Sustaining Undersea Dominance

By Vice Admiral Michael J. Connor, U.S. Navy

What we call undersea warfare actually encompasses activity that ranges from the seabed to space. Military effects from the undersea domain support the air, surface, cyber, land, and space domains. Therefore, the degree to which we are successful in sustaining undersea superiority will affect the military outcomes and strategic influence in multiple domains.

From the very beginning, the reason to take warfare beneath the waves has been stealth—the ability to operate unobserved, even when far forward. Undersea forces’ observability is so low that the adversary can never be sure they are not present. For this reason, stealth is a force multiplier for the side with undersea dominance, and a paranoia multiplier for the side that does not. Over time, science will improve the ability to detect what happens beneath the surface of the ocean. However, for the immediate future, the ocean will continue to be the most opaque of the operating domains.

Presently we have a position of strength in undersea warfare, but that advantage will be squandered if we fail to recognize and plan for the pace of change that will accompany emerging technologies. If we invest wisely, we will prevail, in peace and in war.

Emerging Trends

First, the demand for undersea capability will continue to increase. Combatant commanders and national decision makers recognize that undersea forces leverage the most opaque warfighting domain and are uniquely capable of providing a range of options with strategic impact—from phase-zero intelligence collection to major combat operations. The undersea force is a low-density, high-demand asset that provides a large return on investment. It delivers precision effects—kinetic and non-kinetic—in areas where other forces simply cannot operate. Undersea forces have no visible footprint and a short logistics tail. They bring autonomy, endurance, stealth, sensors, and firepower—often in one package.

Second, long-term influence will hinge on the ability to continue to deter, dissuade, or defeat a near-peer competitor. The undersea force is particularly qualified to meet this need. The concealment afforded undersea forces allows our national decision makers to expand their own decision space and diplomacy options by leveraging ground-truth intelligence—which is often very different from rhetoric and posturing. This superior knowledge generates negotiating advantages for diplomats. Diplomacy backed by credible combat power often succeeds where appeals to moral principles fall short. If diplomacy, dissuasion, or deterrence fails, undersea forces can immediately shift away from their stealth posture and act quickly with a profound degree of surprise, force, and lethality.

Third, the United States will continue to have a need to prevent non-state adversaries from harming our vital national interests. Undersea forces positioned in the right locations can operate inside the decision cycle of these potential enemies and provide a range of diplomatic and engagement options necessary to act decisively—from the sea lanes to far inland.

Fourth, the U.S. military has an increasing need for a force that can operate with freedom of maneuver in places where the adversary attempts to deny access. Our undersea forces are able to slip in, neutralize targets both at sea and ashore, and stay there indefinitely. The ability to arrive at the decisive point without expending weapons for self-defense provides a high return on each weapon on each submarine.

Fifth, cyber warriors will most likely fight each other to a draw, leaving behind a battle space that is limited in both electronic and communications support. This must be a part of prudent planning for the future. Commanders at the tip of the spear will need to operate from commander’s intent and broad operational guidance, with limited links to higher headquarters. Operational commanders will have to be patient as undersea forces take on the enemy with scant reporting while the fight is on. The independence ingrained in the undersea-warrior ethos during World War II and the Cold War will thrive in these conditions.

The Strategy: People, Platforms, Payloads, and Partners

Undersea forces, operating forward with a range of capabilities bolstered by an innovative payload strategy, will be ready to meet the evolving strategic defense guidance: “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st-Century Defense” and the CNO’s tenets, “warfighting first, operate forward, be ready.”

People . People are the backbone of our undersea weapon system. The basic skills required to operate a submarine undetected in the undersea environment will not change, but the undersea warrior will continue to adapt to rapidly evolving technology and the resulting operating concepts. Future undersea warriors must continue to be comfortable operating in a world of ambiguity and risk, armed with commander’s intent and very little additional guidance. Our submariners pioneered decentralized operations during World War II and have continued this culture ever since.

Platforms . The ballistic-missile submarine force will continue to be the nation’s most survivable insurance against the threat of nuclear attack, and the Virginia class will be the workhorse of the attack-submarine force into the future. However, the future undersea-platform strategy is more than submarines. Given the current trends of federal spending, production will likely remain constant, and designs will change slowly. Consequently, submarines must be complemented by affordable, unmanned vehicles with short development cycles. The capability of fixed and mobile arrays, distributed netted sensors, and autonomous unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs) will be necessary to take the best advantage of the combat power of each submarine. The Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance transition from P-3 to P-8 is well under way and enjoying great success, and will form the cornerstone of broad-area antisubmarine warfare. Arleigh Burke –class destroyers have a significant and growing undersea-warfare (USW) capability that nicely complements both submarine and air assets. Because they perform equally important tasks in other domains, time-sharing these highly capable, but fewer, multi-mission platforms will also add to the challenge facing the USW commander.

Payloads . The greatest warfighting return will be generated by proper investment in future USW payloads. The attributes that will provide that return are endurance and autonomy. Autonomous UUVs can gain access at depths deeper and shallower than submarines, farther extending undersea reach. Autonomous aerial vehicles launched from undersea expand the situational awareness and striking power of individual submarines. In the face of rapidly evolving threats, development in these areas will also necessarily have to be rapid, and we should expect these payloads to migrate from state-of-the-art to obsolete in just a few years. This short technology half-life should drive us to using inexpensive materials and showing a strong preference for innovation that can be quickly put into operation. Payload programs with long development cycles should be critically evaluated for relevance and potentially canceled to free resources for near-term innovation. To the extent that we keep the peace, we should feel comfortable throwing a lot of payload vehicles away as they become obsolete.

Partners . We must develop partnerships among all undersea stakeholders, to include joint and coalition partners. In many cases, their capabilities complement our own. And in some cases, our partners will have superior technology. Moving forward across warfare communities and with international partners requires effort to build trust, sharing both technology and experience whenever possible. The emergence of new undersea capability is necessary for our national security, but future resource constraints dictate that it must be a coordinated effort to ensure we achieve the maximum combat effectiveness.

The submarine is very capable in most undersea-domain locations; however, some inaccessible locations or missions may not be conducive to a submarine. Thus, relying on the broader team would be necessarily more efficient and timely. As we move into the littoral areas and work the interface between undersea warfare and expeditionary warfare, no partnership will be more important than the one with the mine-warfare and mine-countermeasures community. The torpedo of the future and the offensive mine of the future will be hard to distinguish. By effectively coordinating the undersea expertise of our various Navy communities, the combined force will be more effective than the sum of the individual parts. Our unified undersea forces will be lean and effective, with credible combat power across all phases of warfare.

Special Partners . Spanning the range of our strategic categories are Navy SEALS. They are the people with whom we partner closely and who function as the world’s most rapidly evolving undersea payload. As land wars start to wind down and we re-establish our habitual working relationship, they are already energizing our creativity in our most vigorous experimentation programs as we work together to fully leverage the impact of undersea access.

The U.S. Navy undersea community, with strong support from our military and civilian leadership, is committed to staying ahead of the potential threats and to preserving our undersea-domain superiority. The Chief of Naval Operations designated Commander, Submarine Forces to lead that effort. It is an exciting task, arriving at a perfect time to stimulate the creativity of our people and our partners in other warfare communities.


Vice Admiral Connor is Commander, Naval Submarine Forces/Commander, Submarine Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet/Commander, Allied Submarine Command.
 

 
 

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