get close to a hostile shoreline shonens its missiles’ flight time, also reducing an enemy’s warning time.
Does this mean that the Pentagon has found today’s fleet of nuclear powered attack submarines perfectly suited to all of tomorrow’s threats? Hardly. The report found that the ability of today’s submarines to handle post-Cold War missions is constrained by their Cold War design constraints.
The Defense Science Board recommended several design changes in the next planned generation of American submarines, most of which focus on broadening the array of weapons the submarine can bring to the fight. The lead ship in this new class would not enter service until at least 2020.
The most important of the proposals is for the Navy to abandon the practice of designing into its submarines very specific launchers for its weapons. The kind of weapon carried aboard a submarine is limited. The Tomahawk land attack missile, for example, can be fired through its vertical launch system, designed for Tomahawk, and also can be fired from a torpedo tube. But both VLS and the torpedo tubes are too small to allow submarines to fire larger weapons.
That is why the Defense Science Board urged the Navy to move away from such design practices. The next generation of submarine “should not have torpedo tubes, VLS tubes or other weapon specific interfaces with the water. It should have a flexible interface which does not constrain the shape and size of weapons, auxiliary vehicles and other payloads when they are used.” The advisory report urged the adoption of the “bomb bay” approach, instead.
But that is a long way off. There are efforts underway now to modify existing submarines to increase their utility in the range of post-Cold War missions now gaining in importance. The Pentagon is examining plans to convert up to four Ohio class ballistic missile submarines, which carry long range nuclear weapons, into shorter range Tomahawk shooters.
Indeed, the Pentagon found in a recent report, Joint Operations Superiority for the 21st Century, that just such a craft could make big contributions in the opening hours of a strike, when it counts most.
“In the crucial early hours of a campaign, against high priority targets that are critical for an integrated defense by the enemy, covertness allows ‘out-of-the-blue’ strikes from unexpected directions,” stated the report, also from the Defense Science Board.
“Such strikes maximize the chance that the enemy is in a lower state of alert, increasing the effectiveness of the strike and the potential for success. If the undersea missile launcher has been positioned within range, the uncertainty involved in a strike is limited to missile performance against the targets and the effectiveness of (the enemy’s) missile defense against an attack with no warning.”
According to the Defense Science Board, it would cost $1.5 billion to convert the four ships. Each could carry over 100 Tomahawk missiles and/or special operations troops.
Such a ship “could make a significant impact early, since it can be on station, ready to respond, without the need to first establish air or sea superiority,” the report concluded. “The submarine could operate securely from most threats that pose a hazard to U.S. forces operating close to enemy shores; thus it can be present before hostilities break out.”
Along with bringing its warload of missiles close to an enemy’s coastline with only a small risk of detection, the submarine also is a unique platform fur the delivery, support and recovery of special operations troops, mainly Navy SEAL commandos.
“It is only the submarine that offers the best chance for minimal detection during the insertion and exfiltration of such large numbers of special troops,” said Reynaldo Maduro, president of Research Planning, Inc., a company that helps the Pentagon determine such matters.
“One can use other platforms for this task, but all carry a greater risk of detection-hence warning the enemy of your presence-than does the submarine.”
The Pentagon’s Science Board report noted also that global trends indicate that only submarines may be able to sail close enough to an enemy coastline to launch their missiles. That is because the report admitted the Pentagon is increasingly concerned about other countries’ efforts to bar U.S. Navy entry into some areas. Specifically, it worries about “the development of layered defense systems that create an in-depth, anti-access barrier to naval operations in littoral areas and out to ranges of 1,000-2,000 miles from their shores.”
In those cases, an Ohio class submarine outfitted with Toma-hawk missiles may be used because such a concept “offers a high probability of surveillance penetration”.
While the ultimate changes to the future submarine fleet remain to be decided in the years ahead, what is clear is that the Pentagon has endorsed the continued use of these craft in an array of missions far different than those conducted during the Cold War.