For the majority of the Cold War, the U.S. Navy was able to best the Soviet submarine fleet with a combination of operational intelligence, quiet attack submarines, and high-performance passive sonar systems. Given limited antisubmarine warfare (ASW) funding for the past quarter century, much of our sensor portfolio and our operational mindset are oriented around finding submarines in the open ocean and attacking them before they fire a weapon.
In today’s ASW environment, however, the U.S. Navy need not sink a submarine to prevent it from accomplishing its mission. Full-spectrum ASW doctrine calls on U.S. forces to disrupt, decoy, or damage submarines during all phases, from the pier to the point of weapon launch, rather than attacking just before a weapon is released. As Charles Sternhall, a World War II operations analyst, explained, “The actual aim of ASW is . . . to prevent enemy submarines from accomplishing their aim.”1 In this vein, let us consider the role of deception in full-spectrum ASW. Can we create ruses to confuse our targets or lure them into traps? Might we degrade our adversary’s command and control (C2) to the point where submarines become ineffective?
Choosing the Battlefield
The full-spectrum ASW concept is divided into ten “threads,” each describing a point where we can disrupt the threat submarine kill chain.2 The seventh thread calls on U.S. forces to “draw enemy submarines into ASW ‘kill boxes’ at a time and place of our choosing.”3 Submarines suffer from “claustrophobic sensory environments,” especially when cut off from C2 and cueing networks.4 If we can degrade adversary networks through kinetic, electronic, or cyber attacks, we can force the submarine to rely on organic sensors. Couple this degradation with deception, and the stage is set to lure a quiet and elusive target into a trap.
While we might bait our trap with real warships, radiating in a manner that would make them noticeable, we need not risk ships or sailors. Target emulators that produce an acoustic signature similar to a warship could be used. Electronic emitters could radiate in such a manner that the adversary intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets believe a U.S. warship is operating in the area. We could make use of advantageous conditions, such as favorable bathymetry or a quiet water column, or choose an area that already has been seeded by long-dwell sensors being monitored covertly.5,6
In such a scenario, airborne ASW platforms offer a distinct advantage: they can stand off while monitoring sensors until the threat is detected. When the threat submarine stumbles into view of our sensors, aircraft can use speed to catch a target unawares and press home the attack.
Increasing the Fog of War
Another thread of full-spectrum ASW calls on us to “mask our forces from submarine detection or classification.” In reality, there are practical limits to hiding a 400-foot warship. Rather than attempting to conceal a large object, we should try to overwhelm our adversary’s sensors with false, but plausible, targets.
This approach has a distinctly economic facet and historical precedent. During the Cold War, both superpowers developed intercontinental ballistic missiles with multiple warheads and decoys to overwhelm antiballistic missile interceptors. Targeting radars could not distinguish between the real and false warheads until they entered the atmosphere, at which point an intercept was difficult. These low-tech decoys required the adversary to build multimillion-dollar interceptors to destroy thousand-dollar decoys.
Similarly, it is feasible to present convincing decoy targets that appear, in the acoustic and electromagnetic spectrums, to be warships. Unmanned underwater vehicles or unmanned surface vehicles can have acoustic profiles similar to warships. Floating emitter devices might broadcast signals similar to the radars, radios, and datalinks of our surface ships.
Presented with many false targets, submarines would be challenged to separate real targets from acoustic and electronic “noise,” likely exposing themselves to ASW forces with periscope detection radars while they attempt to positively identify targets. In addition to increasing the vulnerability of the submarine, this large number of false targets also could degrade airborne or land-based targeting systems.
Presenting False Operational Postures
A timeless tenet of warfare is to probe an enemy’s defenses at multiple points to mask the true objective of an attack. Similarly, U.S. forces can use deception to confuse adversary submarine commanders about our intentions and dispositions.
A key role of U.S. ASW forces is to screen high-value units (HVUs) and sanitize their operating areas.7 Provided there was sufficient force structure, our units could conduct deceptive sanitization efforts to confuse adversary commanders.
One method would be to conduct highly visible ASW efforts, messaging that U.S. forces are operating in an area. Multistatic active sensors and low- frequency sonars put large amounts of sound energy into the water and are easily detectable. Prior to conducting sea control operations in an area desirable to U.S. forces, maritime patrol aircraft could seed multiple operating areas with multi-static active sensors. If only one area is prosecuted, an adversary can be relatively certain that a U.S. HVU will soon be in the area and may dispatch submarines to intercept it. But if an adversary detects multiple areas being sanitized, he or she will be uncertain which of the areas the United States intended to use for HVU operations. Knowing that U.S. forces aim to draw hostile submarines into traps, a commander may be less willing to commit valuable submarines into operating areas that can contain just covert sensors and threats rather than a vulnerable HVU.
An adversary that is well funded and competent enough to operate a fleet of submarines most likely is capable of understanding U.S. ASW doctrine. The knowledge that the United States plans to apply sophisticated deception strategies may alter the strategic calculus of an adversary. This knowledge can inject uncertainty into the minds of commanders, leading them to employ their submarines in a more cautious manner, or perhaps not at all. This deterrence value likely overrides concerns that divulging these concepts will degrade their effectiveness during times of conflict.
We should train our forces with a full-spectrum ASW mindset, allowing them to develop tactics, techniques, and procedures to meet these warfare challenges. We should make use of ASW centers of excellence to promote these concepts and pursue low-cost solutions to make deception operations possible.
Conducting ASW against a capable adversary is daunting, but the Navy can take pride in having risen to the challenge more than once in the past century. Let us empower our sailors and commanders today so they can win the ASW battle of tomorrow.
2. CAPT William J. Toti, USN (Ret.), “The Hunt for Full-Spectrum ASW,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 140, no. 6 (June 2014) www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2014-06/hunt-full-spectrum-asw.
3, Note also that the concept of ASW “killing zones” is not new. Readers should review ADM James Stavridis’ 1987 article on ASW concepts to enable the Maritime Strategy. This discussion focuses more on matching existing portions of the force structure with the operational posture of Soviet submarine forces rather than baiting adversaries into particular areas. ADM James Stavridis, USN (Ret.), “Creating ASW Killing Zones,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 113, no. 10 (October 1987), www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/1987-10/creating-asw-killing-zones.
4. Toti, “Full Spectrum ASW.”
5. Consider the stillborn SSQ-102 Tactical Surveillance Sonobuoy (TSS), built in the late 1980s and envisioned to have a life of five to seven days. TSS was canceled in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Norman Polmar, The Naval Institute Guide to the Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2005), 564.
6. The Navy is working to reintroduce long-dwell passive sensors deployed by ASW aircraft. Consider the Next Generation Airborne Passive System, envisioned to fit in an A-size sonobuoy and operate for approximately 30 days. “Navy SBIR 2014.2 – Components of a Deep Drifting Sonobuoy,” U.S. Navy Small Business Innovation Research (May 23, 2014), www.navysbir.com/n14_2/N142-117.htm.
7. Fahrettin Akbori, “Autonomous-Agent Based Simulation of Antisubmarine Warfare Operations with the Goal of Protecting a High Value Unit” (Monterey, Naval Postgraduate School, 2004), 15. For a discussion of sanitization operations prior to HVU arrival, see LCDR Timothy Kettler, USN, “Antisubmarine Warfare in the 21st Century” (Newport, Naval War College, 2004), 10.