There is increasing distress within the U.S. Navy over the threat presented by nonnuclear submarines in littoral waters, which now are considered to be the fleet's primary operating area. This concern is reflected in antisubmarine warfare (ASW) being one of the three "mission packages" being developed for the littoral combat ship (LCS), which ranks number one on Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Vern Clark's ship procurement list. In addition, in February of this year, Admiral Clark established an ASW study group to support his desire to "render the submarine impotent as an anti-access weapon against U.S. and coalition forces." The review has been described as urgent.
Subsequently, Admiral Clark announced the establishment of a Fleet Anti-Submarine Warfare Command. In a message dated 15 September 2003, he stated,
Our future anti-submarine warfare effectiveness in this critical area demands more than just new technologies and new ideas. It requires a dedicated focus on integrating advanced networks and sensors, new operating concepts and fleet ASW training.1
The command, to be headed by a flag officer, will be established on 1 January 2004, reporting to Commander, Fleet Forces Command, at Norfolk, the supra U.S. fleet commander. The new command will be physically located on the West Coast.
These actions follow concern over the decline in U.S. ASW capabilities expressed by many outside the Department of Defense. Interviewed after Admiral Clark's announcement, Ron O'Rourke, senior naval analyst with the Congressional Research Service, told Defense News the situation was not simply a concern of underinvestment in ASW sensors and technologies, but also a lack of exercises and a true focal point for fleet ASW.2 "ASW is viewed as being as much of an art as a science, and is considered perishable if not regularly exercised," he said.
The concern is not so much for the numbers of potentially hostile submarines as for the Navy's future operating environment-the littorals-and the nature of the submarine threat. Still, Captain Robert Ford, Chief of Staff to Commander, ASW Force Pacific/Task Force 12, at Pearl Harbor, said, "Both their numbers and their technological advancement are growing." Captain Ford observed,
Diesel submarines pose a real problem. It's a formidable threat when you think of what a diesel powered submarine can do. They're very quiet when running on batteries, and they can remain submerged for extended periods of time, from days to weeks. With the advent of Air Independent Propulsion [AIP], the need to come up and recharge their batteries is drastically reduced.3
One aspect of improving ASW capabilities not being adequately addressed is training against realistic targets. In the past decade, the U.S. attack submarine (SSN) force has declined from almost 100 units to 55 submarines. This decline has been more severe than the cuts in aircraft carriers or surface combatants. At the same time, the demands for SSNs by theater (combatant) commanders has continued at a high level.
The result has been a severe shortfall in submarines being made available to serve as ASW targets for training. Further, SSNs cannot effectively emulate the target characteristics of nonnuclear submarines. Diesel/AIP submarines have significantly different signatures from nuclear submarines; nuclear submarines cannot "bottom" in littoral waters as can diesel submarines; and nonnuclear submarine commanders think and act very differently from their nuclear counterparts.
As one submarine officer earlier wrote, "Substituting the artificially handicapped SSN for simulated enemy [diesel submarines] in any exercise borders upon the ridiculous."4
An officer in a Los Angeles (SSN-688)-class submarine wrote,
To overcome our lack of experience and perspective, we need a new solution. We must create an aggressor unit, the mission of which would be to portray, as accurately as possible, the capabilities of those diesel submarine forces about which we are most concerned. This aggressor unit must operate on one of those submarines of concern, preferably a [Soviet] Kilo or [German] Type 209. It's time for the U.S. Navy to build or buy one or more of these submarines.5
Another supporter of this concept wrote,
Buying a pair of diesel submarines would give us practice not only against Kilo-class submarines, but would help to return us to proficiency against all diesels. This is not to say that we aren't proficient, just that the lack of a real-diesel platform to continually train with has been a clear deficiency for all units that search for subs.6
But such proposals have fallen on deaf ears in Washington because of the costs and because of the submarine community's fear that exposing members of Congress to a modern nonnuclear submarine would spark comparisons with the higher cost and higher manned U.S. nuclear submarines, whether or not such comparisons were valid. However, a low-cost, nonthreatening target option is now available.
The ex-USS Trout (SS-566) is the last diesel-electric combat submarine owned by the U.S. government. Completed in 1952 to an improved German Type XXI design, the Trout served into the 1970s. She was sold to Iran, but her transfer was halted when the Shah fell, and she has remained tied up in back channels. The submarine is now at Key West, Florida, under the control of the Naval Air Warfare Center's Aircraft Division.
Volunteers, over the past three years, initially under the direction of Fritz Krafft, a former executive officer of the Trout have been rehabilitating the submarine. Workers have cleaned, inspected, repaired, and operated the drain pump, masts, antennas, main hydraulic systems, trim pump, R-1051 radio receiver, bow planes, and stern planes. "Much needs to be done before she gets under way," said Krafft. "Her systems need to be tested before being submerged, and the under hull needs an inspection."
While much work still needs to be done, the Trout can be rehabilitated to serve as an ASW target and as a test and evaluation (T&E) platform. In the latter role, she would supplement the diesel submarine Dolphin (AGSS-555) on the West Coast, providing much-needed services for the Navy and other government agencies.7
The Trout would not have to be manned by Navy personnel. Rather, she could be sailed by a civilian crew of former submariners. A relatively small crew could operate the craft on a daily basis, or remain at sea for several days at a time. The American Bureau of Shipping, which certifies tourist craft as "manned submersibles," some going as deep as 1,500 feet, also could certify the Trout.
Studies also indicate that the Trout could be operated as an unmanned craft. Guidance—either real time or preprogrammed with bottom sensors—is possible. While unmanned operation would reduce modification costs, it also would reduce mission flexibility.
The Trout can simulate a nonnuelear submarine for ASW training and serve as a valuable T&E platform. She could be available to the fleet at relatively low cost within months. As in most other human endeavors, in ASW practice makes perfect, or at least better. Without constant practice against realistic submarine targets, the U.S. Navy's improvements in ASW will be marginal.
1 B. C. Kessner, "Navy to Establish Fleet Anti-Submarine Warfare Command," Defense Daily, 18 September 2003.
2 Kessner, "Navy to Establish Fleet Anti-Submarine Warfare Command." Also see N. Polmar, "The ASW Shift," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, June 2000, pp. 87-88.
3 Commander, Submarine Force Pacific Fleet, press release "Command Task Force Twelve Brings Cutting Edge Technology to Undersea Warfare," by JOC David Rush, USN, 17 June 2003.
4 Capt. K. G. Schacht, USN (Ret.), "Diesel Boats Forever?" U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, February 1983, p. 26.
5 Lt. Jack Shriver, USN, "Developing Real Anti-Diesel Tactics," The Submarine Review, April 1998, p. 91.
6 LCdr. Carey Matthews, USNR, "Anti-sub Warfare Calls for 2 Russian Diesels," Navy Times, 26 February 1996, p. 33. A specific acquisition proposal for six nonnuclear submarines for this role is found in Congressional Budget Office, Budget Options (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, February 2001), pp. 137-38.
7 The Dolphin is a specially built test submarine and is not representative of a combat craft.