The submarine force is seeking to redefine its role in the U.S. military arsenal.
The robust firepower and intelligence-gathering capabilities available on submarines,
officials said, make them valuable players in joint expeditionary operations.
It is not yet clear, however, exactly how the other services would work more
closely with the undersea force. In an attempt to improve the inter-service
dialogue, Navy submarine officers have been trying in recent months to get out
the message that they want to become less isolated and more integrated with
naval surface, ground and air forces.
“Submarine capability should be a big part of this joint expeditionary
warfare that we are all talking about,” said Adm. Frank Bowman, the director
of naval nuclear propulsion.
Bowman has been, for years, an advocate of making the submarine a centerpiece
of network centric warfare and elevating its role in the naval battle group.
He spoke during an industry conference on expeditionary warfare, in Panama City,
The submarine force, he said, is seeking input from the other services to help
the Navy figure out novel ways for the submarine to contribute to the joint
fight. It’s important for the Navy, he said, to understand what the services
Bowman is urging agencies such as the Marine Corps Combat Development Command,
the Army Training and Doctrine Command and the Air Force Air Combat Command
to contact the commander of naval submarine forces, Vice Adm. John Grossenbacher,
“and get our operational forces talking.”
Meanwhile, Grossenbacher said that some inter-service discussion already is
under way, specifically with the Air Force and the Marines, who generally work
hand-in-hand with the Navy.
At the core of the Navy’s war-fighting strategy is the overarching concept
known as Sea Power 21. The elements of Sea Power 21 are “sea-shield,”
“sea-strike” and “sea-basing,” glued together by ForceNet,
which is the networking capability to integrate the different elements of the
Sea-shield refers to the power to dominate the seas and ensure access to coastal
areas for the U.S. military services and allies. Sea-strike is about providing
long-range, sustained firepower ashore. Sea-basing means the ability to launch
operations from the sea, without having to secure a beachhead. “I would
argue, just like we did in the initial phases in Afghanistan,” said Bowman.
Another new concept that would change the traditional role of submarines is
the Expeditionary Strike Group, designed to enhance the firepower for the amphibious
ready groups. An ESG will consist of an attack submarine, up to three surface
combatants and an amphibious ready group. Navy officials expect to deploy the
first two expeditionary strike forces in 2003.
Mixed-force packages, such as the ESG, are key to making the submarine a more
prominent player, said Bowman. “I see the submarine force and submarines
as a necessary but not sufficient part, nowhere near sufficient part, of the
integrated Navy-Marine Corps team.”
However, Bowman admitted that there are more questions than answers as to how
to make the ESG concept “work in real practice,” how the strike
group can involve the submarine “to best support the ESG commander, and
how can it best support our joint forces ashore.”
Bowman said that the submariners also need to figure out how to “rapidly
and securely link embarked and pre-positioned SOF [special operations forces]
equipment with their Marine, SEAL and Army operators.”
Undersea forces potentially could help extend the range and mobility of “our
Marines and SEALs, once our sub and the Advanced Seal Delivery System [ASDS]
has delivered them to the beach.”
Bowman said that the planners need to determine which sensors and weapons on
the submarine “will best support the emerging Marine expeditionary doctrine
and mesh as well with supporting the Army’s FCS [Future Combat System]
in its follow-on role.”
Grossenbacher pointed out that while the joint interaction and interoperability
are already occurring with the rest of the services—including special
operations—there are long-term issues that still need to be discussed.
Among these is the role of the SSGN (a reconfigured nuclear-missile submarine
that fires conventional Tomahawk cruise missiles) and eventually the Virginia
class—the next generation nuclear powered attack submarine—in expeditionary
This month, the Navy is starting technology demonstrations in the Bahamas with
the USS Florida, an Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine that soon will be
refurbished to carry special operation troops and to fire up to 154 Tomahawk
cruise missiles. The Florida and three other Ohio-class boats will become the
The demonstration, dubbed Giant Shadow, will experiment with Navy SEAL commandos
conducting a mission ashore. The SSGN will also launch an unmanned underwater
vehicle that will be part of a network connecting the SEALs ashore and the submarine
via an unmanned aerial vehicle.
“The SSGN is a huge change,” said Grossenbacher. “We have
never had a submarine like this before. We have never had the kind of payloads
that would be available to us. We did not have Tomahawk cruise missiles. We
did not have the same experience we have today with special operations forces.”
Bowman also expressed optimism about the capabilities of the SSGN. “By
leveraging the concepts and the payloads that are being developed and demonstrated
in the SSGN, we could even fit a payload interface module, a plug if you will,
onto the Virginia class to further enhance the sub’s flexibility to operate
with joint forces anytime, anywhere.”
According to Bowman, the SSGN combines a triad of strike, special operations
forces and ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) to deliver a
“new level of expeditionary capability.”
This platform, he said, “will allow a special operations force campaign
to be conducted for the first time from a submerged platform.”
In the future, he added, SSGNs also could launch tactical ballistic missiles
or long-range UAVs.
The scenarios discussed by both Bowman and Grossenbacher promote the launching
of unmanned vehicles as one of the biggest selling points of the next generation
submarines. The ability to deploy unpiloted aircraft, surface or undersea craft
is paramount, officials said, even if that means giving away the location of
“Anytime you transmit energy there is a danger; anytime you launch a
vehicle from a submarine and you create something that is visible on the surface,
there is a danger,” Grossenbacher said. However, he said that the Navy
is not afraid that a submarine may be located. “Sometimes, compromising
your position, stealth and sometimes compromising your stealth knowingly, and
making the decision to stand and fight, is something that we are ready to do
and in the future will probably do more of,” he said.
In the case of Operation Enduring Freedom, the deployment of Predator UAVs
was delayed until mid-October, because of basing rights and logistics site preparations,
said Bowman. Such constraints do not apply to submarines operating largely uncontested
in international waters.
“Think about an SSGN equipped with a UAV of requisite range and endurance
and operating close in where other platforms may have been potentially vulnerable
and especially at the beginning,” he said. “That could have provided
the data and surveillance data weeks and maybe months earlier.”
Grossenbacher said that the Navy already has “operated and controlled
the Predator from a submarine.”
While the Navy extensively has experimented with unmanned undersea vehicles,
UUV development programs currently underway have yet to yield useful war fighting
capabilities for the service, Rear Adm. Michael Sharp, the Navy’s program
executive officer for mine and undersea warfare, told National Defense (October
He said he is more concerned about the long-term employability of the UUV on
the new Virginia-class attack submarines and is expecting the development to
progress over the next 10 years.
It is also unlikely that Navy budgets for submarine procurement and upgrades
will rise significantly in the foreseeable future, particularly in light of
the high costs of submarines.
“It is a healthy thing that there will be competition for funding and
support,” said retired Navy Rear Adm. Steve Baker, an analyst at the Center
of Defense Information. “I think the CNO [chief of naval operations] wants
to see that all aspects are being looked at. There is in-house competition between
the warfare communities, [but] each warfare has very unique capabilities, and
that is not to [undermine] what the sub can do.”
“I think you would have to agree that some of this really is promising
sub capability,” said Bowman. “Some of it is in the near-term pipeline,
some of this is war-fighting concepts that are in embryonic developments. But
all of it is about urgent challenges that the nation and the expeditionary team
are facing right now.”
During the Millennium Challenge 2002 joint experiment last summer, Bowman said
the Navy tested “both a virtual SSGN based in Newport, R.I., and a so-called
emulated SSGN that was an operating fast attack submarine in the ocean.”
While those tests showed the SSGN’s potential to respond rapidly to various
missions, “we also learned an awful lot about the challenges that we have
to work through to realize this potential,” he said.
Despite the current achievements and the “impressive” list of capabilities
listed for the SSGN, the submarine community has yet to work on promoting it
as a concept of joint expeditionary warfare, said Bowman.
“Given our intense sub culture, we are all going to risk just talking
to ourselves about these kinds of ideas and about how we would employ them,”
he said. That “does not necessarily serve best the joint force requirements.
These advanced capabilities have to fit in with some larger purpose.”
Much work remains to be done, starting with concepts, technology, experiments
and operations, he said. Culture change is also necessary, Bowman said, which
“often is the most difficult part of implementing role change.”
The good news for the submarine force, said Grossenbacher, is that its capabilities
essentially are unmatched by any other nation. No enemy would dare to engage
the U.S. Navy directly, he said, because of its superiority. Nevertheless, submarines
do not operate in a threat-free environment. Potential enemies are likely to
challenge U.S. forces through asymmetric warfare, such as planting mines in
“Our subs should be the first to the fight; they should be involved in
intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance long before that,” he noted.
“We have to operate in the vicinity of mines with confidence, be able
to figure out where they are.”