To Catch the Quiet Ones

By Commander Leo Murphy, U.S. Navy

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the resultant lessening of Russian-U.S. tensions have fostered a general misconception that the Russian nuclear submarine threat has ended. Indeed, by 2003, more than 150 nuclear submarines will be laid up, dismantled, or abandoned by the Russian Navy. 1 As a direct result, open-ocean, blue-water ASW, once considered the U.S. Navy's number one priority, was dangerously close to drifting off into obscurity until championed by Rear Admiral Thomas Brooks in his Commentary, "Whatever Happened to ASW," in the February 1996 issue of Proceedings .

Reports of the death of the Russian submarine threat are greatly exaggerated, however, and the reasons behind their force reductions are not altogether altruistic. Three primary reasons are germane: First, the majority of these decommissioned units are obsolete first- and second-generation submarines that are well past their operational lives. 2 Second, economic constraints and a severely reduced Russian defense budget preclude the sustainment of a large Cold War force. Finally, compliance with international disarmament treaties requires a reduction in the number of ballistic missile submarines.

The Russian submarine Navy's emphasis, much like our own, is now on quality, not quantity. The Office of Naval Intelligence's estimate of the current Russian submarine order of battle reveals a formidable force of new or significantly overhauled Victor III nuclear-powered attack submarines, Oscar II nuclear-powered cruise missile attack submarines, Delta III/IV and Typhoon nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, and Akula/Improved Akula/Akula II nuclear-powered attack submarines. 3 Also, unlike other Russian military programs, modernization and construction programs for the Russian submarine force continue to be supported as a top priority. Construction of the Russian Navy's fourth-generation SSN, the Severodvinsk , is under way, a fifth-generation SSN is on the drawing board, and preparations for the next-generation SSBN, the Borey , have been completed. 4 It is questionable whether the United States will maintain underwater warfare superiority against these units.

Wartime operations prove that ASW is an exceptionally complex skill that atrophies all too easily if not constantly practiced and continuously supplemented by specialized training. Equally important, research and development on improved airborne acoustic sensor technology to improve passive search performance must keep pace with advances in submarine quieting to preclude block obsolescence of current acoustic equipment.


In the immediate future, we do not expect to fight a Battle of the Atlantic for control of critical resupply sea lanes to Europe, but Russian President Boris Yeltsin's fragile health, the resurgence of communist hard-liners, and Russia's threats to return to a cold war policy over NATO expansion should give us pause. Because the Russians consider the submarine to be their primary battle force, it is paramount that we continue our ASW policy of deterrence by demonstrating our ability to hold any deployed Russian submarine at risk.

Despite denials that their submarines operate out of area, declassification of several recent Russian submarine deployments proves otherwise. 5 Akula-class submarines conducted unprecedented operations off our submarine bases at both Kings Bay, Georgia, and Bangor, Washington, in an attempt to detect and track our SSBNs. Oscar II submarines in both the Pacific and Atlantic conducted intercepts of our transiting aircraft carrier battle groups and amphibious ready groups. More recently, a Victor III submarine disrupted a major NATO exercise off the coast of Britain. These partings of the ASW curtain provide just a small glimpse of current frontline Russian nuclear submarine operations against our forces. They do not begin to address how difficult it is to detect and track the modern Russian nuclear-powered submarine.

Russian advances in submarine quieting are well documented, but published estimates tend to emphasize a general impact on overall noise levels. 6 If we consider the submarine's median detection range (MDR)—the distance at which there exists a 50% probability of target detection on a single sonobuoy—we get a more accurate illustration of the challenge: Russian submarine MDRs are only a third of what they were ten years ago. Search patterns that once were spaced several miles apart today are spaced in yards. Individual sonobuoy contact time that once was measured in minutes now is measured in seconds. Reduced MDRs also have made dual aircraft operations nearly mandatory to increase the probability of detection on large-area search patterns to acceptable levels. It also is important to note that the high-speed capabilities of Russian submarines are of less concern to the ASW tactician, because MDRs increase significantly as speed increases. Slow-speed operations, however, are lethal. The MPA community myth regarding the short MDR Russian submarine may be somewhat inflated, but no one, including our allies, tracks an Akula class submarine at patrol speeds for long.

U.S. MPA Force

The forward-deployed, forward-engaged MPA force always has been the cornerstone of our ASW efforts. There are few communities, in any service, that can match the contact time our P-3 aircraft and air crews maintained against out-of-area Soviet submarines. The contributions of these forces to shaping Russian perceptions on their submarines' vulnerability during war—and the resultant effect on their calculation of the strategic balance—is immeasurable. 7 Yet at the end of the Cold War, the price of this success was the decommissioning of nearly 50% of our active patrol squadrons. Some reduction certainly is justified, but these cuts may be too deep in view of the current requirements of regional commanders-in-chief.

Nevertheless, in response to the post-Cold War doctrines of ". . . From the Sea" and "Forward . . . from the Sea," the MPA force shifted its emphasis to overland missions and antisurface warfare (ASUW). This transition was successful, as evidenced by widely publicized electro-optic overland missions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Africa, as well as counterdrug operations. An Antisurface Warfare Improvement Program is in progress to improve our ASUW and surveillance capabilities further.

Unfortunately, ASW improvement programs are few. With rapidly aging airframes, reduced budgets, and no replacement aircraft on the horizon, community planners must focus on underpinning the current force structure. The sustained readiness program is needed to extend service life to match fatigue life, and the service life assessment and service life extension programs are required to further extend fatigue life while awaiting long-term aircraft modernization and replacement funding decisions. Consequently, few resources remain for major updates to the acoustic suite, threatening block obsolescence in the not too distant future of our passive equipment's capabilities against the improved quieting of the next-generation Russian nuclear-powered submarine.


Our basic ASW search and tracking tactics, mastered over several decades of tracking submarines, remain valid for even the quietest Russian boat. But we must ensure that the hard-earned lessons of our great ASW tacticians are not forgotten. Rarely written down, these bits of gold must be captured and shared with each new generation of MPA air crews and Tactical Support Center watch officers—especially as fleet Russian submarine on top experience declines.

In the past, our success against new-construction submarines has been an evolutionary, trial-and-error process. Occasionally, when a watershed event indicated that our air crews were having difficulties adapting to a new-construction target, major adjustments to our training programs were warranted. Most often, however, only minor adjustments were needed as air crews gained more tracking experience and patrol squadrons and Tactical Support Centers shared their lessons learned.

The demands placed on our air crews is unprecedented. Modern ASW requires greater crew coordination, tactical precision, and accuracy of sonobuoy drops than ever before. Complicated airspace restrictions, dual aircraft operations, increased operator workload in monitoring large sonobuoy search fields, and increased sonobuoy expenditure rates while tracking short MDR targets leave absolutely no room for error or inattention to detail.

There is no weapons system trainer or SSN target-of opportunity exercise that can substitute for flying on Russian submarines in their operating waters. Our mastery of new-construction submarines is directly dependent on increasing our acoustic operators' experience against a new target and building a thorough target acoustic data base. In addition, passive tracking remains the key to our success. The introduction and development of such active-search tactics as extended echo ranging (EER) potentially broaden our ability to search large areas, but they are unproven and they also preclude covert intelligence collection and surveillance.


The most important challenge facing the MPA community is countering the quieting trend of Russian nuclear-powered submarines. Our individual operator schools, fleet replacement squadron syllabuses, and squadron training programs are extraordinary, but we need to seek greater efficiency through improvements to our crew tactical training programs. We must identify our vulnerabilities in ASW crew coordination core competency areas, train to them, and then be unyielding in raising our expectations of on-station air crew performance. Some recommendations:

Accelerate a common P-3C Update III configuration for the entire MPA force. The USNR P-3C Update II.S's restricted 16-buoy monitor, 31-radio-frequency-channel receive capability is a liability during modern ASW prosecutions.

Prepare for advances in submarine quieting by revitalizing and funding acoustic processor and sonobuoy improvement programs, exploiting emerging technologies, and dusting off tabled initiatives.

Publish an MPA community tactics manual that captures and standardizes all of our search theory, tracking tactics, and lessons learned. Revise the Tactical Proficiency Course curriculum to instruct only from this manual. Continuously evaluate course effectiveness by soliciting feedback from our overseas Tactical Support Centers.

Create a wing-level training and evaluation team comprised of Tactical Training Team, Tactical Support Center, wing, and VP-30 instructors to instruct the Tactical Proficiency Course and evaluate ASW crew coordination core competencies.

Exercise against only non-augmented submarines for advance qualifications and all target-of-opportunity exercises and ASW exercises. Accept no-contact flights as air crews adjust to these demands, but learn from each event through an aggressive Squadron Tactical Analysis Board program.

Continue to expand our interoperability with allied MPA forces. A thorough knowledge of their capabilities is imperative in view of increasing international coordinated ASW prosecutions and the fact that no single nation now possesses the force structure to prosecute multiple targets continuously.

Strengthen our debriefing process. The MPA community always has prided itself on a thorough and frank evaluation of air crew performance on station. Perfect on-station effectiveness grades were rare, and even successful tracking of a submarine didn't always make the debriefing officer smile if standard operating procedures were violated.

Improve our communications reliability, particularly in the capability of an air crew to copy the fleet VP broadcast. Use of the Fixed Distributive System has highlighted the importance of fast, reliable Tactical Support Center-to-air crew communications. High-frequency propagation range limitations, satellite channel availability and footprint fringe coverage, and lack of alternate communications paths continue to hamper our ASW operations.

Detail our strongest performers to our Tactical Support Centers. They are the personnel who are most critical to our mission planning, execution, and evaluation procedures. Within our Tactical Support Centers, provide computer-based tactical decision aids that focus on MPA and integrated undersea surveillance system tactical planning.

Increase our MPA-SSN coordination and hand-off procedures and tactics. Reinstitute aggressive pre-deployment visits, briefs, and mutual cooperation exercises and increase the number of interoperability opportunities during deployment.

Review and revise our approach to anti-diesel training, tactics, and operations. Our allies continue to be amused by our attempts to use nuclear tactics against the modern diesel submarine.

As we seek to measure our ASW effectiveness and preserve our slim ASW margin of superiority, we should strive to improve the ASW training, tactics, and technology of our forward-deployed MPA forces. It is they who will be called on to shoulder the responsibility of shallow-water sea echelon precursor operations and deep-water ASW in support of our power projections.

1 The Bellona Report nr. 2:96, which may be accessed at bellona/ehome/russialnfl/index.htm, provides an in-depth report on the problems that the Russian Northern Fleet is experiencing with the decommissioning of nuclear submarines.

2 Russian nuclear-powered submarines are classified by their type of propulsion system. First-generation submarines, primarily initiated in the late 1950s/early 1960s, are the Hotel, Echo, and November classes. Second-generation submarines, initiated primarily in the late 1960s/1970s, are the Charlie, Victor, Yankee, and Delta classes. Third-generation boats, initiated in the early 1980s, are Oscar, Sierra, Typhoon, and Akula classes.

3 Office of Naval Intelligence, unclassified pamphlet "Worldwide Submarine Proliferation in the Coming Decade."

4 N. Polmar, "A New Direction for Submarines," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, March 1996, pp. 121-23.

5 Adm. O. A. Yerofeyev, RN, "What Sort of Navy Does Russia Need?" Military Thought, May-June 1995, pp. 28-34.

6 N. Polmar, "The Quest for the Quiet Submarine," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, October 1995, pp. 119-21.

7 Joel Wit, "Advances in Antisubmarine Warfare," Scientific American, February 1981, pp. 31-41.

Commander Murphy is assigned as operations officer to Commander, Iceland ASW Group.


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