Dr. Cote is the Associate Director of MIT’s Sect1rity Studies Program. He is also tire author of Tire Third Battle: Innovation in tire U.S. Navy’s silent Cold War Strt1ggle with the Soviet Union. This article is a summary of a co11ference he organized at MIT in February 1008 that looked at options for Submarine Force experimentation with new sensors and weapons.
Both today’s and tomorrow’s wars demand that the U .S. have better capabilities to strike high value mobile targets from the sea. The nuclear submarine’s ability to access politically sensitive areas in today’s wars and denied areas in tomorrow’s wars give it an important role to play in this mission area across the full spectrum of conflict. Defeating high value mobile targets requires persistent sources of both intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and precision, time critical fires. Toward this end, the U.S. Navy’s submarine community, together with its surface community, should engage in a program of operational experimentation with sea-based tactical ballistic missiles and small, high endurance UAVs. Operational experimentation can simultaneously serve two important objectives; it can give today’s operational commanders a 75 percent solution to an important unmet requirement in today’s wars, and it can make the Navy a more educated buyer of the 99 percent solution in the same mission area that tomorrow’s operational commanders will need in tomorrow’s wars.
In addition to prosecuting the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U .S. military must be prepared to deter or fight two very different opponents under any conceivable defense policy. Al Qaeda, and groups linked to it, swim within the vast sea of Sunni Islam populations in significant parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. They seek sanctuaries from which to attack what they perceive to be corrupt local governments, as well as those government’s more distant supporters in the West, and particularly the U .S. Their ultimate goal is the overthrow of those local governments, some of whom the U.S. indeed has a vital interest in supporting. Because these groups Jack the means to do this using traditional military means, they use terrorism instead. The defeat of this opponent cannot be accomplished using only military means, but such means will remain necessary as a component of the overall struggle against this opponent. For lack of a better term, one can call the military side of this struggle irregular warfare.
The second opponent that the U.S. military must be capable of deterring or defeating is any state that might seek to contest the U.S.’s global control over and exploitation of the sea, air, and space, or as Barry Posen has put it, the U.S. ‘s “command of the commons.”2 There is no state with the capability to do this today and the U.S. has an interest in preventing the emergence of one. As with the struggle against terrorism, efforts toward that end cannot be accomplished using only military means, but an important element of any U.S. defense policy will be the maintenance and modernization of military capabilities sufficient to ensure its command of the commons, and the littoral space that abuts it, against both regional powers and any so called peer or near-peer competitor of the future. For simplicity’s sake, one can call this ongoing effort command of the commons.
Irregular warfare and command of the commons will form the foundation of any future defense policy, but there will likely be other requirements whose demands are less clear because they involve national security issues where there is more debate about the proper course forward. First, there will continue to be debate over whether the U.S. needs to retain the ground force structure needed to invade and change the regime of states of concern, with the attendant risk of years of nation-building under fire to follow, as it did in Iraq and Afghanistan. Second, and possibly alternatively, there will be debates over whether and how to use preemptive force to prevent states of concern from acquiring the capability to produce nuclear weapons. Third, there will be debates over the degree to which the U.S. military will be asked to deal with humanitarian disasters. One can call these three different uses of force regime change, counter-proliferation, and humanitarian relief.
In many ways, irregular warfare and command of the commons occupy opposite poles of the conflict spectrum, and therefore often present quite different demands on the military forces needed to execute them. These differing demands in tum make some forces appear more relevant to one side of the conflict spectrum than the other. For example, the fact that irregular warfare is happening now and that wars for control of the global commons appear to lie well in the future, if they occur at all, makes some forces appear relevant to a real fight that is happening today, while others appear relevant only to a fight that might happen well in the future. Inside the beltway, these perceptions lead to budget battles that imply the need to choose between funding forces for today’s wars or tomorrow’s wars.
A more systematic way to assess the future relevance or irrelevance of various types of military force is to ask whether they arc relevant to both irregular warfare and wars over the commons, one or the other, or neither. Certainly the U.S. should not be in the business of making major investments in forces that fall in the last category. Decisions over whether and how much to invest in forces that are clearly more relevant to today’s wars than tomorrow’s, or vice versa, will likely hinge on other decisions yet to be made concerning the future of wars of regime change, counter-proliferation, and humanitarian relief, and the potential relevance of forces to those types of conflict as well. But, contrary to much public debate today, there are forces which can adapt to the demands made by the full spectrum of conflict. This process of adaptation is best served by operational experimentation with technologies and mission areas that arc clearly common across the full spectrum of war.
One overarching demand common to both irregular warfare and command of the commons is the need to decrease the dependence of U.S. forces on the use of local bases ashore in areas of concern. A second is the need to defeat high value mobile targets. This second demand in turn generates the need for ubiquitous and persistent, multi-spectral intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and equally ubiquitous and persistent sources of time critical, precision tires. In response to these demands, the Navy should engage in operational experimentation with small, long endurance UA Vs organic to both its surface ships and submarines, and with tactical ballistic missiles on both those platforms capable of promptly striking the targets identified and located by those UAVs, by other !SR assets, or by engaged forces ashore.
The key to minimizing the dependency of U.S. forces on bases ashore is to base as much capability as possible at sea. Because this comes naturally to maritime forces, the Navy Department has been less involved than the other two services in the zero sum budget debates described above. Its basic relevance to the struggle against the U .S.’s two core opponents is less in dispute because its ability to reduce U.S. dependence on local bases ashore is so clearly relevant in both cases.
Yet, if relevance is not the problem, the Navy still faces the challenge of supporting the theater commanders fighting today’s irregular wars against terrorists and insurgents, while at the same time ensuring that future theater commanders will be provided the capabilities needed to defeat a peer competitor in the future.
For example, today these targets might be terrorist leaders who repeatedly change their location and seek to blend into civilian populations, but who must occasionally use some form of wireless communication in order to coordinate their activities. Tomorrow, those targets might be the engagement radars for the modern air defense systems that are among the pacing threats that will determine success or failure in a future war against a peer competitor. Today, operations against high value, mobile targets arc conducted in a relatively benign threat environment, but there is a premium on covertness, both so as not to alert the opponent and so as to create deniability. Tomorrow, this mission might need to be conducted in an extreme threat environment, where covertness and stealth would be necessary simply to survive. In today’s war, simply being at sea and just over the horizon will often provide the requisite level of stealth and survivability, but there arc cases when the greater stealth provided by a submarine is of great value. This situation reverses in tomorrow’s war, where the threat will likely be such that submarines will be the only platform that can close with the enemy early in a conflict under many circumstances.
Developing forces on these two very different timelines, for use in these two very different threat environments presents a real challenge. Secretary Gates recently described this challenge, and his words arc worth quoting at length:
“In the past I have expressed frustration over the defense bureaucracy’s priorities and lack of urgency when it came to the current conflicts -that for too many in the Pentagon it has been business as usual, as opposed to a wartime footing and a wartime mentality. When referring to “Next-Waritis,” I was not expressing opposition to thinking about and preparing for the future. It would be irresponsible not to do so -and the overwhelming majority of people in the Pentagon, the services, and the defense industry do just that. My point was simply that we must not be so preoccupied with preparing for future conventional and strategic conflicts that we neglect to provide, both short-term and long-term, all the capabilities necessary to fight and win conflicts such as we are in today …. Our conventional modernization programs seek a 99 percent solution in years. Stability and counterin-surgency missions – the wars we are in -require 75 percent solutions in months. The challenge is whether in our bureaucracy and in our minds these two different paradigms can be made to coexist.
The key tradc off here is between the 99 percent solution in years and the 75 percent solution in months. One powerful way of addressing this tradeoff is through near term operational experimentation with essentially off-the-shelf capabilities in mission areas like JSR and time critical strike where there is both an urgent near term need and an enduring requirement.
Operational experimentation can be done cheaply and quickly, which helps with the challenge of adaptation and innovation. It is often difficult for a platform community to embrace new missions. The new missions arc unfamiliar and lack an internal constituency within that community, there arc usually other platform communities that will defend their primacy in those mission areas even when that primacy may be waning, and the benefits of innovation remain uncertain and in the future, whereas the costs are clear and occur up front. This last fact in particular, combined with the traditional “99 percent solution in years” procurement system, is one of the main reasons why much innovation is stillborn.
It is exactly at the point early in the process of innovation when the learning curve is steepest and the potential returns on investment arc highest that it is most difficult to project future benefits, but under the traditional procurement system it is necessary to project costs for the lifetime of the system and weigh them against those projected benefits. Alternatively, with operational experimentation, up front cost can be significantly reduced by substituting the 75 for the 99 percent solution, while an idea of future benefits can be more quickly and clearly demonstrated in the field, rather than merely on power point slides, and theater commanders engaged in current operations can be made into advocates for the new system early in its development when it is most vulnerable.
Experimentation with organic, sea-based capabilities to find and strike high value, mobile targets that only expose themselves intermittently and that never remain in one place for long can build on tremendous advances already made in Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom. Off-the-shelf technology is available to execute a 75 percent solution to this challenge in the near term, and there is great potential for future growth in these capabilities relevant to the demands of tomorrow’ s wars.
Small, high endurance UA Vs have become the tactical surveil-lance asset of choice in irregular warfare because GPS has solved the navigation problems that long bedeviled UA Vs of all sizes; miniaturization has given them more potent sensors; they can be organically launched and controlled by small units; and they can be deployed in sufficient numbers to cover large, distributed battle-fields. The first and still dominant “killer app” that small UA Vs brought to today’s wars was the ubiquitous, real time, and continuous provision of optical images and streaming video for enhanced situational awareness and as a cue for weapon targeting systems. The next step, which is already being taken, is to extend their sensor coverage from the optical to the radio-frequency (RF) part of the spectrum, and to exploit new targeting algorithms which allow them to serve as closed loop surveillance and targeting systems in support of time critical strikes. These new targeting algorithms, which operate in both the optical and RF spectra, break the traditional links between antenna aperture and targeting accuracy, allowing small UA Vs with tiny antenna apertures to not only detect, identify, and track high value mobile targets, but also to locate them with precision sufficient to target GPS-guided weapons.
At the same time, surface-launched, GPS-guided tactical ballistic missiles are becoming the weapon of choice in attacks against mobile, high value targets because ballistic missiles fly faster than cruise missiles, and because surface launchers have more persistence than aircraft. Because they fly faster, ballistic missiles greatly simplify the targeting problem against mobile targets compared to cruise missiles by significantly reducing the dead time between target location and weapon arrival during which a target might move. At the same time, when they arc based on the surface, ballistic missiles have essentially unlimited persistence compared to aircraft-delivered weapons because their launchers do not run out of fuel every few hours and return to a distant base. Surface-based ballistic missiles arc therefore capable of holding any target within their range continuously at risk of attack day or night and in all weather conditions within minutes.
Together, small UAVs and tactical ballistic missiles arc already providing a significant improvement in the Army’s, the Marinc’s, and SOCOM ‘s capabilities to defeat high value mobile targets in Iraq and Afghanistan. Putting them aboard Navy ships and submarines would expand the reach of this capability throughout the entire Mcditerranean-Indo-Pacific littoral. In the near term, this will greatly enhance DOD’s irregular warfare capabilities, and it will also provide a basis for further developments relevant to wars for control of the global commons. For example, more advanced versions of today’s small UAVs launched by submarines will likely be needed to deal with the “sensor lockout” that advanced air defenses and other anti-access weapons cause by forcing other surface and airborne surveillance platforms to stand off outside their sensor ranges, and submarine-launched tactical ballistic missiles will likely provide the only means of quickly attacking the mobile components of a peer competitor’ s anti-access system when they expose themselves.
Operational experimentation toward this end can take many paths and it is not necessary to simultaneously pursue all of them at once, but there are several key capabilities that could be explored in the near term, either together or in sequential fashion. First, is the integration of an off-the-shelf tactical ballistic missile with combined inertial/GPS (INS/GPS) guidance aboard surface ships and submarines. Several candidates exist for such a program and the choice among them should factor in maximum range, compatibility with existing vertical launchers, and payload flexibility .
Second, is the development of a simple means of launching and controlling existing small UAVs from submarines (surface ships are already engaged in this activity). Ideally, the submarine force could experiment with a range of UAV options, including smaller vehicles that would not require use of existing vertical launchers, as well as larger, longer endurance vehicles that would. Third, is to experiment with recently developed targeting algorithms, some of which involve networking among several platforms, that can now be exploited using the small array apertures, low power, and narrow band data links available on small UAVs. For example, surface ships and submarines could experiment with the use of time-difference-of-arrival (TDOA) techniques employing small UAVs networked with their organic SIGINT assets to identify and precisely geolocate RF signals of interest in the littoral environment, or techniques that allow imagery or streaming video from small UAVs to be quickly converted into fully mensurated digital point precision database (DPPDB) imagery.
The proposed path of operational experimentation using off-the-shelf technology could provide today’s operational commanders with an important capability they now lack in the near term. This is the 75 percent solution referred to above by Secretary Gates. But much additional experimentation and development could evolve from this baseline. Synthetic aperture (SAR) radars have been developed for small UA Vs and further miniaturization may lead to the possibility for combined sensor payloads that include optical, IR, S JG INT, and/or radar. V cry sophisticated sub-munitions, many of which have already been developed, could be substituted for unitary warheads, giving individual tactical ballistic missiles a multiple kill capability. And of course, many of these capabilities would be potentially applicable with some modification to the war at sea as well. Over time, building on the base of operational experimentation, 99 percent solutions needed in the event of a struggle over the global commons could be developed in the time frame in which they were needed.