Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Cold War ASW Lessons

The Cold War saw the apex of ASW as practiced by the US Navy against the Soviet Union’s submarine fleet.  Although much (most?) of the tactics are secret even today, we can draw some lessons from what is publicly available.

The first lesson involves one of ComNavOps pet peeves – the tendency to discuss platforms and weapons in isolation despite the fact that they are used in a broad context of overlapping capabilities.  In other words, one surface ship does not engage one sub and yet that’s exactly how we persist in discussing such things.  The lesson is that Cold War ASW was an all hands, all platforms, all capabilities exercise.  Thus, a surface ship might be badly outclassed in a purely one-on-one battle against a sub but as part of an overall ASW effort it can be very effective.

Here are additional lessons, in no particular order.

ASW began the moment a Soviet sub left port.  In combat, ASW would begin before this by attacking subs in port but that’s not relevant to this discussion.  Soviet subs were picked up by US subs and continuously tailed, in some or many cases.  US subs picketed Soviet harbors and monitored the comings and goings of subs.  Thus, the ASW effort began with a good knowledge of how many subs were at sea, when the set out and returned, where they might be heading, and, for some, a continuous tail.  We see, then, that the ASW contest began long before a sub could present a threat to US naval forces.

Most initial detections were via land based sonar installations.  Everyone is familiar with the GIUK gap and SOSUS underwater listening arrays.  By all accounts, the arrays and their land based analytical stations were extremely effective at spotting and tracking Soviet subs even at immense distances from the arrays.  Naval forces often had the benefit of ballpark (or better!) locations of subs in their areas and could concentrate their local ASW activities accordingly. 

Most initial surface ship detections of subs occurred at convergence zone distances.  This is an important concept.  ASW does not begin when the sub moves into torpedo range;  it begins as far away as possible.  This ties directly into the next lesson.

Fixed wing aircraft, S-3 Vikings, provided wide area, distant coverage.  Again, the idea was not to wait until the sub reached firing range but to detect and engage at the greatest distance possible.  Vikings allowed the task forces to keep subs at an arm’s length.  The ability to quickly cover large distances and reposition between search areas was invaluable.

ASW proficiency comes from practice.  This was absolutely critical.  Cold War naval forces practiced ASW, for real, every day.  Soviet subs were, seemingly, everywhere and US naval forces were constantly engaged.  Proficiency was mandatory and almost unavoidable due to the constant practice.

ASW assets were specialized.  As opposed to today’s “do everything” platforms, Cold War assets were fairly focused on ASW.  S-3 Vikings were sub-hunters first and foremost.  The Spruance class destroyers were purpose designed ASW vessels with extraordinary quieting measures built in.  The Perry class frigates were primarily ASW vessels.  The helicopters had ASW as their first responsibility.

Carrier groups were able to provide their own ASW.  Carrier groups had sufficient numbers of ASW ships and aircraft to provide their own ASW protection.  Further, the carrier could provide protection for its ASW assets.  S-3 Vikings could range far knowing that F-14 Tomcats were always in the air to provide protection.

OK, so now we see how Cold War ASW was performed and the lessons it offers today.  How does this compare with today’s performance?  Let’s take the lessons one at a time and examine them.

Chinese Type 093 SSN


ASW began the moment a Soviet sub left port.  I would assume/hope that we’re doing this today by picking up Chinese (and now Russian) subs the moment they leave port.  Of course, this is an aspect that will never be confirmed until many years from now.  The worrisome part of this is that we have fewer subs than we did and are heading for an even worse submarine shortfall.  We may simply not have sufficient numbers of subs to do this to the extent that it was done in the Cold War.  We had 80-100 subs during the Cold War and have 70 now with numbers projected to further decrease.  On the other hand, our satellite surveillance capabilities have improved so we can at least have some idea of comings, goings, and numbers at sea.

Most initial detections were via land based sonar installations.  Arrays were deployed around the world at one time.  How many are still operational is unknown.  The ship mounted version, SURTASS, is operational in the Pacific.  Again, hopefully, we’re getting initial detections over very long distances via the SOSUS/SURTASS systems.  If we don’t have them, we should be deploying arrays throughout the first island chain around the South/East China Seas.

Most initial surface ship detections of subs occurred at convergence zone distances.  This is an important capability to have and I just don’t know whether we are still capable of this.  It requires a great deal of training and practice which we don’t appear to be doing.  I’m afraid that this has become a lost art.

Fixed wing aircraft, S-3 Vikings, provided wide area, distant coverage.  The Viking is gone and carrier groups have no fixed wing ASW capability.  By definition, our ASW will be much closer and less flexible.  This is a capability gap that the Navy needs to rectify.  P-3/8’s can supplement this capability to some extent but are not intended to provide the kind of continuous, dedicated carrier protection that embarked Vikings provided.

ASW proficiency comes from practice.  This is our greatest shortcoming.  We simply don’t practice ASW enough to be effective.  All the new equipment in the world won’t compensate for a lack of training.  Until we begin to take ASW seriously, again, we’ll remain a third rate ASW force.  There’s no reason why we can’t practice out in the real world.  There are enough Chinese and Russian subs at sea to gain practical experience.  Of course, that would require possibly offending sensibilities which we seem to want to avoid.  It would also require that we take Aegis destroyers away from their vital pirate chasing, humanitarian assistance, flag showing, and cross training with navies that will never work with us in combat.

ASW assets were specialized.  This is the second greatest shortcoming.  We no longer have focused ASW platforms.  ASW has been relegated to an add-on function.  This means that the platforms are not optimized for ASW and won’t be training for it.  What do you suppose a Burke CO is going to emphasize, AAW or ASW?  Our helos spend all their time performing logistics, transportation, and humanitarian assistance.  When they get enthused about combat it’s all special ops related.  We’ve lost our helo ASW capability by making every helo a do-everything aircraft.  We’ve completely lost our low end frigate ASW vessels.  We have no ship that we can send ranging out from a carrier group or dedicate to patrolling submarine transit routes.  What carrier group commander is going to send one of his three surface escorts off on a sub hunt?  We just don’t have the numbers to allow it.

Carrier groups were able to provide their own ASW.  As we’ve discussed, carrier groups lack sufficient numbers of ASW ships and aircraft to provide their own ASW protection and those that we do have are multi-function where ASW doesn’t make the top ten list of activities.  Lacking fixed wing ASW assets, carrier groups are limited to close range ASW only.  That’s not where you want to engage submarines!

In summary, we once knew how to conduct ASW.  It was a multi-faceted exercise beginning at extremely long range and continuing all the way to close range much like the concept of layered AAW defense.  We had dedicated assets that practiced in the real world on a continuous basis.  Now, we have no dedicated assets, we lack some of the ASW layers (like carrier fixed wing Vikings), other layers have been minimized our de-emphasized, our training has been almost abandoned, and there seems to be little recognition of, or enthusiasm for, ASW.  The Navy has become so focused on AAW and BMD that there is little attention paid to ASW and even less budget.  Unfortunately, the Chinese submarine threat is going rapidly in both numbers and quality and the Russian threat is being revitalized.  We need to begin responding immediately.

45 comments:

  1. "Most initial detections were via land based sonar installations"

    Fixed, passive arrays have become less effective as submarines have become quieter. But I still like the idea of deploying them around the 1st island chain and even closer in, on islands owned by allies.

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    1. Everything has become less effective as subs have become quieter! Every additional detection tool we have is just one more opportunity to get a hit on a sub and one more worry for the subs.

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  2. Doctrinally, there are basically two types of ASW: Strike Group and Theater ASW. The former is generally defensive in support of a CSG. TASW is offensive to sanitize an area (or in peacetime to track an out-of-area-deployer).

    P-3s are the optimal asset for Theater ASW - more so than S-3s which are "tied" to a carrier. Read up on Cold War - we regularly had P-3s and UK Nimrods on top of USSR subs when carriers were not around.

    In my opinion we need both MPRA and an S-3 replacement. But they serve very different functions. Right now - due to lack of an S-3 - we're forced to use P-3s/P-8s to defend the Strike Group which is NOT optimal use of this aircraft.

    PS - Surface based offensive ASW is a losing proposition. We should just focus ships on providing close in defense.

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    1. Good comment. The difference between the Cold War TASW and now is that the TASW will occur within the A2/AD zone (I'm talking China now, obviously). We'll be asking P-3/8s to fly within the enemy's defensive zone. They won't survive long. So, there's a doctrinal failing that needs to be re-examined.

      During the Cold War, we were able to use P-3s because they were safely out of range of Soviet land based fighters. That's another way of saying that Soviet subs ranged far beyond their A2/AD zone (though we didn't call it that at the time). China's subs will remain within their A2/AD zone for the foreseeable future. Thus, we'll have to attempt to execute our ASW within that zone if we want to operate carrier groups (or any other group) in the zone.

      I disagree, somewhat, about surface ship ASW. As the situation currently stands, I agree with you. Our Burkes are not optimized for ASW nor trained for it. Where I disagree is if we were to build purpose built, small, dedicated ASW vessels. I see such a ship as a very useful component of the overall ASW effort which greatly enhances the carrier group ASW as well as providing significant peripheral ASW presence.

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    2. I don't think TASW will necessarily occur within enemy A2/AD zone. Subs can and will range out a lot further than fighters. The Pacific is a very big place (major understatement).

      Surface ASW is a path of diminishing returns. The submarines holds so many advantages.

      Air independent propulsion makes them very hard to detect. Better sensors allow them to passively hear approaching ships. ASCMs give them long range attack capability.

      Surface ships also have to use active sonars to find enemy subs, which pretty much reveals their own location.

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    3. There can be active sonars that are a good distance away from a surface ship, in sonobuoys, with a cheap UAV doing nothing but relaying signals over the horizon to surface ships and distant planes and helicopters. If the surface ship is working as part of a network, the ASW becomes much more effective and less dangerous for the surface ships.

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    4. TASW will, for the foreseeable future (the next 10-15 years at least) occur within the A2/AD zone because Chinese subs simply don't have the operational experience to venture further than that (they're learning, though!) nor do they have the strategic imperative. Their goals and objectives lie closer to home.

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    5. ComNavOps. Recent, fairly public Chinese sub forays into the Indian Ocean don't seem to support your assertion.

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    6. Those are training missions working towards open ocean capability. They still are not working too far from land and shallow water. They don't have ocean floors and features mapped out or an understanding of open ocean conditions that would support open ocean work, yet. This will change but not for the foreseeable future. You don't acquire open ocean submarine expertise overnight.

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    7. Given the rate of progress China has made on this one, I would not bet that it will remain that way for more than a couple of decades.

      Russia of course does have that experience, but they are limited by their economy more than anything else.

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    8. CNO I am not sure why you think mapping the ocean floors or even oceanographic knowledge is a prerequisite. If that was the case, the Soviets would've never gotten its boats into the Atlantic in the 50s and 60s.

      As to when China will build an open ocean submarine force, an article by CAPT Chris Carlson entailed "Essay Inside the Design of China’s Yuan-class Submarine" indicates they are building the YUAN to do that very thing.

      "... the Type 039 A/B Yuan-class is, in fact, an open-ocean submarine designed to meet the needs of the PLAN’s near-seas active defense aspect of their maritime strategy, and not primarily a boat to operate in Taiwan’s coastal waters."

      http://news.usni.org/2015/08/31/essay-inside-the-design-of-chinas-yuan-class-submarine

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    9. "CNO I am not sure why you think mapping the ocean floors or even oceanographic knowledge is a prerequisite."

      Knowledge of the ocean, thermoclines, acoustic propagation characteristics, water density, ocean floor geography (so your sub doesn't plow into a peak), etc. is critical to operating successfully in the open ocean. The Navy operates an entire oceanography command which continually studies and maps out the oceans and collects all manner of data. The Chinese have none of that. Their subs would, literally, be operating in the dark in the Pacific. They are just beginning to stick their toe in the Pacific water, so to speak, but at the moment they have no open ocean operational capability. Could they slowly and cautiously transit the ocean? Sure, but that's not even remotely equivalent to being able to operate in combat in the Pacific. Add to that a limited strategic interest beyond the first island chain (for the moment, although that, too, will change) and it's clear they have neither the requirement nor capability to operate in the open ocean.

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    10. Hmm. So the Chinese are building an ocean-going AIP sub- but they have no near-term plans to venture into open ocean. Hmmm.

      Limited oceanagraphic surveillance capability? Yeah. Right.

      http://www.popsci.com/blog-network/eastern-arsenal/new-chinese-catamaran-spy-ship-learns-all-about-japanese-water

      Just stop writing and read. ONI reports, RAND reports, and other indications all point to PRC building an open-ocean submarine force. And soon. Probably not worldwide deployable like the USN, but definitely deployable past 2nd island chain.

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    11. I have been polite and patient with you. Return the courtesy or find another blog more to your liking. If you have something to contribute that would be of interest and benefit to all, please do so. Personal attacks will not be tolerated.

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    12. No personal attack were intended. I am sorry if you took it that way.

      I've tried to make my points to you via evidence. You have presented none.

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    13. Re: knowledge of undersea environment.

      I am pretty sure China has one of the largest oceanographic survey Fleet in world. If not the largest...

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    14. "The Navy operates an entire oceanography command which continually studies and maps out the oceans and collects all manner of data. The Chinese have none of that."

      Oh really? Do tell.

      http://www.popsci.com/blog-network/eastern-arsenal/new-chinese-catamaran-spy-ship-learns-all-about-japanese-water

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  3. Actually the air community is probably more focused on ASW now that it has been since end of Cold War.

    The MH-60R is a very capable aircraft combining capabilities of a dipper and LAMPS.

    P-8A seems to be a pretty good aircraft as well. It's definitely more reliable than P-3.

    At least on MPA side, training has become more focused on ASW. In mid 00s the focus was mainly on overland ISR

    The one thing we are missing is an S-3 replacement. A helo simply doesn't gave the legs for CSG defense. A P-8 can do the job - but its akin to chaining up a greyhound in your front yard.

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    1. From what I've read and heard, our helos, while theoretically capable ASW platforms, are not training sufficiently to be proficient. Flight hours are way down, ASW exercises are few and far between, the Navy has placed restrictions on realistic training (no SSKs to routinely train against, Virginia's are forbidden to participate), and on deployment the helos are being used primarily for logistics rather than ASW, exacerbating an already problematic training issue.

      I'm far less up to speed on the P-3/8 community's ASW status. I'll add the thought that a P-8 needs to routinely train with a carrier group if it's going to work with one and be effective. A P-8 trying to operate on its own but in the vicinity of a carrier group is hamstringing its own effectiveness. Are we training P-8s to operate with carrier groups? I don't know but I doubt it since I haven't heard of it.

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    2. Where are you getting your info? Flight hours are down? Exercises down? That doesn't jibe with folks I've talked to.

      There are actually lots of training exercises against allied SSKs. A lot more than when I was in Fleet.

      Not sure about VA class. But then again - that boat is way better than anything our adversaries have. Why train against it?

      Romeos are not typically used for logistics. Perhaps you are thinking of Sierras?

      P-8s do workups with Strike Groups quite regularly. It's part of predeployment cycle, and what we do on deployment. But we also do Theatre ASW - arguably just as important.

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    3. Anon, do you have links to any documents about flight hours. Every report I hear says that flight hours are way down due to budget. Non-deployed air wings, for example, are barely meeting flight certification hours let alone any tactical training.

      We used to have the rented SSK to train against but we gave that up. Our SSK ASW training is now limited to an occasional exercise with an SSK equipped ally if we can make arrangements. That hardly constitutes extensive or systematic training. If you have information to the contrary, please share!

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    4. Here's an example of a recent, recurring large-scale ASW exercise. The Australians were involved. Probably a safe assumption that we trained against one of their COLLINS class.

      http://www.pacom.mil/Media/News/tabid/5693/Article/607598/anti-submarine-warfare-exercise-promotes-stability-security-during-talisman-sab.aspx

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    5. Did you read the article you linked to? Anon, that's a nice example of an infrequent exercise that involved 4 ships. The exercise is held every other year. That averages to two ships per year getting an ASW exercise for a couple of days. That hardly constitutes a regular, rigorous ASW training program.

      I did not say that there were no ASW training exercises. I said that our training was woefully inadequate. ASW is one of those skills that must be practiced continually in order to be proficient. A couple of days per year is not adequate. Your example proves my point.

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  4. P-8A article. Kind of fanboyish but there's still some good info on where the community is going and how seriously ASW is taken.

    http://foxtrotalpha.jalopnik.com/confessions-of-a-pilot-behind-the-us-navys-airborne-sub-1598415741

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  5. Surely if you're talking about the Western Pacific the significant ASW assets of Australia and Japan need to be considered?

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    1. Absolutely! Unfortunately, I don't know much about their assets to be able to talk about them.

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    2. Worth looking at.

      Both Japan and Australia can field small flat tops laden down with ASW choppers, SSKs and frigates, and dedicated MPAs.

      South Korea's got another similar taskforce, in a flap anything short of WWIII you'd expect the brits to turn up with something similar, and then there's the always surprising Singaporean Navy.

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  6. If carrier air wings are declining in size, it would seem that there is plenty of room for updated S-3 Vikings. It seems crazy not to have them. Many past decisions to eliminate certain carrier aircraft were based on capacity limitations on carriers (i.e. multi-purpose aircraft tend to squeeze out single-purpose aircraft when capacity is limited). But now it seems that we have space that we are not using?

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    1. You're absolutely right. Another good comment. Thanks for chiming in.

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  7. I agree entirely. The Navy is driving me nuts with its range decisions. We 'pivot to the pacific' and make decisions that seem to limit range: V-22 over a new C2. No S-3's. No conformal tanks for the SH's. LCS's with range issues. ARGH.

    Not to mention it would be nice to have an aircraft on board that could do tanking and not take tanking duties away from other fighters. Heck, is it too late to put the F-404's in any intruders still in AMARC and have a half A-6F that is very fuel efficient and logistically in line with the other aircraft? Just use them to tank.

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  8. One of the lessons, with regard to ASW, is the fleet exercise with the Swedish AIP sub Gotlund, as an adversary to ASW platforms. The Navy leased the sub & crew from Sweden for a year around 2005. The article I read said that this sub gave our ASW forces fits. I hope our ASW technology and training is better now in 2015.

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    1. I hope so, too. However, consider this little bit ... If we were having trouble training against the Swedish sub and we were serious about ASW, why did we give the sub back instead of renewing the lease? That tells me a lot about how serious we are about ASW. Sadly, nothing I've seen indicates that we are any better at ASW now.

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    2. Here's my source about the Swedish sub.....

      http://foxtrotalpha.jalopnik.com/sweden-has-a-sub-thats-so-deadly-the-us-navy-hired-it-t-1649695984

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    3. The article indicates that the lease for the Gotland was extended another year. The sub departed in 2007 for Sweden.

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    4. Chilean Navy's 209 class Thomson SSK deployed to San Diego in 2014 under DESI. http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=80772

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    5. Andres, thanks for the link. I was not aware of that. I wonder what degree of on-going training is taking place, if any? I suspect not a lot given that I hadn't heard of it. Again, thanks!

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  9. There are probably 25 SSKs available from allies to train with. Germany has 5 and more building. Australia, Japan,Korea Taiwan etc etc.
    Havent heard about it ? Well the submarine has always been the ultimate stealth weapon.
    of course the US doesnt need as many subs for tailing, as the Russian numbers are way way down. Did I say way down? Their doctrine was to stay longer in port as well.
    The massive effort that the US put into ASW in the Cold war had its effect as the Soviets changed their approach, keeping their SSBN close by in Arctic waters. Being able to fire missiles through the ice, or while tied up at the dock. They have also been the the only nation to test a full salvo firing. I think now their SSN are now tasked with only protecting the boomers

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  10. CNO,

    Great article, but I note that Cold War ASW is not the same as wartime ASW.

    I also note that the most obvious wartime ASW tactic is not ASW at all: it is pounding the naval bases to rubble, offensive mining of operational areas, and rolling up the enemy logistics chain!

    GAB

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    1. Very good point. The existing ASW strategy was only to lead up to the first 10 min of war.

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    2. GAB. Yes, but only if the enemy if the enemy is stupid enough to present such vulnerabilities!

      A smart enemy would deploy keep large numbers of his subs forward deployed. And harden his submarine bases. And protect them with IADS.

      Pretty much everything China we are seeing China do!

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    3. Anon,

      I am not following your argument - the Chinese are not 10 feet tall and the more forward deployed they are, the more vulnerable - please explain ?

      GAB

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    4. By forward deployed, I meant underway during periods of rising tension - so that if/when a conflict begins they are not vulnerable.

      Note that even a short-legged diesel can remain underway for a couple of weeks. An SSN can stay out for months.

      Note how China is building hardened pens. Presumably defended by IADS. Their subs won't be that easy to observe in peacetime or neutralize in wartime.

      Mining presumes you can get an aircraft or submarine in to deploy said mines. Currently much easier said than done.

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  11. A comment was removed. Obscenities and personal attacks will not be tolerated.

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  12. This article was found in USNI News...
    http://news.usni.org/2014/08/27/opinion-new-era-anti-submarine-warfare

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