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Captain Patton is a retired submarine officer who is a frequent co11trib11tor to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW.


There is presently a significant degree of concern about how naval power can be used to affect events ashore if the land-based power in question can create credible maritime Anti-Access/Area Denial (AA/AD) zones, which hold legacy power projection platforms at great risk if they attempt to approach within weapons range. For the foreseeable future, however, these AA/AD zones will not be effective against modern nuclear submarines. The issue becomes, therefore, how these multi-mission submarine platforms can be best employed to weaken if not defeat (non-kinetically if possible) these zones and enable entry of surface warships at a greatly reduced threat level.


An even casual study of the military history of the United States will quickly reveal that of all military platforms, the submarine has most often been called upon to provide a new service, which was not a design element for that particular vessel.

For example:

  • After the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941, there was an urgent need to bring the fight to Japanese home waters, and submarines designed (and crews trained) to serve as scouts for surface battle groups were pressed into service to conduct independent offensive operations against Japanese maritime and naval forces throughout the western Pacific. Their success in this role is legendary.
  • After WWII, and facing a potential adversary not dependent on large numbers of merchant ships for essential logistics but who possessed a huge Submarine Force that threatened vital Allied shipping, the U.S. Submarine Force was tasked with quickly developing the Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs) which quickly made them the world’s premier Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) force-a mission not even conceived when many of the platforms were designed.
  • Again, when the absolute survivability of a large nuclear retaliatory force was an essential element for any Assured Mutual Destruction (MAD) strategy, it was the submarine that was again turned to, with some nuclear attack submarines (SSNs) under construction actually converted to have a missile compartment rolled in and welded up. These ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and their Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) continue today as the predominant component of what was the nuclear Triad, as the airborne and land-based missile legs have been reduced.
  • When the need arose in the chaotic multi-polar world following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the Soviet Union to occasionally employ very precise conventional weapons effects ashore from previously un-seen platforms and unexpected axes from the littorals, the SSN-launched Tomahawk Submarine Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM) quickly became the weapon of choice-so effective in fact, that four of the Ohio-class SSBNs were converted to SSGNs, each carrying a Carrier Battle Groups worth of SLCMs in addition to as many as 75 Special Operating Forces (SOF).

Transformation was and still is a formidable buzzword in and about the Capital Beltway, and it has been well documented, by instances as related above, that transformation ability does not inherently exist in most combat platforms, and essentially has to be designed in as a military characteristic-in submarines historically referred to as space and weight reserved. There is now a new evolving and urgent mission need that, again, a transformational platform needs to undertake-that of penetrating AA/AD barriers and taking those systems down from inside. It should come as no surprise that the submarine will again likely be this platform. What might come as a surprise to some is that a primary element in executing this emergent mission will not be such as better torpedoes, superior sonars, SLCMs, SLBMs or SOF, but rather the submarine’s antennas.

In today’s Radio Frequency (RF)-based Information Age, antennas are everything. Whether space-based, on cell-phone towers or imbedded in your laptop or Personal Data Assistant (PDA), antennas are the ubiquitous and largely unnoticed things that enable almost everything. In many cases, however, the antenna in question has to be close enough to do what it is you expect it to do, and if you can get an antenna really close, there are an extraordinary number of things that can be done.

For example, although the traditional view of a submarine antenna is to support the means to get some occasional information or advice from your masters ashore and to very infrequently send them some, other options now conceivably exist for properly designed antennas such as:

  • The interception and exploitation of even extremely low-powered RF emissions from within the AA/AD zone and ashore.
  • The infection of false or deceptive traffic into an adversary’s networks.
  • The conducting of cyberattacks on an adversary’s information systems within the AA/AD zone and ashore.
  • The jamming of radars and other RF-based surveillance systems
  • Through Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) and Communi-cations Intelligence (COMINT) intercepts and analysis, determining the identity and location of key nodes in the AA/AD complex so that contingency targeting plans can be developed.
  • The real-time support of various and sundry operations in the littorals and on the sea bottom by embarked SOF.

Almost by definition, many, though not all, oceanic littorals within AA/AD zones involve shallow waters. In some number of years past, that fact would have seemed to argue against employment there of large nuclear submarines who were, at the time, most comfortable when in waters deeper than I 00 fathoms. However, with decades of experience currently under their belts in waters such as the Persian Gulf, U.S. SSNs and even SSGNs consider long duration (many weeks) operations in waters as shallow as 20 fathoms as normal.

Another myth, which has been largely discredited is that submarines operating in restricted waters such as would be found in many AA/ AD zones would be at an unacceptable risk to visual detection. Again, real world operations in shallow, congested waters in which at any one time there might be many dozens of visual contacts has shown that given modem software for contact management, the chances of visual detection or dangerously close encounters can be managed. In fact, the few, but openly discussed cases in which there was a collision involving a submerged submarine, the root cause was almost always complacency-not the complexity of orchestrating safe stand-off distances.


For at least the fifth time in less than a century, U.S. military effectiveness stands to be challenged with a problem for which there is no off the shelf response. In the case of the last four instances, the platform that stood up and developed an effective new response to the intractable issue was the submarine. It will surprise few submariners if this is not the case once again. If this is to be the case, however, industry will need to leverage the very best of technology for antenna design and operation, and push even further the already considerable limits of receiver sensitivities and signal processing-all of which are doable dos.

In the grand chess game of international strategy, an ability to construct credible AA/ AD zones against surface warships might represent a Check, but is certainly not Mate. There are other men on the board that could be considered analogous to pieces with the range and agility of a Queen, but also with the Knight’s ability to go over or through (in this case under) an opponent’s blocking pieces. It is almost inevitable that the submarine and its antennas will prove to be the undoing of any maritime AA/AD scheme.

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