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.
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. US
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.