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


Over the last several decades, the employment and exploitation of space-based capabilities has made a number of evolution far easier and much more effective. This is particularly so in the realm of naval forces, and within that group, submarines have been among the greatest beneficiaries.

For example, because a submarine typically only had sensors above the air-water interface for a fraction of an hour a couple of times a day, particularly while in transit from one location to another, even such things as determining a navigational position became far more difficult than would be on a surface warship, and often drove the total length of time a mast or periscope had to be exposed during an infrequent trip to periscope depth. The Global Positioning System (OPS) now permits an extremely accurate position to be determined in seconds.

Similarly, copying message traffic from a once every two hours Very Low Frequency (VLF) broadcast could be very time consuming-particularly if other submarines sharing the same broadcast had higher precedence traffic that pushed your messages to the bottom of the queue. With Ultra High Frequency (UHF) satellite downloads, (or Extremely High Frequency [EHF] when fitted with a High Data Rate [HOR] mast) a message dump of everyone’s traffic occurs every fifteen minutes, and a particular submarine can copy its messages very quickly. (A downside of these bigger communications pipes, understandably but unfortunately, has been that the total quantity of traffic has tended to expand to fill the now greater available bandwidth).

Space-based assets have also greatly increased the quantity and quality of near real time intelligence to be sifted and forwarded to deployed submarines, and made it easier and quicker for these submarines to pass time-critical intelligence they have generated back to shore nodes.

It is human nature to not only embrace, but become virtually addicted to new ways and means that make life easier and more productive. It is sometimes difficult to revert to older methods and techniques when the newer ones are removed for some reason or because of some adversary’s actions. If two near-peer adversarial entities were to have their space-based assets (i.e. navigation, intelligence, communications) significantly but equally degraded, the one of them who best remembered (and had practiced) how to operate before these assets had become available and indispensable would have a significant advantage-particularly as regards submarine operations.



As the line goes ” … in a distant galaxy a long, long time ago”, a SUBPAC nuclear submarine was groping her way back to Pearl Harbor from the northwest Pacific with no electronic (LORAN) navaids available, a broken periscope sextant and an absolutely flat and featureless ocean bottom that eliminated bottom contour navigation as an option. Latitude was being determined at night by finding Polaris and with a zero bubble on the boat, reading elevation (+/-a degree) on the left hand periscope handle. Longitude determination was a little trickier, and involved marking the time of sunrise, then working backwards the equation that tells you when the sun will rise if you know where you are. All uncertainties taken into consideration, these procedures nailed the ship’s position down to a square about a degree of latitude and longitude on a side-about 3600 square miles (keep in mind that the state of Rhode Island is about 1200 square miles).

Technology has steadily transitioned open ocean and inshore navigation from an art to a science. From the days of sail, when Nathanial Bowditch was able to conduct a transatlantic voyage and arrive (in the fog) off New England within a mile or so of his dead reckoning track, to today, when even one’s automobile GPS will provide you a continuous readout of position to within a hundred or so feet plus altitude and speed, there has been a shift of emphasis from how to interpret a set of partial and often contradictory data to the buttonhole of a hi-tech gadget. In addition to teaching the hows of traditional navigational techniques, individual ships should stress their navigation team by frequently going to sea with the GPS tagged out, and with scopes lowered as the ship enters and leaves port in good weather. Good correction curves should be developed for those who still have scopes with an internal sextant capability, and bottom contour navigation should be practiced often. Even the back of periodically received Pilot Charts should be reviewed for information regarding expected oceanic set and drift in the areas of operation.


Or more specifically JSR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance)-is the most enduring and important missions of a submarine. In past times, the majority of these ISR products would be collected, but, for reasons of covertness and a lesser need for urgency, not delivered until return from the mission. With the much shorter time co11sta111 (significantly shaped by bilateral constellations of space-based assets) of modem conflicts, it now is frequently necessary for the submarine collector of those ISR products to selectively forward them to other users in near real time. In addition, the submarine itself is a user of ISR collected by other (particularly space-based) assets.

In the absence of space-based assets it is a reasonable assumption that the time constant of collected ISR products would probably increase somewhat, but also that the necessity of being able to spot the truly time-critical and forward by whatever means required would become more important. Less incoming ISR from analysis nodes ashore would require better pre-deployment study and preparation by the crew.


Submarine connectivity has always been an issue, and to a large degree, its difficulties have been the motive force which has significantly shaped submarine culture. Because submarines were difficult to command or control from shore, a greater level of individual initiative was expected from their Commanding Officers, and this spirit of independent operations in the best interests of the Quee11 was inculcated into even the youngest officers and reinforced repeatedly until they reached the level of command. Even after that, Squadron and Force Commanders shared this same commo11 culture which enabled individual ships to function pretty much as the Force Commander would have had them function if he had 24/7 connectivity to these submarines-strangely enough resulting in a situation where individual i11itiative was more predictable by the Force Commander than it would have been without this common culture. An existential hazard of the better (more, quicker and frequent) connectivity enabled by space-based assets is that the common culture that previously enabled independent operations and individual initiative is weakened.


To maintain a significant qualitative superiority in spaced-based military assets over potential adversaries is an urgent and necessary requirement. At the same time, the quee11-swappi11g loss of these assets by both friend and foe alike must result in a competitive advantage to the good guys-a situation in and of itself would create a deterrent against any hostile actions against those constellations by an opponent.

To create a credible capability of operating adequately following the loss of space-based assets, it is not enough to just list the actions and skills that must be taken and honed. They must also be practiced. As mentioned in the opening paragraphs, boats must navigate at sea without GPS and leave/enter port without periscopes raised, Force Commanders should declare periodic SATCOM holidays, where all normal operational and administrative functions are conducted via the VLF broadcasts. In addition, everyone in that vast and powerful intellectual entity called “The Submarine Force” should be expected to continuously think of other ways to enhance and practice the common culture which enables uncommon performance as an almost psychic phenomenon.

If, as a Navy, there is a serious interest in recreating/maintaining a capability to operate effectively in a degraded space-based environment, there are many things to consider. Should such as Loran C and Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) sites be reconstituted? Should periscope variants be manufactured that again have an integral sextant capability? Should Chilp-sounder and Meteor Burst comms be implemented and practiced?

It is within the realm of technical credibility that a near-peer competitor could degrade or disable a significant portion of our military space-based assets (and in retaliation, we, quickly, do the same to theirs). As contained in the same logic of deterrence that saw the world safely through the Cold War-that there would be no lasting advantage to taking rash actions-it is incumbent on U.S. Forces, particularly the Submarine Force, to develop, practice and make well know that they are entirely capable of functioning at a very high level in the absence of these space-based assets-a clear competitive advantage.

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