Jerry Holland, a retired officer who served most of his active duty in submarines and submarine related billets. has been a regular contributor to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW and other professional journals for twenty years.
Transformation, the action phase of the present Revolution in Military Affairs (hereafter “RMA ) was a subject of great interest and debate before September 11, 2001. The War on Terrorism with its emphasis on light infantry, military police, and civil affairs has taken some of the wind out of the RMA ‘s sails. However, the realignment of the international scene after the Cold War and the explosion of information technology promise that the subject will surface again after the hiatus caused by the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the fervor and advocacy accompanying the RMA, few recognize that the maritime portion of this revolution was completed in large measure about twenty years ago when operating on the surface of the broad oceans became possible only with the connivance and consent of the United States and its allies. Below the surface the Transformation is much less dramatic. But even there, an opponent can expect to contest American dominance only for some finite time.
As originally enunciated, the post Cold War RMA has components of a realigned political geography, economic restraints on military spending, and changing operational processes stemming from information technology. These have been subsumed into the policy term “Transformation, short hand for a strategic design in the absence of a likely major enemy with more agile forces founded on communication and computer technology.
Instead of examining an opponent’s aims and forces (i.e. threats) as a basis for planning in this post Cold War world, the utility of forces, components and equipment in various situations and scenarios is examined without reference to a defined enemy (i.e. capabilities). Selecting these situations and scenarios sets the stage on which the performance of the various forces is compared. Because the United States has dominated the open oceans for so long, activities in that arena are rarely, if ever, examined in planning sessions, war games or similar activities.
Dealing with concrete equipment and forces, policy makers consider novelty a principle virtue of Transformation. “Legacy systems, meaning equipment and procedures of the past, whether proven effective or not, are suspect if not anathema. Historical evidence and laws of physics have proven to be unimportant when faced with attraction of new things. Even adapting whole new organizational concepts and investing in lighter faster equipment-the ostensible mandate of Transformation-may not satisfy the proponents of Transformation. The last Chief of Staff of the Army was, in street terms, “dissed even though he was instrumental in instituting a new brigade structure and replacing heavy tanks with light armored vehicles.
In this heady atmosphere admiring novelty and change, submarines stand disadvantaged because the Revolution in Military Affairs at Sea was completed twenty years ago when space based surveil-lance was coupled to nuclear powered submarines and long-range precision weapons. The results of this revolution are best described in the motto, “The only way that guy can get away is to go in port .1 This encapsulates the fact that no surface ship could evade, outrun or defeat attack by a nuclear powered submarine. “Target got by , a regular refrain as late as 1960 in attacks on surface ships, was lost to the lexicon of the submarine approach and attack. The first step in Revolution in Military Affairs (Maritime), nuclear power, gave the submarine the ability to reposition at will, persevere in pursuit and by eliminating the need to operate on or near the surface, almost perfect invisibility. The adage that at sea there were ” … only submarines and targets became a reality.
The harnessing of nuclear power to a submersible effectively annulled the axioms of maritime power annunciation by Mahan and significant through the ages of the ship of the line, the battleship and carrier aircraft. In the eighties, Captain Richard Sharpe, editor of Jane’s, put the matter most succinctly when he wrote, “Nuclear powered submarines differentiate a first class navy from all others.” The nuclear submarine’s only limitation was locating potential targets and weapons capable of sinking them. This limitation lead first to an undersea surveillance system aimed at the most likely enemy and the most important lines of communication and then, when a subsurface to surface missile of great range was developed, a world-wide area space based surveillance system. These surveil-lance systems solved the problem of getting the submarine into contact with its enemy.
The significance of this intelligence coup is not widely appreciated. Few actions at sea have taken place on the broad oceans. By far the vast majority have been in choke points, near ports, approaches to tactically important locations, or unavoidable transit routes. That BISMARCK could disappear in the North Atlantic while being shadowed by cruisers was not a unique or unusual situation. BISMARCK ‘s transmission of a long radio message after she had given NORFOLK and SUFFOLK the slip led to the lucky sighting by Maritime Patrol Aircraft that allowed the Royal Navy’s battle-ships to engage. Today, because more capable sensors can monitor the face of the entire sea, time and distance no longer provide an easy place to hide.
As the locating problem approached solution, the supporting weapon development pressed forward. A long-range torpedo of great precision and lethality simplified the target motion analysis. The even longer range precision guided missile, the sea attack version of Tomahawk (T ASM), promised to be able to cripple anything on the surface within several hundred miles of the shooter without much data beyond establishing a line of bearing within a few degrees and a range within a hundred miles. Both of these technological advances were products of computer developments in size and capability.
In their early years, these surveillance systems required translation and semantic interpretation. The necessary computer and display equipment to turn the sensor data into information was large, cumbersome and needed fairly extensive manpower. The undersea surveillance link required large fixed sites on the sea bottom and ashore. Similarly, the space based sensors required ground stations to collect their data and intelligence centers to interpret it. The increase in computing power allowed much of the sensed data to be handled by machine, reducing the time late or latency (another Transformation term) of the information available to the submarine. Coupling these long-range weapons to wide area surveillance systems revolutionized warfare on the open oceans.
Against this combination, surface ships simply could not operate within the sphere of influence of a nuclear submarine; and the United States had the ability to put nuclear submarines wherever it wanted to in the broad oceans of the world. While submariners were generally modest about such claims, those who offered this opinion were castigated for the heresy of advocating a change to the traditional balanced forces. Outside the Navy however, this view was widely acknowledged, particularly after the declarations to its validity by the eminent British military historian and analyst John Keegan, in his history of modem seapower, The Price of Admiralty.
The Submarine Force, constrained by the limitations of radio transmission under the ocean, early on adopted the opportunities offered by the information technology explosion in developing the processes necessary to exploit the new equipments. Pioneers m the exploitation of space based radio (Submarine Information Exchange (SSIXs) and Submarine Operational Satellite (SOSAT)), submariners developed communication and command methodologies that allowed them to exploit the information garnered from the surveillance systems and at the same time operate jointly with the airborne ASW forces operating from both shore bases and aircraft carriers. Early to exploit the UHF satellites (FLEETSA T) and primary promoters of the tactical portions of the EHF satellites (MILSA TCOM), submarine forces were the primary users of these communications paths for years. Few recognize that the space based tactical radio data exchange systems that are the basis for the networks underlying the concept of Network Centric Warfare, now referred to in the Navy as Force Net, are the culmination of the efforts started by submarine communicators in the sixties and seventies.
These developments presaged the information revolution’s effect on other military matters. Deployment of these systems solved the problem of who was where on the oceans solving the first and most important tactical problem: where is the enemy? This coordination of space based assets and development of processes to sort the targets from the innocents (the job of the Fleet Ocean Surveillance and Intelligence Centers) formed the view that Admiral Bill Owens brought to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and subsequently advertised as the “System of Systems .4 Others had difficulty envisioning this concept but by the 1990’s submariners considered this was the way things worked. And if such a scheme worked at sea, why would it not work elsewhere? Thus Transformation was born.
These steps completed a dramatic change in the nature of warfare at sea that started with the U-Boat campaigns of 1916. During the progress of this transformation, many officers not only failed to recognize the nature of the changes, many actively rejected any notion of their impact. (“Diesel boats forever! ) For the foreseeable future, there is no question of what consists of a balanced force for control of the high seas-nuclear submarines, space based and sea based ocean sensors, the communications links to couple them together and the processes to tum the data from one into information for the other. These forces, coupled together, are too expensive and technically demanding for other countries to duplicate. They give the United States an asymmetric advantage (another aspect of Transformation) that assures that the use of the high seas by others depends upon American forbearance.
The final concept in the Transformation model is the gain in agility resulting from shortening the time between detection and delivery of weapons. The wide area search capability coupled with rapid dissemination of information permits maneuvering forces with a minimum of orders and direction. A secondary effect of this time compression is the potential for drastic reduction in the numbers of echelons of command. Again submarine command and control, evolving from the methodology developed during World War II, demonstrates the principle. Generally there have been no more than two echelons between the Combatant Commnander(today’s word for what was the Theater CJNC) and the submarine commander conducting the mission. Compare that to the Army arrangements in Europe where there are seven echelons. Transformation aims to take advantage of the ability to deliver a Common Operational Picture to everyone in action thereby reducing the role and number of echelons between the top and bottom of the command and control process.
The Navy in general has little difficulty with this concept, Command by Negation having a long established history and practice in US naval doctrine. But watching the ground where there really is cover and shadow is much harder than watching the surface of the ocean. The other services’ doctrine and procedures founder in the complications that arise in the diffusion of authority in this scheme, particularly in joint operations. As one flag officer put it, “I find myself as emissary between the Army and the Air Force.
The end of the need for forces other than submarines to maintain mastery of the ocean has allowed the Navy to be transformed into an organization focused on attacking targets ashore. Since the change in the world’s political climate leaves the US Navy without a fleet against which to compete, the Navy’s mods operand is summarized in Sea Base and Sea Strike. In most conferences or war games involving maritime affairs the sea control attention meter remains on the peg. In these activities, the submarine’s contribution, when considered at all, is as a strike vehicle. The opening assumption in most war plans, if not in the exercises and activities that support them, is that US submarines will eliminate any surface opposition quickly and in some fairly short time submarine opposition as well.
The trick to keeping this happy state of asymmetric capability or dominance of the battlefield (also large in the Transformation lexicon) is maintaining the technical and operational effectiveness of the arms of this combination and the communications systems that link them. This translates into modernization of all three pieces, sensors, submarines and command and control equipment and processes, plus investment in people and time into making sure that the pieces work as a system. This is an issue of focus not of force size. The number of submarines required to maintain this RMA (Maritime) is not as important as their individual and collective quality in the field, continued robust sensing capability, efficient intelligence analysis and a command and control system to tie them together. At present, keeping all this is in place without being subverted by admonitions against legacy systems and Cold War leftovers or emphasis only on the idee de )our requires understanding, effort and most of all, persistence.