Virginia Payload Module (VPM) – The VPM is not new news but the fact that the Navy is looking at adding additional missile types beyond the standard Tomahawk land attack missile is good. An anti-ship Tomahawk is being contemplated as well as a possible multi-role Tomahawk. Beyond that, the article describes “electromagnetic warfare kind of payloads” which, one would hope, might include Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) weapons, non-kinetic conductive missiles of the type used in Desert Storm which can short out electrical grids, and persistent jamming/decoy missiles among other possibilities.
Harpoon – The Navy is beginning to take delivery of refurbished sub-launched Harpoon missiles. While the Harpoon is bordering on obsolete (slow, non-stealthy, limited maneuverability), it still gives submarines a longer range anti-ship weapon.
Networking – I have no idea how one could construct a high bandwidth undersea network but if the Navy thinks they have a technology that can do it, that’s great. Communications isolation – and the associated command and control and operational isolation – has always been the weak link in submarine warfare. If submarines can be made part of an overall shared tactical picture, that would be a tremendous accomplishment and significantly enhance submarine effectiveness. Simply having the equivalent of an IFF type of information to distinguish friend from enemy would be a valuable aid by itself. However, this is a technology that I’m going to put in the ‘highly skeptical’ column for the time being. I’m unaware of any foundational technology that could even begin to approach these kinds of requirements. Still, it’s well worth pursuing as an R&D effort.
Mk 48 Torpedo – The article describes an ongoing development of enhanced torpedoes, which is good, except that the Navy has been talking about this or many years and has done very little so I’m quite dubious about this.
Good and Bad
SSN(X) – The Virginia replacement submarine is being described as a revolutionary rather than evolutionary design.
SSN(X) will be designed to have improved mobility, speed and stealth; greater magazine size and payload integration capability; artificial intelligence to increase warfighter decision space; and improved survivability, so the hull could take a hit and keep on fighting in a high-end battle.(1)
This is scary because the Navy has turned every attempt at revolutionary design into major debacles. On the plus side, designing a hull that can take a hit and keep fighting is something that ComNavOps has been calling for, for many years.
If the Navy will do this intelligently and build a single prototype to work out the inevitable problems that accompany any revolutionary design, this could be a good effort. On the other hand, if they do as they usually do and commit to a production run of forty subs before the first one is even designed then we’ll have yet another debacle to add to the Navy’s growing list of failures and yet more proof that the Navy is incapable of learning lessons about ship design and procurement.
Honestly, this feels like yet another attempt at leap ahead, transformative (curse you Donald Rumsfeld) development rather than putting in the hard work in the research realm that real progress inevitably demands.
Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUV) – The article describes the Navy’s embrace of large UUVs that can carry all manner of near-magical payloads to accomplish reality-defying missions – you know, the usual unmanned blather.
The larger problem with these UUVs is that, even in the best case, they aren’t geared at accomplishing anything significant in a war setting. The vague applications that the Navy floats for these are all small scale, minor effects, even if they worked. This is yet more evidence of the Navy’s dismissive attitude towards peer war. They simply don’t believe a war with China is even possible, let alone inevitable. Their efforts are directed towards, low end, peacetime work rather than high end, intense, combat.
A UUV is a minor effects, niche capability. It might be nice, in peacetime, to use a UUV to plant a small signals sensor near a foreign base, for example, but that isn’t the kind of capability that’s going to change the outcome of a war. Yes, data collection is always good and helpful but a single, small sensor isn’t significant.
While there are some potentially good elements to this submarine warfare path, there are some bad or pointless ones. Worse, too many elements are wishful thinking, fantasy, or not geared at war. This mixed assessment leads me to ponder what I’d suggest for a submarine warfare path and it would contain these elements:
Torpedo – We desperately need a significantly enhanced torpedo which is longer ranged, faster, quieter, and with about a 50% larger warhead. What we need is the conceptual equivalent of the BrahMos cruise missile: fast, large, and absolutely lethal – a one-hit killing machine.
SSGN – It is folly to abandon the Ohio class SSGN with its 150+ cruise missiles. That’s significant firepower! While the Virginia Payload Module somewhat helps mitigate the lack of firepower there’s no getting around the fact that it requires four Virginias to equal a single SSGN.
Numbers – We are facing a submarine shortfall that has been recognized for many years and yet the Navy has done nothing about it. As much or more than any technological development, we simply need greater numbers – much greater.
Mine Laying – The Navy has almost totally ignored submarine mine laying despite that fact that it offers an immensely potent and stealthy means of laying mines very deep in enemy waters. We need to greatly enhance and begin training for submarine mine laying.
Sensors – This is a purely research effort but we need to develop sensors other than acoustic. There have been research efforts to develop chemical, electromagnetic, nuclear, turbulence, and other methods of detecting and tracking enemy subs and we should be sponsoring much more research along those lines. The submarine that gains the first detection likely wins the encounter.
My path is heavy on practical firepower applicable to high end, peer war. Along with the things we should be working on, there are some things that are distractions and should be dropped. These include unmanned vehicles, widespread special forces support, networking, gender integrated crews, and the Columbia class (it should be redesigned as a smaller, more focused sub).
(1)USNI News website, “Navy Undersea Warfare Priorities: Strategic Deterrence, Lethality and Networked Systems”, Megan Eckstein, 8-Nov-2019,https://news.usni.org/2019/11/08/navy-undersea-warfare-priorities-strategic-deterrence-lethality-and-networked-systems