Sunday, March 3, 2013

Anti-Submarine Warfare

During the Cold War the greatest naval threat was from Soviet submarines.  As a result, the Navy was extremely focused on Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) and developed a variety of platforms, sensors, and tactics to deal with it.  Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War the Navy has allowed ASW to atrophy to an alarming extent.  Only recently has the Navy begun to attempt to reverse the trend and, even now, only with half-hearted measures.  Considering that the proliferation of foreign submarines, especially the modern non-nuclear SSKs, is the second leading threat (mines being the first), the current deplorable level of ASW capability represents a serious shortcoming.

The Navy’s Cold War ASW focus was enhanced due to the actual proximity of the threat and the ability to actively train against the real threat rather than simulations.  Soviet submarines were seemingly everywhere and constituted an ever-present and serious threat.  The threat level provided overwhelming motivation to become proficient at ASW and allowed for the most realistic hands-on training possible. 

Consider, though, what has become of our ASW capability since the Cold War.  The Spruance class, designed as a specialized ASW platform, has been pre-maturely retired and SinkEx’ed with no direct replacement.  The S-3 Viking which provided long range, high speed ASW was retired with no replacement.  Burke class DDGs are being built without towed arrays.  The 160 or so P-3 Orions are being replaced by 100-120, depending on the source, P-8 Poseidons, reducing coverage capacity.  SSN submarines, the most effective ASW platform, are being steadily reduced in number.  Worse, the Navy’s ASW focus has been lost and ASW has been relegated to a tactical afterthought.  We see, then, that the Navy has lost much of its specialized ASW platforms, equipment, and focus.

What does the Navy need to do to regain their ASW capability?


ASW - Atrophied

The Burke DDGs have ASW capability but were not designed with ASW as their primary focus.  In fact, many were built without towed arrays although the Navy seems to be retro-fitting arrays as availability and budget allows.  The Burkes are anti-air warfare (AAW) platforms that can also perform ASW to an extent.  As a result, their focus is AAW rather than ASW.  AAW is what they practice.  Because of this, the Navy needs a dedicated, specialized ASW surface ship to replace the Spruance.  Recall that the Spruance, possibly the best ASW surface ship ever built, was designed specifically for that purpose with noise-isolating machinery mounts, Prairie/Masker sound deadening systems, state of the art sonars, anti-submarine weapons, helos, etc.  We need to build the smallest and cheapest possible ship that can contain the necessary ASW equipment, a modest self-defense capability, and nothing more.  In other words, we don’t need another win-the-war-single-handed vessel.  Specifically, a dedicated ASW ship should not have Aegis.  It should have a minimal sensor suite sufficient for short range self-defense.  The ship should be the equivalent to the WWII corvette or destroyer escort.

The Burkes should continue to have their full ASW suite fitted and brought up to date to maximize the ASW capabilities that they do have.

The Navy needs a fixed wing, carrier aircraft replacement for the S-3 Viking.  By giving up the long range ASW capability of the Viking the Navy ensured that first detection of a sub would occur at close range where it’s already an immediate threat. 

Finally, and most importantly, the Navy needs to refocus its training and priorities.  ASW is one of the most perishable of naval skills.  It must be practiced constantly to maintain proficiency.  Simply having a sonar does not make an ASW platform.  In today’s Navy, ASW is not sexy.  AAW and ballistic missile defense (BMD) are the sexy activities and are what get the attention and training time.  The Navy needs to refocus on ASW.

A good start to this would be to purchase a few foreign non-nuclear subs to act as a dedicated OpFor similar to TopGun or any of the standing training commands.  We need a group that studies Iranian, North Korean, and Chinese submarine tactics and then operates non-nuclear subs using enemy tactics so as to provide the most realistic training possible.

Going further, one of the activities during the Cold War that really sharpened our ASW capability was the practice of having our subs trail Soviet subs.  It’s generally acknowledged that our subs fairly routinely violated Soviet territorial waters to conduct their ASW and intel missions.  We need to be doing this with Iran, North Korea, and China today.  We need to be tagging and trailing their subs constantly.  To be fair, we may well be doing this and it simply isn’t publicly acknowledged. 

As we discuss ASW platforms, remember that there are two ways to approach ASW.  One is to have super sophisticated, ultra-high end platforms which, by definition, cost an enormous amount of money and can be procured only in limited quantities.  The other is to overwhelm enemy submarines through sheer numbers of less capable platforms.  This was the approach taken during WWII.  Large numbers of corvettes, destroyer escorts, trawlers, and whatnot were pressed into service as ASW platforms.  Individually, none were all that capable but collectively they provided the required capability.  This approach also has the advantage of being able to afford individual losses in what is an inherently risky operation.  This is why we need to build the lower end dedicated ASW vessels as described above.  Plus, let’s face it, the modern submarine enjoys an enormous advantage over surface ships.  Numbers will be needed to compensate.

The Navy needs to recognize that mines and submarines are the major threats today and field platforms and equipment that can counter them, TODAY.  We need practical, ready to operate ships and aircraft that utilize currently available technology rather than the LCS, the Navy’s fantasy answer, that won’t have any useful capabilities for years to come, if ever.




17 comments:

  1. What the US Navy needs now is SSK submarines to counter the ASW threat in the littoral environments.

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  2. USN also needs a better ASW torpedo. Mk54 warhead was proven ineffective. The BlockII upgrade may be terminated due to funding issue.

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    1. What good are those fancy sensor and tracking devices if you can't kill the target? Mk54 Mako ASW torpedo has serious deficiency in its warhead design. Why nobody is talking about it?

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    2. I'm aware that the Mk 54 has had developmental problems and that the warhead exploders were, at one time, a concern. What specific problem are you talking about and do you have a reference for the issue? Thanks!

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  3. This is very, very improbable but let's think outside the box. Is it POSSIBLE to re-commission a certain number of Spruance Class Destroyers, the goal to add one to every carrier battle (I refuse to call the "strike") groups and amphibious warfare groups??? Of course I would have liked to keep to BBs for STRIKE warfare too so... reply to sadombrowski@yahoo if you'd like - thanks! God Bless America!

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    1. Your idea is a good one, however, the entire Spruance class was sunk in SinkEx'es because they represented a threat to the Aegis program. There are no Spruances left, unfortunately.

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  4. A second thought regarding the Spruance Class. I just read that Spruances were designed to accommodate the 8" M-71 naval gun. Yikes, could this be two solutions on one rejuvenated platform. It does not sound like it makes sense at first but retrofitting a M-71 with the existing (decommissioned) Spruance class's ASW abilities solves two issues - gunfire support and ASW capabilities in the "littoral" and ASW in the open ocean. Na, never happen in less we were in a shooting war with a major naval power.

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    1. Again, the Spruances have all been converted to submarines but you can see the potential that was in the class. When they were retired there was an AAW upgrade (New Threat Upgrade - NTU) that would have made the Spruances as capable as the Ticos, sensorwise, for some time. Aegis is arguably now superior to what NTU would have been but not by any great amount. Even today, the Spruances would be formidable assets. You might want to read the post on the Navy's reserve fleet which is virtually non-existent. The Navy has learned to deal decisively with the argument that ships can be upgraded instead of buying new ones by making sure that there are no ships to upgrade.

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  5. This comment is a little late to the ASW party but I have been mulling this over with some of your other posts. I have a suggestion that might kill two birds with one ASROC.
    We know that:

    1. The NAVY cannot be dissuaded to stop the LCS program.
    2. The Burkes are committed to AAW and BMD.
    3. We badly need to step-up our ASW.

    My short-term solution is to re-engineer the LSC to become a DE.
    Yes, a DE. It is fast. It has room for LAMPS. It could tow the new AN/SQR-20 MFTA
    Add an ASROC matchbox launcher and its good to go.
    Yes, the basic LSC is a noisy beast but it could use its speed to range in front of a taskforce and use dash-and-detect methods to look for badguys.
    Anyway, just a thought.

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    1. WJ, you're right on the money. At this point, the LCS isn't going to swap modules. The Navy has already stated that they are only going to buy enough modules to equip each ship with one and there will be no extras for swapping. With that in mind, the LCS should be redesigned to make dedicated versions of ASW, MCM, and ASuW. Of course, it would take significant redesign (eliminate the noisy waterjets, add towed array, add VDS, add ASROC or some type of anti-sub weapon, and so on) and even then problems would remain. The ship isn't, and never can be, rated for combat survivability. It's very weakly built. The stern vehicle launch mechanism is a joke. It has stability problems. I could go on but you get the idea. No matter how it's redesigned, it's a second rate vessel. Still, to get the maximum value that can be had, it should be converted to single purpose. Your idea and rationale are excellent.

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    2. There was a quick study of adding VLA to the LCS mission module but the "bath-tubs" for the mission modules were too small for the VLA. The refined concept was to load the weapons at an angle, similar to ASROC, but that would have cost money that was not available at the time. So, the LCS is left with a 60R as its only launcher for ASW weapons (LCS does not have an SVTT).

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  6. There was an interesting piece of the future of ASW in this weeks Economist Technology Quaterly.
    http://www.economist.com/news/technology-quarterly/21572920-networking-emerging-undersea-data-networks-are-connecting-submarines-aquatic

    Perhaps this is the future of ASW, or at least part of it.

    JCC

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    1. JCC, thanks for the link. I hadn't seen that. My first impression upon reading the article was that this was exactly how the LCS was described in the early days. The LCS was to be a fully networked, all-seeing, all-knowing "node" in an integrated, networked battle fleet - able to overwhelm an enemy through sheer knowledge and resulting concentration of firepower. Of course, none of that worked.

      This article describes, in similar fashion, a near magical underwater network providing Internet-like (their words, not mine!) connectivity. The major difference is that each of the programs is developmental and no one has committed a third of the Navy's future fleet to it.

      As you suggest, JCC, this may well be part of the future of ASW but I suspect it's a long way in the future. Regardless, it's fascinating reading and points out the direction of thought in undersea communications.

      Thanks!

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  7. I'm not sure there is a need for a "new" platform to conduct ASW. Putting a tail on all the DDGs provides all the capability that is needed, albeit in a platform that is not a dedicated ASW platform. Combine the SQQ-89A(V)15 with an embarked MH-60R and the P-8A and you have a formidable team. What is needed is to provide the DDG with a better ability to reach out and kill a sub-surface target (the VLA range is limited and weather can affect the air platforms) and its own hard-kill defense against enemy torpedoes.

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    1. Anon, giving the Burkes their full capability is a step in the right direction. However, in a shooting war, Burkes are going to be in high demand as AAW assets for the carriers, amphibious groups, and replenishment groups. There won't be that many left over to wander around looking for subs. Plus, the cost effectiveness of risking $2B Aegis platforms doing ASW which is inherently a very risky undertaking, is highly questionable. While bringing the Burkes up to snuff is good, I really do think we still need a much less expensive, focused ASW platform that afford to sail around at a leisurely pace conducting ASW which is again, inherently, a very slow and plodding process. Most of the time spent on ASW is totally unproductive. Can we afford, tactically, to have Burkes spending most of their time being unproductive? We need the equivalent of the WWII corvettes and DE's.

      Plus, even if we bring Burkes up to par on ASW, they're still AAW platforms first and will spend most of their training time on AAW. ASW must be practiced to be proficient. A non-Aegis, non-AAW platform would be able to practice ASW far more than a Burke.

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    2. I can't disagree with your statement regarding the prioritization of the DDG, and I'll throw in another concern...can the crew of a DDG simultaneously protect a battle group from an air attack while prosecuting a sub-surface target? I believe there are serious concerns whether or not this would overload the crew.

      I know that LCS is a four letter word in the blogosphere, but the ASW corvette/DE that you are looking for is the LCS with the ASW mission module, warts and all. It might even be a step in the right direction to make the mission module semi-permanent to the hul - it will force the crew to focus on that mission area

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    3. Anon, look a few comments earlier for a comment and replies to William James. We address the LCS as ASW Corvette/DE. It's not an ideal solution but it's a better use of the LCS than anything planned now.

      In addition to workload issues on the Burke while trying to simultaneously prosecute ASW and conduct AAW, there's also the issue of physical location. The place to hunt and prosecute subs is many, many miles out away from the group. Unfortunately, that conflicts with the AAW need to be relatively near the group. You can be placed to conduct one or the other but, generally, not both. ASW should be conducted 20-50 miles ahead of the group (bear in mind I'm not an ASW expert!). Side note: why did the Navy retire its fixed wing ASW platform, the S-3 Viking which was designed to do exactly that kind of long range ASW?

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