There is a renewed U.S. interest in the electronic-warfare methods developed during the Cold War to counter the Soviet navy. That makes sense; the Chinese, our most threatening potential antagonists, learned the art of naval warfare from the Soviets. We ignore that reality at our own risk. The Soviets practiced a top-down form of warfare with rigid centralized control because the fear of a military coup was a main concern. It seems likely that their heirs in China have similar fears, as incidentally do many other possible adversaries.
Often the most prominent indication of such concerns is the creation of an elite force standing between the professional military and the leadership, such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in Iran, the Iraqi Republican Guards of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, or the old military wing of the KGB in the Soviet Union. Depending on how nervous the regime is, there may also be a subtler effect: Competent, aggressive military leaders are seen more as internal threats to the regime than assets. That was evident in Saddam’s Iraq, and it may be why Iran is deploying Islamic Guards rather than regular forces in the expanding war against ISIL in Iraq. It may also explain Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s military purges on the eve of World War II.
In naval terms, nervousness in the old Soviet Union manifested itself in limiting the initiative of individual commanders and the amount of information they received. Modern navies rely heavily on external sources of information that are used to create a wide-area tactical picture, but for U.S. forces, picture formation has always been cooperative. An individual commander uses the picture he receives as a basis for his decisions, but he feeds in his own observations and judgment. The more centralized the system, the more the individual commander receives orders and a very limited local picture enabling him to execute his part of a coordinated antiship attack. In the Soviet (and probably the Chinese) case, nervousness was also manifested by stationing a commissar alongside the commander to decide whether his decisions were legitimate. The more destructive the weapons the commander wields, the more the commissar matters. We now know, for example, that Soviet nuclear systems included navigational features intended specifically to preclude strikes on home territory.
All of this meant that a great deal depended on a tactical picture created far from the sea by officers who could never be entirely sure of what they were receiving from their remote sensors. The simplest attack on such a system is to deny it information so that it cannot track, say, a carrier. During the Cold War the U.S. Navy came to understand that, because the sea is so wide, ships can be detected and identified mainly by the signals they emit. We learned to turn off emitters or else to simulate other kinds of ships. We found that we could make carriers and other key ships vanish from Soviet trackers. We knew when we had succeeded, because we watched Soviet ships and aircraft search for us rather than lock on without searching.
We also came to understand that even when they knew where our formations were, they feared that they might misdirect their missile salvos. After the end of the Cold War we discovered that the Soviet antiship bomber regiment in Crimea included a special reconnaissance element. It was not intended to find a carrier group; that would be done by other assets, such as huge land-based radio direction finders. The special aircraft were intended to find where the carriers were inside that formation. They would do so by flying into the formation at low altitude and radioing back their information before being shot down. Not surprisingly, this was not a very popular mission, and even practicing it was quite dangerous.
The “tattletale” ships that followed our carriers had the same mission. They were not trackers; they were the ships that would tell the attackers that the carrier was the ship on the port side of the formation, not in the center. They would do it visually, because we could fool attack radars into seeing larger-than-real targets. The mark of the “tattletale” mission was that the ships’ short-range antiship missiles fired aft, not forward; when the time came, the tattletale would turn back from the formation and fire at maximum range. That was not quite as suicidal as the reconnaissance aircraft, but it came close.
What does all of that tell us now, decades later? First, we must learn to shut down our emissions. Our radars and radios buy us a great deal tactically, but they also tell our enemies where to find us. At the least, we ought to be able to rely far more on airborne sensors. We may find, for example, that the F-35 is more valuable as a Fleet sensor platform than as a strike fighter, and that a long-endurance carrier-based unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) carrying the same sensors may be even more valuable. We are already fielding a cooperative anti-aircraft system under the designation NIFC-CA (Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter-Air). The initial impetus was to maximize Fleet antiair firepower using all available assets. However, the same system may well make it possible to use airborne sensors for initial warning, cueing shipboard systems only after the enemy is already committed to an attack.
Fooling the Enemy
The more interesting possibility is that by making ourselves less visible we may be able to deceive our enemies into wasting their efforts or exposing valuable platforms. Systematic decoying techniques were developed during the latter part of the Cold War. Carrier-based attack aircraft could drop chaff “bombs,” which bloomed in the air to simulate carriers or their aircraft to enemy long-range radars or satellites. Destroyers could carry vans containing radar simulators that could simulate the sound of a moving carrier (for that matter, carriers could trail some of their shafts to sound more like destroyers). Destroyers with controllable-pitch propellers could vary their apparent signatures. Decoying might become the most useful role for fast surface combatants like the littoral combat ship because high speed would allow them to be well away from a high-value formation before turning simulators on.
Deception is a way of thinking, which goes far beyond particular dedicated equipment and tactics. It begins with the understanding that the first step for our opponents is simply to find our forces. The area they have to search depends on our own reach. During the Falklands War in 1982, the Argentines had only the most rudimentary ability to search the nearby ocean, yet an Argentine submarine knew exactly where to find the British carriers. How? The Argentine commander knew that the British had to maintain air cover over Falkland Sound. He also knew that the British Sea Harrier was very short-legged. These two facts showed where the British carriers had to be. Nothing the British could do would frustrate that commander. The Royal Navy’s carriers survived unscathed because the Argentine submarine had a faulty fire-control system. Surely we do not want to be in the same position. The operating radius of our strike aircraft thus becomes an important factor in frustrating an enemy’s ocean surveillance. This may be a good argument in favor of long-endurance strike UAVs that could be refueled in the air to maintain a presence far from a carrier, in effect a kind of virtual carrier closer to the enemy but not subject to a massive counterstrike.
The Cold War U.S. Navy understood that ocean surveillance was the basis of any Soviet antiship war. It also understood that it could not expect the President to authorize strikes on Soviet soil for fear that even the least attack might ignite a ruinous large-scale nuclear war. Much of the Soviet effort was prosecuted from space, and there was serious thought given to attacks on Soviet naval-reconnaissance satellites as a means of blinding their fleet. This idea was dropped because there was a belief that the Soviets had numerous replacement satellites ready for launch. In that case the only way to turn off the Soviet naval-reconnaissance system would have been to attack the launch site, which again would almost certainly not be permitted. Since the Cold War it has become clear that the Soviets did not have such deep-space resources, so anti-satellite warfare might have been a good idea. Also since then, long-endurance UAVs have appeared as supplements to or even alternatives to satellites, and we have to develop the appropriate countermeasures.
The central lesson of the Cold War is that big antiship strikes are not inherently easy to mount. Whoever shoots has a limited number of weapons, and in many cases the shooters are giving away their positions and making themselves vulnerable. It is difficult enough to shoot at even moderate ranges because ocean surveillance is never easy. Shots wasted on non-targets merely alert the intended victim. The more ships that are involved on the other side, the better the chance that a deceiver can cause ships or shore batteries to fire at each other. We can make attacks against us extremely difficult if we fully understand what our enemies have to do to deal with us. We were once extremely good at that; we can be again.