Bring Back ASW - Now!

By Lieutenant Commander Art Doney, USN, and Lieutenant Steve Deal, USN

The mission of the U.S. Navy has changed since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. From a Mahanian force built to battle the Soviet Navy, the United States has transformed into a quick-reaction and power-projection force ready for engagement in the littoral regions of the world, as delineated in the "From the Sea" white paper series. Because the Soviet Navy had the largest force of submarines in the world, some people have assumed that the world's ASW threat has gone away, or at least is much reduced. But the opposite is true.

Russia has not stopped producing submarines. Thanks to secrets given away by former Navy Chief Warrant Officer Walker and his compatriots, unintentional transfer of sensitive technologies, and Russian advances in technology, Russian submarines have closed the "acoustic gap" enjoyed by our forces in the past. In fact, newer submarines like the Akula and Oscar classes are nearly on a par with our Los Angeles (SSN-688)-class submarines, and could pose formidable threats to our battle groups in blue water.

Moreover, the proliferation of submarines and submarine technology sales to less powerful nations mean that nearly every littoral region around the world contains at least one potentially hostile navy with a submarine threat. More than 40 nations now operate submarines. The breakup of the Soviet Union accelerated this proliferation. Once robust submarine-building countries with decades of hard-earned, top-drawer operational capability in pocket now increasingly are willing to sell highly effective hardware and training expertise to most any nation. Because of the prohibitive cost of nuclear-powered submarines, most force-building nations are buying diesel submarines.

The advance of technology has made diesel submarines extremely effective platforms capable of operating for many days, running virtually silent while on battery power. Recent advances have made it possible for diesel boats to recharge their batteries while remaining completely submerged instead of having to expose a snorkel to enemy search radars. This tactical windfall mends the Achilles' heel of the diesel submarine, and portends a complete revision of the antidiesel search techniques that have been honed over 60 years.

The terrorist capability of the submarine is described exhaustively in the annals of Adolf Hitler's pre-World War II U-boat tactics—blue-water campaigns conducted with diesel submarines 50 years inferior to those of today. It is not hard to envision a terrorist campaign in the littorals conducted by diesel submarines, especially when supported by countries alienated from the international mainstream by political and/or economic means. This threat, if acted upon, would shift U.S. national security strategy to more of an undersea warfare role, just as Iraqi use of the Scud missile cued allied strategies of airspace domination in the Persian Gulf War.

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Navy has experienced massive cutbacks in response to the U.S. public's expectations of a peace dividend. This has resulted in a reshuffling of priorities and cutbacks in programs and capabilities. During the Cold War, ASW received appropriate emphasis to counter the significant Soviet blue-water threat. ASW in the littorals, however, presents a set of challenges quite different from the Cold War threat. A submarine designed to be most effective in the littoral has characteristics very different from those of one designed for maximum effectiveness in blue water. Submarine development is a long and costly process, and we still are emphasizing blue-water submarines.

We do not need a complete change of focus; our submarine force needs to stay dominant in deep water, but a mix of deep-water boats and subs designed to be most effective in the littoral increasingly is necessary.

Airborne ASW has a similar problem with the shift of emphasis into the littoral areas. The platforms need not change, but the sensors must have a different emphasis. Since the end of the Cold War, there has been very little improvement in the systems necessary to be effective against shallow-water diesel targets. Since the end of the Cold War and the Gulf War, tremendous effort has been placed in antiair warfare (AAW) and precision-guided munitions effective in the antisurface warfare (ASUW) environment, as well as significant advances in command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capability. But little apparent emphasis has been placed on the ASW problem, especially in the area of the fastest growing threat—shallow-water ASW.

ASW training is an area that needs much greater emphasis in the Navy of the early 21st century. It is a perishable skill that requires continuous practice and tremendous coordination to do well.

The young ASW acoustic operators of the 1980s, who pounced on Soviet boats in the Greenland-Iceland-Great Britain gap or in the Yankee box in the Pacific, are now well-established members of the chief petty officer mess now contemplating. These sailors see that their leadership no longer is interested in the skills that took years to develop, allowing them to atrophy through lack of in-the-platform training opportunities and requiring these sailors to learn new nonacoustic equipment skills in ASUW or C4ISR missions. Understandably, many want to leave the Navy because they are not allowed to exercise the warfighting skills they enjoyed using during the Cold War, and most already have left.

In addition, those officers who saw record submarine-hunting days as lieutenants are now either top decisionmakers in the Navy—thus removed from community-level ASW training issues—or working in the corporate world. Now is the time to resurrect those skills and commit to a core structure of antisubmarine warfare capability—before we have to reinvent skills still resident in the Navy talent pool today.

Ignoring the Falklands Lesson

An ASW problem takes time to develop. Searching for a submarine is a process that requires patience, close coordination, and a large investment of warfare assets. In this era of instant communications and feedback, ASW involves many time-late factors unpalatable to many senior commanders. All too often, maritime patrol aviation and carrier-borne ASW support become a sideshow in training evolutions. In larger exercises, the subsurface threat is assumed eliminated, so the exercise can proceed to more quantifiable areas of naval warfare. This is done because the time and assets necessary to eliminate the subsurface threat are significant—but this assumption is dangerous in both the real world and simulators.

As the British Navy found out in the Falklands War, a single unlocated conventional submarine can have a tremendous effect on the operations of a battle group. Great Britain's efforts in the Falklands highlighted the difficulty of conducting ASW in shallow water. The U.S. Navy's official opinion asserts U.S. forces "would have the advantages of carrier-based S-3 Viking fixed-wing ASW aircraft" and "large numbers of U.S. cruisers, destroyers, and frigates with high-powered active sonars, and towed passive acoustic arrays which would have been more effective in the Falklands environment." In addition, "the British expended ASW ordnance at a higher rate than planning factors had indicated, which with the expenditures of air-launched sonobuoys are of particular concern to the U.S. Navy." 1

These facts are disturbing for several reasons. First, as of 1 October 1998, funding for using the S-3 Viking as an ASW platform was cut. Second, active sonars, especially from surface platforms, have greater tendency to make the originator a target for submarines than they do to provide protection against the undersea threat. This is aggravated further in a littoral environment with the problem of reverberation. Sound from the transducer bounces off the bottom, interfering with the active sound propagation in many littoral ASW prosecutions. In addition, standard passive arrays are more difficult to use in a confined area, and are less effective in the littorals with the higher levels of ambient noise generally found in shallower water.

Third, in the Falklands War, a large percentage of the kill ordnance was expended at phantom targets, which highlights the nature of the submarine threat. In any naval operation, it is imperative to account for all enemy submarines. If this is not possible, it must be assumed that the unknown undersea threat is preparing to attack at any moment, making the ASW mission a 24-hour critical mission for any battle group commander, until the threat is known to be eliminated.

The Falklands scenario underlines our current ASW training problem. If the British or U.S. forces had been training with realistic scenarios, the amount of search and kill ordnance expended would not have come as a surprise. Instead, because of budgetary cutbacks, the availability of sonobuoys (and targets) for training remains critical in the U.S. Navy even today.

Unlearned Lessons Extrapolated

In addition, our force vulnerabilities often are downplayed. When we conduct ASW exercises with our own submarines or those of our allies, all too often a periscope ends up in the middle of the battle group, undetected. In the hot wash-up debrief, the submarine skipper proudly enumerates a roll call of vessels he easily could have sunk with a salvo of torpedoes. These results usually are downplayed with excuses similar to the ones discussed earlier: not enough time, money, or effort available to devote to the ASW problem or a lack of available assets to simulate a realistic wartime effort. In effect, we do not train how we would fight a littoral-theater war.

Force reductions also have affected our airborne ASW capabilities. The S-3 Viking, the only carrier-based long-range ASW asset, now no longer is in the business. The P-3 Orion force, the only remaining long-range airborne ASW asset, is at half of its 1990 force level. Yet, most direct-support, large-area ASW search missions for the battle group—which only months ago read "S-3" beside them on the spreadsheet, now read "MPA"—i.e., P-3 maritime patrol aircraft.

The U.S. submarine fleet continues to be reduced as well. If no changes to procurement are implemented, the attack submarine force is on track to stabilize at 34 boats in the next two decades. These ASW-reducing trends, resulting from post-Cold War profit taking, raise serious doubts as to whether our Navy has sufficient assets to counter an emerging ASW threat.

The United States has not learned the ASW lessons from the Falklands War. The U.S. Navy's grounds for how its forces would have fared better than the British are not based on sound assessments, and no longer are valid based on the reality of today's force structure.

During the early 1990s, Iran took delivery of three Russian Kilo submarines. It is sobering to envision a hostile scenario fought within the confines of the Persian Gulf against an estranged, desperate adversary possessing even a somewhat-capable submarine force.

The U.S. public is extremely sensitive to the loss of American lives while engaged in the pursuit of national security and foreign policy goals—especially with the lack of an obvious, ominous threat. Diesel submarine forces could have a tremendous effect on U.S. foreign policy simply with one well-placed wake-homing torpedo delivered into the stern of an aircraft carrier or any surface ship. We are not well positioned to counter this threat at the present time. The U.S. Navy has become complacent in a core competency, and we must emphasize this critical area—now.

Lieutenant Commander Doney is a 1988 Distinguished Graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. He has flown the P-3 Orion with Patrol Squadron One based out of Barbers Point, Hawaii, and as an instructor and P-3 Fleet NATOPS Evaluator at the Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS), Patrol Squadron Thirty. He was selected to participate in the first Naval Operational Planner course at the Naval War College, and his follow-on orders are to Patrol Squadron Nine, based in Hawaii. Lieutenant Deal is the Prospective Safety Officer for Commander, Patrol Wings Atlantic Fleet, and Patrol Squadron Thirty. An FRS instructor pilot, his previous tour was as Communications Officer, USS Constellation (CV-64), where he served as Officer of the Deck (Underway). He is awaiting orders to his aviation department head tour.

   1. United States Navy, Office of Program Appraisal. Lessons of the Falklands . Summary Report (Washington, February 1983), p. 36. back to article


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