'More than Submarine vs. Submarine'

By Vice Admiral James R. Fitzgerald, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Mine warfare is defined in JP 3-15 as: “(DOD) The strategic, operational, and tactical use of mines and mine countermeasures either by emplacing mines to degrade the enemy’s capabilities to wage land, air, and maritime warfare or by countering of enemy-emplaced mines to permit friendly maneuver or use of selected land or sea areas. Also called MW.”

Why is this important? There is no argument that the submarine is an essential component, and often the only force that can operate in areas where maritime supremacy is not established. 1 Undersea warfare, however, consists of far more than just submarine vs. submarine. By definition, it includes antisubmarine and mine warfare. Any USW investment strategy must include a more holistic approach. It includes a broad range of different capabilities, systems, and platforms, including intelligence, oceanography (knowledge of the environment), surveillance systems, submarines, aircraft, surface ships, networks, and weapons. It is often colloquially described as a “team sport.”

Monotony and Intensity

It is not “see the plane, shoot the plane,” nor can it be fully automated to let computers do the work. It is a complex form of warfare executed in an uncooperative and unforgiving environment (the ocean) that demands constant vigilance, exhaustive training, and precision teamwork. Even then it is often described by those who have significant experience as more of an art. It is “24/7,” monotonous and boring punctuated by periods of intensive operational uncertainty.

While the submarine community has a well-defined strategy and supporting investment plan, a broader undersea-warfare strategy (and supporting investment plan) does not exist. Such a strategy and a general concept of operations, is required for a coherent investment plan, for all else follows. 2 A brief review of the Cold War strategy and concept of operations is illustrative. An outgrowth of the World War II Battle of the Atlantic, the Cold War strategy began with all-source intelligence and ocean surveillance. It was a global, passive acoustics-based barrier strategy, while also supporting investment in a two-tiered ASW escort force, with small numbers of multipurpose destroyers assigned to battle groups and other high-value units and larger numbers of single-purpose destroyer escorts devoted largely to ASW for use in screening mid-ocean convoys.

The Cold War concept of operations was multilayered, consisting of independent, far-forward operations by nuclear-powered fast-attack submarines (SSNs). In peacetime, these would provide intelligence and warning, and in wartime they would constitute the first barrier that Soviet submarines would encounter when they left their bases. Area ASW operations had alternating layers of Navy patrol and reconnaissance aircraft and submarines. Barriers were placed between Soviet homeports and open-ocean patrol areas wherever maritime geography made them possible. Leakage (a reality of all ASW operations) of Soviet submarines through the barriers still required destroyers and task-group air assets to protect those forces so valuable that even limited losses needed to be avoided, such as carrier battle groups. And a sub-strategy was in place of using submarines offensively in forward operations to “hold at risk” Soviet ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) in such a way as to divert the Soviet navy, and particularly their best SSNs, away from other more offensive missions—operations in Soviet SSBN bastions. (The concept was to exact considerable attrition as Soviet submarines surged into the North Atlantic shipping lanes, and as they attempted to return to their bases or replenishment predicated on the concept of sending the message to the Soviets that they could not win with the losses they would endure).

The balance of the ASW effort would shift from escort operations to offensive patrol, with escort ships employed as a backup. Early losses to merchant shipping would be accepted on the assumption that the submarine threat would soon become manageable because of steady attrition by the barriers. So it was a mix of offensive, defense-in-depth, force defense, and diversionary operations, but basically an attrition-based strategy. 3

Regional, Not Global

The strategy of today is loosely inferred from such concepts as “Sea Basing” and anti-access/area denial (A2/AD), formerly articulated as “Assured Access,” and is different. It is unclear, as in the beginning of the Cold War, whether all source intelligence and ocean surveillance (“cueing”) exists to the same degree it did at that time. It is not global in the sense of the Cold War, it is more regional. Advances in submarine quieting (loss, or significant reduction, of stable narrow-band acoustic signatures) have largely negated the previous passive acoustics-based long-range detection and reduced the effectiveness of the systems that relied on those vulnerabilities.

Today’s challenge is more like that of the former Soviets in the Cold War breaking out into the North Atlantic. We are now the “aggressors” in the context of attempting “assured access” at a time and place of our choosing, “breaking into” someone else’s backyard. And it is still, although unstated, again primarily attrition-based.

Curiously, what is rarely if ever discussed are maintenance of the sea lines of communication and maritime commerce and the potential impact of even the threat of conflict on commercial shipping and the concomitant impact on the world’s economies. Today’s commercial shipping is very much like that of the commercial airlines—very well coordinated and operated with a “just-in-time” concept of operations. Unlike the maritime shipping industry of World War II, today’s shipping industry is a largely flags-of-convenience, independent, entrepreneur-owned and -insured enterprise. A ship not under way or unable to sail is not generating revenue or delivering goods and results in empty shelves or adds to the cost of operation ultimately passed on to the consumer. (In a time of armed conflict, it is easy to foresee that the global economy would break down if risks outweigh gain in the event of an anti-commerce campaign.) Diversion from normal shipping lanes impacts both “just-in-time” and often influences insurance underwriting, also increasing cost. Undersea warfare is not just about A2/AD and/or Sea Basing. It is also about maintaining a national standard of living. The inference here is that any USW strategy must be broader and include maintenance of the sea lines of communication.

At this point, it’s useful to segue to related areas: the Navy’s vision for the warfare and acquisition policy. That vision is partially articulated as “networking of self-aware, autonomous sensor fields coupled with manned and unmanned kill vehicles [that] will shift ASW from ‘platform-intensive’ to ‘sensor-rich’ operations,” which was developed under CNO Admiral Vern Clark. 4 Presidential Budget Decision 753 was generated, “risk capital” was identified, and Task Force ASW created to oversee rapid development of appropriate technologies. Significant investment was made, but as of this writing no significant “self-aware, autonomous sensor field” technologies appear to have transitioned to operational use, and, unlike for platforms, there appears to be no good home for off-board systems.

‘Spiral Development’

The current acquisition philosophy is defined as “spiral development” and embodies such things as the Acoustic Rapid COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) Insertion (ARCI), Advanced Processor Build (APB) and Advanced Capability Build (ACB) programs/processes. These programs have changed the way the U.S. Navy, academia, industry, small business, and government laboratories collaborate to develop and field sonar systems.

The APB and ACB teams have broken down the traditional stove-piped programs and the impediments to rapid developments using peer review teams and modern commercial information technology. What has previously taken ten years using the traditional approach can now be completed in just 18 to 36 months, providing an opportunity to perform rapid technology insertion to adapt to a changing threat. As a practical matter, these have yielded significant improvements in reduction of “footprints,” insertion and maintenance of current technology, improved maintenance and reliability, and detection. But these programs alone are not enough to address the evolution of the submarine threat, and they remain platform-based.

It is also important to note that perhaps more insidious long-term unintended consequences include that industry has consolidated, so the prior structure where the major USW businesses had profit-and-loss centers no longer exists; USW is not a major or growth segment in either the U.S. or the international market, so interest and intellectual capital follows the money; fewer industry top executives have operational and/or relevant experience in USW, so the appeal is diminished; misunderstandings between USW, ASW, and the submarine business add to the lack of interest/focus at the executive level; and consolidation of shipbuilding and reduction in USW platform acquisition across air, surface, and subsurface in favor of multipurpose or generic missions also plays a role.

There is also the “skin-in-the-game” philosophy that industry must invest internal funds to develop a concept or system, bring it to the Navy to test and evaluate, and if the Navy sees value the service will invest in it. The kicker is that the Navy generally then submits it for competition, yielding little return on investment (ROI) to the developer, a disincentive to industry. It is unclear that the policy makers have ever sat in a bid and proposal or internal research and development industry meeting. Chief executive and financial officers are fond of saying “show me the program” and asking “what is the ROI?” They have a fiduciary responsibility to their stockholders.

On Being Reactive

The current acquisition strategy does not appear to be grounded in a well-thought-out and coordinated undersea warfighting strategy. Rather, it appears to be relying on threat-based analysis and a confederation of platform investment strategies focused on an individual platform community’s assessment of needs and requirements as measured against a potential adversary’s force structure. Such analysis is reactive and places us a development cycle behind. The reality, therefore, is one of reaction and “backing into a strategy” based on the program objective memorandum (POM) and current platforms.

Further, the current strategy neither challenges nor focuses the Navy, commercial and academic science and technology, and advanced developmental communities. The lack of feedback and gap identification at the operational level provides no opportunity for the exchange between the technologists and the warfighters, with neither forum nor champion. We waste money, time, and the efforts of our best and brightest to deliver things that have limited operational value and forgo the opportunity to provide challenges that have immense value if executed. Said another way, the POM becomes the warfighting strategy and caps innovation—a strategy increasingly based on reaction and cost or price, as opposed to warfighting combat capability and results in chasing the potential threat.

To be fair, many attempts have been made over the past decade plus to create an “ASW Master Plan,” a “Roadmap,” or something similar. Old hands can identify at least a dozen such attempts as far back as 1988 with the OP-71 ASW Master Plan. The results of these efforts generally end up as academic exercises and are not applied as guiding principles for a broad warfare investment plan, or they simply end up recommending buying the existing program objective. Perhaps this is the natural consequence of an organization that in the past favored platforms over warfare.

Culture Change

What is required is a bold step, a change in culture, and a supporting organization to affect “centralized supervision and coordination of all Antisubmarine Warfare planning, programming and appraising, in order to insure an integrated and effective Antisubmarine Warfare effort,” and a supporting ASW Systems Project Office. 5 Old hands will also recognize this as the implementing notice for the establishment of Office of Antisubmarine Warfare Programs, OP-95, and the latter as PM-4, Director of ASW Project Office (OP-951/PM-4). The real threat is technology, not someone’s force structure. The motto should be that once used for the F-14: “Anytime, Baby.”

The Navy, however, appears to appreciate the need and has taken an important first step. It has recently designated the Commander, Submarine Forces as the lead for all undersea capabilities, whether on submarines, aircraft, surface ships, or in information-dominance systems, and is to be consulted on the development of all programs and investments for the undersea domain. This duty includes developing operating concepts and doctrine for undersea operations.

OP-95 was established for the right reasons—the technological advances in submarine warfare, in those days including nuclear-powered submarines and the submarine-launched missile. It was not established to address a potential adversary’s force structure. The parallels are clear today in the advent of much quieter diesel-electric, air-independent, and significantly advanced nuclear-powered submarines, the proliferation of submarine-launched ballistic and cruise missiles, and wake-homing torpedoes.

Globalization has “flattened” the globe, “which requires us to run faster in order to stay in place.” 6 Advanced technology is no longer the domain and advantage of a relative few. Rather, it is essentially available to anyone with an Internet connection. That this organization was effective can be demonstrated by the list of accomplishments, some of which include: a “new small torpedo,” Mk-46; ASROC [antisubmarine rocket], SUBROC [antisubmarine missile], a new ASW torpedo, Mk-48; “A-NEW,” systems and engineering approach to future ASW aircraft; AUTEC [Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center]; the DASH drone ASW helicopter; Sea Hawk, systems engineering and integration applied to the design of a new surface ship, ultimately the FF-1052 class; the AN/SQS-26 sonar, forerunner of the current 53C series; and the AN/BQQ-2 sonar later installed on SSNs are among the numerous achievements. 7 Of course, the argument can be made that every warfare area should have similar OPNAV staff organizations. Perhaps they should to provide more focus on warfighting/combat balance and less on budget.

‘More Impetuous, Less Tenacious’

The history of World War II is well known and the warfighting economy of Japan was essentially starved by our submarines. Historically, submarines are much more effective in anti-commence than in ASW or anti-military. An interesting article appeared in a 1952 Proceedings by Atsushi Oi, a staff officer of the Japanese Grand Escort Command Headquarters from its creation to disbandment, from November 1943 through August 1945. It was titled: “Why Japan’s Anti-Submarine Warfare Failed.” He felt it was his “duty” to explain: “In a nutshell, Japan failed in anti-submarine warfare largely because her navy disregarded the importance of the problem.” He stated that “at the bottom of their naval tradition, there was a problem of racial temperament. Compared with the Europeans the Japanese are generally said to be more impetuous and less tenacious. They preferred colorful and offensive fighting to monotonous and defensive warfare. A/S warfare were not jobs welcomed by the Japanese naval men.” 8

The U.S. Navy was guilty of the same temperament in the buildup to the first years of World War II. Admiral Ernest J. King et al. essentially did the same thing in emphasizing aircraft carriers, destroyers, and amphibious ships at the expense of the destroyer escorts and ASW-capable aircraft.

Are we more impetuous and less tenacious? Do we prefer the more “colorful and offensive” over the “monotonous and defensive?” Has the allure of strike and ballistic-missile defense overcome our need for more of a balance of capabilities? Are we vulnerable to “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it?” 9

1. “Maritime Supremacy” (DOD): That degree of maritime superiority wherein the opposing force is incapable of effective interference. Source: JP 3-32.

2. “Concept of Operations” (DOD): A verbal or graphic statement that clearly and concisely expresses what the joint force commander intends to accomplish and how it will be done using available resources. The concept is designed to give an overall picture of the operation. (Also called commander’s concept or CONOPS.)Source: JP 5-0.

3. For a more complete discussion of the Cold War ASW strategy, see Owen R. Cote Jr., The Third Battle: Innovation in The Navy’s Silent Cold War Struggle With Soviet Submarines , Newport Paper #16, U.S. Naval War College Press, 2003.

4. “Task Force ASW: Anti-Submarine Warfare Concept of Operations for the 21st Century.” Undated.

5. OPNAV NOTICE 5430, OP-09B83, Ser. 3030P09B8, 17 February 1964.

6. Thomas L. Friedman, The World Is Flat (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005).

7. Fact Sheet Anti-Submarine Warfare, 17 September 1964.

8. Atsuchi Oi, “Why Japan’s Anti-Submarine Warfare Failed, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 78, no. 6, June 1952.

9. George Santayana, Reason in Common Sense , “The Life of Reason,” vol. 1 (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1980).

Vice Admiral Fitzgerald has held several positions in industry and most recently served as a National Securities Analysis Fellow at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory until his retirement in June 2012. On active duty, he served in destroyers and frigates, mostly in positions related to antisubmarine warfare. He commanded Pacific Fleet ASW Squadron DS-31 during the Cold War and later the Carl Vinson Strike Group. Ashore duties included tours as an instructor at Fleet Sonar School and positions relative to ASW systems development on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations.


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