SSNs: Supporting the Battle Group?

By Commander Kevin Peppe

Submarines remain critical to this nation's maritime future. But if we decide that this future in fact requires a decreased level of effort or even precludes us from conducting direct support operations, where will the informed arguments for a strong submarine force come from? We might be able to continue to argue within the community for sufficient platform strength, but drumming up support outside the force will be difficult. Without an institutionalized submarine presence within the carrier battle group, we can hardly expect it to come from the aviators and surface warriors.

The issue of submarines in support of the carrier battle group, therefore, is one of political position, of cultivating reasoned and informed leaders who are able to make strong and persuasive arguments that submarines are critical to national strength. And most important, it is an issue of value added, of getting the most out of each and every dollar the taxpayers invest in the very expensive platforms that are submarines.

Underfoot and In the Way                                     

Forces within the Navy are hard at work, trying to fix what's wrong with the system. Every battle group deployment results in improvements in the contribution of the direct-support SSNs. In fact, in recent years the submarine force has dedicated some of its best and brightest to this issue. Despite their efforts, however, most of the changes we see today are evolutionary - in the margins, so to speak. We have failed for the most part to address the underlying structural deficiencies within the process of SSN support to the carrier battle group. A sea change is in order.

The heart of the problem is that no one really seems to know what the submarine is supposed to do for the carrier battle group. Rather than exploring warfighting schemes that maximize the utility of the SSN, most of the involved parties' time is spent trying to figure out how and when the SSN might best simulate an enemy submarine to provide some undersea warfare practice. For the small fraction of time that the submarine is actually called on to operate with and for the carrier battle group, nearly all the staff's energy is spent trying to determine where the submarine is, where it is supposed to be, and why it is not where we thought it was.

From that point, the problem is one of SSN non-employment—keeping it out of the way and doing so in a politically palatable way. The rather arcane issues of waterspace management and communications account for at least 90% of what it means to have an SSN assigned to a carrier battle group. How much satisfaction can the battle group commander derive from that? Where, one might ask, is the value added?

Having been part and parcel of the battle group since its inception, other communities find these difficulties a bit puzzling. If there is an issue with airplanes, ask the air wing commander. Problems involving the surface ships are taken to the destroyer squadron commander. But what do you do with the support submarines? You might ask the chief of staff. With any luck he'll be a post-major command submariner, one of the forces' best, who in all likelihood will get to the right answer. That is, of course, if he can take time from the demands of the carrier battle group that he's trying to run to dedicate himself to the particular issue at hand. Or you might go the other post-command submariner on staff, most likely serving as the command and control warfare commander. He, of course, might have other things to do also. The point and the problem-is that unlike the air and surface communities, the submarine community has not managed to institutionalize itself within the principal striking arm of the Navy and the nation-the carrier battle group.

Is Two Too Few?

Perhaps it is time to consider assigning a submarine squadron commander to the carrier battle group staff. In fact, we might consider attaching the entire SSN squadron—lock, stock, and barrel. With the current move to downsize each submarine squadron to five or six submarines, we have the opportunity to become true full-time players in the carrier battle group. Assigning an entire SSN squadron, throughout the workup and deployment phases, would reap tremendous long-term and short-term benefits.

Now, one might reasonably ask, "Who in his right mind thinks any carrier battle group needs five or six SSNs? In fact, two appears to be two too many." Indeed, there are few peacetime scenarios where five or six submarines might be required to support the battle group. Most hot war scenarios being examined, however, require numbers far in excess of those supposed during routine operations. Four or five nuclear-powered attack submarines per battle group might in fact be too few.

If the analysts are right-if a major regional contingency will require an augment to already assigned SSNs can we realistically expect these extra submarines to just show up and go to work? Hardly. Preparing a submarine for full integration into the carrier battle group is hard work. It requires time, a dedicated staff, dedicated assets, and an intimate understanding of the technical issues by both the afloat staffs and the individual SSNs. Fully preparing an entire squadron of SSNs for this work makes sense.

There is another immediate gain to be realized from this scheme. By preparing and sailing an entire squadron of SSNs, a vexing overhead problem might be mitigated. That is, far more time currently is being spent on preparing submarines for missions than any realistic future will afford. If the afloat submarine squadron commander were made the provider for other taskings, whether national or theater, we would end up with four to five submarines fully employed, swinging in and out of carrier battle group operations as the world situation demanded. The return on time invested during these six-month deployment cycles would be a significant improvement over that realized today and would help mitigate declining force levels and unrelenting international commitments.

It is, however, in the long term that the real benefit is to be gained. First, the carrier battle group would be stronger, more able to do the nation's business. It would have available to it a force of invisible war fighters of nearly unlimited endurance, able to get to where the battle group commander wants them (in fact, able to be nearly anywhere the battle group commander or the President says they are, for who is to say otherwise?).

Second, the submarine force finally would leave behind the notion that it can only operate alone, that it is an organization defined by an aloofness that has, does, and could continue to cause difficulties within the Navy. We would have the community represented in the real work of a forward deployed navy. There may even come a day when a submariner rises to carrier battle group command.

Finally, if we explore what the SSNs can and cannot do for the carrier battle group in concert with the experts the aviators, surface warriors, Marines, and special forces-we will get answers far superior to those derived in the particular vacuum that we all too often seem to work in.

First In, First Out

Much needs to be done in developing employment schemes for the SSN operating in direct support. The first step is to do away with the paradigm that holds that a direct-support SSN must operate directly around the carrier battle group. There is no worse place for the SSN to do its work. Operations in this arena demand full-time, full-up connectivity-difficult for an SSN not at communications depth; impossible for the submarine deep. The environment demands rapid response to time-now demands. Again, this is difficult for the SSN at periscope depth, where speed is severely restricted, and impossible for the SSN deep, who doesn't know he's required to move fast now.

These issues become manifest as the battle group staff valiantly attempts to trade off freedom of movement (SSN deep) with short-fused operational tasking (SSN shallow), issuing tactical orders and managing water space to minimize the costs of having the SSN around. Underfoot and in the way, the asset becomes a liability; the work it should be doing goes undone.

For decades, the National Command Authorities and Fleet commanders have been employing SSNs successfully in a wide variety of roles and missions. The heuristic that might best represent the employment model developed over the last 30 years is "first in, first out." That is, get the SSN where you want it early, have it do its particular task, then get it out early, before the arrival of other forces.

Some might argue that SSNs have not been tasked with a "wide variety" of missions under the National Command Authorities and Fleet command; that what they have done was done in support of decidedly Cold War objectives. Not so. Although the details are highly classified (in itself a significant contributor to the lack of a cohesive and comprehensive employment scheme for the support SSN), U.S. submarines have conducted and continue to conduct strategic and battle space preparation in advance of other forces, conventional deterrence, special operations, and a host of other missions vital to national security. And rarely, if ever, have the SSNs been in the way.

As a potential scenario, consider a carrier battle group commander perusing the International Herald over breakfast. He comes across a piece of particular interest, detailing growing instabilities in a regional government. Following brief discussions with his staff, he dispatches one of his SSNs to the hot spot, assigning it the duty of preparing the battle space, collecting strategic and tactical intelligence in anticipation of future tasking. With this invisible and invulnerable platform in the region, U.S. and allied diplomats have at their disposal a real deterrent tool, to be used as they see fit in dissuading future hostilities.

Over time, however, the situation deteriorates, and a U.S. carrier battle group is called in. The support submarine, having conducted the vital indications-and-warning mission, is tasked with pre-enabling Tomahawk strikes against key posts ashore. Focusing on command and control, power generation, and select surface-to-air missile sites, the SSN - invulnerable to attack, no matter the state of air dominance - works to minimize the risk to the real enablers: the carrier air wing pilots, the surface Tomahawk and fire-support providers, and the sailors and Marines of the amphibious ready group.

Having placed special operations forces on the beach to support targeting and tagging, and having minimized the risk to U.S. sailors, soldiers, airmen, and Marines, the SSN rolls into a support position on the flank of the amphibious ready group and targets both enemy surface ships and submarines. In short, the SSN does what it can to enable the introduction of the heavy hitters, and then it gets out of the way. It was, in fact, the first in and the first out. The SSN was value added.

This notion of getting the SSN there early and then getting it out as the carrier battle group and amphibious ready group make their way to the beach needs to be incorporated into the pre-overseas movement (POM) training cycle. Today, because of the time-compressed nature of these exercises, the SSN finds itself on station late-arriving as it does with the battle group and is asked to stay around much too long. This only solidifies the battle group commander's belief that the sole objective in SSN employment in support is how to minimize its cost to the operation.

A possible solution is to get the support SSNs under way early, well in advance of the carrier battle group. As if the rest of the carrier battle group were at sea, run the SSNs from the carrier (or wherever) while the command-and-control ship remains in port. Require the SSNs to provide what it is the commander really wants well prior to actually sailing the battle group. Once done, the SSN moves to the flanks and the carrier battle group and amphibious ready group get under way. There is no tactical or communications system that cannot support this first in, first-out scheme during the POM workup.

In addition to issues of institution and employment, there are technical matters that are unique to the SSN operating in support. An example is pre-enabling Tomahawk strikes. As it currently exists, this strap-on to the Los Angeles (SSN-688) class is intractable; the process of getting a missile from submarine A to target B is broken. Should we continue to affix band-aids, the patient - submarine force needed for critical pre-enabling missile strikes - will expire from internal bleeding.

Training for shipboard personnel, whether schoolhouse or on board, also is in desperate need of attention. All too often you will find very bright people staring at screens saying, "Does anyone know what that particular mode message means?" All too often the very first time we are faced with a problem is when we would like to be launching the actual missile. All too often the data stream to the missile is interrupted by the vagaries of the ocean, as in the receiving antenna got wet (imagine that). All too often it just plain doesn't work.

We need missile, fire-control, and targeting systems that simply require the launch point, aim point, and missile time on target-tell the shooters where and when you would like a Tomahawk, have them type the time and place into their laptops, and have those same laptops auto-plan and download to the missile the information needed to get from here to there.

Hand-in-glove with the above, we need exercises similar to those used with our venerable strategic-missile assets to test our Tomahawk systems, from missile to launcher to fire-control to communications systems. It seems that the close hold we put on operational missile training simply feeds our ignorance. We've learned a lot about safely exercising key systems during the more than 35 years we've been putting strategic-missile submarines to sea; let's put that knowledge to work for us in the long-range cruise missile area.

Effective communication with the support SSN is an imperative. The battle group commander must be comfortable with his ability to communicate when he needs to (although he also must understand that more communication is not necessarily better communication). The communications suite on board tomorrow's submarines must improve. There must be a real and viable near-zero defect bell-ringer system provided to the battle group commander. At any depth, at any speed, on any course, the SSN must somehow be connected. The systems in place today are inadequate, whether radio or acoustic.

Having figured out how to get the SSN to periscope depth reliably, the SSN must have the pipes necessary to communicate in ways-data, voice, real-time video, the entire range of modern communications-that make platform type transparent to the rest of the carrier battle group.

In an era characterized by shrinking budgets, downsizing, and an unprecedented level of congressional and media scrutiny, the onus for squeezing every cent out of every defense dollar is clearly on the shoulders of the services. Improving the contribution of every carrier battle group asset, from the Marine in the amphibious ready group to the SSN in direct support, is fundamental to ensuring maritime supremacy, to guaranteeing for ourselves and the nation we serve a safe, effective, and efficient Navy for the next century.


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