Captain Patton is a retired submarine officer who is a frequent contributor to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW.
We should have a good navy, and our sea-coast defenses should be put in the finest possible condition. Neither of these cost much when it is considered where the money goes, and what we get in return. Money expended in a fine navy, not only adds to our security and tends to prevent war in the future, but is very material aid to our commerce with foreign nations in the meantime.
Ulysses S. Grant
President of the United States 1868-1876 and
Commander of Federal Forces during the Civil War
Arguably the ablest combat commander the United States has ever produced seemed to have it right in the above words written just months before his death. His views at the time, understandably, were on a continental scale, and it would take another two decades for them to be expanded into a global scale by Teddy Roosevelt, the Panama Canal and the “Great White Fleet”. In addition, General Grant was present for, and certainly participated in, what had to have been until that time the “mother of all Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) and Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) processes” as his nation’s military spooled down from a tragic four-year internal war that resulted in about 600,000 American casualties. It is telling that he ended both his book and his life convinced that it is a peacetime investment in a strong navy that best protects a maritime nation from crippling wars. Five years later this same view would be independently and more extensively captured in Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783.
The other major national security event that Grant certainly observed and probably had a hand in was the emergent need on our western frontier to patrol, monitor and protect U.S. citizens and interests across vast, sparsely settled areas. Doing this with minimal forces which possessed mobility and endurance and limited logistic needs fell disproportionately to the cavalry arm of the U.S. Army—whose naval equivalent are SSNs.
What relevance do Grant’s views have for today’s force planners? As the Pentagon shifted its emphasis from traditional to irregular combat in a recent QDR, there were similarities to what Grant experienced between 1865 and 1885. The threat of major conflict had lessened, but still had to be considered and guarded against, and in its place a new asymmetrical set of insurgencies and contingencies has risen. As this planning process moved into high gear, the concept of dominance across the Strategic Commons2 gained considerable support.
Four potential security focus areas that those who conducted the QDR had to consider were:
– A global Jihadist Insurgency
– Homeland Defense
– A Nuclear-Armed Failed State
– A Near-Peer Competitor
When the necessary traits of systems needed to deal with the daunting threat spectrum defined by these four alternative future sare reviewed, some characteristics enhancing the necessary Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) are pervasive throughout – for example:
– Diverse intelligence gathering capabilities
– Littoral capabilities
– Special Operations Forces (SOF) capabilities
Other desirable system characteristics supporting what could be called Maritime Domain Dominance (MDD) are specific to some, but not all of the focus areas:
– Long range precision strike
– Access-insensitive to denial efforts
– Ability to impose sea denial
From a submariner’s perspective, the characteristics described above all but define the breadth of attributes that multi-purpose nuclear attack submarines (SSNs) have demonstrated to a high degree of proficiency through exploitation of their enduring qualities of Stealth, Mobility, Firepower and Endurance.3 It is intriguing to consider the economies of effort obtained when the same platform that performs superbly as a provider of MDA is also a principle source of MDD. If credence is given to the future submarine probably having additional multi-mission capabilities of being a close-in magazine from which to launch expendable UAVs, fire land-attack tactical ballistic missiles and fire remotely tracked and targeted Anti-Theater or Anti-Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ATBMs/AICBMs) interceptors, then the brush of submarine utility paints an even wider swath across the set of all possible maritime futures.
Maritime Domain Awareness – what is it?
Essential to executing the role of the dominant sea power is a pervasive knowledge and awareness of what is traversing these maritime commons. Space-based platforms and patrol aircraft certainly contribute to this requirement, but being noticeably observed serves to alter the behavior of those with something to hide. For example, the first hard evidence of Soviet shipping of advanced military hardware to Cuba in 1962 was obtained through the periscope of an SSN, cued onto the merchant ships by naval patrol aircraft who had seen and photographed nothing but canvas covered deck cargo—canvas covers that had been temporarily taken off when it was thought no one was looking. More recently, when a merchant ship in the Aegean during the Kosovo affair declared a Mayday and turned towards the Dalmatian coastline, the trailing SSN was able to inform NATO authorities ashore that it was a hoax, and in about 45 minutes SOF were fast-roping down from a hovering helicopter to commandeer the ship and its cargo of military contraband. The proper execution of MDA operations will frequently require this type of covert surveillance and coordinated jointness.
As indicated above, MDA is and will continue to be a critical component of all alternative futures, and an essential element of MDA is and will continue to be Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR). Of particular interest is that in spite of having force levels reduced by one-half over the last two decades, the actually ISR taskings for the Submarine Force in the Future Security Environment have doubled. This 400% increase in per-unit ISR workload is stretching force assets thin, and has resulted in many high-priority taskings not being accepted for execution.
Submariners are quick to state that ISR has really been their primary mission since the end of WWII, and some insights have just recently come to public light of just how important these missions were to the successful conclusion of the Cold War. Not as apparent or intuitive is that in addition to having been a provider of MDA from international waters close to the Soviet Union, the Submarine Force was a significant user of MDA from other sources. Whereas such as The Hunt for Red October would have one believe that U.S. SSNs were always in just about the right place to detect and trail a Soviet submarine, what would more likely happen is that space-based assets would cue the Sound and Surveillance System (SOSUS) that a submarine had left home port, SOSUS would detect and cue Maritime Patrol Air (MPA) into an area the size of Colorado, MPA would detect and cue the submarine into the right county, and the SSN would detect and localize to a specific street address.
Maritime Domain Dominance – how is that different?
At times decisive offensive action or the credible threat of such will be required in support of each of the four focus areas under discussion. Having sufficient ISR to identify a threat is one thing—responding to that threat with appropriate force when necessary is another. It wasn’t all that long ago that it came to light that some enterprising people in the CIA had opted to fit some of the Predator UAVs in Afghanistan with Hellfire missiles, greatly simplifying the sensor-to-shooter equation when a valid, engageable target was found. The SSN, with it’s extensive ISR package and formidable weapons load takes the term armed reconnaissance to a new and novel naval high, capable of both protecting friendly Sea Lines Of Communications (SLOCs) and attacking those of the enemy by survivably engaging not only surface and submarine targets it detects and develops, but also servicing time-critical aim points for strike ashore as directed by external sources.
In the SSBN trailing scenario discussed previously, the first bit of MDA was provided by space assets—SSBN pendant number XYZ is no longer in homeport and is therefore in the open ocean. This was a valuable and enabling piece of information, but the space asset was unable to act upon it other than to pass it on to SOSUS. Similarly, after SOSUS refining it, the better data was employed by MPA who, under peacetime conditions and without committing disproportionate assets, further refined it and was able to provide a limited degree of non-persistent MDD through deterrence and dissuasion. The really telling MDD was created, however, when MPA then cued the SSN into contact to provide a persistent presence with a credible 24/7 threat to the SSBN for an entire patrol cycle.
As for SSNs continuing to provide not just MDA, but also MDD for the four QDR focus areas, consider that when in coming years the best interests of the U.S. are served by a naval presence in a littoral that has a degree of Anti-Access/Access-Denial (AA/AD) established, the first unit(s) will undoubtedly be nuclear submarines as the only access-insensitive platforms in the maritime services. That these same units will also be both capable MDA and MDD assets is truly a bonus
Submarines in the Future Security Environment
Along with persistent, covert (and armed) ISR in support of what used to be called the Global War On Terror (GWOT), SOF insertion/extraction/support, and detection, with subsequent localization and neutralization of sea mines, these same SSN/SSGN and even SSBN platforms could in the future quite likely represent a Remotely Operated Magazine containing ATBMs/AICBMs to be released against an opponent’s missiles having been detected and tracked by other means. After all, if nothing else, just as FORCE net and ubiquitously available precision navigation have allowed the concentration of force (a key ‘principle’ of war) without the concentration of forces, they have also enabled the geographic separation of sensors and weapons—a truly disruptive technology.
Some would claim that there is no longer an immediate need for a U.S. naval deep water combat and interdiction capability, since the post-Soviet Union peer competitor that the QDR is tasked to plan for seems well over the horizon. It would be advisable for those to both read the introduction to John Keegan’s The Price of Admiralty4and to consider the fact that China has been quietly acquiring extensive oil and gas rights in South America and Africa. Their country will need a dependable flow of fossil fuel energy if it is to continue the present rate of economic development. The impressive navy China is putting together, therefore, is likely not so much to intimidate Taiwan or challenge the United States, but to be able to protect their vital trans-oceanic Sea Lines Of Communications (SLOCs). Merchant ships are expensive, and what they carry more expensive still. As General Grant (later Mahan) so well noted, building navies to protect this commerce is costly, but not nearly as much so as leaving it at risk. Nature and geo-politics abhor a vacuum—there will always be a dominant sea power, and it is a matter of choice for the United States if we wish to retain that title.
For example there could be a requirement for the time-critical destruction of a loose nuke about to be employed from a rogue merchant ship—an ideal mission for a ship-killing heavyweight torpedo with near-zero risk to the crew from a nuclear secondary explosion. In this or other hypothetical examples, it should be kept in mind that because a nuclear submarine does not require a critical mass of other supporting forces to be militarily effective, a given number of them can be widely dispersed to cover vast areas. For instance, with Tomahawk missiles having an effective range of more than 1000 miles it can be mathematically shown that a force of some 12-14 SSNs somewhat homogeneously dispersed throughout the world’s oceans results in virtually all of the world’s littoral being under this less than 2-hour strike umbrella. Combine that with the fact that within the next 24 hours, a given SSN could position itself so as to cover some point in an additional 4 million square miles not within the original 3 million square miles of coverage. The quickness with which a number of already deployed submarine units could then pile on a given location if necessary is left as an interesting issue for contemplation by the reader. When SSGNs, with 154 Tomahawks are added to the equation, and SSBNs with non-nuclear warheaded D5 missiles that can impact any spot on the surface of the earth within an hour of being ordered are considered, the credible conventional deterrent that ex-Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld spoke of seems assuredly to be embodied by a continued strong Submarine Force.
As we have watched the Russians conduct a massive BRAC/QDR-like process after 1989, one observation should be apparent. It is clear that the sine qua non of the Russian navy, the last capability they would relinquish, is the building and operation of extremely capable nuclear attack submarines such as the Severodvinsk—perhaps the world’s second best SSN. To these arguably most logical and analytical of all people, global geo-political influence is best maintained in a bear military portfolio era by maintaining global maritime capability, and a global maritime influence is best maintained through ownership and operation of a credible fleet of nuclear submarines. It is easy to imagine that as regards the defeat of a seaborne invasion attempt, a Chinese military leader would be more unnerved by a few U.S. SSNs/SSGNs west of Taiwan, than a few U.S. Carrier Battle Groups to the east of that island. Just as a developing coastal nation’s first and most cost-effective naval purchase to defend its home waters should be the best non-nuclear submarine available, the last warships to be cut in the Russian (or United Kingdom, French and U.S.) Navy should be the best SSNs it could build or buy— preferably in the quantities required for a credible round the world, round the clock capability.
Homeland Defense versus Homeland Security
As a brief aside, it is instructive to consider what the definitions and differences are between Department of Defense (DoD)-responsible homeland defense, and Department of Homeland Security (DHS)-responsible homeland security and wonder just what are the implications of those semantics. An old euphemism used to be that “…the Coast Guard works for Treasury Department, but ‘in time of war’ chops to the Navy”. Since that is no longer true – if for no other reason that, empirically, the U.S. is at war (the ex- GWOT) and the Coast Guard isn’t working for the Navy-what will be the Navy/Coast Guard split of responsibilities in some of these contingencies? Couple this question with what appears to be a historical truth—that Navies are best employed when deployed and that their basic raison d’être is distant offense, not local defense,5 and further quandaries emerge. Clearly, having an Aegis-capable ship in Sea of Japan for ascent/mid-course ATBM protection for Japan and/or ascent-phase CONUS-targeted ICBM intercept is a Navy mission. However, should the Aegis-capable ship just off the West Coast for purposes of terminal phase ICBM defense be a Coast Guard unit under the DHS?
On the other hand, the United States Coast Guard (USCG) has a rich history of operations in the littorals of not only CONUS, but also off other nations/continents—including recent operations in the Persian Gulf. Since it is inevitable that some USCG missions under the DHS will overlap to a degree with those of the Navy under the DoD, should there be a DHS-sponsored QDR of these Coast Guard missions and/or should these missions be reviewed as a part of the DoD QDR process?
Maritime Domain Awareness is clearly a prerequisite for Maritime Domain Dominance, and ISR is even more clearly a prerequisite for Maritime Domain Awareness. A plethora of various assets contribute to this awareness, but no other has a degree of persistence and endurance equal to that of an SSN. Additionally and non-trivially, the fact that the SSN conducts its collection in a covert manner means that the subject of the collection is caught as he is, not as he wishes to be perceived when aware of being watched or collected upon.
Pound for pound and unit for unit, there is no platform more capable of discerning, dissuading, deterring, defeating or destroying an opponent’s aspirations or forces on either a global or local, open ocean or littoral basis than a modern nuclear submarine. With a single unit, and for months at a time, unsup-ported, it gathers and disseminates situational awareness while holding not only any sea-based forces at risk, but also key infrastructure ashore within 1000 miles of the high water mark. As a forward-dispersed and survivable picket line, it is in a position to call in heavier reserve forces when and where needed—the ideal companion concept to the surge capabilities of the surface fleet. In fact, the more it is desired to trim excess forces or facilities, the less that submarines and their present basing and support facilities should be considered as a part of this downsizing. In an analytical sense, real numbers could quite likely support a conclusion that if X dollars more were invested in Submarine Force structure, than 2 or 3X dollars of other stuff could safely be retired. General Grant would quickly recognize these ubiquitous units as naval cavalry, and Teddy Roosevelt would probably and proudly label this Submarine Force as “The Great Black Fleet”.
If this sort of exquisitely credible ubiquitous armed presencein the world’s maritime commons is deemed a desirable thing, as it intuitively seems, than the issue of force sizing becomes a simple mathematical drill—with about 50% of the boats being nominally at sea at any time, and about 50% of those on local operations for training and certifications, than the desired force level would be about 4X the number of desired deployers—in this case 48-64. The key to proper Submarine Force level planning is not Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) as conventional wisdom generally implies, but rather a universal and secure armed global presence, with minimal logistic support, in support of Maritime Domain Awareness and Dominance (sea control and/or sea denial—or command of the maritime commons as Professor Barry Posen would call it) as required. As Submarine Force Type Commanders are fond of saying, SSNs provide presence with both a product (MDA) and a purpose (MDD).
It would appear that those conducting the last BRAC got it as described above, since although Submarine Base New London had been placed on the closure list by the Navy, the BRAC Commission removed it. It also appears that Congress has seen the logic, since the construction rate of Virginia class SSNs has increased from one a year to two, and a contract recently signed for ten more Virginias over a 5-year period.