Jerry Holland is a frequent contributor to The Submarine Review. He is currently Vice President of the Naval Historical Foundation and the Editor in Chief of their book, The Navy.
Observing through a periscope is a narrow experience. At one time or another most submariners have found themselves focusing intently on the contact of interest/target while other contacts, far and near are not just overlooked but lost. Sometimes this focus catches one in the shorts with a fast closing contact materializing from outside the bearing down which one has been peering. Hence the maxim that someone should remind the periscope operator, Captain or Ship’s Eagle Eye, that it has been “x minutes since a look around.” Looking at the big picture every once in awhile provides a necessary perspective in appreciating the true situation.
The present focus in the Submarine Force management and literature concentrates on getting a second new ship per year authorized and funded as soon as possible in order to augment future force size. Submerged in a Defense Department focused on the ground in the Middle East, one can lose track of where the Submarine Force stands and become discouraged over what its future prospects are likely to be. But the future is grounded in the past and present. Within this context the American Submarine Force is a healthy institution with a very successful past and a fairly well defined future.
The recognition that if there is another war at sea the only significant threats that will confront the United States will be from submarines and mines is generally lost in the anxiety engendered by the war in Iraq and the intellectual effort to craft a maritime strategy that can appeal to the whole country. Submarines and mines are the weapons systems of any underdog trying to contest the sea against a dominant naval power. Because none of the Navy’s principal functions for the immediate future, e.g., to haul marines, to support actions ashore by the Anny and Marines, to protect the logistics for these forces, and to fight piracy are inherent roles for submarines, it is easy to fail to recognize why submarines and their partners in anti-submarine warfare are vital. But whatever lies beyond the immediate concerns in Iraq, in the area of maritime operations American submarines will be required to fulfill their historic roles as the forward element of the fleet and the secure base for the nation’s deterrent force.
Any operation that depends upon the ocean can be accomplished only if opposing submarines are not a threat. In situations where the entry of other forces is prevented by enemy threats or where control of the air is not assured, submarines may be the only force able to remove or neutralize the enemy threats. Well in advance of any conflict, American submarines will have surveyed the battleground, observed potential enemy capabilities and tactics, studied the environment and gained confidence in their own ability to operate successfully in distant waters. Such reconnaissance operations have been well executed in the past and there is no reason not to expect similarly successful operations to be a major activity in the future. Successful anti-submarine warfare operations are carefully orchestrated efforts involving many organizations. As the rest of the Navy relaxes from ASW to concentrate on other missions, the importance of submarines in this warfare area grows. With the loss of the short range ASW aircraft, reduced standards for ASW helicopter crews’, the retirement of TAGOS ships and a shift of vision by Maritime Patrol Aircraft to operations ashore, submarines are expected to maintain their unique capability to take on others’ submarines. The slow, methodical management and carefully calculated probabilities associated with Awfully Slow Warfare will come from submarine warfare officers. There is no Jointness in this mission.
Executing these tasks in peace as well as fulfilling the crucial offensive operations in war requires capabilities that reside in large capacity ships with long legs, great endurance and adequate weapons. Ships with these characteristics make up the present force and its future. Battery powered submarines might be suitable for defensive operations in narrow waters, but the maritime interests of the United States are world wide and distant from our shores. Though the Navy continues to flounder in the design and mission of new surface warships, the character and nature of its submarines are fixed. Regardless of wishes for less expensive submarines expressed by observers focused on capital costs, the United States will not invest in other than nuclear powered submarines.2 This clear definition and the successful track record that goes with it contrasts markedly with other shipbuilding programs. The surface combatants’ future, for example, is clouded in the debate between numbers, capital costs, realistic mission execution and threats to survivability.
Attack Submarine Force levels are of great and ongoing concern because of the portending retirement of the bulk of today’s force, the Los Angeles class, and because each new ship represents a large capital investment. While official studies establish the need for a force of 55 attack submarines, six years elapse between authorizations by Congress to delivery of the submarine. Anticipating the retirement of large numbers of Los Angeles Class submarines in the next two decades, Submarine Force levels will fall below that established need in the near future and at the present rate of construction could dip to less than thirty sometime in the decade after next. The need to be concerned about force levels is obvious but there are significant encouraging signs in today’s arrangements.
The present shipbuilding program provides for one new submarine to be laid down every year. Two yards are involved and the half each assembles rotates in each new ship. This is not an efficient or cost-effective mechanism. However it has the advantage of keeping two building yards in operation and creates the necessary framework for expansion or acceleration should circumstances warrant. While hull size and major machinery remain the same in each ship, currently each new ship has a number of significant improvements over its immediate predecessor. These changes continually advance the technological capabilities and standards for American submarines.
This continuing upgrade is not the most economical way for building or maintaining a class of ships, but it keeps both the research and development and equipment design functionaries challenged and continually tests and deploys new technologies. An active research program seeking ways to improve capabilities and reduce costs has the advantage of being able to incorporate promising developments within a new hull reasonably soon after they are proven.
The long-range building program shows the construction rate increasing to two per year starting in 2012. If that happens, the force size would remain above forty until at least 2028. Observers of the American political scene note that this promise comes due in the next administration and it is not unusual that Administrations make promises that their successors, not themselves, will have to fulfill. Yet, in recognizing that submarine building programs have not faced the embarrassing and excruciating in nation of costs that have been characteristic of other Department of Defense programs, Congressional actions buttress the promise even indicating a willingness to accelerate the pace. Congressional reductions in the Army’s Future Combat Systems and the National Ballistic Missile Defense programs to fund a second advance procurement for a Virginia Class submarine is testimony to the record of success and a reputation for excellence both in an effective weapons system and a cost effective program.
Nothing marks the change in the roles of the attack submarine as the installation of vertical launch tubes in the later Los Angeles and the Virginia Class submarines. With the advent of the SSGN, submarines now bring the majority of the tactical cruise missiles to the battlefields. The SSGN carries the largest cruise missile magazine at sea. This share will only grow in importance should surface warships require their missile magazines to include missiles for air defense.
More to the submarines’ advantage as strike vehicles, not all missile launchers are equal. The ability of submarines to position themselves in waters that are otherwise unsuitable makes them prime strike platforms for the highest value targets. Close cooperation between off-board sensors and shooters, and a rapid response by the command loop and the weapon, are needed to successfully target those that are mobile or that require quick reaction to time-urgent intelligence. The longest period in the interval between the target detection and destruction is the weapon’s time of flight. Because the submarine can be stationed close to enemy shores, the time of flight of submarine launched weapons is the shortest available whether the weapon is a cruise missile or a ballistic one.
Additionally, the ability of submarines to reload tube fired weapons makes their missiles uniquely efficient. Since the number and location of missiles in theater will always be a matter of concern, taking into account this feature when selecting launch platforms maximizes the utility of all the missiles in theater. For single rounds or small salvoes, using the submarine tube launched weapons allows reloads to be used effectively and reserves the vertically launched weapons, both submarine and surface ship, for efforts requiring large salvoes.
In general, individual submarines need not be practiced in cooperative behavior, as are forces operating in the air or on the surface. Bombardment is a joint mission requiring cooperation with other forces but that interface is made best at a central operating authority and not in a submarine control room. In strikes ashore, the submarine is simply a shooter where someone else is detector and director.
Calls for uninterrupted communication connectivity are becoming less strident as analyses of the missions submarines conduct indicate that most of the information necessary to conduct these missions will flow toward the submarines with only small amounts of brief reports or replies coming from them. In spite of this reasoning, communications with submarines continue to be a problem where they are made to be problems. Submarines will never match the capabilities of ships that are not limited by physical laws or space for antennae. However, the major driver in communications in any organization is not technology but the culture of the boss. The most familiar and usual model for naval officers is anti-air warfare where information displayed is near real time, continuous and in which reaction time constant is measured in seconds. Aided by high capacity satellite links and network displays with close to real time information, the process allows continuous current locating data and instant communications with subordinates. The combination provides comfort to seniors who cannot survey a battlefield or are otherwise out of touch with the actual action. The pressure to force submarines to act like other forces in this regard and become a part of a net seems constant. This pressure is a principal driver in the schemes to provide mechanisms that will allow communication while the submarine is below periscope depth and while transiting at moderate to high speeds. Doctrinal process can substitute for real time communications in any application but is particularly useful in warfare areas where one of the communicants would prefer to remain quiet. These include spies, Special Forces and submarines.
Over time Submarine Forces have developed doctrinal measures that substitute for real time communications in much of what they do. Unfortunately, driven by the air war model, many communication requirements are not carefully analyzed and officers unfamiliar with submarine operations are uncomfortable with the notion that it is not possible to communicate with the submarines all the time. Antenna improvements have increased bandwidth remarkably but convincing others that there are ways to command without chattering all the time has not been easy. The timeliness quality of communications should be determined by the mission and not the personal quirks of the participants. In essence, much of the problem revolves around whether the message is vital for the mission or whether it is simply to alleviate the commander’s anxiety. As all who have worked in command centers know, too often anxiety wins out over significance.
For previously identified targets or items of high interest, very short messages are required both in reporting urgent matters or shooting. The long programming messages once required for targeting missiles have been superseded in large part by the use of the Global Positioning System to both identify the target’s position and direct the missile to it. With this development, the targeting message can be relatively short depending upon previously prepared instructions and flight paths chosen.
Ballistic Missile Submarines remain the major bulwark of a secure deterrent strategy now seen to be anachronistic by many. But the continued existence of nuclear weapons guarantees their fundamental role as a bedrock of international stability. The SSBN force remains not only a guardian of that stability but a strong disincentive for competition. As a Harvard study of May 2006 explained,
“…in the coming years. Russia and China will face tremendous incentives to reestablish mutual assured destruction, but doing so will require substantial sums of money and years of sustained effort. If these states want to reestablish a robust strategic deterrent, they will have to overcome current U.S. capabilities, planned improvements to the U.S. arsenal, and future developments being considered by the United States. U.S. nuclear primacy may last a decade or more.”
Optimists suggest that economic factors, international trade and interdependence have rendered major power war futile and so nuclear weapons have lost their value. However, nuclear deterrence extends beyond Mutual Assured Destruction. As long as the United States maintains its dominance in the nuclear arena, raising the stakes in a confrontation, or even attempting to build a competitive force becomes an irrational choice.
If there is any diminution in the American nuclear arsenal, the last leg of the Triad to be diminished or eliminated will be the submarine based force. Already the Air Force has reduced the number of bombers that are capable of handling nuclear weapons and as age degrades the land based ICBM’s, they are more likely to be dismantled rather than replaced. In a decade or less, the submarine based weapons will be the foundation of the American nuclear dominance; they very well may be the entire force by 2025 and so more important than ever. Design of replacement sea launched ballistic missiles is well along and discussions regarding the size and makeup of the replacements for Trident submarines circa 2020 have already begun- without a dissent on their importance or practicability.
In short, present prospects for improvements and continued recognition of the importance of submarines in the future seems assured.
How did the Submarine Force come to be so far in front of other major portions of the Navy – and the military in general?
Leadership longevity is first. The Submarine Force benefits from having its most senior leader in place for a long and definite term. White officially responsible only for the propulsion plant, this stable leadership provides long-term direction to the entire organization and insurance that technical and operational standards do not decay.
A strong base of technical expertise and expectations in every member of the organization is next. Understanding why things work the way they do (i.e. laws of physics), submariners since World War II expect everything in the hull to work and anything that doesn’t is pursued until it does. Skilled operators who appreciate the technical dimensions can make intelligent tradeoffs among characteristics including costs.
In new designs and developments, a focus on operational excellence coupled with passionate desire to get better translates into continual modernization, improvements to ships, sensors and weapons.
Care in personnel assignments assures that high quality officers man submarines and their support activities even while paying the expense incurred by the mandates for joint duty or professional education.
Research, design, and development is sustained in all phases of the submarine’s construction, equipment and operation.
Responsible and responsive constructors, contractors and suppliers share the commitment to improved performance.
Even as the American Navy retires submarines that are as good as any and far better than most other contemporary navies, this combination of aims, performance, technical understanding and dedication remains a legacy from those who have gone before and a promise for those coming in the future. While concentrating on the needs of the day, a “look around” remains important to realize the valuable lessons of the past, evaluate their application in the present and appreciate the need to maintain them in the future.