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Mr.Thompson is with the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Virginia defense analysis firm.

When Charles Darwin formulated his theories of evolution, he probably wasn’t thinking of the U.S. military. But there exists an analogy between the animal kingdom’s evolution and the American military’s ability to evolve and survive. Perhaps no weapons platform has shown an ability to adapt to an environment like an attack submarine. Much like- its organic counterpart, the shark, the submarine has, since its inception more than 400 years ago, evolved without drastically changing its original structure or purpose. And like the shark, the attack submarine has emerged as the ultimate predator.

In the modem era, submarines have transformed themselves from the role of harbor prowler to that of a nuclear hunter-killer. In the opening days of World War II, subs were restricted by power, endurance and the need to replenish oxygen, which made them vulnerable and incapable of sustained underwater missions far from port. In 1943, the German navy introduced the snorkel mast, which enabled subs to remain submerged at a shallow depth, which greatly reduced its vulnerability to surface or air attack while replenishing.

Technology advances in fuels developed as well, and by the end of the war, most submarines were powered by diesel engines rather than the more volatile gasoline engines. With the introduction of nuclear power, submarines were able to stay underwater indefinitely. Hull-design advances gave submarines more maneuverability and less drag, and communications technology enabled sub crews to communicate with the outside world without surfacing.

During the Cold War, attack subs reached what could be argued as the pinnacle of their lethality. Nearly silent and loaded with the most sophisticated tracking and targeting systems in the world, America’s attack boats hunted for, found and followed Soviet ballistic-missile subs, often without ever being detected. When not tracking enemy submarines, attack boats performed variety of underwater intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, many of which were clouded in secrecy for so long that only now, nearly a decade after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, are we able to grasp the complexities of these missions. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, the missions of this latter category have naturally increased in importance and scope. Indeed, contrary to the opinion of many critics who posit that without a prey, there is no need for attack submarines, information has become the submarine’s latest prey, one with ramifications no less significant than the former Soviet submarine threat.

Network-Centric Warfare

The evolution of the attack sub from hunter of other subs to hunter of information places the sub community squarely in the center of network-centric warfare, a proposition that future battles will be reliant upon and tied together by myriad information networks. These networks will connect and control the array of weapons platforms available to naval strike forces and the platforms of other services-Air Force bombers, for example.

Submarines, obviously, possess enormous potential in the network-centric arena, especially in three areas: access; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR; and strike.


Access is the linchpin for submarine operations. Everything else a sub does or can do is predicated on the submarine’s ability to gain that access. In today’s warfare environment, in which area-denial capabilities are becoming the norm, nuclear submarines can more often than not guarantee access.

Perhaps even more significant is the ability of subs to allow access by the surface battle groups into defended littoral waters. For example, submarines can neutralize enemy subs, locate mines, and locate enemy missile batteries. Thus, an enemy’s strategy of sea denial can be thwarted by submarines.

Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance

Information-gathering tasks are categorized as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, or ISR missions. The ISR function is very similar to that of a satellite.

But many satellites orbit the earth in regular patterns. traveling east to west, which makes them very predictable. And because satellites are predictable, they can be fooled. One way to limit trickery by adversaries is with geosynchronous orbits, which allow satellites to remain over a designated point on the Earth-a suspected terrorist camp. for example. Still, the satellites are 22.000 miles away.

Nuclear subs can settle to the bottom of the ocean and remain in place, undetected. near an adversary’s coast for weeks, even months. They can monitor military frequencies, send special operations forces ashore to conduct reconnaissance, and carry out a host of other intelligence missions without adversaries ever having any idea they are being scrutinized. And unlike spy satellites. subs can get very close to targets to collect. develop and transmit targeting data for a multitude of strike platforms. In fact, no other weapons platform in the U.S. inventory can guarantee access to the enemy’s systems, communications and territory like a submarine.


That is not to say that all submarines have to offer to network centric warfare is a steady supply of targeting data or raw intelligence. Subs, as weapons launching platforms, can be a recipient of such information to launch strikes.

Recent operations in the Persian Gulf and off the coast of the Balkans, along with strikes against suspected terrorist camps in Afghanistan, clearly demonstrated the submarine’s ability to gain access to a theater and launch weapons against hard targets. While it is true that technology leaps could potentially have adverse effects on a submarine’s capability to engage targets, the fact is that submarines are already playing a significant role as a naval strike platform, a role that could be enhanced and enlarged in the future.

This is especially true when the modular-construction design of the Virginia class attack submarine is considered. Designed to be tailored for the mission at hand, a Virginia class sub could conceivably exploit emerging payload technology that would complement the ever-growing sensor technology. As payloads, lethal and otherwise, become smaller and more efficient and the submarine’s sensory reach is extended, the submarine could emerge as the premier strike weapon. Already, JIMMY CARTER, a Sea wolf class submarine has been reconfigured with an ocean interface payload compartment amidships. This hourglass-shaped payload section will be capable of opening to the sea, mainly to facilitate multi-mission capabilities-classified research, development, test and evaluation for special-warfare missions. This type of flexibility, which in no way decreases the combat power of the sub, gives fleet and unified commanders an exceptionally powerful asset when assigned any number of missions.

As an example, alone submarine, loaded with Tomahawk missiles, can cruise ahead of a carrier battle group, undetected, until it reaches a loiter point. Once on station, the sub can put ashore a team of special-operations troops to collect information while the sub crew collects information from its own sensors. With the ensuing target data thus developed, the sub can then launch a series of Tomahawk strikes against inland anti-aircraft missile and radar sites, effectively blinding the enemy and clearing the way for the carrier battle group. The submarine can then retrieve the special-operations force and resume patrol, or stay in the area to conduct JSR missions in support of the battle group.

Indeed, the regional commanders in chief consider the ISR mission of attack submarines so crucial that demand has far outstripped supply when it comes to having enough submarines for the job. This was evidenced by a recent study by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which contradicted the findings of the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review. The QDR mandated an attack sub fleet of 50 boats, well below the level deemed necessary by the CJCS. The latter study called for 76 boats by 2025, a level that many officials, both in and out of the Navy, feel may be impossible to reach without drastically increasing current shipbuilding production.

Challenges to Network-Centric Warfare

However. submarines also possess a serious drawback-they operate underwater, making transmission of data at speeds required for network-centric warfare difficult, if not impossible in some cases. This poses a significant challenge to the community. which sees itself participating in the exchange of information that creates the common operational picture. a real-time view of the battlespace.

The challenge exists because subs are limited by antenna aperture and bandwidth in how much information they can exchange. Simply put, submarines must be capable of transmitting and receiving data-including high-quality images that could be used for targeting-at speeds equivalent to forces on the surface. Current transmission rates enable sub crews to accomplish nearly an tasks and to utilize the Global Positioning System. At the same time, however, this rate is not sufficient for receiving images of the quality needed for precision targeting.

Currently. the Navy is developing next-generation antennas while it upgrades existing systems to bring submarines more into the world of network-centric warfare. An Extremely High Frequency, or EHF, antenna was installed aboard the USS Pasadena two years ago to give the sub a greater capability to work with carrier battle groups. The EHF systems enable direct communication between submarine and aircraft carrier.

Still, overcoming antenna limitations may require a “breakthrough in the laws of physics,” said Rear Admiral Malcom Fages, who heads the Navy’s submarine warfare division in Washington, D.C. “As long as we’re operating with parabolic antennas and the laws of physics, we’re stuck.”

A change in the laws of physics aside, there are several potential solutions to the bandwidth dilemma, mostly conceptual. One possible answer is a phased array antenna for submarines similar to the Aegis radar used on surface ships such as the Ticonderoga class cruisers and Arleigh Burke class destroyers.

Also, floating antennas may provide a means of information exchange without sacrificing a submarine’s stealth. Advanced floating antennas are currently in the demonstration phase. They will allow two-way UHF satellite communications with at-depth subs at high data rates.

A similar solution would be to launch an antenna device from a submarine, again preserving the submarine’s stealth while allowing for placement of an antenna at a crucial place and time.

A Force Multiplier for the Future
The submarine’s access and its ability to harvest enormous volumes of information that can be processed into valuable intelligence makes the attack submarines one of the most significant force multipliers in today’s information age. This is especially true in these times in which the American military practices a form of aloof engagement-using long-range, precision-guided standoff weapons to attack inland targets.

Natural Selection
At the end of its first hundred years as a modem American weapon, the submarine is far from being near the brink of extinction. Instead, it has climbed the evolutionary ladder to become the preeminent strike weapon of modem warfare.

In the animal kingdom, species thrive or die out by a process known as natural selection. In the world of warfare, the same dynamic is at play. Submarines face extinction, much like some species of animals, only at the hand of man.

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