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A Synergistic Capability for the Joint Operational Commander

Editor’s Note: This paper won the Naval Submarine league award to a student at the Naval War College for excellence in a submarine-related project or essay. The detailed criteria for this award and the judging is the province of the Naval War College.


The Joint Forces Commander, and subordinate Operational Commanders, need the ability discretely and quickly to monitor hot-spots around the world, while maintaining the ability to react using special operations forces (SOF) and strike weapons in response to developing conflicts. Properly employed, the nuclear submarine can provide these and other capabilities simultaneously. New employment concepts for current submarines and submarines coming into service in the next few years give Operational Commanders a significantly enhanced capability across the full spectrum of combat operations. To that end, the Navy must rethink employment options and fully exploit emerging capabilities to support the likely mission needs of the joint community.

One capability-enhancing concept is the formation and joint integration of the Submerged Battle Group (SBG). By employing a fighting force that incorporates the individual capabilities of the different submerged platforms (SSN and SSGN), a holistic, and layered, synergy will result that offers autonomy, endurance, and devastating fire power to the Operational Commander. The SBG centers on the SSGN and is supported by at least two Advanced Swimmer Delivery System (ASDS) capable SSNs. The SSGN serves as the command center for all operations of the SBG and supports a Navy led joint staff that includes SOF, air, sea, and land representatives.

The SBG is a self-contained contingency force that the Joint Force Commander can use to mass weapons on-scene, independently of political considerations or overseas infrastructure. Should a diplomatic solution present itself and tensions ease, the SBG departs the area leaving no inflammatory perception of hostile intent-yet the capability was there all along.


In the world today, there are not enough composite combat forces deployable as a battle force adequately to cover all U.S. areas of interest nor to address the full spectrum of potential combat operations. Some areas are served well by an impressive show of force commensurate with a 90,000-ton aircraft carrier and its associated escorts, or a slow methodical buildup of infantry and mechanized ground forces. Other areas are better served by the less inflaming presence of a single platform performing isolated Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (JSR) missions; while the rest, and overwhelming majority, fall somewhere in between.

The Joint Forces Commander, and subordinate Operational Commanders, need the ability to monitor hot-spots around the world discretely and quickly while maintaining the ability to react using special operations forces (SOF) and strike weapons in response to developing conflicts. Properly employed, the nuclear submarine can provide these and other capabilities simultaneously. This platform has the sought after attributes of speed, agility, lethality, and independence to support joint operations, and it brings broad capabilities to respond to the myriad unpredictable time-sensitive tasks that may be required. Inherently stealthy, it can operate freely in a high threat area of denied access without the need for either sea or air supremacy or forward basing-major decisive points for most military operations. Nuclear submarines have long been used for sensitive operations in the littorals because of their ability to operate undetected operations and to remain unsupported for long periods of time. Now these capabilities are, or should be, available to Joint Commanders.


New employment concepts for current submarines and submarines coming into service in the next few years give Operational Commanders a significantly enhanced capability across the full spectrum of combat operations. To that end, the Navy must rethink employment options and fully exploit emerging capabilities to support the likely mission needs of the joint community. One capability- enhancing concept is the formation and joint integration of the Submerged Battle Group (SBG).


As demonstrated by Turkey in Operation Iraqi Freedom, political pressures, either domestic or international, may compel even our allies or coalition partners to deny the United States access to forward bases during regional conflicts. Additionally, if the enemy is able to deny access to conventional surface and air assets, even for a limited time, then the ability of the Navy to support the operational commander becomes limited and complex. Accordingly, high value should be placed on the ability to project power to areas where there are no facilities or military support and where the enemy has the ability to deny access.

Able to navigate with impunity, nuclear-powered submarines are multi- mission platforms that can make significant contributions in a number of joint roles. Maneuvering silently and swiftly beneath the seas, they operate without a logistics tail or supporting assets and have the inherent advantages of stealth, flexibility, agility, and endurance. Operating under the ocean surface, their umbrella of stealth affords them a unique penetration ability while providing protection against the threats that dominate a Joint Commander’s force- protection concerns. Their flexibility, agility and endurance support planning and execution of various taskings in a multi- missions environment without the need to resupply or reconfigure, nor the requirement to come off station.

Historically, submarine missions have been conducted primarily as independent operations. Nevertheless, today’s relevance in the battle space will rest on their ability to integrate into the joint force. Accordingly, the question facing the Navy in general, and the Submarine Force specifically, is how best to apply the characteristics of stealth, agility, and endurance to support the joint commander. Since submarines have already been performing persistent ISR tasks that contributed to the target-acquisition process, have been firing Land Attack Tomahawk Cruise Missiles (TLAM) as directed by the air tasking order (A TO) against assigned targets, and are maturing as Special Forces (SOF) insertion platforms, these missions are the most likely and appropriate way to fully integrate submarines into the joint force.

What this means is that the Navy must align the tremendous fire power and flexibility of the submarine with the needs of the Joint Force Commander to support all phases of conflict. By employing submarines collectively instead of individually, a new operational capability will emerge that fully exploits the attributes of stealth, endurance and speed through the combined efforts of mutually supporting platforms.


With funding now in place for converting the first two OHIO class submarines from strategic missile (SSBN) platforms to guided missile (SSGN) platforms, and two more requested in the FY 2004 budget3, the Navy will soon have the most capable land- attack sea-based platform ever. The SSGN effectively will be the Arsenal Ship that was championed by the late Admiral Boorda in the nineties but eventually cancelled due to cost.4 Unlike the Arsenal Ship, however, the SSGN is self-sufficient, flexible, stealthy and survivable. SSGNs will be able to operate in otherwise denied areas to provide unique capabilities that will serve as enablers to other U.S. forces. These capabilities include the rapid fire employment of up to 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles, sustainment and employment of several platoons of SOF personnel and equipment, a swimmer lockout shelter, and an Advanced Seal Delivery System (ASDS) – a dry mini-sub capable of transporting a SOF squad over 120 nautical miles.5 The SSGN retains the multi-mission capability found in SSNs and nlso will provide large payload volumes for future mission adaptation.6 Included in these forecasted payloads are the quickly developing Unmanned Aerial (UA V) and Underwater Vehicles (UUV). As remarked by RADM Sullivan.

“…we can take vehicles, ones that swim, fly, and end up crawling on the beach and use an SSGN platform to provide the host services that are required. The SSGNs have unlocked the Rosetta Stone on UUV technology.”

The SSGN conversion, integrated into the SBG concept, meets the Secretary of Defense definition of transformation because, with its tremendous payload, it can employ technologies to create an entirely new capability for the joint force very affordably.

With the SSGN, for the first time the Navy will have the tools necessary to field a battle group completely invisible to hostile forces. By creating a fighting force that incorporates the individual capabilities of the different submerged platforms (SSN and SSGN), a holistic, and layered, synergy will result that offers autonomy, endurance, and devastating fire power to the Operational Commander.

The Submerged Battle Group (SBG) centers on the SSGN and is supported by at least two ASDS- capable SSNs. The SSGN serves as the command center for all operations of the SBG and supports a Navy led joint staff that includes SOF, air, sea, and land representatives. Through coordination with the SSN s, the SSGN can be positioned on the perimeter of the littoral to support continuous communications with Operational Commanders while relaying mission requirements to SBG assets.

While the SSGN provides larger payloads, fire power and superior communications capabilities, the SSNs provide shallower depth capability, agility, and higher speed; effectively translating all SBG missions closer to shore as an extension of the SSGN. With the SSNs serving the SSGN, coastal JSR, strike, and SOF capabilities are force- multiplied by a factor related to the number of supporting platforms. As an example, this flexibility provides Operational Commanders w ith the ability to transport SOF personnel along the coastline and enables multiple, simultaneous, entry points from multiple submerged platforms, using various combinations ofSSNs, SSGN and ASDS.

In the strike role, the SBG is capable of rapidly positioning assets to various launch baskets to generate sustained joint fires from various azimuths. With two-hundred or so cruise missiles deployed in a given SBG, available on short notice, the SSGN will be capable of coordinating strikes by serving as the SBG Launch Area Coordinator (LAC). The same holds true for in-shore ISR collection. As one of the United States’ premier collection assets, the SSN, serving as an integrated extension of the SBG, can transfer real-time information back to the SSGN for digestion and dissemination, notionally without leaving station-multiple missions, multiple platforms, all invisible, and all coordinated through one on-scene commander.

The supplementary strength of the SBG is the stealth and agility to deploy without fanfare, adding nothing to media pressures to heighten tensions or shorten time lines.

The SBG achieves the Chief of Naval Operations Sea Power 21 initiatives of Sea Strike, Sea Shield and Sea Basing by clearly supporting every defined objective. These objectives are met through:

  • Employment of Special Operations Forces (and future unmanned aerial and submerged vehicles and sensors) to extend the submarines reach, critical to gaining and sustaining battle force access;
  • Use of onboard equipment and Special Operations Forces (and future aerial and submerged unmanned vehicles) to develop and share knowledge with Joint Force, Combatant and National Commanders;
  • Conducting covert organic Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance and employment of Special Operations Forces (and future unmanned aerial and submerged vehicles and sensors) to shape the battlespace and counter weapons of mass destruction;
  • Large volume Strike and Special Forces (and future submarine launched munitions) to project close-in power with surprise.

These basic operational capabilities are the proverbial tip of the iceberg and represent only demonstrated capabilities of existing platforms through both real world examples and concept demon-stration. As capital ships ranging from 8,000 to 9,000 tons for an SSN to over 18,000 tons for an SSGN, the ability to reconfigure (either in port or on station) and adapt to mission requirements is unprecedented. Combining what we know with what we can imagine, the future employment options are limitless.


By deploying as a cohesive, layered submerged battle force, the SBG will provide services from shaping the battle space to post-conflict monitoring of nation building and peacekeeping opera-tions.11 As crises develop, the SBG can be on scene early and be able to operate well within a potential enemy’s defensive perimeter. Depending on the threat to other joint forces, the SBG will serve as the forward JSR asset-feeding information for enemy intentions and target generation at all levels of the joint targeting and planning chain. As conditions change/improve, the SBG will integrate with other forward-deployed forces to help fill gaps in the collective information process. Off-board sensors launched by the SBG include SOF, recoverable UUVs, expendable UA Vs, and, as demonstrated by the Russians, potentially submarine- launched theater satellites.12 These sensors will complement the SBGs organic sensors to help maintain a complete picture of the battlespace throughout the conflict.

During recent conflicts involving U.S. forces, utilizing SOF personal in an JSR role before hostilities commence has proven to be very effective. Traditional SOF operations from specially configured SSN s, however, are limited in the number of personnel, number of missions, and available insertion/recovery options. Additionally, the space on board an SSN is insufficient for larger SOF units or for the physical conditioning that SOF must perform every day to maintain their readiness; requiring them to be embarked immediately before and debarked immediately after the operations. There is, however, space on board an SSGN to accommodate several SOF platoons (over I 00 troops in surge conditions) for 90 days without readiness degradation!3 Combined with the stowage capacity of numerous seven foot diameter ( 1,500 ft.3 each) converted missile tubes, the capability to carry more substantial equipment significantly expands SOF employment options!4 Within the SBG, SOF personnel can be rotated between platforms via ASDS for recovery, training, and conditioning, as missions require. This SOF employment concept combines the flexibility and agility of the SSN with the sustainability of the SSGN. Involved with the SSGN conversion planning from conception, the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) immediately recognized the potential and has fully embraced this upcoming capability:

… USSOCOM remains committed to the Navy’s SSGN program. The transformational changes incorporated into the SSGN will allow SOF to deploy a larger and more flexible force package than has ever been possible. Additionally, the command, control and communications capabilities designed into these platforms will permit SOF to operate independent from, or in conjunction with, any land or sea-based Joint Task Force.

By coordinating with personnel on the beach via direct secure communications, either with SOF or other ground troops, and employing the Tactical Tomahawk (TACTOM), or potentially the Land Attack Standard Missile (LASM) and Navy Tactical Missile System (NT ACMS) strike weapons16, the near shore platforms of the SBG can support call-or-fire missions within minutes of receiving targeting data, including flight time, with no warning. While in a SOF role, components of the SBG can loiter off a hostile coast, executing mission after mission while still maintaining the ability to launch other sensors or weapons in support of the Joint Force Commander.

When the conflict transitions from pre-hostilities to open hostilities, friendly surface and air forces operating under pre-hostilities rules of engagement, prior to achieving air and sea superiority, are at high risk. The SBG is generally immune to that risk and can continue operating unimpeded in a variety of roles. SSNs and SSGNs can remain close-in to the enemy coast and either preempt hostile action, launch on warning of an impending strike, or lead a retaliatory strike that opens the door for follow-on forces by creating holes in the enemy’s defense systems. A preemptive launch from an undetected SSN or SSGN (standing just offshore) can be devastating. Moreover, with timely intelligence, either gained organically or through other means, they can target and destroy defense sensors directly. With large inventories of precision guided munitions (PGMs), the SBG can perform this function repeatedly without any external support.

If, on the other hand, the Joint Force Commander is driving the transition to hostilities, he or she can elect to commit some or all of the SBG ‘s payloads to exploiting appropriate enemy critical vulnerabilities or striking decisive-point related targets-achieving an element of surprise not possible with other types of strike platforms. With its array of PG Ms, the SBG could be employed to target leadership, command and control, and communications sites to decapitate or silence, in an attempt to disable a center of gravity. Through concentrated operational fires, its large inventory and persistence can shape the battlespace and pave the way for higher levels of effort using other joint assets:

As the battle matures and additional forces are brought to bear through air and sea dominance, the SBG will assist in the general effort of direct attacks on enemy centers of gravity or specific tasking such as Joint- Suppression of Enemy Air Defense (J-SEAD). The SBG can expend its attack munitions in operational or combat-supporting fires, and then remain on station to continue a SOF campaign of ISR, traditional submarine ISR, direct action, and combat search and rescue. The SBG Commander can also dispatch individual SSNs for independent tasking, maintenance, or re-supply.

The SBG both complements and supplements existing and planned platforms of the Navy and other services. Because of their stealth and endurance, they complement other forces by being able to penetrate high-threat areas with relative impunity. This unique ability affords the Joint Forces Commander considerable planning options in establishing position, magnitude, and direction of fires from which the SBG can complement other forces giving the high-risk areas to the submarines.

Because they carry the same weapons as other missile-launching platforms, SBG assets supplement other platforms by providing an additional weapons inventory to area commanders when access is not denied. This would be particularly true when operating in areas where sea and air supremacy are assured, or the threat is signifi-cantly removed from the coast (e.g. Afghanistan).


All is not perfect with the SBG concept, however, and consider· able doctrinal development needs to be conducted. The following discussions address some of the tactical and operational level issues that must be resolved.

Additional Missions: Even with projected submarine new construction and the life extension of current platforms, there are still not enough submerged assets to cover the required missions. Since the end of the Cold War, the war responsible for the develop-ment of the modem nuclear submarine, per-submarine mission requirements have actually increased.19 With an average of 30 to 40 regional conflicts21 per year since the end of the Cold War, U.S. armed forces are continually short-handed, particularly in assets dedicated to JSR collection. Unfortunately, the SBG concept does not significantly mitigate this problem. However, it does make relevant submarine capabilities more available and more responsive to the Operational Commanders.

Submarine Tradition: The Silent Service has always been fiercely protective of its independence and isolation, self-contained fighting machines operating under the dictum of “no news is good news.” Some of those traditional roles, however, are no longer pertinent. For the last two decades, JSR aside, traditional subma· rine missions have had little relevance to operations conducted by the rest of the joint community. Additionally, this independent attitude has retarded advancements in critical competencies needed for full integration. In order to fully support joint operations through employment of an SBG, the Submarine Force must reevaluate some of its traditional roles such as ASW and force protection, and evaluate some of its historic shortfalls such as force management and communications limitations.

Anti-Submarinc Warfare: Properly armed and operated, both considerable accomplishments for most countries (including the U.S.), nuclear and conventional submarines could be significant threats to America’s sea lines of communications (SLOC) and forces flowing from the United States into theater. If that happens, and it may someday, there will be a hurried search for ASW assets. With the deterioration of the Maritime Patrol Aircraft mission, it is likely that only the Submarine Force will be able to respond.21 However, that possible eventuality does not justify disproportionate resources in training, weapons, and mission assignment. ASW is a perishable skill, but the degree of dedication to proficiency must reflect improvements in employment tactics, weapons capabilities and the limited capabilities of aggressor nations. The United States would be better served by dedicating submarine capabilities to joint requirements in supporting real·world missions prevalent since the end of the Cold War. AS W will work itself out and it is extremely unlikely that a capable submerged threat will materialize on short notice without our ability to respond and preposition – it is simply too difficult to develop the technology and the skill.

Force Protection: Pull the SSN away from the Battle Group. For the foreseeable future, the SSN adds little to the capability of a Carrier Battle Group (CVBG) when compared to its potential contribution to the SBG. In the CVBG, the SSN provides token force protection and a minor percentage increase in available cruise missiles. With the SBG, however, the SSN becomes a considerable force multiplier as a key component of an integrated fighting force through all phases of combat. The chance encounter with a rogue submarine, without precursor, is remote and the presence of an SSN might not prevent an attack anyway.22 Because the SBG will notionally be in a forward position ahead of the Battle Group, when working in the same regions, the proposed layered employment of the SBG will also act as a buffer of protection for Navy assets further off the coast. Should information reveal a potential sub-merged threat to the CVBG, SSNs could be selectively released from the SBG to protect the carrier. Keeping a carrier surrounded by SSNs full time is a waste of otherwise very valuable platform resources.

Force Management: Another hurdle to overcome is the actual management and physical maneuvering of a SBG regarding water-space and operational responsiveness. To that end, submarines must learn to operate in close proximity to each other while avoiding blue-on-blue engagements or collisions. There are numerous technological solutions used routinely in training environments that allow reliable locating of friendly submerged platforms. Many of these solutions compromise underwater stealth to some degree but could be managed as the threat level dictates.

Fundamentally, to be truly responsive without oppressive water-space management, submarines must learn to avoid each other using organic sensors instead of geographic separation. When operating in shallow water, or when operating with continuous communications requirements, submarines move out of the three-dimensional world and into the two-dimensional world. In order to support operational commanders, the SBG must be able to communicate freely and maneuver quickly. This is a new skill set for historically independent platforms that must be mastered by all deployers in order to support surging units into and out of SB Gs as determined by world events.

Today, submarines are controlled through several layers of authority with ultimate control usually residing with the Submarine Force Commander. By assigning the SBG to the Joint Force Commander, and subsequently to the appropriate Operational Commander, Submarine Force control of the assets would be relinquished and undersea de-contliction managed in-situ onboard the SSGN by the SBG Commander. De-confliction of surface and air assets would remain with the Operational Commander, with undersea assets managed via the SSGN as a node in the sensor grid.

Communications: Continual communications with submerged assets is problematic at best. One of the challenges of operating a fleet that includes dispersed and stealthy forces such as submarines and Special Forces has been the development of command and control processes that optimize the use of each component and coordinate individual capabilities to maximize the total effort. Even within a single service, procedures to optimize fires from a variety of platforms on a variety of targets and to employ stealthy vehicles in a centralized decision/decentralized execution mode is a skill set hard to develop.

When balancing connectivity with stealth and ship safety, the submarine is often not available when summoned from above. To that end, submarines need operational freedom to be effective and are best employed independently, not tied tightly to the movements of other forces. Invariably, attempts to employ submarines by commanders not familiar with their capabilities and limitations are severely limited in their effectiveness by paradigms that fit surface and air assets.

Using a layered employment approach, the SSGN will normally keep station further off the coast and maintain the communications guard while the SSNs operate in near-shore, deep-penetration postures. This layered approach is necessary to allow the SSNs to carry out their more aggressive missions near the coast such as the intercept of low-power communications or to ease the transporta· tion burden of SOF missions.25 In this posture, the SSN will almost assuredly not be able to support continuous communications.

If rapidly changing conditions require immediate response from the SBG, the SSGN can either summon the SSNs to communica-tions depth to support emergent tasking using various underwater communications techniques, or carry out missions directly. In either case, the SBG could respond immediately and then build on the response as additional SBG assets rapidly become available. To minimize vulnerability and to maximize surprise, the communica-tions posture within the SBG will depend upon the phase of hostilities: infrequent communications during ISR and battle space shaping operations, increasing communications during pre-hostilities and SOF missions, and near continual communications during strike operations. Rules of engagement must incorporate freedom of the SBG to respond to predetermined indications commensurate with the communications posture.

Should the SSGN be required to penetrate the littoral, particularly to support call-to-fire strike missions in a hostile environment, her communications posture will likely change. For example, continual communications could be interrupted as a result of ship vulnerability, ship repositioning requirements, or electronic jamming. In this case, communications requirements could shift to one of the SSNs and be relayed to the SSGN by other means, e.g. leap-frogging communications.

Advancements in EHF, bandwidth expansion, and hardware have provided the communications capabilities necessary for full integration of the SSGN into the joint arena. Because of the size of the platform, the SSGN can support virtually all joint communica-tions requirements and separately relay necessary information to the supporting SSNs (in submarine speak). With the addition of bottom devices, acoustic intercept equipment, underwater voice communications, and active sonar,26 the SBG has the tools necessary to maintain cohesion in a quickly maturing battle space.

Deployment Cycle: Because the SBG is centered on the SSGN, now a tactical vice strategic asset, the underway schedule will naturally migrate towards emulating a traditional eighteen- month deployment cycle: twelve months to support six months deployed. By forward deploying SSGNs, two in the Mediterranean and two in the Western Pacific, dual crews could keep the ships on station to meet quick response operational needs. However, with the SSGNs forward deployed, training individual components of the SBG, both SSNs and joint assets, to create a cohesive, efficient fighting force will be difficult, especially as new capabilities emerge. Additionally, the SSGN will eventually require stateside maintenance that will create gaps in coverage for the Joint and Operational Commanders.

The obvious solution is to convert more SSBNs to SSGNs. Applying the rough thumb-rule that it takes four SSNs to keep one deployed (I- deployed, I – preparing, I- returning, I- maintenance), then another four SSGNs are needed to sustain continuous presence in both oceans-under the traditional deployment cycle using one crew per submarine. This may be somewhat mitigated by using two crews per SSGN. These are exceedingly complex issues that will have to be addressed long-term in order to sell the SSGNs (and SBG) as reliable, deployable assets.


Nuclear power enables submarines to deploy worldwide for months at a time without dependence on any forward infrastructure. This precludes the need to preposition stocks in theater, provides the flexibility to go wherever there is a need, and allows the ships to stay as long ns necessary. SBG deployments can be conducted in relative obscurity if desired, and forces can be in place in any littoral of the Atlantic, Mediterranean, or Pacific within a week. Undersea assets are particularly effective in sensing enemy intentions, observing ports and lines of communications, laying the basis for the sensor grid, and negating the effect of anti access preparations. With their short flight times and their ability to launch from unsuspected locations and azimuths, missiles from subma-rines can be decisive in the first days of operations.

The high speed, unlimited endurance, and logistic independence of the SBG afford Joint and Operational Commanders the ability to mass weapons in theater before an engagement, at the first outbreak, or later as desired. Because submarines can so swiftly close the area of operations, the SBG can quickly and silently bring a multi-mission capability to bear, not in a single platform but in a number of platforms, to provide considerable flexibility in SOF, JSR and Strike combat operations. The SBG is a self-contained contingency force the Joint Force Commander can use to mass weapons on scene independently of political considerations or overseas infrastructure. In a world punctuated by unexpected and unanticipated crises, speed of response and the ability to manage risk become highly sought commodities.

The Joint and Operational Commanders will soon have the ability to employ a self-contained submerged battle force capable of conducting sustained operations in support of myriad taskings covering the entire range of joint combat operations. Additionally, if needed, this battle force can re-position and re-configure with unprecedented speed and agility. To that end, the Navy will likely be tasked with expeditiously completing the planned SSGNs and being ready to pull more TRIDENT submarines out of the nuclear deterrent role of the strategic dyad and into real-world conflict management. Doctrine needs to be developed and historical submarine shortcomings must be addressed. As soon as Opera-tional and Joint Commanders see what the SBG can do, everyone is going to want one.

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