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Jerry Holland is a retired officer who has been a frequent contributor to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW.

Two recent announcements of U.S. strategy have great significance for the future role of submarines and the
importance of the Submarine Force. The Pivot to the Pacific made explicit in the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review
was the first. The second was Secretary of Defense Hagel’s declaration of an Offset Strategy: prominent in which was undersea warfare.

The geography of the Pacific region creates a battleground of long distances, difficult hydrography, gentle littorals and many islands. In this geospatial arena submarines have substantial advantages. The long distances of the Pacific make timely arrival and duration on scene problematical. Nuclear propulsion powers the ability to reposition quickly and without a logistics train: an incalculable advantage in any time-constrained situation. Adding the capability to redeploy America’s total force of submarines on short notice places great stress on any potential opponent. Such an opponent must count on facing all active American submarines within weeks. In any crisis the first forces to arrive at the scene are of great tactical importance and strategic significance. When those forces are not only powerful but stealthy, the effect is multiplied by uncertainty in their location and strength.

This Pacific tilt of the national strategy relies on the Navy to execute such missions as likely to be required in both peace and in times of crises or war. While the Air Force is mentioned as a partner in this endeavor, there are not enough bases for the deployment of large numbers of aircraft nor are the available bases necessarily close enough to the probable scenes of action to allow employment of shorter range aircraft. Employing long range strike aircraft based in the continental United States is possible but the support required for those deployments limits the numbers and duration of that effort. In short, American military influence in the Western Pacific relies almost totally with the Navy.

The potential peer competitor in this area claims to be developing an anti-access/area denial (AA/AD) strategy based on a suspected land-based ballistic missile that can target ships at sea. While the difficulties in creating and then operating such a system are enormous, the eventual deployment of such a weapon might threaten major capital ships (read aircraft carriers). But a strategy based on such a system is vulnerable to submarines. In the words of Seth Cropsey, an important defense analyst and former Assistant Secretary of the Navy,
“As a hedge against China’s anti-access strategy, submarines are matchless. . . . So long as
submarines remain stealthy, they bypass the ageold technological cat-and-mouse game of countering an adversary’s technology and in turn being

While this recognition is well understood by those with submarine experience, the annunciation by a nationally recognized figure who has no investment in the Submarine Force signals the wide awareness of the asymmetric advantages of submarines now and in the future.

Following on the heels of the QDR’s pronouncement on the importance of the Pacific was the description of a military strategy in which submarines are prominent. On September 3, 2014, Secretary of Defense Hagel warned that China and Russia are “. . .

pursuing and funding long-term, comprehensive military modernization programs,” to include fielding an array of capabilities “designed to counter traditional U.S. military advantages”. Rather than wading into a symmetrical fight against those weapons the Secretary went on to promote Off-set Strategies – based on technologies and associated operational skills which impose disproportionate costs on any competitor; specifically “. . . key investments in submarines, cyber,
next-generation fighter and bomber aircraft, missile defense, and special operations forces – putting a premium on rapidly deployable, selfsustaining platforms that can defeat more technologically advanced adversaries. Undersea capabilities that can deploy and strike with relative
freedom of movement and decision will continue
to be a vital part of the mix.” 2
(Italics supplied).

Such a strategy was originally proposed twenty some years ago by now Undersecretary of Defense Robert Work when he was an analyst in the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment. Even then Mr. Work was promoting submarines as the example of investing in weapon systems in which the United States possessed a clear advantage with a lead that could grow faster than a potential adversary could match. This off-set strategy, rather than matching one’s opponent’s strengths, seeks to impose on a potential competitor burdens that will require more time and resources than he can muster. The goal of such a cost-imposing strategy is not just victory in conflict but deterrence: making evident the costs and thereby discouraging competition and conflict.

The operational aim at the heart of this strategy is to position submarines in the coastal and near ocean areas of a potential enemy as a crisis builds and should war break out to quickly sink all opposing surface ships and submarines. War games have demonstrated the great advantage to “flooding the littorals with SSNs”. In such exercises, the submarines’ value is not as a land attack vehicle but as a sea control device. Properly operated, submarines become a national maritime resource, not simply a component of a Battle Group or the primary launcher of land attack missiles.

But this strategy has two potential pitfalls of our own making. The praise by surface warfare officers lauding submarines as the front line ASW forces, an outer ring defending the battle group, warps their understanding of a strategy in which the submarines they praise would not be available or present. Properly employed,
those submarines would be elsewhere, in direct contact with the potential enemy even before major surface elements of the Navy entered the battle space. This undersea dominance is a uniquely strong capability but flooding the opponents’ littorals with submarines will be crippled if every battle group demands direct support submarines. The submarine’s most valuable function is first destroying the enemy navy and then bringing all shipping to a halt. There will never be enough submarines to both provide direct support and thickly inhabit the enemy waters.

The second pitfall for faulty employment comes from the Joint Force Combatant Commander whose focus may well be on the battle ashore and the targets associated therewith. Combat Commanders may want subs positioned to provide land attack missiles for theater purposes, i.e. the objectives of the campaign ashore. But there can be plenty of sources of weapons to attack such targets. Submarines possess unique characteristics not duplicated by other forces. In a maritime strategy in which “sink ‘em all” is the goal, the value of land attack weapons delivered by submarines designed for anti-submarine and anti-shipping roles is secondary to their primary mission. The combatant commanders urge to employ submarines as missile launchers to the detriment of their maneuvering for anti-shipping actions may limit the execution of their proper role. Submarines will need to be sheltered from becoming dedicated missile launchers when that task interferes with their primary role of maritime dominance unless there is some unique aspect of the weapon delivery that coincides with the submarine’s characteristics, e.g. short time of flight or attacking from an unsuspected azimuth.

The operational military effort involved in this strategy is a return to Mahan’s classic dictum that the first aim of the Navy is to destroy the enemy’s fleet.3 Before 1945 this meant major fleet actions but today any such fleet action is exceedingly unlikely and made more so by the ability of nuclear powered submarines to dominate the ocean surface. In future conflict, the enemy fleet will be widely dispersed and the most important part will be stealthy. Engagement will be defined by the ability to locate the individual units and bring them to battle. The historical parallel is the cruiser warfare of the War of 1812 and World War I rather than the major fleet actions of Trafalgar or Jutland. But the goal remains the same: the first aim of a Navy in war is destruction of the enemy fleet.
Whatever the name, this effort is offensive anti-submarine warfare. Naval officers most practiced in offensive anti-submarine warfare are generally submarine officers. To have a grasp of the pertinent issues involves understanding the vagaries of the underwater domain, then developing an appreciation for the wide variability in accuracy of information sources and gaining some notion of the employment of the various forces involved. As fewer opportunities to operate with submarines are available, the number of officers experienced in ASW declines and their individual skill weakens. Opportunities for major exercises are rare and in those that do exist the many artificialities necessary to structure the exercise detract from the learning experience. Though open ocean ASW is a team game that involves maritime patrol aircraft, longrange sensors, submarines and in some stages surface ships, the amount of interest, capability and time spent in the actual practice of ASW is overwhelmingly in the Submarine Force. Undersea warfare involves a wide range of equipment and resource sponsors. Among the difficulties associated with such dispersion of management is that many of these equipment and resources are overseen and operated by people who are not familiar with the undersea environment. In this circumstance, the Submarine Force needs to act as the subject matter expert in building the architecture and designing the procedures to operate in this new era.

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