Captain Patton is a retired submarine officer who is a frequent contributor to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW.
Many times in the past, during peacetime conditions, the Navy has convinced itself that the submarine problem has been solved. For example, during the 30s, a series of scripted exercises lead to the conclusion that with the new advances in escorts’ active sonars, enemy submarines would not be able to reach a firing position without being detected, attacked and killed. In the process of doing this, a whole generation of submariners became so intimidated by participating in and by the results of these flawed exercises that a large number of U.S. submarine COs were relieved during the first year or so of WWII for failure to engage the enemy-having been convinced, for example, that to operate on the surface within 400 miles of an enemy air base was suicidal. In fact, to avoid visual detection by aircraft, many submarines in transit to the war zone early in the war spent daylight hours at bare steerageway at test depth even though just a few hundred miles from Pearl Harbor. Present examples of similar we’ve solved the problem phenomena include the jubilation surrounding such as the development of good periscope detection radars.
At the same time that accounts in the open literature are speaking of how effective ASW efforts have become in preventing a modern submarine reaching a position from which to launch torpedoes at High Value Units (HVUs), the same open literature is reporting how other navies, including near-peer competitors, are converting, buying or building submarines which are armed with long-range, stealthy and very effective Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCMs). At some conferences, when asked how ASCMs impact their ASW equations, Surface Warfare representatives have dismissed them as being “Anti-Air Warfare (AA W), not ASW issues.”
With a few notable exceptions, submarines and submariners have been quick to identify their strengths and weaknesses on a continuing basis, exploiting the former and avoiding the latter. During WWII, the U.S. Submarine Force rather quickly determined that too much radio traffic from deployed units was decidedly unhealthy for them-even though it took a visit from ADM Nimitz himself to convince RADM Jimmy Fife in Australia to ‘stop playing checkers’ with his submarines, and let them conduct their patrols in accordance with their Operation Orders with little or no external manipulation or communications expected from them. However, ADM Doenitz was slow to recognize this same practice as a significant contributor to U-Boat losses, and his forces paid a frightful price, losing nearly 1000 submarines during a war which was started with about only 50.
More recent examples of how submariners adapt to reality in mitigating threats to them involve the Soviets. Realizing early on that they suffered from an acoustic disadvantage compared to U.S. submarines (although it doesn’t appear that they realized just how acoustically inferior they were until very late in the Cold War), they realized that very long-range detection upon them by the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS), Maritime Patrol Air (MPA) or U.S. submarines could be greatly mitigated if they sortied and returned to their bases in Northern waters by transiting along such as the mid-Atlantic Ridge. They also became past masters in locating and exploiting such geophysical features as hot and cold eddies in the open ocean-essentially sort of acoustic black holes, where detection across their boundaries are virtually non-existent.
In some cases, a thorough understanding of an actual or perceived threat can open an opportunity to covert that threat to an operational asset. For example, starting during WWII and ever since, the ability of a submarine with good Electronic Support Measures (ESM) systems to detect (and classify) incident radar signals long before the emitter is close enough to get a return from these signals has enabled that submarine not only to avoid detection, but to use those signals to locate, classify and close potential targets. Similarly, the employment by ASW platforms of high-powered monostatic sonars in areas where bottom bounce or other multipath acoustic propagation conditions exist can sometimes provide reasonably accurate range information as well as bearing.
In any case, if indeed the advance of radar technology has created an environment where submarines can no longer get close enough to use a periscope for torpedo targeting purposes, this forced dependence on long-range ASCMs must be approached as a new vulnerability rather than a show-stopper if it is to be successfully countered. The new vulnerability created is the fact that these missile-firing submarines now become dependent on third-party targeting, and must be told where the targets are, and how many missiles to fire, on what bearing, and when (to create a defense-saturating simultaneous time-on-target)- most likely from their seniors ashore who are receiving or deriving such information from a myriad of sources.
This revisited dependence on connectivity (especially if the submarines in question are required to acknowledge or roger for such targeting parameters to assure coordination with other attacking entities) opens a whole new set of ASW options, to include precision attack of those C31 nodes ashore that are generating and forwarding this information to the shooters. This close-in land attack from a covert stance would appear to be a much more profitable employment of attached SSNs than the legacy attempts to sanitize vast areas against very quiet targets not going anywhere-especially if the threat from those ASCMs inhibits sea-based air power from getting within strike range. Just as with mines, some threats are best managed by avoiding or neutering, and if the fall back role of these submarines is to then revert to a find your own HVU screen-penetrating torpedo attack role, then the adversary has been forced to play into a strength rather than being left to exploit a weakness.
Submarines are very much non-cooperative targets who will not only be operated in such a manner as to reduce their susceptibility to known vulnerabilities, but strive, in a Red Team fashion, to be the first to discover new and evolving vulnerabilities and therefore devise the means and methods to mitigate those threats, and perhaps even turn the tables on the adversary and make those threats an operational asset. With the foreknowledge of that reality, ASW concepts must play the same sort of game, and not only strive to block a promising avenue of a potential adversary’s submarine employment, but must also envision what alternate employments that blocking will engender, and invest some intellectual capital on how to make those ineffective. Such as submarines needn’t be destroyed in a conflict, but rather just made impotent. In a Darwinian sense, if submarines attempting to impose regional sea denial are made operationally insignificant enough, ownership of them will become unattractive