Does Maritime Patrol Have a Future? (Part II)

By Lieutenant Commander Jeffrey R Macris, U.S. Navy

We should temper these forays, however, with the understanding that an organization cannot continually enlarge its scope without penalty. The manner in which we define ourselves has both immediate and long-term consequences.

In the near term, it determines how we allocate our scarce funds to train for deployments; in the long term, it affects how we design, outfit, and arm our aircraft. During a typical 12-month predeployment training cycle, every P-3 squadron must allocate a limited number of flight hours, crew member days, and trainer periods toward qualifying in an ever-growing collection of missions. During the Cold War, squadrons were hard pressed to keep crews trained in their primary ASW mission. Accordingly, raising crew proficiency in other mission standoff land-attack missile delivery, for example-must by necessity lower a squadron's readiness in ASW (or some other mission). Is that really what we want to do?

The answer is no. Despite its lower visibility following the Soviet fleet's demise, ASW should remain one of three primary missions. Contemporary and historic examples remind us that ASW proficiency still is critical to the United States. This summer, for the first time since Iran began purchasing diesel submarines, two of its Russian-built Kilos put to sea (the third is almost operational), constituting a potential threat to the flow of oil to the West through the Strait of Hormuz. North Korea recently sent to its southern neighbor's shores a diesel submarine, from which commandos later escaped into South Korea. Regimes with decidedly anti-Western ideologies have submarines at sea that threaten our nation's vital interests.

In addition to current threats, military experiences earlier this century also suggest that we need to keep our ASW readiness high. Perhaps we can excuse our Navy's inability to defeat the German submarines in 1917, citing the revolutionary nature of U-boat doctrine. We cannot, however, forgive our interwar naval leaders, who let down our country by allowing our submarine defenses to atrophy. Less than 25 years after the Versailles treaty ended World War I, our Navy's leaders in 1942 found themselves helpless to defeat the German submarine fleet. We had forgotten how to do ASW. It is a perishable skill and involves an investment in trained manpower that we cannot quickly reconstitute if we allow it to vanish. We must give the mission the attention and resources that it deserves.

With so many navy platforms engaging in ASW-attack submarines, helicopters, surface ships, among otherswhy must P-3s maintain proficiency? Because, sometimes, there is no substitute for the Orion. The ability to respond quickly over long distances-particularly as numbers of ships decrease-is probably our greatest advantage. With cueing from satellites, underwater acoustic arrays, or ships with towed arrays, no other platform can reach a distant target, localize an underwater contact, and destroy it as quickly. We should not measure the P-3's value by its effectiveness when working alone, but rather by how well it works as part of a combined-arms team. A P-3 working with an SSN against an enemy sub, for example, is a formidable combination, the former localizing and the latter dropping in trail for a kill. Thus, different platforms bring different strengths to a fight; working together, these platforms can excel to a level greater than the sum of their parts. If our P-3 community proclaims ASW as one of its primary missions, we should devote more resources to training for these combined-arms ASW operations. Toward this end, I recommend increasing the number of dedicated multiplatform ASW exercises. Last year's Sharem series in the Gulf of Oman is a good example; it included SSNs, P-3s, and U.S. and Royal Navy surface combatants, in seas not far from Iran's Kilo operating areas. An easier, quicker (and perhaps more effective) training improvement would be to increase the number of unscripted, ad hoc P-3/SSN free play ASW encounters. When a transiting SSN has some free time, she should not forgo the opportunity to exercise with a P-3. Where will the money come from for these extra flight hours? We must eliminate other P3 missions for which the aircraft is not best suited.

Tactical surveillance, which builds upon the platform's robust suite of sensors and exceptionally long range and endurance, should be second of the core missions. At first glance, this might seem overkill. Our nation, after all, has a full complement of intelligence collection assets: a constellation of overhead satellites and a fleet of Navy and Air Force reconnaissance aircraft, to name a few. These strategic platforms, however, are not always available on short notice.

Low earth-orbit satellites, for example, pass over a specific part of the globe only once every few hours or days; even the most important regions of the earth do not get around-the-clock coverage for all types of intelligence gathering. Similarly, nationally-tasked reconnaissance planes frequently lack flexibility. Manned sensitive reconnaissance operations often require approval at the highest levels of government, and getting approval for short-notice missions in support of a battle group may prove difficult.

P-3s should be considered tactical complements to strategic assets. The aircraft's inverse synthetic aperture radars can paint a silhouette of an unknown vessel scores of miles away, day or night. Similarly, the P-3's infrared cameras can provide nighttime video photography. Long-range optics equipment will allow the aircraft to linger in international waters and record (and perhaps one day encrypt and transmit) video of distant hostile harbors. P-3 crews long have used hand-held, high-resolution cameras to produce close-range photos of ships that may be more useful (and subject to fewer constraints) than those from satellites or high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft.

Finally, many P-3s are getting ship specific emitter data bases that will allow the aircraft to identify a hull by its unique radar waveform fingerprint. All these capabilities, coupled with its long range and endurance and its ability to respond to local tasking, make the P-3 an ideal tactical surveillance asset.

Battle group support/convoy escort is a third mission appropriate for P-3s. Since the end of the Cold War we have paid more attention to supporting battle groups-but we could do more. It is a challenge, for P-3 land-based crews are not organic parts of a carrier battle group or amphibious ready group, nor do they share missions such as dropping bombs on land targets in support of waterborne assaults.

The P-3s, however, have much to offer a battle group. Their multiple sensors and extensive communications suites make them capable contributors to an accurate surface plot. Their crews, as well, can photograph for a battle group commander nearby enemy mining, for example, or can sanitize waters for an upcoming transit. We might even conceive of the P-3 as a kind of naval cavalry, whose standoff surveillance capabilities and lethal antiship Maverick and Harpoon missiles could reconnoiter the enemy, then engage and destroy the foe before it could threaten a transiting ship or battle group. If our community embraces battle group support as one of a smaller set of declared primary missions, then it should increase training time devoted toward that end during the at-home cycle, using resources gained by abandoning other missions.

Thus, prior to deploying, P-3 crews would exercise even more with ships that will sail the waters surrounding the VP deployment site, practicing over-the-horizon targeting with surface combatants, for example, or long-range optical surveillance of beachheads with amphibious ready groups. Training also might include more frequent liaison officer exchanges, and increased quotas of P-3 personnel attending, say, amphibious warfare classes or battle group tactical action officer schools.

Admittedly, the term "battle group support" is vague and all-encompassing, and it reflects a change of philosophy as much as a list of specific tasks. Although we have integrated ourselves more closely with the surface fleet since the end of the Cold War (in joint task force exercises, for example), the VP community nevertheless retains a heritage of solitary, bluewater operations; we require a conscious, dedicated, ongoing effort to shift our focus.

Working with unarmed ships in convoy escort would complement battle group support operations. In the Persian Gulf, the theater in which I've had recent experience, P-3s armed with Maverick antiship missiles escort U.S. logistics ships through the thicket of Iranian missile boats in and around the Strait of Hormuz, thus relieving a valuable U.S. surface combatant from performing a lengthy and costly escort. America's style of war has been described as overwhelming an opponent with an abundance of manpower and high-technology equipment, transported thousands of miles over open ocean to a distant battlefield. If one accepts this, then maintaining the ability to transport a large volume of materiel across long distances is critical. During Operation Desert Shield-Desert Storm, for example, as in other conflicts this century, the U.S. transported by sea more than 90% of its supplies and war materiel. The P-3's exceptional range and endurance, along with its ASW equipment and antiship weaponry, particularly suit it to escort supply ships across open oceans.

If a Middle East conflict were to erupt today, the United States would have to transport to the region an armada of roll-on/roll-off U.S. Army war reserve and maritime prepositioning ships, from which would emerge critical armor and the supplies to be used in the initial stages of a fight. Free passage of these ships across open oceans, thus, is a critical mission. When close ashore, however, P-3 crews should expect to work hand-in-hand with land- or carrier- based tactical air to help suppress shore SAM batteries.

One of the important limitations of the P-3 is its innate vulnerability to air attack. To these three primary missions ASW, tactical surveillance, and battle group support/convoy escort-I suggest adding a caveat: the P-3 should not devote training resources to prepare for missions in high-air-threat environments, despite the welcome addition to many P-3s of defensive chaff and flares. Adding such a caveat might seem obvious because of the aircraft's large size and mammoth infrared signature, but our community now devotes precious resources to train for operations in hostile areas where other more survivable platforms might work better.

Which missions should we give up? Land attack, for starters. Some P-3s recently have been equipped with stand-off land attack missiles (SLAMs). A squadron must devote time and resources to train to deliver such a weapon, which by necessity diverts time away from other activities-and becoming truly proficient in the land-attack role will require much more than just sending a crew to the ten day training program at Pt. Mugu.

Land attack requires mastery of targeting and the use of overhead photography. In addition, adopting the role will require a larger squadron intelligence department . Is our community capable of accomplishing this? Certainly. Can one imagine an instance where a fleet commander would want a SLAM-capable P3? Of course, destroying Iranian mobile SCUD launchers when an aircraft carrier is absent from Persian Gulf is one oft cited example. But the land-attack role, after all, can be conducted by many other, more capable, specialized platforms such as surface combatants, and Navy tactical aviation or Air Force bombers. As for the Iranian SCUDs, one could reasonably expect a period of rising tensions to precede Iran's unleashing ballistic missiles on the U.S.'s Gulf allies, which would provide time for the United States to deploy specialized land-attack platforms.

Mining is another mission that the P-3 community might shed. As many P-3 crews will admit, sending an Orion on a mine laying run into a surface-to-air missile nest would be murder. Shedding the mining mission, like abandoning the land attack mission, would free training time and dollars to devote to other, more important core missions.

Aficionados of mine warfare might counter by saying that P-3s should not give away the mission, but rather work more closely with tactical aircraft suppressing enemy air defenses and flying combat air patrol. Or they might say that P-3s weren't really meant to mine hostile waters offensively, but rather to mine friendly waters defensively. In both cases, however, the critics would be wrong. If Navy TacAir is available, there must be a carrier nearby-why not allow the trained munitions-droppers to plant the minefield? Or if a defensive minefield must be planted in friendly littorals, then why not plant it from a small surface ship?

As the Iranians have amply demonstrated, almost any small ship can plant a minefield. Furthermore, planting an offensive minefield is generally considered an act of war. If our nation were at war, one could bet that our leaders would provide for us the full range of mine delivery platforms and services, including the use of Air Force long-range bombers, each of which can drop several times as many mines as the Orion. Expending training resources on mine warfare, in my opinion, is a waste of P-3 resources.

Counterdrug operations represent another expendable mission-albeit one the Navy has little control over. Each year, scores of P-3s fly thousands of hours to maintain a Caribbean surface plot, and to investigate and photograph suspicious vessels. Admittedly, executing this counter-narcotics mission perfectly matches the tactical surveillance role, but the counter-narcotics effort itself falls more into the category of law enforcement than training for war fighting. The Navy should encourage Congress to shift the counter-narcotic mission from the U.S. Navy P-3 community to appropriate law enforcement agencies.

Fear of losing resources remains the most valid criticism of narrowing the P-3's focus. Seasoned Washington veterans warn that if the community casts away missions, it will lose backers and funding. Rather than cling to missions simply to maintain budget levels, however, the community's leaders should redouble their efforts to proclaim the importance of our three core missions and to fight VP's bruising budget battles.

In the end, if our community chooses not to narrow our ever-growing expanse of missions, by default we will train to do everything-and risk doing nothing well. Thus, the challenge to our community is to debate now the value that our platform brings to each mission. Those that a P-3 crew might do well-ASW, tactical surveillance, and battle group support/convoy escort, in my opinion-we should keep. Those that another platform might better accomplish-land attack, mining, and counterdrug operations, to name three-we should give away.

As the U.S. Navy learned in World Wars I and II, submarine warfare can prove decisive, and the nation that allows its ASW defenses to atrophy does so at great peril.

 

 
 

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