Rebuild AIR ASW

By Commander Nicholas Woodworth, U.S. Navy

Initially undertaken to determine the effectiveness of air-to-air missile systems, the Navy’s Ault Report underscored training as a primary deficiency in aircrews’ ability to effectively employ their weapon systems against hostile aircraft. Compared to the U.S. F-4 and F-8, the MiGs operated by North Vietnam were more maneuverable and responsive. Fighter tactics developed for roughly evenly matched opponents quickly proved ineffective against dissimilar platforms. Key among the Ault Report’s recommendations was establishment of an advanced fighter weapons school at NAS Miramar for the F-4 and F-8. With creation of the Navy Fighter Weapons School—universally recognized as TopGun—the Navy embarked on a renaissance of tactical training, using dissimilar platforms to replicate hostile tactics that more effectively prepared aircrews for the combat environment they were likely to face. 3

The Navy took more than three years to determine it needed to improve its air-to-air combat performance in Vietnam. Once the problem was fully assessed, however, the Navy moved quickly and decisively to implement the required changes. Future naval conflicts may not provide such a long period of reflection. Each lost aircrew and aircraft over Vietnam was significant; the loss of multiple major surface combatants and their crews would be even more devastating. It is imperative now to embrace the lessons learned from the Vietnam air war and apply them to the ASW skills gap that has slowly but perniciously developed since the end of the Cold War.

Waning Threat, Shrinking Navy

Toward the end of the Cold War, with approximately 310 submarines, the Soviet undersea fleet was more than twice the size of the U.S. force. This number was inflated by a number of somewhat archaic first-generation nuclear units, but the newer nuclear-powered Akula attack (SSN) and Typhoon ballistic-missile (SSBN) submarines were making significant strides toward equaling the acoustic characteristics of the Los Angeles (SSN-688)-class boats. There was even reason to believe that, over the remainder of the decade, the Soviets might surpass the United States in submarine propulsion and quieting technology. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russian Navy continued to accept new vessels into its inventory, its budget optimistically protected from the significant drawdowns affecting the remnants of the Red Army. That optimism was not sustained, however, and a crashing economy set back the Russian modernization program by more than a decade. 4

In the United States, flush with victory, there also was a call for defense sacrifices. The “peace dividend” would be especially gutting for the Navy’s ASW platforms. The P-3 community, sitting at 24 squadrons in 1990, would be cut to 12 by 1993. Over the next several years, subsequent budgetary decisions eventually spelled the end of the S-3 and frigate programs. 5 The new focus on littoral areas—and the diesel submarines feared to be lurking there—gave rise to the littoral combat ship (LCS) concept. The LCS has yet to successfully field its ASW mission module, and the Navy has begun exploring options to bring frigates back into the U.S. order of battle.

Renewed Competition, Eroded Capability

A decade after the end of the Cold War, the Russian Federation Navy (RFN) had scrapped its obsolete nuclear submarines but had yet to make significant strides to revitalize its nascent modernization program. 6 Loss of the Oscar II nuclear-powered guided-missile submarine Kursk in 2000 highlighted the dire condition of the Russian arsenal. At the same time, however, it appears to have provided impetus for then-President Vladimir Putin to accelerate the resurrection of the Russian fleet. Funded by skyrocketing oil prices, Russia finally was able to restart production lines, producing the Severodvinsk SSN, Dolgurukiy SSBN, and St. Petersburg diesel submarine (SS). The reduced acoustic signature of the Severodvinsk in particular has been noted by U.S. officials. 7 It is not inconceivable, given the U.S. Navy’s own budgetary and procurement woes, amplified by sequestration, that the Russians could be poised to take the lead in submarine technology.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), having observed U.S. military dominance starting with Operation Desert Storm, began a significant defense modernization program of its own. China’s aging Soviet Romeo SSs were supplanted by Russian Kilo-class SSs and the indigenously produced Ming SS (a Romeo copy), Song SS, and Yuan air independent propulsion submarine by the mid-2000s. 8 The PLAN’s first-generation Han SSN and XIA SSBN are being replaced by Shang SSNs and Jin SSBNs. As noted by the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), these second-generation nuclear vessels are significantly noisier than much older Soviet and Russian designs; however, as with previous Chinese naval construction, one would expect methodically incremental improvements. 9

Meanwhile, the United States in the post-9/11 era quickly became focused on the two land wars in Southwest Asia. Without even the threat of hostile diesel submarines, the P-3 force was almost exclusively ordered overland to provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance in support of ground forces. It was not uncommon for squadrons to make multiple deployments to “the Desert,” and coupled with 18-month home cycles between deployments, the predictable result was at least one generation of P-3 aviators with almost no real-world ASW experience. The retirement of the S-3, steady decline in frigate numbers, and delays in the Seawolf (SSN-21), Virginia (SSN-774), and LCS programs all accelerated the loss of ASW expertise at a time when, with the benefit of hindsight, investments were needed to meet the growing threat across, and under, both of the United States’ bordering oceans.

Training Gaps

It is difficult to know for certain what the tipping point was, but awareness of U.S. ASW deficiencies most probably arose from a combination of reduced demand for overland P-3 operations and the increase in RFN and PLAN submarine construction and operations. Like the shortcomings in air-to-air combat training and weapons employment addressed in the Ault Report, many training deficiencies exist today in the airborne ASW community. The most significant challenge is the lack of realistic acoustic targets.

A large portion of ASW training is conducted on instrumented ranges against target “sleds.” This limits the number of environmental variables with which an aircrew must contend and further contains the target within a certain known area. When ranges are not used, another acoustic target is the SSQ-39 expendable mobile ASW training target (EMATT). The EMATT is a programmable, self-propelled acoustic generator that can be deployed from ASW aircraft. If the EMATT operates properly, it can provide approximately four hours of noise generation. While it is more dynamic than a target sled, to use more than a basic employment pattern takes substantial programming. The most significant limitation of the EMATT is the available inventory. Each squadron requests an annual non-combat expenditure allocation of EMATTs (and all other sonobuoys); however, the global supply is insufficient to meet all requirements.

The most dynamic acoustic target for ASW aircraft training is a submarine. As the U.S. submarine force is fully nuclear, the SSN must simulate diesel/air independent propulsion (AIP) targets. SSNs have limitations as well. Scheduling must take into account the SSN’s own operational and training commitments, which limits available training opportunities. Security requirements also frequently hinder the ability of allied ASW crews to participate in training. In addition, at up to three times the size of adversary diesel submarines, U.S. SSNs operate most frequently in deep open water, but some of the most challenging water-space in which to prosecute a quiet diesel/AIP submarine is in the busy shallows of the littorals.

Recognizing the challenge of prosecuting targets in the littoral, the United States worked with South American partners to develop the Diesel Electric Submarine Initiative (DESI) in 2001. 10 In general, the DESI boats participate in bilateral and multilateral exercises and training programs with their U.S. Navy counterparts. These exercises highlighted the incredible difficulty of locating and tracking diesel submarines in the near-shore environment.

In a similar program, the Navy leased the Gotland, complete with an experienced crew, from Sweden for two years. 11 Much like the DESI evolutions, the Gotland provided insight into deficiencies with ASW capabilities.

While these initiatives have proved to be valuable learning experiences, and supported training and exercise opportunities, they do not fully provide the necessary long-term ASW training solution. What is needed is a permanent U.S. Navy aggressor submarine force.

Red Dolphins

In 1979, the Air Force stood up Constant Peg, a secret program in which Air Force and Navy pilots flew acquired MiG aircraft for air combat training. 12 Also referred to as “Red Eagles,” this unit trained aggressor squadrons how to operate like the enemy and frontline squadrons how to defeat the enemy. 13 The Navy needs a similar “Red Dolphin” submarine aggressor unit.

It is exceedingly unlikely that a near-peer adversary’s submarine will appear in U.S. custody in the same manner as aircraft did during Constant Peg. The key to success, therefore, will be finding the right platform to simulate adversary submarines, just as aviation aggressor squadrons use capability surrogates (e.g., F-16s simulating MiG aircraft). An analysis of alternatives needs to be conducted to determine which of several foreign designs, such as the French-built Scorpene or German Type 212, would be most effective as an aggressor submarine. The most important characteristic, however, will be the ability to simulate multiple types of adversary submarines.

Multinational participation is a substantial benefit of a Red Dolphin program. While DESI and temporary leases provide interface opportunities, they do not open the aperture wide enough. The Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Weapons School, in conjunction with the annual MPA Symposium, hosts an ASW Fleet Challenge, but the use of U.S. SSN targets limits participation by allied maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) crews. Similarly, in years when a submarine is not available, the evolution is conducted in the simulator or with an EMATT, reducing its overall assessment ability. During the 2017 Fleet Challenge, no targets or EMATTs were available, requiring the entire evaluation to take place in the simulator. Simulator fidelity continues to increase, but it cannot fully replicate the challenging real-world environmental and background acoustic signatures.

Freed from security concerns related to U.S. SSNs, the Red Dolphin unit would open the Fleet Challenge to even nontraditional air ASW partners, such as the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and Indian Navy, expanding beyond the NATO sphere of influence. Fleet Challenge, however, would be only one of many required exercises for the submarine aggressor unit, providing the ability for multiple nations to fly on a wide range of submarine tactics. With an increasing number of partner and allied nations choosing the P-8 as their airborne ASW platform, the opportunity for multinational training and employment has never been greater. Developing a training system that provides benefits across our partnerships and alliances will lay the foundation for successful wartime employment, multiplying air ASW capacity beyond the 117 P-8s procured by the U.S. Navy.

The Personnel Exchange Program (PEP) is one of the most valuable, if underrated, avenues available to build lasting international partnerships at the personal level, and the Red Dolphin program would add interface opportunities that are not currently available. A PEP cadre within the Red Dolphin program would allow multinational aviation, surface, and subsurface personnel to interface in one unit, exponentially increasing the exposure to allied capabilities.

In addition, the Red Dolphin program will be able to validate tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) developed to counter the assessed submarine tactics of adversary nations. Much like the relationship between Constant Peg pilots and intelligence units, a liaison cell would tie directly into the submarine warfare division at ONI to test the feasibility of assessed capabilities and tactics. 14 By providing training and exercise support, the Red Dolphins will serve as a battle lab for surface, subsurface, and airborne ASW platforms. To that end, it will be necessary to ensure that aviation and surface weapons and tactics instructors are incorporated into the command structure to provide the requisite level of operational expertise. A constant cycle of testing, evaluation, and refinement will help to ensure U.S. and allied ASW forces are ready to achieve success from the outset of a conflict.

As with any new organizational construct, there are a number of potential challenges. Most pressing is cost, both initial and life-cycle. While relatively cheap compared to nuclear submarines, six advanced diesel or AIP submarines will cost approximately $4 billion to acquire, roughly the equivalent of two SSNs. 15 As a cost mitigation, the submarines do not necessarily need to be fully capable, as they will not have an operational role in the fleet. Reductions in crew capacity, fire-control systems, and on-board sensors could bring costs down. As a risk mitigation, the Red Dolphins could be placed into service as U.S. Naval Ship (USNS) boats, crewed by civilian mariners and supplemented for underway periods by a military detachment of weapons and tactics instructors. This reduces the demand on submarine force billets required for the program and provides crew stability, which would lead to increased expertise as an aggressor unit.

The Navy must look to past lessons learned, and the process it took to apply that knowledge, to predict and solve future problems. Peacetime training ultimately sets the stage for wartime success. Chasing readiness at the expense of proficiency—or, worse, forgoing quality training for cost savings—may hold a certain appeal in the immediate sense, but as proven in the skies over Vietnam, it produces unnecessary losses to both personnel and materiel in the long term. Losses resulting from inadequate air-to-air training will affect the operational plans of the fleet; losses to an unchecked hostile submarine threat will shatter the strategic viability of the Navy. The Navy must change if it is to be successful in the undersea theater.

1. Gaillard R. Peck Jr., America’s Secret MiG Squadron (London: Osprey Publishing, 2014), 261, and Air Force Historical Support Division, “Air Campaign against North Vietnam, 1966,” , appendices 9 and 10.

2. Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC), “Report of the Air-to-Air Missile System Capability Review,” , 1.

3. NHHC,“Report of the Air-to-Air Missile System Capability Review,” 35-38.

4. Norman Polmar, The Naval Institute Guide to the Soviet Navy, 5th ed. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press), 2, 3, 460.

5. Norman Polmar and Edward Whitman, Anti-Submarine Warfare from 1943, vol. 2 of Hunters and Killers (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016), 207.

6. A.D. Baker III, The Naval Institute Guide to Combat Fleets of the World 2002-2003 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press), 600, 613-623.

7. Dave Majumdar, “U.S. Navy Impressed with New Russian Attack Boat,” .

8. Office of Naval Intelligence, “The PLA Navy: New Capabilities and Missions for the 21st Century,” , 19.

9. Hans Kristensen, “China’s Noisy Nuclear Submarines,” .

10. Kevin Copeland, “Peruvian Submarine Arrives in Norfolk,” .

11. Polmar and Whitman, Anti-submarine Warfare, 209.

12. Peck, America’s Secret MiG Squadron, 122, 290.

13. Ibid., 122-23.

14. Ibid., 122-23.

15. Vishnu Som, “Scorpene Submarine, Built at Mumbai Docks, Launched Into Water,” , and Kris Osborne, “Navy Awards $18 Billion Virginia-Class Submarine Contract,” .

Commander Woodworth is a naval flight officer with a background in EP-3E and P-3C aircraft. He currently serves as operations officer for Patrol Squadron 30. He holds a master’s in military history from Norwich University.



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