Arleigh Burke Essay Contest Winner
MacBeth shall never vanquished be until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him.
MacBeth: “That will never be.
Who can impress the forest, bid the tree
unfix his earth-bound root.”
—William Shakespeare MacBeth
Ah, scurrilous, manipulative MacBeth—secure and comfortable in a reign guaranteed by the power of prophecy. Malcolm and MacDuff had virtually no chance of overthrowing him. The seers, God bless their black hearts, had spoken. Only when the forest of Birnam literally pulled itself from the earth and marched on his castle at Dunsinane would his rule be threatened.
MacBeth: Bring me no more reports; let them fly all.
’Till Birnam Wood remove to Dunsinane,
I cannot taint with fear.
Enemies? A threat? Ha! It was all so obvious. MacBeth’s enemies stood vanquished even before battle could be joined. How could any forest ever march on his secure hillside fortress? Spend those taxes instead on other priorities of 11th-century Scotland: foreign adventures; baubles for Lady MacBeth; wine, women, and song. No serious fortress defense was needed, no planning, no worry. The reign of King MacBeth was assured!
The threat to U.S. interests from foreign submarines today is similarly distant, most say. With the Cold War easing into obscurity, nearly every commentator agrees that there is little likelihood of any submarine adversary seriously threatening U.S. sea lanes of trade or attacking our powerful, weapon-laden carrier battle groups. Editorials in the media have been wearily consistent: Russian nuclear subs lie rusting in frozen northern harbors, and diesel submarines of the Third World are scarce, slow, and generally impotent.
Bring me no more reports, those editorials announce. Antisubmarine warfare is dead. No serious antisubmarine defense is needed, no planning, no worry.
Today, the naval might of the United States is without a doubt preeminent. No other global or regional power can hope to match our carrier striking power, amphibious force projection, or pinpoint missile accuracy. Quite rightfully, students of realpolitik latch on to the truism that there is no present or potential maritime threat that the U.S. Navy cannot handle unconditionally—probably with one hand tied behind its back.1
Yet, the world of antisubmarine warfare (ASW) is changing around us, subtly but unerringly. The experts are correct in questioning the need for ocean-girdling campaigns of convoy protection or expensive technological advances to ring our battle groups ever tighter within layers of ASW steel. But theirs is the traditional perception of ASW requirements—popular during the Cold War—that fails to appreciate the subtle change in maritime warfare requirements that has materialized in recent years.
It often is difficult to part with comfortable and understandable visions of the past. That certainly was the case near the end of World War II, when the popular perception of the battleship remained within visions of fleet-on-fleet engagements: big guns thundering in response to salvos from the Yamatos and Bismarcks of that era. Astute naval strategists of the time, however, recognized that the true value of the battleship lay in a much different vision—that of massed artillery support of amphibious landings. The march of worldwide events and technology had erased the battleship’s initial raison d’etre and in its place anointed her with a new identity as an enabler of amphibious operations and power projection ashore.
The Next ASW Campaign
The application of military arms in the 1990s has changed fundamentally the relevance of the ASW art. The next ASW campaign to involve U.S. forces will mark a paradigm shift in tactics, although this is not yet reflected in today’s dated but still popular view of ASW.
When next called to the fore, ASW equipment, tactics, and training will be used, not in the traditional sense of mercantile convoy escort or high-value unit defense, but to enable a broader use of military power. Much as precursor air strikes are used to pummel enemy antiaircraft sites to allow the later use of manned fighters and bombers, an ASW campaign will be a necessary prelude for nearly every primary joint mission.2 Stealth fighters, smart bombs, and Tomahawk missiles come from the skies to suppress an enemy’s defenses before the full weight of power projection attacks; so too must antisubmarine escorts, aircraft, and submarines nullify an enemy’s potential for submarine attack before the arrival of heavy naval battle forces, amphibious strike groups, or the logistic train for land-based army or air forces.
For the strategies of “Forward ... From the Sea” to even enter the game, U.S. ASW forces must already have been successful. Control of the undersea battlespace is as critical to campaign success in modern warfare as control of the air. The U.S. Navy felt it took a backseat to the media spectacles engineered by the Air Force during the Persian Gulf War, but it won’t even get through the front door in future campaigns without ASW enabling its play.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the next substantial U.S. naval expedition abroad—the next Desert Storm—may well face an enemy with submarines in its order of battle. The transfer of sophisticated diesel submarines to regional powers and Third World wannabes is on the upswing. Despite the fact that the submarine forces of the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, and France have declined steadily since 1990, there are more than 600 submarines worldwide operated by some 44 countries.3
These will be the weapons of war that an enemy will order forward to lurk unseen in harbor approaches, in roadsteads and anchorages, or off homeland reaches susceptible to amphibious attack. Their goal will not be to overwhelm U.S. military might or to defeat in set-piece engagements the assembled power of coalition battle groups. Their mission will be to disrupt and sting, to slash and feint, to use their stealth as a mugger might use the shadows. Their jab will be that of a stiletto, sharp and clean.
Enemy submarine forces will aim at the arteries of the modern age: tankers, containerships, Ro/Ros, and transports. Armed with torpedoes and naval mines—weapons that grow more deadly each year—it will lie in wait, biding time until the invader approaches, and will stealthily seed and reseed mine fields or pickle off torpedo shots under the nose of normally preeminent naval might.
The Value of Deterrence
The value that a potential enemy of the U.S. Navy places on deterrence is widely underestimated. Enemy submarines will disrupt planning, take casualties, and play on sensibilities susceptible to media hype. They will be a force-in-being, a force never to be discounted. And as they lurk undetected, they deter.
They deter because the mathematics of war has changed. The art of war today is hugely resource intensive—despite trends toward greater miniaturization, accuracy, and antiseptic detachment—but the mountains of munitions have vanished. Warfighting materiel is not procured in bulk as much as it is purchased within an exacting balanced-budget framework that links procurement with calculated requirements and then underfunds that procurement for reasons of affordability. Logistics flow plans are complex and materiel stocks are tight. Munitions and war materiel flow to the front “just in time”—inevitably in the largest, most cost-efficient merchant ships of our day.
In such a tightly regulated world, any losses can jeopardize success. Could Desert Storm have been fought on time, on task with a 20% loss in the seaborne logistics pipeline? Could the unprecedented assemblage of Coalition naval forces in the Persian Gulf have continued their operations in the face of a 15% reduction in fuel, repair parts, or supplies?
These questions are rhetorical but illustrative. The assembled Coalition forces of Desert Storm would have been victorious in any event, but widespread logistics losses would have put much planning in doubt and may have resulted in more losses, more delays, or more domestic opposition.
For years—harking back to the era of oceanwide ASW emphasis, convoys, and ASW hunter-killer groups—terms of probability described success in ASW. Swept areas, detection ranges, search turns, screen assignments—each ASW tactic or technique exuded some level of numerology. A mathematical appreciation for losses (to the escorted as well as the escorting) appeared in every strategic equation. Losses were part of planning; losses were expected. During World War II, convoys were mustered and cargoes spread among ships knowing that a certain percentage of war materiel would never make it to Liverpool or Murmansk.
The work of the combat logistician today is less the calculation of losses than the execution of data-based inventory and computerized flow plans. In this era of larger merchant ships bringing carefully regulated and categorized war materiel to the front, the loss of a single ship could send to the bottom the irreplaceable armor for an entire Army brigade; the loss of a tanker filled with drinking water could redefine an entire desert offensive. A single shipping loss could cause a hesitation in planning, thwart a sensitive timetable, or raise unanswerable questions of risk. In the 1990s, a single potent torpedo can disrupt, a single shadowy submarine can deter.
The Threat Not to be Ignored
Just as MacBeth could gauge the physical extent of Birnam Wood but fail to realize its menace, so too can we enumerate the world’s submarines but undervalue their potential danger. MacBeth, comfortable with the traditional notion of a forest, failed to prepare for the unexpected. Today’s commentators, comfortable with the notion that the traditional submarine threat is low, have failed to appreciate the unexpected directions the threat may take.
Today’s ASW frame of reference must be reengineered completely. During the Cold War, the U.S. ASW mission was built on three primary objectives: defense of the trans-Atlantic resupply of Europe, defense of carrier strike groups operating far forward in the Norwegian and Mediterranean seas, and holding Soviet ballistic-missile submarines at risk. These missions were clear, and they commanded wide attention and priority throughout the Navy, the Pentagon, and Congress.
With the end of the Cold War, these underpinnings of ASW crumbled. Soviet armor no longer threatens European democracies, carrier strike groups no longer race to forward striking positions, and Russian ballistic-missile submarines no longer brandish deterrent missiles of doom. The call for expensive ASW forces has evaporated under the twin assault of shrinking Defense budgets and strategic common sense.
But as the post-Cold War world come into clearer focus, it is apparent that the joint warfare missions of today and those of the future still require ASW capabilities. And to the surprise of many, today’s submarine threat reaches beyond commands ordered in Russian, to include attack orders spoken in a dozen languages.
U.S. ASW forces now must be sized, equipped, and trained to face two primary undersea opponents: the still potent, technologically demanding Russian nuclear attack submarine force and a diverse diesel submarine threat fielded by a burgeoning number of regional powers. Both of these stress modem ASW forces, but in dissimilar ways. The global threat posed by the modern diesel submarine is more than a lesser-included subset of the Russian submarine menace.
The Russian devotion to the submarine, a mainstay of their fleet planning for more than 40 years, continues today. As the president of the Center for Naval Analyses recently commented:
One puzzling aspect of Russia’s [current] defense policy is its emphasis on submarines. Most elements of its military arsenal are shrinking in numbers and effectiveness. Yet Russia is still completing construction of submarines begun in the Soviet era on about the same timetable as the Soviets produced them . . . and [they] will enter the next century with the largest nuclear submarine fleet in the world.4
The current Russian nuclear attack submarine represents the pacing technology for comparable U.S. Navy boats. The Akula, improved Akula, and new Severodvinsk attack submarines are quieter than the latest U.S. operational submarines—a telling reversal of an advantage once taken for granted in the West—and are equipped with Tomahawk-like land-attack missiles and 200-knot torpedoes.5 Russian leaders may not have the desire or the will to use this tactical advantage against us or our allies today, but it is less clear that future Russian leaders of a resurgent or ultranationalist state would so easily resist the temptation.
The modern diesel submarine poses contrasting concerns for U.S. ASW planners. Its threat is less the product of technology than the consequence of geography. Diesel submarines lack their nuclear counterparts’ refinements in speed, endurance, weapon capacity, and sensor sophistication, but nearly every potential regional conflict could be the setting for diesel submarine mischief.
A key tenet in any future U.S. plan to exert military influence overseas is our ability to send and sustain heavy forces. These forces and their logistics train move to the front largely by sealift—just as they did in both world wars and in the Persian Gulf War. Sea lines of communication often are through predictable straits and narrows, precisely where a diesel submarine could have its greatest impact by hampering the flow of crucial logistics support through the actual or threatened use of mines and torpedoes.
Diesel submarines are a significant part of the maritime strength of many regional powers and Third World navies. The People’s Republic of China and North Korea operate the third- and fourth-largest submarine fleets in the world, with 47 and 28 submarines, respectively.6 Exports of modern German-made submarines, Russian Kilo-class submarines, and other older castoffs litter the world’s arms bazaars. Experts expect diesel submarine export sales to more than double over the next ten years, with more than $15 billion invested.7 The availability of newer, more capable submarines has allowed some Third World navies to retire older boats that were relatively easy marks for ASW forces. Advances in wake-homing torpedoes, antiship cruise missiles, and long-endurance air-independent propulsion are examples of how the diesel submarine promises to evolve further over time.
To Retool ASW Capability
Over the past five years, U.S. ASW forces have thinned, matching the perception of a similarly shrinking menace. Successful ASW, however, always has been a resource-intensive effort, and logic says that there must be points on the sliding scale of force reduction where a global capability shrinks to only a regional capability, then to only an area utility, then to only a point defense.
Submarine hunting demands that large, three-dimensional ocean regions be searched or sanitized. The size of the force required to accomplish this depends on the potency of the technology: if available technology provides only modest search-and-detection ranges, then ASW forces must be correspondingly larger. During World War II, it took 100 anti-submariners to match every German submariner, and 25 warships and 100 Allied aircraft to match every German U-boat.8
The other side of this equation is equally valid. To maintain adequate antisubmarine capability in the face of shrinking operating forces, ASW technology must take up the slack. This must become the central theme in retooling antisubmarine warfare forces for the next century.
The challenge that is presented by technology—as always—is sifting wheat from chaff, to identify advances that will have the greatest impact and to leverage investments already made in similar technologies. Several recent technological developments in antisubmarine warfare offer promise of providing an operational counterweight for a declining force structure.
- Improved Nonacoustic Sensors. These include periscope detection systems, improved magnetic anomaly detection systems, infrared visual devices, and wake detection systems. Nonacoustics may prove particularly effective against diesel submarines that traditionally are difficult to detect by passive sonar but habitually operate near the surface.
- Low-Frequency Active Sonar. This new type of sonar places emphasis on the low-frequency sound spectrum with the promise of extended detection ranges in both deep and shallow water.
- Next-generation Integrated Undersea Surveillance System Arrays. These generally are mid-ocean fixed arrays on the ocean bottom and surveillance towed-array sonar systems streamed at slow speed by T-AGOS ships. They soon are to be joined by a family of wide-area arrays, transportable to Third World waters and air-dropped into place.9
- Updated ASW Helicopters. The SH-60R LAMPS helicopter that may be fielded in the late 1990s offers improved sonar capability, including an advanced dipping sonar.
- Tactical Decision Support Subsystem. This innovative computer-driven display system will fuse intelligence and contact data from several sources into a single table-like display. It will replace and automate the venerable dead-reckoning tracer table in shipboard combat information centers.
- Shallow-water Torpedo Improvements. These submarine, surface, and aircraft programs are aimed at enhancing the shallow-water performance of torpedoes and other weapons against slow diesel submarines.
- Surface Ship Torpedo Defense. These ongoing programs to develop a puncture-proof self-defense capability for surface ships will provide either hard- or soft-kill capability against incoming torpedoes.
- Shallow-water Training Ranges. Planned for both Atlantic and Pacific training areas, improved training ranges in shallow water should provide enhanced readiness and expertise in new shallow-water tactics.
Training to Win
ASW training also must be retooled if it is to remain attuned to the evolution in ASW tactics and equipment. The challenges today are greater than at any time since the first dark days of World War II: a lower level of overall resources, the need for ships and aircraft to spread precious training time across a growing number of warfighting specialties, less real-world submarine interaction and less training time devoted to exercise targets, and an enhanced nuclear threat and a burgeoning diesel menace.
ASW training demands thus have expanded by a factor of two, because the trained tactical and operational competencies inherent in nuclear submarine ASW (the forte of long-range passive sonar sensors operating in a relatively stable deep-water environment with good intelligence support) are different from those inherent in diesel submarine ASW (primarily active sonar and non-acoustic sensors in a dynamic environment with intelligence collection restraints). Diesel submarines will tend to operate close to home in coastal areas that feature shallow water, complex bathymetry and bottom topography, and heavy shipping, which will make traditional deepwater ASW training of limited use.
MacBeth: . . . and now a Wood comes toward Dunsinane.
Arm, Arm and out!
If this which he announces does appear,
there is nor flying hence nor tarrying here.
I begin to be weary of the Sun,
and wish the estate of the world were now undone.
Ring the Alarm Bell! Blow Wind! Come Wrack!
At least we'll die with harness on our back
For King MacBeth, the dark hour of twelve had struck. Malcolm’s warriors advanced toward beleaguered Dunsinane, with boughs cut from the trees of Birnam Wood held high over their heads. The ensuing cover provided an impregnable defense against flights of arrows loosed from the castle walls. Reality had overcome expectation as MacBeth’s best laid war plans piled in ruin next to the bodies of his defenders.
MacBeth had based his future on comfortable, but flawed, assumptions. He had closed his eyes to the need for precautions because of a vain belief in his invincibility.
For those who must guide future ASW efforts, the time to believe is now. Comfortable assumptions of our invincibility are heard everywhere, but ASW today is fundamentally different from what it was just five years ago. Our planning assumptions must be rematched and tested against today’s realities, because plans based only on bygone perceptions may be as flawed as MacBeth’s belief in prognostication.
The road is a difficult one. Antisubmarine warfare recently was included as one of only four core competencies of the U.S. Navy by the Roles and Missions Commission. As such, ASW stands as a valid warfighting need that should reflect significant priority within the Navy infrastructure. Credible ASW capability today must retain the capability to detect and prosecute nuclear submarines while expanding our capability against diesel submarines of the Third World.
A serious, credible, stabilizing ASW capability is required today and will be required into the future. To think otherwise is to see simple trees in a forest where impenetrable wooden armor stands.
1 A point made eloquently by Mr. Ervin Kapos of Kapos Associates in conversations held May-August 1995.
2 Representative joint mission areas include: joint strike warfare, joint littoral warfare, joint surveillance, joint intelligence, strategic deterrence, forward presence, and maritime support of land forces.
3 “Worldwide Submarine Proliferation in the Coming Decade," Office of Naval Intelligence, Washington, D.C., issued 1995.
4 Robert J. Murray, The Wall Street Journal, 25 August 1995, p. 8.
5 David Miller, “Navy Mourns End of Seapower Dream,” Jane’s Defence Weekly. 4 November 1995, p. 47.
6 Capt. Richard Sharpe, ed., Jane’s Fighting Ships 1995-96, Jane’s Information Group, 1995, Surrey, UK.
7 Givanni de Briganti and Robert Holzer, "Experts: Submarine Exports to Double; Asia to top buyers,” Defense News, 23 October 1995, p. 8.
8 Naval Warfare, Naval Doctrine Publication-1, 1994, p. 32.
9 Norman Friedman, "Littoral Antisubmarine Warfare, Not as Easy as It Sounds, International Defense Review 6 (1995):53.
Captain Linder, a frequent contributor to Proceedings, commands the Fleet Antisubmarine Warfare Training Center in San Diego, California.