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Today the United States Navy can carry the fight to the enemy and can operate easily in most littorals because these areas are virtually undefended. This safe environment will not last forever. In the next two decades the proliferation of sensors and weapons around the world will threaten ships operating close to most shores, severely limiting expeditionary operations. Building a fleet to fight in these contested littorals starts now. Three options have been suggested, the Land Attack Destroyer, Street.fighter, and the Virginia class submarine. Tradeoffs between these options are difficult because they cross sponsor lines within the Navy staff, require changing accepted attitudes, and threaten to reduce or eliminate existing programs.

In making selections from this menu, avoiding the trap of a specific scenario is as hard as it is important. This dilemma has never been expressed better than by the editor of Jane’s Fighting Ships, Captain Richard Sharpe.

“Warships with a life span of up to 30 years should never be designed with specific scenarios in mind, even though defining exact uses is so appealing to the bureaucratic mentality. Utility is a navy’s strongest contribution to national defense, and many tasks performed during a ship’s life bear little relationship to the operational requirement document which justified its existence”.

Sharpe’s advice is important in making our choices because not all options are equally useful and history demonstrates that the least expensive option almost never is a best buy.

The Land Attack Destroyer, now planned for authorization in FY2005 but slipping, wallows along in the trough of declining funds, growing requirements and conflicting demands. Beyond the normal difficulties of development and funding a new class, the ship is unlikely to satisfy much of the land attack portion of its mission even when delivered. Two conditions will limit her utility in the strike role: magazine loading in face of the theater ballistic missile threat and, as with its predecessor, the Arsenal Ship, access to the littoral with an acceptable degree of risk in time to significantly influence events.

Much of the utility of sea-based missiles depends on the magazine loading of the ships carrying them. In a contested littoral, these magazine spaces will be most valuable for missile and air defense weapons-not strike missiles. While DD 21 is not being designed as an air-defense ship, her magazine is described as sharing ” . . . space with the Navy’s latest anti-air missiles” . Cooperative Engagement will enable AEGIS ships in company to shoot the DD 21 ‘s missiles so these weapons will be significant ingredients in the Battle Groups’ air defenses and the theater’s missile defenses. Because other platforms with strike weapons will be available while other missile defense platforms will not, loading ships capable of air-defense with strike weapons is a mismatch of means and ends.

The threat from theater ballistic and cruise missiles will continue to grow as the information for targeting becomes more available and as seekers on the weapons improve. Because the deployment of the Army, the Marines, and the Air Force’s tactical air into the theater all depend upon access to areas threatened by theater ballistic missiles (TBM), the priority for TBM defense will be very high-especially in the earliest stages of action. At the start of any conflict where the United States does not have a permanent military presence, anti-ballistic missile and anti-aircraft weapons can be brought to bear only by ships. Army anti-air warfare (AA W) assets wm enter the region much later than” naval forces while defense by the Air Force’s eventual airborne laser will be limited to intermittent intervals of short duration. Until the enemy’s missile inventory is destroyed or exhausted, the demands for Navy missile and air defense weapons will be very high.

If the value of this missile defense seems overstated, consider the proposals by National Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) proponents who would station all the Aegis cruisers around America’s coasts as the national ballistic missile defense system. Such proposals indicate the high value of missile defenses in the minds of policy makers. The concerns of the Theater CINCs will be just as strong when engaging enemies who have the potential to use offensive missiles against theater staging areas. While both strike and AA W missiles will be loaded in routine deployments for surface ships, the priority for defense will lead to predominance of anti-missile/anti-air-weapons in load-outs when operations in a defended littoral are expected.

The risk to surface ships operating in a contested littoral is the second serious restriction that will inhibit using the Land Attack Destroyer as a strike platform. In addition to submarines and mines, the same technologies that threaten the land bases and ports of entry multiply the threats to surface ships trying to operate in the littorals. Defense relies on mobility, hardness, defensive arms and/or a reduction of signature. Each of these has advantages and limitations. But the littoral warfare for which the DD 21 is being designed brings special considerations in using each of these characteristics.

Conflict in the littorals fixes the location of ships fighting-the mission reduces the space available for mobility. Kamikazes were so effective at Okinawa mainly because the Fifth Fleet was tie to the support area. Conventional submarines and mines pose inordinate risks when ships are confined to narrow seas or restricted operating areas. 6 As wide area sensors and weapons with searchers as well as seekers become available, land based missiles will pose significant dangers to surface ships and airplanes. Even coast artillery will gain an effectiveness it hasn’t had since the Civil War. In the coming decades, deployment of these kinds of capabilities around the world can be expected.

Hardening ships to withstand direct attack was abandoned after World War II. Hardening to withstand torpedo attack or mines is virtually impossible today. Protection against cruise and ballistic missiles is difficult and expensive. Most sensors and all communications antennae are located high in superstructures where heavy protection is not feasible so while a ship might survive a topside hit, continuing to function effectively as a fighting unit afterwards is unlikely.

Defensive measures against short duration-of-flight cruise missiles and torpedoes are expensive and difficult. Though Phalanx can be effective against missiles if alerted early enough, similar defenses against torpedoes continue to defy researchers. Ships entering a contested littoral will have to bring robust ASW and mine avoidance capabilities with them. Mines can be avoided or swept if the investment is made in survey vehicles and the opposition fields are not too dense. But no matter what efforts are engaged, mine countermeasures, like ASW, always take a long time. Because time is at a premium in a crisis, the time necessary to conduct ASW and mine clearing will be very dear, perhaps politically unacceptable.

Reduction of signature is very expensive and, as demonstrated by the F-117 in the Balkans, is a consumable. When the vehicle begins to conduct its mission, its presence is evident: “In the case of the F-117, the ability to foil radar detection vanishes the instant the pilot opens his bomb-bay doors. With the doors open, the F-117 causes a radar screen to “light up like a Christmas tree. ” Regaining invisibility after detection is almost impossible without some cloaking mechanism. Submarines can clear datum to regain their stealth advantage: no similar natural cloak exists for surface ships.

Of all of these mechanisms, DD 21 will employ primarily mobility and signature reduction. Yet the mission will limit mobility and signature reduction cannot promise an enduring advantage. Surface ships reveal their presence performing the mission no matter what technology is used to conceal or deceive and once datum is established, a surface ship has little ability to open datum surreptitiously. The growing dangers to surface ships operating in a contested littoral will inhibit their employment there no matter what their sponsors’ claim in program presentations.

These facts do not argue that DD 21 is an unwise investment or a ship without utility. Modernization of the fleet demands investment in stealth techniques and exploration of tactics that might allow surface ships to take advantage of technology to reduce their signatures. However these considerations do limit the expectations of what the eventual ship will be able to accomplish. Further, this analysis suggests that the investments to try to make her invisible ought to be limited. Expectations that she will be a do-all man of war are overly optimistic.

On the other hand, Streetfighter, a small, fast ship with little defensive armament or protection and limited offensive arms that uses only proliferation and mobility for defense builds on a history of failure. In the past, small ships have proven to lack the reliability, sustainability, agility, endurance, internal volume and resilience to be effective or reliable. Some of the historic defects may be alleviated by technological developments but the relative disadvantages of a small ship on long and distant deployments are intrinsic. Proponents argue that by distributing firepower among a number of platforms the loss of some will not cripple the engaging force. But building ships to be expendable is politically untenable and tactically dubious.

Small ships may be useful for nations bordering on narrow seas but to fight in distant waters requires getting there and staying there. Getting small ships to distant scenes of action takes time and either a series of bases or a mother ship to supply fuel and logistics support. Deployment of the very modem mine countermeasures ships to the Mediterranean was possible only because of the support of their mother ship, USS INCHON (MCM 1). Expecting small ships to arrive in distant waters, ready to conduct offensive operations after a long sea voyage-particularly if the sea en route is more than a state two-is unrealistic. To expect them in a timely fashion is fanciful.

The proponents of Streetfighters argue that, “contested coastal waters have been taboo for capital ships and the nearly exclusive province (Italics supplied) of flotillas of small, swift, lethal, fastattack craft”; completely failing to recognize submarine operations in such waters since World War I. There is nothing in the Streetfighters” attributes that is not duplicative of the submarines’ capability but without the high speed, great endurance, unmatched record of reliability and proven operational performance demonstrated by nuclear powered submarines. ‘ The submarine is able to do all of the missions outlined by the proponents of Streerfighter without the risks that surface ships of any type will meet in the littoral.
Contested or not, submarines have been and will continue to be the first units into the battlespace. Historically in times of war or crisis, submarines have deployed earlier and in greater numbers than any other ship type. Their high transit speed and independence of support or weather allow them to arrive quickly. Their invisibility allows them to operate in areas otherwise dominated by an enemy. Because they have such a low profile, they can remain for long periods of time acting as the forward most tactical node of the sensor grid. This facet of their character allows their exploitation as sensors. As scouts, submarines bring capabilities that cannot be duplicated by other sensors: operating in all weather conditions, gathering visual and electronic reconnaissance against low power emitters and small forces, and when coupled with Special Forces, conducting surreptitious entry, observation and attack.

Battles are sequential, not consecutive. Until the enemy threat to staging areas is thwarted or reduced to manageable proportions, Army, Marines and Air Force tactical air won’t even get into the theater. Until the threat to the littoral is brought into manageable proportions, carriers and surface ships either will stand clear or will serve as aim points to exhaust the enemy missile inventory. Amphibious groups will not be able to close the coast until the enemy’s coastal defenses are eliminated or his surveillance capabilities degraded or destroyed.

When the littoral is contested, the first units in must clear the ocean and the adjacent lands of threats to follow-on forces. These threats start with enemy submarines but include mines, and shore based weapons. Sensors ashore, command centers and communications nodes are other targets that need to be taken under fire early. In most conflicts, political pressures will demand quick action. So the first part of the campaign will be fought by forces that can defeat the enemy’s attempts to isolate himself or the land battle with a variety of threats-in other words, units with multi-mission capability, low vulnerability and great robustness. Of the warship options on the table, only the submarine qualifies.

In contrast to the missile threats, no effective ASW force exists in the world-even in littorals and even in waters less than a hundred fathoms. And there is no evidence that anyone, including the United States, is building such a force. For those who have
operated in the near presence of surface and air ASW forces for many years, the suggestion that submarines suddenly become vulnerable upon launching a missile demonstrates an egregious ignorance of the tactics associated with that evolution as well as the technical difficulty and operational realities of developing such a capability. One analyst characterizes this condition,

“Fast quiet nuclear submarines will remain the least vulnerable of all basing modes because anti-submarine warfare is least effected by technical trends that will potentially transform other warfare areas. Thus, ASW against modem nuclear submarines will remain both technically demanding, very expensive, and still a largely fruitless endeavor.

That happy condition is not true for vehicles operating on the surface of the earth or above it. The submarine is the only platform that will be able to operate freely in a contested littoral through the next half century and probably longer. The submarine combines both sea control (ASW and ASUW) and land attack capabilities. Conflicts in the foreseeable future will not involve maritime environments that are target rich in either submarines or surface ships so submarines can devote most of their magazine capacity to strike weapons without losing their ability to dominate the maritime environment in which they operate.

The submarine not only dominates the sea in which it operates but, immune to coastal observation or artillery, can operate closer to shore than any other combatant. The resulting reduction of the range to targets reduces the time-of-flight between weapon launch and target impact, reducing target warning and reaction times. When coupled to network centric concepts of command and control, this shortening of time is of great advantage against time-urgent targets, i.e., those that can move, e.g. mobile missile launchers or aircraft on an airfield, or those that pose high order immediate threats, e.g. weapons of mass destruction.
In many scenarios, it is likely that the Rules of Engagement probably will allow an opponent to shoot first. Because the submarine can lie close aboard the enemy, it has the potential with
very short time-of-flight weapons to shoot second but hit first. This will be especially valuable if the enemy has not moved his relocatable targets before starting the conflict in an attempt to conceal his intentions.

Attacks early in the campaign on missile launchers and aircraft are particularly advantageous because their destruction reduces the number of weapons that pose the greatest threats to the rest of the fleet, the ports of entry and theater staging areas. The inventory of TBMD/ AA W defense missiles is limited so that weapons that can strike the time-critical targets that are the mobile missile launchers and airfields are at a premium. As enemy raid sizes are reduced, the challenge facing the theater missile and air defenses decreases measurably and the effectiveness of the theater’s air defense resources is significantly enhanced. In this regard, the submarine launched short-time-of-flight missiles possess a utility unmatched by any other littoral based system.

Early suppression of air defenses similarly increases the effectiveness and lowers attrition of air strikes. Such raids also improve the probability that cruise missiles reach their targets. Interdiction of enemy AA W is accomplished most effectively by weapons arriving immediately in advance of the raid and from an axis not coincident with the incoming raid. Submarines, positioned close to the coast, can orchestrate such attacks precisely.

Not all targets ought to be taken under fire by the submarine-in fact anything in the enemy target mix that can be attacked by other than the submarine weapons should be. All fixed land targets are essentially indefensible from U.S. forces, most should be left to forces that are easy to reload, i.e. bombers, or have large inventories, i. e. arsenal ships. For situations calling for small or discrete strikes, using submarine tube loaded weapons-the only cruise missile launcher that carries reloads-makes sense to save weapons needed for large salvos. The submarine missiles should be saved for those missions where time of flight is important. Not all missiles are equal. Only those launchers with short time of flight are able to get inside the enemy operational cycle.

The submarine comes with a number of unique advantages-high sustained speed, no escorts or logistics platforms required at any time, no additional lift requirements, assured access to any ocean area or littoral including polar areas and heavily defended straits, and twenty years of fuel paid for in this-year prices. Nuclear power allows one ship to cover many bases. USS MIAMI (SSN 755) for example fired on both Iraq and Kosovo in the same week. This kind of mobility allows the submarine to strike from any axis bordered by the sea.

The simplistic analysis that “It is significantly less expensive to carry missiles in surface ships than in submarines” is true only if the area in which the ship is to operate will be free of any threat. When the surface ship may be the object of attack, then the missiles available for land attack must be decreased by those necessary for self defense- or escorts must be provided. Defensive weapons, i.e. anti-air/anti-missile missiles, presently occupy sixty to seventy per cent of the Aegis ship’s VLS tubes. 21 In that situation then, the submarine, which operates without escort or defenses against missile attack, equates to the offensive fire capability of two or more destroyers.

The virtually invisible platform presently operating as a submarine is the best reason that the DD 21 ought not to try to become too stealthy. The submarine is a better buy than DD 21 for a warship to fight early in the conflict in a contested littoral and vastly better than Streetfighter if that littoral is not in the Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean Sea. The immense costs of stealth for a surface ship and the fleeting advantage obtained at these very high costs mean that any surface ship will always be burdened by an undue risk in the littoral. Trying to make a surface ship into an invisible attacker is an expensive and losing proposition.

The submarine is likely to become cheaper and more ubiquitous than tactical air as littoral defenses grow. As the battle group must stand further out and as it must use more resources for its own defense, it is less and less capable of conducting the strike missions until the enemy missile inventory is depleted or eliminated. Air Force expeditionary tactical air will be restricted in their access to a particular region more than carriers. Long range bombers will be less limited than tacair but distance, sortie rate and defenses make them an ephemeral force. But submarines will continue to operate with a high degree of impunity. Even when faced with the most intense threats, submarines may reduce their risk by reducing their rate of fire but they never lose their offensive payload.

Unfortunately, programs are assigned by platform rather than by mission or system, so comparisons like this one between types are rarely made within the service. In this case, a truly stealthy platform able to operate in the littorals against any conceivable threat in the next half century is not only available but operating. The culture of the Navy, the fractionation of its officer corps into warfare specialties, its officer personnel assignment system and the organization of the Department of the Navy headquarters are major obstacles in building a proper fleet for future warfare. When considering enhancing the later Virginias’ land attack capability, only the submarine portion of the budget is considered as an investment resource. The real question should be the selection of the best ships able to operate in a contested littoral, and the best systems to effectively strike targets ashore while operating there. In that context, the next generation fleet to fight in the littorals should have a strong submarine component.

1. Captain Richard Sharpe RN (Ret), Jane’s Fighting Ships 1998-1999, Jane’s information Group Ltd., Coulsdon, Surrey, United Kingdom, 1998, page 10.

2. Otto Kreisher, “Influencing Events Ashore”, Seapower, April 2000 at

3. Captain George Galdorisi, U.S. Navy, Retired, “Navy Theater Ballistic Missile Defense”, Shipmate, July-August 2000, page 43.

4. Frank Gaffney, Theater Missile Defense Panel, AFCEA- Naval Institute Western Conference, San Diego, California, February 11,2000.

5. Thomas E. Ricks, “U.S. Faces Defense Choices”, Wall Street Journal, November IO, 1999.

6. Rear Admiral W. J. Holland, Jr. USN (Ret), “Battling Battery Boats”, U.S.Naval Institute, Proceedings, June 1997.

7. Thomas E. Ricks, “U.S. Faces Defense Choices”, Wall Street Journal, November I 0, 1999.

8. lb S. Hansen, “They Must Be Sturdy”, U.S.Naval Institute Proceedings, October 2000, p.50-54.

9. Robert F. Dorr, “The Outlook for Air Power” in The Year in Defense 2000, Volume 3, Faircount, LLC, Tampa, 2000.

10. Characteristics cited as fundamental by U. S. Commission on National Security/21″ Century, Phase II Report, www pdf, page 14.

11. Vice Admiral Arthur K. Cebrowski USN and Captain Wayne P. Hughes, USN (Ret), “Rebalancing the Fleet”, United States Naval Institute Proceedings, November 1999 and Captain Wayne P. Hughes, USN (Ret), “Questions for the ‘Streetfighter”‘, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, February 2000.

12. Norman Freidman, “World Naval Developments in Review”, U.S.Naval Institute Proceedings, May 1996, page 111.

13. Captain Wayne P. Hughes, Jr. USN (Retired), “Take the Small Boat Threat Seriously”, U.S.Naval Institute Proceedings, October 2000, page 106.

14. Rear Admiral William Guy Carr RN (Ret), By Guess and By God, Hutchinson and Company, London, 1930.

15. Lieutenant Mike Perry USN, “Virginia Can Be A ‘Streetfighter”‘, United States Naval Institute Proceedings, June 2000.

16. Captain James Stavridis USN, Remarks, AFCEA-U.S. Naval Institute Western Conference 1996, San Diego, California, January 26, 1996.

17. Robert R. Fountain, “Stealth Submarines”, Washington Post, March IS, 1999, page A16 answering a letter by Norman Polmar, “Tridents Are Not The Answer”, Washington Post, Feb 23, 1999.

18. Owen Cote,” Mobile Targets From Under the Sea”, MIT Security Studies Program, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass, 1999, Page 39.

19. Commander Gerard Vandenberg USN, Commentary, “Advanced Submarines in Global 2000 War Game”, Report, DARPA, September 2000.

20. Owen Cote, ” Precision Strike From the Sea: New Missions for a New Navy”, MIT Security Studies Program, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass, 1998, Page 16.

21. Cote, Mobile, page 44.

22. Cote, Mobile, Page 57.

Jerry Holland is a writer on maritime affairs and naval topics. A retired officer, he served in five submarines and commanded USS PINT ADO, USS PLUNGER, Submarine Squadron ONE, the Submarine School and Submarine Group FIVE.


The Submarine Technology Symposium (SUBTECH) will be held at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory May 15·17, 2001. The scheduled banquet speaker is Steve Forbes. Register online: www

The annual NSL Symposium will be held June 13· 14, 2001. The scheduled banquet speaker is Peter Maas, author of The Terrible Hours. Registration packets will be mailed to NSL members in April.

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