Captain Jim Patton is President of Submarine Tactics & Technology of North Stonington, CT. He is a retired submarine officer who commanded USS PARGO (SSN650). He is a frequent contributor to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW.
As the one remaining superpower, and in the absence in the short to mid-term of a credible near-peer competitor, it is incumbent upon the United States not merely to match any potential adversary’s naval capabilities, but to set the standards by a wide margin-the very essence of deterrence. The emergent SSGN fleet, with its multi spectral offensive capability, will provide the means to field a ubiquitous, persistent and pervasive global maritime presence not so much on a see, it’s there basis, but rather on a prove it isn ‘t there paradigm-much as every Soviet SSBN that deployed in the final three decades of the Cold War had to assume there was a U.S. SSN in its wake.
No one operational capability of the SSGN-which include land attack, ASW, ASUW, JSR and SOF injection/recovery-is revolutionary in itself, but the fact that all of them can be simultaneously deployed and conducted by a single platform from a covert stance in contested inshore waters is. In both exercises Giant Shadow and Silent Hammer these and other capabilities were demonstrated or implied. They also allowed a glimmer seen of the ultimate impact that a force of 4 double-crewed such warships would have on the U.S. ability to provide lasting security upon the global maritime commons and in their littorals ashore. However, many of the roles and missions the SSGN is intuitively capable of accomplishing are, in reality, either not possible because of, or are greatly constrained by, present Command, Control and Connectivity deficiencies.
For example, with as many as 75 Special Operating Forces (SOF) embarked, and realizing that SOF works best in small units, it is entirely feasible (and desirable) that several teams of six or so individuals be covertly put ashore many tens of miles apart along an adversary’s coastline as nearly simultaneously as possible. However, the coexisting requirement to remain persistently connectable to each unit ashore as the ship transits between drop-off points raises a conflict. If the ship remains at periscope depth for connectivity reasons, it is seriously constrained in speed, and hence a greater time elapses between SOF team injections. If it goes deep to get to subsequent injection points more quickly, it loses connectivity with those teams already ashore. This is somewhat a subset of existing CSD (Comms at Speed and Depth) issues, but with the special twist that unlike the shore establishment or large Battle Groups, the injected SOF have a very limited set of options and equipment for raising the submarine, so the submarine must adapt to their restricted capabilities.
It is also clear that what used to be called adjuvant devices (off board unmanned things such as UUVs, UAVs and towed, tethered, floating or bottom dwelling objects) will have a large role in enhancing future SSGN operations. As a point in fact, there are presently some 600 known UUVs worldwide, 350 of which would be capable of deployment from an SSGN’s 05 tubes using proven encapsulation techniques. There also exist DARPA programs involving a UCAV (Unmanned Combatant Air Vehicle) launched, recovered, refueled and reanned from and onboard a submerged SSGN. There are those that would argue, however, that the safe recovery of such an aircraft would imply that air superiority over the recovery site existed, and if that was the case, why employ such a complex delivery platform? The real take-away here is the need, as almost any mission becomes possible, to remain focused on those which other platforms cannot do, and not be distracted by that larger set for which there are already adequate options. If one thinks that this too rigidly limits SSGN employment, then there has been insufficient attention paid to what others can’t do, but nuclear submarines, especially SSGNs, can. For example:
- Covertly penetrate an Anti-Access/Area Denial (AA/AD) minefield.
- From inside of an AA/ AD mine barrier, launch mine reconnaissance UUVs to collect detailed mine localization and be recovered well clear of contested waters, enabling follow-on naval forces to maneuver to avoid these threats or to in-stride neutralize that small percentage that cannot be avoided by maneuver.
- Covertly transport, inject and recover a dozen or so Special Operating Forces (SOF) teams in contested littoral waters.
- From a single Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) platform, covertly collect and disseminate Electronic Intelligence (EL INT), Communications Intelligence (COM INT), Visual lntelligence (VISINT), Acoustic Intelligence (ACINT), Human Intelligence (HUMINT) and Materials lntelligence (MAS INT).
- Provide as directed high resolution VISINT from small, low-flying and expendable UA Vs.
- Provide survivable facilities for a forward-deployed Joint Commander and his staff.
- Conduct Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) operations from close offshore immediately in advance of an air strike, enabling far more of the available air frames to do other than air defense suppression.
- From a single weapons platform, conduct Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), Anti-Surface ship Warfare (ASUW), land attack, and soon to be, Anti-Air Warfare (AA W) and even Anti-Theater Ballistic Missile Defense (A TBMD).
- In some cases, as political situations deteriorate, the SSGN could, on short notice from a covert stance close offshore, enter restricted waters to conduct a Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) bringing many hundreds of people to safety (perhaps to coalition surface ships well offshore) before returning to resume the above operations.
- Conduct all of the above during a single deployment period without returning to port or otherwise reconfiguring.
In many of the mission segments above, the long poles in the tent which complicate an otherwise doable event are issues involving connectivity between the SSGN and other entities. For example:
- During the process of picking one’s way through an ANAD minefield, information concerning the observed location and distribution of detected mine-like objects would be invaluable to follow-on naval forces. This information could easily be data-like in nature, extensive, and might necessitate a high data rate low-probability-of-intercept (LPI) transmission from within the ANADzone.
- The routing and designated rendezvous point for the mine-localization UUVs launched from within the AD/AA zone could easily not be determinable until after successful penetration, and would need to be transmitted via LPI means to coalition forces waiting in open ocean.
- The SSGN would need to monitor the well being of each SOF team inserted, and if several teams were to be inserted as quickly as possible along a significant reach of coastline, an as yet unavailable means would be required for persistent radio frequency (RF) monitoring at significant speeds below from periscope depth.
- Although the SSGN possess an extraordinary degree of computer processing power to reduce all of the ISR products from data to information and perhaps even further to knowledge, much of that processed and distilled material will be volatile in nature and will need to be quickly passed, via LPI means, to other entities both afloat offshore, at regional headquarters, and in the continental US (CONUS).
- Although there are better ways to link the ISR of an expendable UAV to the ultimate user(s) than by going through the launching submarine, the quick response nature of getting the launch off could require a persistent, 24/7 means of passive (listening) receipt not unlike that employed for alert SSBNs for the half century of the Cold War. It would be of great benefit to the execution of the other missions if this link could be maintained at operationally meaningful depths and speeds.
- As non-intuitively demonstrated in Operation Silent Hammer, the more senior the command entity aboard the SSGN, the less emphasis there is on sheer quantity of active (transmitting) connectivity, and the more there is on passive. This plays well to the SSGN’s inherent capabilities and limitations, but still argues for a persistent receive capability at operationally meaningful depths and speeds.
- Of importance in the SEAD mission, especially considering the cultural differences between warfare specialties, is that the SSGN would probably be required to acknowledge a rather complex Air Tasking Order (A TO), and report the successful launch of each weapon in real time as the air strike is inbound. All of this, again, would require high bandwidth passive receipt and an LPI active capability. Since the strike would be planned well in advance and the launches conducted from periscope depth, there would not be an emphasis on Comms at Speed and Depth (CSD) for this mission subset, but LPI active would, as always, be critical for the covert platform that an SSGN is.
- For the overt combat anti-missions addressed, there are a panoply of most important connectivity issues, and without detailing every one for each task, it is enough to say that in the aggregate, all of the variables of LPI, high data rate, passive/active CSD connectivity and persistency (or lack thereof) are stressed in one or another of them.
- The Non-Combatant Evacuation (NEO) operation is the least connectivity stressing of all the situations discussed, and for the first time in this discussion physically limiting variables such as oxygen bleed rates, sanitary tank capacities and the ability to cope with carbon dioxide generation come to the fore. However, a careful analysis and relative weighting of these variables will remain to be thoroughly discussed by qualified personnel in an altogether separate paper. Let it be enough to state that the intuition of at least one submariner is that 500 people could be taken aboard and moved more than 500 miles in a 24 hour period without ventilating, with carbon dioxide being the limiting factor. This parameter, along with oxygen consumption, could be mitigated by encouraging passengers and non-watchstanders to sleep (if not be sedated in the case of the evacuees) to reduce the aggregate metabolism, oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production.
- There is no other single platform in anyone’s military portfolio that can aspire to conducting such a broad spectrum of activities without extensive refit/reconfiguration. The task before the Submarine Force and its supporting governmental and commercial entities is to remove any connectivity barriers that could impede this revolutionary capability.
Now that we are well beyond the Gee, would11 ‘t it be nice to have … point ofimagining the new missions and capabilities enabled by an 18,000 ton submarine with 24 vertical 8 x 40 foot cylinders, it is appropriate that not only the Concept of Operations (CONOPS) of these SSGNs be more fully defined and refined, but to also identify where such CONOPS are precluded or constrained by shortcomings in related CI capabilities. Having thus identified these capability gaps is the first step in eliminating or at least mitigating them. Although this effort is similar and related to the ongoing Comms at Speed and Depth (CSD) effort, some SSGN mission-unique considerations are quite likely to call for SSGN-specific solutions. It has been the goal of this paper to stimulate thought and discussions about the possible responses to such SSGN mission-unique considerations and present limitations.