CAPT (Ret) Fiebig is a Business Development Manager at General Dynamics Electric Boat. CAPT (Ret) Has-slinger is Electric Boat’s Washington Operations Director.
Operational experimentation is vital to developing the capabilities needed to maintain undersea warfare as an area of enduring U.S. military advantage.
The Submarine Force would benefit from a systematic approach to operational experimentation, especially in the area of large payload tubes. The Ohio-class SSGN broke the tyranny of the 21-inch tube, but the Submarine Force has not used it to experiment with payloads that exploit the volume and large ocean interface those ships provide. In order to take full advantage of our investment in future Block III Virginia-class ships configured with large bow payload tubes or the access submarines can provide to politically sensitive or militarily denied areas, we must have new payloads.
The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) highlights several focus areas for the Defense Department in the years ahead. Among them are ongoing Irregular Warfare (IW) threats, and anti-access I area denial (A2AD) systems that can hold traditional U.S. power projection forces at risk. Both challenges are likely to become more difficult because globalization has accelerated the proliferation of advanced weapons technologies, even to unsophisticated and non-state adversaries.2 The submarine already has some unique capabilities to counter those threats, and available technologies can enhance these capabilities for 2151 century warfare.
A well-defined submarine payload development and experimentation process is increasingly important to test vehicles, tactics, concepts of operation, robustness and the supportability of technologies needed to address 2151 century warfare requirements. As an example, an agile irregular warfare (IW) threat led by terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan has challenged U.S. forces in those countries and elsewhere, and forced the Navy to increase submarine Special Operations Forces (SOF) support requirements. That makes IW and SOF support fertile ground for experimentation, especially for submarine-launched, high-endurance unmanned surveillance vehicles and improved SOF mobility systems. A more rigorous experimentation program might require each deploying submarine to launch and operate an unmanned surveillance vehicle as part of its mission. This approach would significantly increase the empirical data available to operators and system developers, which would be invaluable in refining these capabilities.
At the same time, evolving AZAD challenges require attention. The Air-Sea Battle3 and other emerging warfare concepts propose using submarines in expanded mission sets, and they will require new payloads to excel in those missions. Operations against a peer competitor with a sophisticated A2AD capability will require submarines to play an expanded role in ISR, seabed reconnaissance, and most importantly, strike missions during power projection operations. This latter requirement highlights the submarine’s limited magazine and may be what motivated the 2010 QDR to direct a Navy study to develop options for increasing Virginia-class SSN strike capacity.
The redesign of the Virginia-class submarine bow, to save $40 million per ship, enabled the Navy to replace the 12 vertical launch system tubes with two large, SSGN-like payload tubes. As an additional benefit, this spiral development will not increase their strike capacity, but will significantly increase payload flexibility. Specifically, future Block Ill Virginia-class ships can carry and deploy payloads much larger than 21-inches in diameter and can share payloads with SSGN. The first ship with large diameter bow tubes will not enter the fleet for several years, but the four operational SSGNs, each with a dedicated experimentation tube, are available now to develop new payloads and operational concepts.
In his April 2009 Submarine Review article5 Dr. Owen Cote asserted that to be relevant, future U.S. forces would have to address IW and wars over the commons, and meet two characteristics common to both conflicts. The first is the need to decrease dependence on local bases, and second is the need to defeat high value mobile targets. To achieve this second capability, U.S. forces will require ubiquitous and persistent, multi-spectral intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and equally ubiquitous and persistent time critical, precision fires. These aggregate capabilities do not exist today, and even such elements that do exist would not survive in denied areas. However, Dr. Cote proposed an SSGN experimentation process using off-the-shelf technology that could help develop the capabilities that would be essential to future combat operations.
Several payloads meet this off-the-shelf requirement, including the Standard Missile in a strike role, the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) and the AlM-9X Sidewinder.6 The AIM-9X was designed as an air-to-air missile, but tests have shown it can be launched vertically in a Tomahawk cruise missile capsule and acquire aircraft in flight. If adapted to undersea launch, it could protect submarines and SOF from helicopters and other low flying aircraft-especially when those forces are most exposed during the ingress or egress phase of their operations. Further, the AIM-9X may also be employable against small surface craft.
The Multiple All-Up-Round Canister (MAC) currently used aboard SSGN, or an adapted version could carry these missiles, but they would be even more attractive if they did not require modification for undersea launch. Two potential methods for doing that are under development. One would employ an encapsulation technique that could support immediate or delayed launch, allowing the submarine to clear datum before missile motor ignition. A second concept under development uses the missile motor exhaust gas, or a gas generator, to pierce the water above the launcher. This water-piercing concept allows unmodified missiles to fly through a gas plume and across the water-air interface.
While these missiles would add significantly to submarine capability, not all of them require large payload tubes. However, other payloads, including prompt global strike weapons, would require more volume than current 21-inch vertical launch system tubes provide.8 Even at missile diameters up to 40-inches, Ohio-class SSGNs and Virginia-class Block III submarines could still carry multiple weapons in a single large payload tube. These and other weapons under development could service time critical targets in both IW and A2AD conflicts including road mobile weapons launchers. In addition, these ballistic or hypersonic-glide9 weapons would be far more survivable than subsonic cruise missiles against modem integrated air defense systems.
Moving beyond weapons, large tubes could carry many other payloads including Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (UUV), nano-communications satellites, high bandwidth antenna, and SOF delivery vehicles. Submarines have already launched and controlled small UAVs such as Buster10 that requires surfacing and launch from the top of the sail, or the Switchblade11 UAV launched via the trash disposal unit. However, while useful in some scenarios, these vehicles lack endurance. Longer-range vehicles such as the Scan Eagle13 UA V could significantly expand a submarine’s ISR coverage-a concept proposed by the Submarine Future Studies Group in 1998 and approved by the Submarine Force leadership. These larger, more sophisticated UAVs should be packaged for launch from the large submarine payload tubes aboard SSGN and Block III Virginia-class ships. The UAVs could launch across the water-air interface in capsules similar to the kinetic payloads described above. Alternatively, middle-ware devices such as the developmental universal launch and recovery arm14 could provide that function.
Another useful non-kinetic payload is a submarine-launched UAV serving as a decoy or carrying other electronic warfare payloads. Such vehicles could create false targets, stimulate enemy defenses, and generally degrade his situational awareness. Specifically, they could cause adversaries to energize defensive radars and reveal their position. This in tum would allow targeting from other submarine launched ISR assets, and engagement with submarine launched prompt precision fires. This concept does not mean to suggest that submarines can do it all. However, if future A2AD challenges make it untenable for other forces to operate nearby, submarines may have to create openings in an adversary’s defensive perimeter by blinding enemy sensors and degrading integrated air defense systems to improve the survivability of follow-on forces with greater strike capacity.
Other systems required for IW or major combat operations could be adapted to submarine launch as well. The 2010 QDR guidance to exploit advantages in subsurface operations16 by developing UUV systems capable of a wider range of tasks, is likely to lead to larger diameter, higher endurance vehicles that existing SSN launch systems cannot accommodate. Given the QDR and recent CNO emphasis in the UUV area, they are likely to become the first submarine payload that requires a large SSGN or Block III Virginia payload tube. Further afield, the Anny’s Space and Missile Defense Command-Anny Forces Strategic Command laboratory has developed nano-satellites capable of serving as communication links.16 Submarines could launch them or air-breathing relay vehicles to restore some level of communication after attacks on U.S. space assets that are likely to accompany future conflicts. Large payload tubes could also house very high data rate antennas too large for a submarine sail. Together, these payloads could improve situational awareness across a range of missions for U.S. and allied forces.
SOF support Swimmer Delivery Vehicles (SDV) and other small manned vehicles could be stored and deployed from large submarine payload tubes. SDV transport, deployment and recovery are long-standing Submarine Force capabilities. However, the ability to house these vehicles within the ship’s payload tubes provides added vehicle protection, reduced risk to SOF personnel and enhanced operational capabilities. Specifically, it would reduce the number of divers required to support SDV launch and recovery-an option SOF personnel would welcome. Moreover, the lack of a dry deck shelter (currently used to house these vehicles) eliminates submarine speed restrictions and helps maintain operational security, as the nature of its mission would not be obvious to observers during port egress.
In a recent speech, the Secretary of Defense called for ” … A Submarine Force with expanded roles that is prepared to conduct more missions deep inside an enemy’s battle network. We will also have to increase submarine strike capability and look at smaller and unmanned underwater platforms.”17 That is tall order, but history suggests the U.S. Submarine Force can meet these new challenges as it has done in the past. After World War II for example, the Submarine Force developed nuclear propulsion, acoustic quieting, and submarine launched strategic weapons-all new technologies that became mainstays of undersea warfare. Those achievements resulted from a strategic competition with a peer competitor: an impetus that does not exist today. However, the proliferation of dangerous technologies, the potential for a new undersea competition, and anti-access strategies that threaten U.S. power projection forces should be impetus enough to develop new capabilities and maintain our lead in undersea warfare. To that end, the Submarine Force would benefit from a funded, systematic process for proposing, prioritizing and developing new payloads.