The U. S. Navy must rethink the ordering of its ASW mission priorities for, with the emergence of a significant Soviet sea-launched ballistic missile capability, the survival of essential elements of all our nuclear forces is now, more surely than ever, measured in minutes.
Prize Essay 1971
FIRST HONORABLE MENTION
The views herein are those of the authors and are not to be considered as implying an official endorsement of factual accuracy, opinion, conclusions, or recommendations by the Department of Defense.
Item from page 2 of the London Times, Wednesday, 25 September 1974: “It is only now, some three months after the terrible events of 17 June, that some of the extraordinary details of the surprise attack on the United States are becoming available through the deductions of Western European military experts. While it was almost immediately apparent that the attack was intended to neutralise the United States in a single, stunning blow, most of the world found the outcome to be either incredible or inexplicable. Now, however, it is even more astonishing to learn that the attack was far from an all-out effort. Early accounts assumed that the crippling of U. S. strategic nuclear forces resulted from a massive attack by intercontinental ballistic missiles. But experts sorting through the available evidence have concluded that not a single ICBM was fired by either side. Perhaps the most revealing statistic of the attack has come from an Admiralty report recently submitted to the Defence Minister showing that the entire attack, from the closing of the first switch to the last nuclear blast, probably took no more than ten minutes.
“The Admiralty report summarises a priority study demanded by the DM immediately after the Havana Conference in July. It provides, for the first time, an official explanation of how U. S. nuclear forces were either destroyed or paralysed in a matter of minutes and why the Soviets were able to take over most of West Germany in the ensuing strategic standoff. Up to now, there has been much speculation on why the U. S. strategic forces, despite elaborate precautions to insure their survival, were unable to respond during the world’s first nuclear war. The explanation offered in portions of the Admiralty report released yesterday. . . .”
Excerpt from Admiralty Report No. NAV-ANAL/ PLAN-0014, dated 7 September 1974: “From the foregoing considerations, we believe that the following conclusions may be reasonably drawn:
“1. The attack, while carefully planned and executed, was both daring and risky. The opportunities for failure were numerous, and the remarkable success of the attack must be attributed to the bold acceptance of the enormous risks. There was no certainty of the U. S. response even if the attack was a technical success; but this risk, too, was apparently accepted by the Soviets because of the gravity of the German situation. Reference 14 shows that the German political crises of May were far more alarming to Moscow than to London or Washington.
“2. The attack on North America appears to have been carried out entirely by means of missile submarines in a carefully coordinated strike from close upon the Atlantic, Pacific, Caribbean, and Hudson Bay coastlines. Two types of submarine-launched ballistic missiles were employed, one type having multiple warheads. Most of the missile trajectories were purposefully lowered to shorten flight times and delay detection. It is estimated that the total number of submarines involved need not have exceeded a dozen, but the actual number may have been higher. In any event, there is no evidence that the Soviets augmented their normal on-station submarine forces for the attack.
“3. The most demanding aspect was precise timing as to launches and impacts. It is certain that the authorities and equipment exercising control over U. S. nuclear forces were the priority targets in time. The patterns of nearly 100 detonations, most of them on the U. S. mainland, correspond to our understanding of their nuclear control and communications structure. While some elements of that structure did survive the attack, the losses were so sudden and extensive—for example, only two secondary transmitters for communicating with the U. S. Poseidon submarines are known to have survived—it required nearly 15 minutes to clarify the vestment of authority. By that time, the attack was over, a substantial portion of the U. S. nuclear forces had been destroyed, and the Soviet ultimatum was being transmitted on all frequencies and the one surviving hot-line. It is estimated that most of the command and communications targets were struck within about six minutes of the first launch. It is doubtful that any of these targets enjoyed more than four minutes of general warning or more than two minutes of certain prior awareness that the country was under attack.
“4. The second-priority targets were the strategic bomber bases. The detonation patterns here suggest that airborne aircraft were also the object of attack at many inland bases. All of the bomber and tanker bases were probably struck within nine minutes of the first launch. Even so, a rather substantial fraction of the alert aircraft may have become airborne. The only reasonable explanation for the small numbers of bombers surviving (we estimate about a dozen) is the extensive targeting of aircraft flight areas near the inland bases that could have received the greatest warning. We doubt that any bomber base had more than six or seven minutes of warning.
“5. The third priority was apparently given over to the new antimissile installations protecting U. S. ICBMs in the northwestern states. The attack scheme here is readily apparent: only the radars and fire control centers were hit. Since the U. S. ABM system was designed specifically for self-protection and survival against an ICBM threat, the sensors were misoriented for a submarine missile attack. For example, the BMEWS radars here and in North America were not attacked and provided no indications that an attack had been launched, further adding to the initial confusion of U. S. authorities. It is estimated that all of the critical ABM sites were struck within about ten minutes of the first launch.
“6. The lowest priorities in time seem to have been the overseas communications installations and submarine bases for U. S. strategic forces. We have fairly reliable data on the one weapon that destroyed U. S. submarine forces at Holy Loch; it was delivered from a surfaced diesel-electric submarine. (We have intermittent radar and acoustic records on the transit of that submarine.) Radio message traffic intercepted here indicates that the few attacks outside the U. S. mainland (only 14 weapons in all) were withheld until it was certain that the attack upon the U. S. mainland was successfully launched. They could have been executed with older, less-sophisticated submarines launching ballistic or cruise missiles from the surface at relatively short ranges from their targets. These attacks, also, were completed within 10 minutes of the first launch off the U. S. mainland. The weapon at Holy Loch destroyed four Poseidon submarines and we presume that about 12 more U. S. missile-firing submarines were destroyed at their bases.
“7. We believe that the U. S. ICBMs would have been included in the attack except for the limited numbers and accuracy of the multiple warheaded missile carried by some Soviet submarines. Because of these limitations and the daring Soviet decision to withhold the use of ICBMs in the initial attack, the U. S. bombers and submarines in port offered the most lucrative targets for achieving a decisive shift in the balance of strategic forces.
“8. Any U. S. response to the attack appeared to be highly disadvantageous. Private discussions with General Tyer at the Havana Conference have shed some light upon the dilemma that the U. S. authorities faced immediately after the attack. By the time General Tyer was certain of his responsibilities, the following aspects of the attack were clear:
(a) The first phase of the attack was obviously over, for no new detonations had been reported for seven minutes and BMEWS stations continued to report no incomings.
(b) The attack was directed primarily at U. S. authorities, command and control, but not against the population (as noted earlier, only three large metropolitan areas received substantial damage).
(c) No Soviet ICBMs had been employed in the attack, and they could be presumed temporarily withheld in a high degree of readiness.
(d) No U. S. weapon had yet been released and enemy defenses were undegraded. (The few bombers that had escaped destruction were recalled when it became clear that U. S. ICBMs were not under attack.)
(e) While it was apparent that the U. S. ICBMs had survived and could be fired upon any warning of further Soviet attacks, the same was true of an even larger Soviet ICBM force. The situation for the Polaris and Poseidon submarines at sea could only be presumed over the next several hours and days. But it was also obvious that the only rational option was to withhold these forces in the hope of not being forced into what would now be a lopsided exchange of either military targets or cities.
(f) A full text of the ultimatum was available. General Tyer said that the terms were such that there was little alternative but to acquiesce to the Soviet fait accompli in West Germany. . . .”
Excerpt from cover letter from the Defence Minister to the Prime Minister. “. . . so there isn’t too much here that I haven’t passed on to you at cabinet. It would seem to me that the key in this wretched mess was time. If the Americans had had even three or four more minutes, I believe that much of the apparatus that didn’t work would have had a good chance. With a few more minutes I believe the President would have been safe, the bombers would have made it off, and we would have had an entirely different match to be played out. More important, I think it likely that if the attack had required more time for execution, the greater risks would have discouraged the entire enterprise and we would have had a chance to work things out at the conference table.
“Geoffrey tells me that the subs could have been kept far enough off to prevent anything as sudden as that from happening—something about conventional antisubmarine forces being used to control certain water areas. I keep telling him that I rather suspect he has an ax to grind, but if there is a way to buy a margin of time, we should probably look into it. . . .”
Fiction is a convenient technique for avoiding many complicated questions that must be faced and answered in order to make a scenario credible, and it would be imposing to argue for the credibility of this fictional autumn in 1974. The purpose was to dramatize the special capabilities and characteristics of a threat that is now present and growing in our coastal seas.
As a nation, we certainly are not in need of any new strategic threats to further justify the many valid concerns for our strategic posture. There are hobgoblins enough in the SS-9 and Fractional Orbital Bombardment System without our searching for new possibilities to scare ourselves. However, the first- strike threat posed by Soviet submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) has three ugly aspects that set it quite apart:
1. The required hardware types are already developed and operationally deployed. The principal future uncertainty is not the projected competency of the hardware, but the locations and concentrations of this hardware off our coasts, and Soviet intentions for its use. There are no technological developments that “bear watching,” although the observation of Soviet SLBM flight tests could verify estimates of how far the trajectories might be depressed.
2. Not just one, but all of our strategic forces (or their supporting systems) fall under the shadow of this threat. Our strategic bombers have, for several years now, had their survival measured against the quarter-hour clock of an SLBM following a conventional, maximum-range trajectory. But if these flight times can be cut in half and if the numbers of missiles continue to increase, the SAC Wing Commanders will soon be joined by other worriers. Many important things that can reasonably be accomplished by human beings in 15 minutes become extraordinarily difficult and questionable when the time is cut to seven or eight minutes, or even less.
3. U. S. perceptions of strategic stability and arms control would appear to encourage the expansion of the SLBM threat. During the past year, the open literature in the United States has extolled the arms control virtues of SLBM forces, largely because of their relative invulnerability at sea. Many U. S. experts would apparently welcome a Strategic Arms Limitations Talks agreement favoring greater reliance by both sides upon SLBM forces. Thus, we can expect to see a growing Soviet SLBM threat, with or without a SALT agreement.
While the daring of the attack described in the opening scenario may seem incredible, the technical capabilities assumed for the attacking SLBMs should not. There are no points within the United States that are more than 900 nautical miles from open seas. An SLBM having a maximum range of 1,500 nautical miles and a normal flight time of 15 minutes theoretically could, by means of a depressed-trajectory, reach any Continental U. S. target in less than seven minutes. If it were assumed that the longest-range shots were fired first, and that the firing rates of the SSBNs were about four missiles per minute, then perhaps the time allowance of the opening scenario was too generous: it could all be over in seven minutes instead of ten. Even assuming reliable warning within one minute after the launching of the first missiles in such an attack, we could be left with less than six minutes to remove from harm’s way the critically important people and equipment that do not lend themselves to protection through constant mobility or hardening.
It would be unfair to imply that compressing the time for an SLBM strike is a cost-free option to the attacker. Resorting to extreme depression of trajectories to shorten the time of flight, cuts into the range of the missile. As already indicated, however, SLBM range is not a very severe requirement for U. S. targets. (This is one situation where the U. S. maritime geography is unfavorable as compared to that of the U.S.S.R. For example, about half of the CONUS urban-industrial targets lie within 500 nautical miles of many potential SLBM launch points in the Atlantic Ocean.) However, reductions in SLBM range and time of flight will force the SSBNs to move in closer to shore, increasing the risks of exposure. The shallow reentry angles associated with depressed-trajectories can degrade the accuracy of the missile (because of greater sensitivity to atmospheric uncertainties), but high accuracy is not required for many of the soft targets, such as antennas and buildings, associated with our strategic command and control structure.
What are our options for coping with the first-strike threat posed by the growing number of Soviet SSBNs that could concentrate close to our shores? Even though the sharp edge of this threat is keenly felt by the Air Force in its concern for the prelaunch survivability of the SAC bomber force, it would be short-sighted to accept the threat as another example of the superiority of sea-basing strategic forces. Land-based bombers and missiles are key elements of our nuclear deterrent and will probably remain so for the foreseeable future. Additionally, most command and control facilities, including national command authorities, must by their nature be land-based. People, institutions and equipment of vital importance to our strategic capabilities will always be ashore. As the SLBM threat grows, so will the national interest in counter-options.
We might want to limit the consequences of a sudden SLBM attack. Without discussing all of the alternatives and problems that lie in these directions and without denigrating their importance, it is fair to note that limiting the consequences of an attack is a different form of deterrence from limiting the means of attack.
International agreements offer some possibilities. It is not the SLBM forces per se that we would want to restrict, since the relative invulnerability of SSBNs on patrol to a sudden nuclear attack is a quality we prize for deterrent forces. But, to preclude the use of SLBM forces for the kind of attack described in the opening scenario, we would have to forbid SSBN patrol areas close to shores. Would we be willing to give up some of our own SSBN patrol areas close to the U.S.S.R.? Could we confidently and unilaterally inspect for compliance?
A more direct counter to the first-strike threat posed by a minimum range/time SLBM attack might be based upon conventional ASW forces deployed to provide relatively dense ASW coverage of those ocean areas from which such SLBM attacks are feasible. While not denying peacetime passage to enemy submarines in our coastal seas, we might bring sufficient ASW attack capability to bear upon “excessive” enemy submarines to convince the enemy that provocative concentrations in our vital ocean areas will only degrade his nuclear delivery posture. The intent of this defensive option would be the intimidation of those SLBM forces that concentrate in areas where minimum range/time attacks are feasible. By exercising a very deliberate and finite amount of control over selected ocean areas, ASW forces could demonstrate to a potential enemy that his interests are best served by standing well off our coasts and that concentrations in ASW-controlled waters are almost certain to be counter-productive.
The enforcement of this control over the SLBM threat within certain vital ocean areas should not be destabilizing since it does not threaten the accepted retaliatory role of SLBM forces. The continuous targeting and timely response against retaliatory targets, using conventional near-maximum-range SLBM trajectories, should not be threatened because of practical limits on the size of the ASW-controlled areas. (As a first approximation, potential SSBN deployment areas increase with the cube of the range to target.) Development of longer-range SLBMs, such as Underwater Long-range Missile Systems, would be made more attractive, and the experience gained in the operation of ASW forces in the counter SLBM role would be the best possible insurance of timely recognition of developing ASW threats against our own SSBNs on patrol.
Two basic functional capabilities are needed in order to exercise this kind of preventive defense against minimum range/time SLBM attacks: (1) the ability to maintain a reliable head-count on submarines within the controlled-sea areas; and (2) the ability to position obviously competent attack forces in the vicinity of “excess” SSBNs and, if necessary, to escalate force levels at a reasonable cost exchange until the alerting of other strategic forces is clearly warranted.
The ASW force levels and compositions required to provide these capabilities appear to be fairly quantifiable and, hence, profitable opportunities for analytical study. A major issue in the economic feasibility of this continental defense concept is the amount of ocean area and the perimeters that would have to be controlled. Fortunately, geography is a little kinder to us in this problem. If the Hudson Bay is controlled (requiring a relatively small control perimeter), some key SAC bases in ConUS would be 200 more miles and about two more minutes away from an SLBM attack. Controlling the Caribbean also would greatly enlarge these time-sanctuary areas, and SAC could probably start to breathe a little easier. Controlling the North Atlantic, out as far as the arc from Newfoundland to Bermuda to the Bahamas would add 500 miles of range and more than four minutes of additional time for many potential targets of an SLBM attack. This would require controlling a perimeter of about 1,800 nautical miles. Control of the coastal areas of the Pacific would appear to be more difficult because of the long perimeters and lack of island bases.
Is ASW technology sufficiently advanced to provide the necessary hardware capabilities? Under satisfactory water and weather conditions, and with the correct mixture and quantity of both forces and surveillance sensors, nuclear submarines can be detected and tracked for extended periods with the products of existing technology. Much remains to be done, however, to improve the assurance that detection and tracking can be accomplished under less optimum conditions and with smaller forces. Improved sensors must continue to receive first priority in this effort. Our previous neglect to improve some of our sensor platforms will continue to plague us for years to come, but that problem is beginning to receive the attention it deserves. In sum, we face significant and continuing efforts if we are to have adequate tools to close the margin now enjoyed by nuclear submarines. But the evidence available indicates that the technical problems are not insuperable, particularly if sensor and weapon development receives the funding which the gravity of the developing strategic threat justifies.
Are the ASW forces required for continental defense reasonably attainable? The answer to this question requires an assessment of the importance of the threat in relation to others, the cost of the forces necessary, and our willingness to pay that cost. If one accepts the importance of the threat as dramatized in the opening scenario, the question becomes one of finding the most cost-effective way of doing the job. The design of the most effective force is beyond the scope of this essay. Further on, some force design considerations will be suggested based on a comparative analysis of ASW missions. But at this point, reference may be limited to the obvious: we require an initial detection capability, a tracking capability, and a kill capability against enemy SSBNs on-station off our coasts. For selected targets we have these capabilities now. However, the evidence indicates that current forces will be inadequate to cope with a Y-class SSBN force which could be comparable in size to our present Polaris/Poseidon force by 1974.
Although an ASW force to counter such a threat will be expensive, it probably would not be any more expensive, relatively, than our investment in continental air defense undertaken in the 1950s and 1960s. Rather, there is good reason to believe it would be considerably less, since ASW forces are required for missions other than continental defense. Other required ASW forces could be made available to augment continental defense ASW forces if they were in danger of being saturated. Because SSBN forces cannot be deployed from bases to firing stations overnight—with the obvious exception of Cuban basing possibilities—some strategic warning is available for reasonable augmentations of any dedicated continental defense ASW force. Hence, the alert (or nucleus) continental defense ASW force need only be adequate to meet the routine on-station threat (plus some safety margin). Such capabilities should be within our means if we establish the necessary resource allocations and mission priorities.
The question of priorities hinges on the relationship of the ASW missions to one another and to the total threat. Three principal ASW missions can be identified: continental defense, Fleet defense, and sea-lane defense. The force requirements in both quantity and mix are likely to be different for each of these missions. The evidence suggests we have optimized our forces for Fleet and sea-lane defense. Such emphasis in the past is understandable in view of the Navy’s traditional sea control mission. However, the emergence of the Soviet SLBM threat should force us to reevaluate the old priorities.
As the opening scenario demonstrated, the survival and effectiveness of all our nuclear deterrent forces could be threatened by enemy SLBMs. The key position of our nuclear deterrent capabilities in the strategic balance logically leads to the conclusion that no Navy forces are more important than those that either comprise or defend our nuclear deterrent capabilities. It follows that those portions of the Fleet which provide for continental defense against missile attack and which protect our own SSBNs from enemy countermeasures deserve top priority, second only to our SSBNs, in the resource allocation process. Further, since Fleet defense is essential to sea lane defense, we can postulate the following order of ASW priorities: first, continental defense; second, Fleet defense; and third, sea-lane defense.
If this ordering of ASW priorities is accepted, our first order of business should be to design and deploy a nucleus continental defense ASW force and identify the augmentation forces required to keep pace with surges in the strength of enemy SSBNs on-station. That part of our Fleet defense forces (both ASW and strike) associated with protection of both our continental defense ASW forces and our own SSBNs should also be in the first priority category. Our second ASW priority should be Fleet defense of our carrier and amphibious forces. Finally, we must be capable of protecting our sea-lanes in such extended conflicts as the enemy may undertake.
The foregoing discussion suggests the following bare minimum ASW force for national survival:
► Nucleus continental defense ASW forces.
► Covering ASW forces to defend the continental defense force and our own SSBN forces from submarine attack.
The covering force is of marginal utility in some situations, such as the opening scenario, where the enemy would not risk losing surprise by a prior attack on either the continental defense or the covering forces. However, covering forces are necessary to discourage or counter non-nuclear attacks intended to reduce naval forces comprising or protecting our strategic deterrent.
These bare minimum forces, by definition, would not be adequate to cope with a surge increase in numbers of SSBNs on-station. Neither would they be adequate to provide the necessary ASW protection for our seapower projection forces. In order to meet these minimum requirements, we need two additional ASW force increments:
► A continental defense augmentation ASW force to counter surge increases in numbers of enemy SSBNs on-station (up to the numbers justifying a wider alert of strategic forces).
► A Fleet defense ASW force adequate to provide minimum cover for our seapower projection forces.
These forces in the aggregate must form the basis for our minimum acceptable ASW force if we are to retain the ability to project our power overseas and meet our mutual security commitments. However, these forces do not provide a capability to protect our sea lanes from enemy submarine attack, if the enemy simultaneously escalates his SLBM threat and engages our seapower projection forces with his attack submarines. The risk of the enemy’s undertaking a “war at sea” is one of the key imponderables of naval force planning. Prudence dictates that we should develop and maintain some forces for this mission. This requirement generates a fifth ASW force increment:
► A sea-lane defense force adequate to meet essential requirements until mobilization generates the additional forces required.
Two world conflicts have demonstrated that we have paid a high price in war for economizing in this area during times of peace. Given the temper of the American people, it is probably unreasonable to expect them to maintain in peacetime the forces required to provide an adequate counter to a war at sea. Nevertheless, we need to define more clearly the risks we run in this area. If, in fact, our fiscal constraints leave little or nothing left over for this mission, we gain little in configuring any of our remaining ASW forces specifically for sea-lane defense. Previous ASW force level decisions indicate that we have tended toward spreading the risk among all ASW mission/force increments rather than concentrating on the lowest priority missions and forces. Our large investment in DE/DEGs is an instance of such a practice, even though other factors were influential in their procurement.
The foregoing assessment of priorities in ASW force design has not addressed the optimum mix of forces. In view of the different missions of each of the five force increments, it is apparent that a high premium must be placed on employment flexibility. This flexibility must be such that forces are optimized for the higher priority missions, which in turn leads to emphasis on quality rather than numbers. Additionally, emphasis should be placed on forces in being rather than on mobilization capability. Thus, our NRT escorts and hardware air reserve ASW units should be dedicated to the sea lane defense mission where a modicum of time is available to generate forces in response to an enemy threat. Some fast reaction reserve forces may be suitable as augmentation forces for our continental defense posture.
The place of Allied ASW forces in meeting the five ASW mission requirements is almost entirely dependent on political assumptions. Because the first three ASW force increments are clearly related to protection of U. S. nuclear deterrent forces where rapidity of decision and response is of the essence, only limited reliance can be placed on Allied ASW forces for these functions, with the exception of Canadian forces similarly committed to defense of the North American continent. Allied ASW forces can and do make a significant contribution by their surveillance of the routes that Soviet submarines are constrained to use. However, these early warning functions supplement rather than substitute for the surveillance capability we require in our coastal sea areas.
This essay has examined a threat that the growing Soviet SSBN force poses to the survival of essential elements for all of our nuclear deterrent forces. In evaluating the nature of this threat, the critical dimension appears to be time: minutes that we can no longer afford to give away against a large-scale attack. With the emergence of a significant Soviet SLBM capability, we may find that conventional ASW forces are the most practical approach for denying the enemy an otherwise attractive option for a surprise first strike on time-urgent targets. Such ASW forces may not be cheap, but they should be attainable if we establish mission priorities in accordance with the risks we face.
In evaluating the various ASW missions, the critical dimension appears to be our requirements for continental defense ASW forces. If so, the Navy must rethink the ordering of ASW mission priorities, and then design and deploy forces to meet the highest priority missions with a reasonable balancing of the risks. Our traditional view of the pre-eminence of Fleet and sea-lane defense is confronted with the new realities of the strategic nuclear power equation. We are up against a potential enemy who has learned that the sea presents him with new opportunities as well as the old perils. Our task is to deny him those opportunities whenever they tempt misuse.
Take The Easiest Way Out
Admiral of the Fleet Sir James Somerville, Royal Navy, was not only a daring and resourceful fleet commander, he was also a gentleman of great charm, with an internationally known sense of humor. It was my privilege to serve as a volunteer naval observer with the British Navy in the Western Mediterranean in 1941 before we entered the war, and I was assigned to Force H and served in his flagship, HMS Renown, operating out of Gibraltar.
Shortly before I arrived, an unusual accident had occurred. One of the planes from the Ark Royal, making practice drops of night illumination flares, had come too close to the “Rock,” and the wind had carried a flaming “bomb” onto the shore where it landed on the front steps of the Governor General’s mansion.
The irate Governor sent the following to Sir James: “Your bloody planes have set fire to the front entrance of my quarters. What is the remedy for this carelessness?”
To which Sir James replied: “Use the back door.”
—Contributed by Rear Admiral J. R Clay, U. S. Navy (Retired)
(The U. S. Naval Institute will pay $10.00 for each anecdote published in the Proceedings.)