For two decades at the height of the Cold War, the Navy used cutting- edge computing technology and operational intelligence to predict the location of, and search for, Soviet submarines. This technology was very successful—finding targets at twice the rate of traditional manual planning methods.1 At Antisubmarine Warfare Operations Centers (ASWOCs) worldwide, planners combined sophisticated analytics and human decision making to hunt and track Soviet submarines.
After the end of the Cold War, U.S. ASW search planning entered the dark ages. The sophisticated computer systems used to find Soviet boats were discarded and never replaced. Advanced human-machine teaming methods were replaced with intuition and guesswork. Today, theater ASW (TASW) search planning—the process by which commanders use all tools at their disposal to hunt for a submarine of interest—is unacceptable given increasingly capable undersea threats. It is time the Navy brought 21st century analytics and computer assistance to TASW planning.
The Roots of Computer-Assisted Search
During the Cold War, the Navy discovered that applied mathematical techniques could be used to find objects on the ocean floor or to locate Soviet submarines on patrol.2,3 These techniques used cueing information and statistical descriptions of the speeds, depths, transit lanes, and patrol areas of target submarines to predict where a given submarine might be.4 Because the Navy’s ASW strategy centered on conducting extended trailing operations and keeping Soviet submarines at risk, there was a large body of historical track data to feed the statistical databases and make accurate predictions.
By the mid 1970s, computing technology had advanced to the point where ASWOCs could be equipped with computer-assisted search (CAS) systems to help planners decide where to look and how optimally to allocate search forces.5 These CAS systems were capable and effective. Given cueing information, they could tell planners where to search, how they should position submarines and ships, where to allocate maritime patrol aircraft (VP) sorties, and types of sonobuoys to drop.6
Once a search had commenced, positive, negative, and ambiguous contact reports were sent back to the ASWOC and entered into the CAS systems, which ingested the data and updated the search recommendations. As the prosecution went on, the probability of detection was optimized, allowing planners and crews to get the most out of their platforms and sensors.7
The post–Cold War peace dividend cut deeply into the Navy’s ASW forces. CAS systems were defunded and shut down. Experienced TASW planners were reassigned or retired. Undersea arrays were placed in standby. Submarine and VP crews were re-tasked to perform intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance duties in the littorals or overland, losing their hard-won ASW proficiency.
Submarine technology did not stand still during the ensuing 25 years. Foreign submarines approached, and in some cases achieved, acoustic parity with Navy designs.8 As radiated noise levels dropped, so did the effectiveness of the U.S. Integrated Undersea Surveillance System (IUSS) and high-performance passive sonar systems.9
Decreased force structure posed another challenge to the Navy. During the Cold War, the fleet boasted approximately 100 fast-attack submarines (SSNs) and several hundred VP aircraft. Today, the Navy operates less than half that number of SSNs and a little more than 100 maritime patrol aircraft. During the Cold War, the Navy could rely on brute force and throw large numbers of submarines and aircraft at a TASW prosecution. Today, force structure dictates the Navy fight with brains, not brawn.
The Current State of TASW Planning
How Navy ASW planners interpret cueing and track data to define an area of probability (AOP) cannot be discussed in detail in an unclassified forum. Procedures vary from task force to task force, making it difficult to address each process in detail. When planning TASW search operations today, however, some task forces are limited to plotting cueing data and historic track information, making assumptions about target behavior, and identifying AOPs manually and by intuition with little, if any, analytic assistance.
Thankfully, some task forces use more advanced techniques. For example, Task Force 74—based in Japan—has made headway using developmental software to identify search areas. Most task forces use environmental modeling software to estimate sensor performance and detection probability. Current software limitations, however, reduce the capability to generate optimized plans to position search forces or to update the search plan to take “negative” search information into account.10 In this manner, TASW forces are less well equipped than they were in the 1980s despite massive advancements in computing power and data fusion.
The Need for CAS Analytics
If the Navy is intent on meeting present and future undersea threats, it must acknowledge its shortcomings, invest in new CAS software, and use operations analysis techniques and computerized search planning fleet wide. Critics might argue that building new CAS systems is costly at a time when funding is short. In truth, tight budgets demand proper planning and the best tools to get the most out of limited resources. Tactical decision aids and CAS systems would cost several million dollars to develop and perhaps several tens of millions to install in ASWOCs worldwide.
Compare this price with the operating cost of ships, submarines, and aircraft. An SSN on patrol costs approximately $108,000 to operate per day.11,12 A VP aircraft on a typical search mission can cost nearly $70,000 and deploy $100,000 worth of sonobuoys.13,14 A squadron of patrol aircraft searching around the clock for a submarine can cost nearly $700,000 per day.15 Modern, multirole platforms are capable but expensive. It does not take many wasted search-days to offset the cost of new CAS tools. Reducing the cost to find a submarine is important but pales in comparison to the necessity to find and attack hostile submarines in conflict.
Current manual TASW planning procedures grew out of 25 years of peacetime prosecutions. While wasteful, inaccurate, and simplistic, the current system does put U.S. submarines, surface ships, and VP aircraft into “contact” with target submarines. Because the planning process is manpower intensive and largely manual, however, it struggles to keep track of more than a few submarines at a time. Were an adversary to sortie a dozen submarines—as could be expected in crisis or combat—the current planning process would risk being overwhelmed.16 CAS approaches scale naturally with more target submarines under way, and are therefore crucial for wartime operations.
The following actions will help the fleet improve TASW prosecution effectiveness and efficiency:
• Fully Fund and Deploy the Undersea Warfare Decision Support System (USW-DSS).
During the past several years, the Navy has experimented in fits and starts with several initiatives that combine ASW intelligence information and CAS techniques. USW-DSS, the Navy’s program of record ASW tactical decision aid (TDA), is slated to receive upgrades, including a prototype AOP identification capability. However, TDA upgrade and fielding efforts have been consistently underfunded. What little funding is available has gone to outfitting aircraft carriers and destroyers with USW-DSS, leaving some TASW task forces unequipped. ASW battles against a peer or near-pear competitor will be fought at the fleet and theater levels—in line with the Navy’s Full Spectrum ASW doctrine—not just in a reactive and defensive posture centered around a carrier strike group (CSG). TDA funding must be allocated to TASW CAS systems to field a system that can ingest information at all relevant classifications, identify AOPs, generate optimized search plans, and update prosecutions for negative search information.
• Leverage the Undersea Warfighting
Development Center (UWDC). For aviators, the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center (NAWDC)—home of the famous Topgun training program—serves as the center of excellence to develop and standardize tactical guidelines. This has produced a culture that emphasizes warfighting and employment excellence. The surface, submarine, and TASW communities should replicate the NAWDC process for TASW task forces. UWDC should develop a set of best practices and establish a standardization program. This way, TASW planners could benefit from lessons learned and use their systems in the most effective way. Local conditions will drive different employment guidelines, but some tenants of operational art and process management must be codified and standardized across the Navy.
• Establish a Central Repository of ASW Data.
CAS planning systems rely on past submarine track information and data on how various classes of submarines move to make statistical predictions and to develop AOPs. Sadly, the Navy lacks a single machine-readable database containing all the data on adversary submarine operations. Relevant information is scattered around various task forces, joint intelligence centers, and government agencies. The Navy should establish a single repository for ASW data on the movement of adversary submarines.
Today, the power of analytics is all around us. It helps us determine what show to watch, what products to buy, and the best way to navigate through rush-hour traffic. Yet the Navy’s tools and operations analysis techniques to find submarines at sea—the ultimate “needle in a haystack” problem—are antiquated.
As the Navy focuses on future undersea threats, it must invest in state-of-the-art CAS tools and bring analytics back to TASW planning. In doing so, it will empower ASW forces to get the most out of its ships, submarines, aircraft, and sensors.
1. J. R. Frost and L. D. Stone, “Review of Search Theory: Advances and Applications to Search and Rescue Decision Support” (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Coast Guard, September 2001), 3–5.
2. An analytic technique known as Bayesian Inference was first used during two salvage operations in the 1960s: the search for a lost nuclear weapon off the coast of Spain and the search for the sunken USS Scorpion (SSN-589). Frost and Stone, “Review of Search Theory,” 3–5.
3. Success of salvage operations led to successful trials of Bayesian search methods during ASW development exercises in 1972. Daniel H. Wagner, “Naval Tactical Decision Aids” (Monterey, CA: Naval Postgraduate School, September 1989), II–59.
4. Henry R. Richardson, Lawrence D. Stone, W. Reynolds Monach, Joseph H. Discenza, “Early Maritime Applications of Particle Filtering,” (San Diego, CA: Proceedings of SPIE 5204, 2003), 172-173.
5. Wagner, “Naval Tactical Decision Aids,” II-61-II-62.
6. Richardson, et al. “Early Maritime Applications of Particle Filtering,” 173.
7. Richardson, et al. “Early Maritime Applications of Particle Filtering,” 172-173.
8. Although precise information on radiated noise levels is not published, Russian Akula-class SSNs are considered acoustically comparable in many respects to early 688-class SSNs. The new Russian Yasen-class SSGNs are likely quieter, than their predecessors. Owen R. Cote, Jr., The Third Battle: Innovation in the U.S. Navy’s Silent Cold War Struggle with Soviet Submarines (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 2003), 69.
9. Soviet Victor III-class SSNs were the first to reliably evade SOSUS detection. Considering subsequent Russian SSNs have lower radiated noise levels, it is reasonable to assume legacy IUSS sensors are less effective today than in their peak in the early 1980s. Cote, The Third Battle, 69.
10. From an operations analysis perspective, it is very useful to know where a submarine “is not.” This information helps search quantify portions of the AOP where a submarine is less likely to be.
11. Daily operating costs based on studies by Naval Center for Cost Analysis of 688I-class annual operating costs in FY 2010 dollars indexed to FY 2017 dollars. “Operating and Support Costs Data 1994 – 2008 for 688I, Seawolf, and Virginia Class Submarines by Hull” (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Navy, 2010).
12. Commander James O’Harrah, U.S. Navy, Cost Estimation Lessons Learned for Future Submarine Acquisitions Programs (Montgomery, AL: U.S. Air Force Air War College, 17 February 2010), 14.
13. Sonobuoy costs based on 128 SSQ-53 sensors purchased at published FY 2014 costs indexed to FY 2017 dollars. “Listening Sticks: U.S. Navy Sonobuoy Contracts,” Defense Industry Daily, 11 November 2014.
14. Operating cost based on a typical 10-hour search sortie at the FY 2017 hourly reimbursement rate for P-8A. “Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 Department of Defense (DoD) Fixed Wing and Helicopter Reimbursement Rates” (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2016).
15. P-8A aircraft deploy and monitor fields of 64 passive sonobuoys and listen for roughly six hours before being relieved by a new aircraft that deploys new sensors. Combining operating costs per flight hour and sonobuoy costs results in a cost per sortie of approximately $170,000.
16. Author’s conversations with TASW planners from CTF-34, CTF-54, and CTF-74, the TASW task forces for Third, Fifth, and Seventh Fleets, respectively, December 2015 to present.
Lieutenant Glynn is a maritime patrol pilot currently assigned to the Fifth Fleet staff in Bahrain. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he previously served as a P-8A and T-45C instructor pilot and as a member of the Chief of Naval Operations’ Rapid Innovation Cell.