Make no mistake, this is the century for submarine preeminence and predominance. As cruise missiles and short range ballistic missiles with terminal seekers proliferate, it will become increasingly likely that regional powers will be able to effect area denial in critical local areas against maritime surface forces. Enter the submarine.
The Virginia class SSN, when fitted with electric drive and a new reduced drag sail, will make an exceptional baseline platform to evolve future submarine capabilities. The inevitable trend must be to increase the payload of this platform with an order of magnitude increase achievable in the long term. The push for more payload however should not be limited to weapons capacity only, but to any warfighting capability that supports current and evolving missions.
A variety of sensors are now being adapted to the submarine environment, such as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) as well as Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs). Leave behind sensors such as remote floating or bobbing antennas, connected to the ship by fiber optic cable and bio sensors are becoming feasible. Smaller weapons, some with short range and a variety of munitions dispensers, are under study. The use of a platform such as the Advanced Swimmer Delivery System (ASDS) to do underwater mine reconnaissance, and deliver sensors into restricted water depths, including the use of Special Operating Forces (SOF) teams to assist in sensor delivery, opens up a tremendous variety of capabilities. Such a wide array of sensors and systems seem possible, but how do they fit into the priority of future missions? In the absence of a larger focus and paradigm, it may be impossible to choose between these multitude of capabilities, and prioritize the limited R&D resources.
An over arching view of the submarine’s future missions is required. One such a mission should be the role of Foreword Element Commander of a Joint Task Force. This mission could be encapsulated in the idea of a submerged C4ISR headquarters. With improvements already seen in submarine communications, it is now possible to assign the role of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) coordinator to forward deployed submarines. Intelligence can now be collected, analyzed and reported in near real time, including the fusion of overhead data with information from the many internal and deployed sensors.
The important idea here is to articulate and formalize the requirement for such a submerged headquarters. Such a requirement, after much discussion and debate by the responsible leadership, will then begin to focus the Research and Development community to meet this requirement. With recent, but limited experience by our submarines as launch area coordinator for land attack missions, the concept is evolving from the bottom up, driven by the day-to-day need to get the current job done.
There is also a very clear need for giving the future submarine the capability to display the integrated Common Operational Picture (COP) for space assets and surface, subsurface and land forces in the littoral. With such a capability, the submarine of the future will be uniquely positioned to prepare the battle space for follow on joint forces. Such preparations will include the verification of critical nodes, real time location of mobile targets and dynamic retargeting within the time span of the enemy’s decision loop. These capabilities will negate any area denial strategy by the enemy.
The long term future of the submarine is most directly tied to payload. “It’s the payload, stupid” is a good rallying cry for the near term. These payloads, in addition to being innovative, also need to be modular and flexible, since a major future attribute, after the all- pervasive stealth, is mission flexibility.
It is reasonable to expect mission flexibility to increase as the variety of sensors deployable from a submarine increases. The underlying shortfall in sensor deployment is current communications capacity, flexibility and reliability. Many experts agree that 512 Kb bandwidth is quite sufficient for even the most technologically challenging submarine mission. Despite this fixed requirement, there are a variety of ways to improve throughput to submarines, including small SHF antennas, floating wires with increased receptivity and off hull, bobbing antennas with integral power supplies.
One astute way to deal with asymmetric warfare is to develop a capability which is so dominant and overpowering that a peer competitor realizes that he cannot possibly compete, and does not even try. With an aggressive R&D effort in the near term, an already awesome weapons system, the submarine will, in the future, become the dominant military force for maritime and littoral threats expected to materialize around 2025. This could readily become the ideal asymmetric warfare capability of the future, one that no peer competitor could begin to match.