Following several years of relative inaction, the U.S. Navy is charging ahead
with plans to neutralize what it sees as the growing menace of enemy diesel-electric
Diesel-electric boats, although relatively low-tech, are emerging as a decided
threat to military assets around the world and civilian targets in the United
States, officials said. Unlike large nuclear-powered attack submarines, diesel
boats can operate covertly in coastal areas or in the vicinity of U.S. floating
bases, possibly blocking U.S. access to combat zones and making U.S. vessels
vulnerable to torpedo attacks.
Because they are much less costly to produce than nuclear submarines, easily
available on the world arms market and hard to detect, diesel boats now are
viewed as classic “asymmetric” threats that could wreak havoc on
a technically superior U.S. naval force.
Adm. Vernon Clark, chief of naval operations, is expected to approve this fall
an “anti-submarine warfare master plan” and a “concept of
operations” on how to counter diesel-electric submarines.
Clark also set up new organizations dedicated to anti-submarine warfare. A
Washington, D.C.-based task force stood up last year was directed to “identify
new technologies and concepts of operations to fundamentally change anti-submarine
warfare,” said Capt. David Yoshihara, who heads the organization.
In San Diego, the Navy created a Fleet Anti-Submarine Warfare Command—led
by Rear Adm. John J. Waickwicz—that is focused on sharpening commanders’
anti-submarine war-fighting skills. Meanwhile, a new program office at the Naval
Sea Systems Command is responsible for coordinating all anti-submarine warfare
research, development and procurement across the Navy.
After the cold war, the Navy neglected anti-submarine warfare, on the assumption
that Soviet subs no longer were a menace. But the proliferation of diesel-electric
submarines around the world prompted Navy leaders to rethink their priorities,
noted Capt. Paul Rosbolt, who oversees anti-submarine warfare programs at the
Naval Sea Systems Command.
“We didn’t pay attention to anti-submarine warfare for a while,”
said Rosbolt in a recent interview. “We allowed equipment to fall behind.
We didn’t train as much as when there was a Soviet Navy to practice against.”
Fighting enemy diesel submarines requires new skills and sensor technologies
that the U.S. Navy has not yet perfected, said Rosbolt. While Soviet nuclear
submarines sail in deep oceans, the quieter diesel boats generally operate in
shallow coastal waters.
Anti-submarine warfare is a complex discipline that cannot be learned overnight,
he noted. It requires a profound understanding of submarine tactics and the
ability to “ready the enemy’s mind,” much like a chess game,
The 1981 film “Das Boot,” which immortalized the claustrophobic
world of a World War II German U-boat—with all its boredom, filth and
sheer terror—is mandatory viewing for all anti-submarine warfare officers,
Diesel submarines come in many shapes and forms. The U.S. Navy, which no longer
operates diesels, does not necessarily worry about the old Soviet-era boats
that have been sitting by the pier for 15 years without any maintenance or crew
“Those are relatively easy to deal with,” said Rosbolt. Of most
concern are the newer diesel-electric boats made by several European nations,
most of whom are U.S. allies. Those submarines are more technologically advanced,
quieter and have a longer battery life, which means they can stay submerged
and undetected for extended periods of time.
John Young, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition,
said at a news conference last month that 40 countries today operate more than
400 submarines, 75 percent of which are considered “modern” boats.
“Their advantage is stealth,” said Waickwicz, head of the Fleet
Anti-Submarine Warfare Command. “They can hover, sit on the bottom for
long periods of time. They can sit as an ambush, or they can be out working
By comparison, the U-boats of World War II had limited battery endurance and
had to snorkel frequently. “Now, they can lay in wait for a long time
in stealth mode,” said Waickwicz. Most submarines carry cruise missiles,
torpedoes and mines—the same armaments found aboard nuclear attack submarines.
The Navy’s anti-submarine warfare master plan, to be completed in September,
will outline current programs and technologies deemed relevant for ASW operations.
It will identify “gaps” in existing capabilities that need to be
addressed in the future. The last time the Navy updated its anti-submarine warfare
master plan was 1991.
To pay for new ASW capabilities, the Navy will reallocate funds from existing
programs, said Rosbolt. “The CNO wants us to do this without breaking
the bank,” he said, although it is not yet clear whether some of the technologies
now envisioned for future ASW operations are affordable within the current budget.
To capture the state of the technology, the Navy is reaching out to the private
sector, he noted. In recent months, several “broad agency announcements”
were published, seeking contractor proposals for how to develop and deploy miniature
sensors at sea and how to defend submarines from torpedo attacks, for example.
Following a venture capitalist approach, the Navy will ask companies to validate
their technologies in various exercises and experiments during the next two
years. Those that show the most promise will get funding, said Rosbolt.
The complexity of anti-submarine warfare makes it impossible to rely on any
one single technology or weapon system, he added. “There is no silver
bullet in ASW. … We can’t build a single system that is going to
find every submarine in every kind of environment. It will take a mix of systems.”
Another piece of the Navy’s strategy is an information campaign designed
to put potential enemies on notice that the United States is well equipped to
defeat diesel subs, said Yoshihara, who runs the ASW task force in Washington.
“We want countries to know that our ASW capability is so good that it
would be a bad investment on their end. … We want to send a message that
we are investing in ASW.”
One significant obstacle for anti-submarine operations is the amount of time
needed to gain enough intelligence about the enemy. The Pentagon strategy instituted
recently by the Bush administration calls for gaining access of an area of operations
within 10 days.
That is a “demanding timeline” for ASW, said Yoshihara. “ASW
takes a long time.” It takes weeks sometimes to gather intelligence and
analyze it. That gives enemy diesel subs more than enough time to figure out
they have been detected. “We have a tendency to lose them, because ASW
is a difficult environment,” Yoshihara said.
The answer to shortening the response time, the Navy believes, is to deploy
“distributed sensor networks” across large areas of the ocean. Up
to hundreds of small sonobuoy sensors would be launched from ships or aircraft,
and left unattended for several days or weeks. If the sensors detected a suspected
enemy submarine, a ship commander nearby would be alerted.
An effective anti-submarine strategy will need to draw from every element of
naval warfare: air, undersea and surface, said Waickwicz. “We try to integrate
all three across the spectrum of ASW. It is quite a challenge to bring all the
communities together,” he told National Defense.
The Navy’s attack submarines are primary ASW platforms, as are the P-3
Orion patrol aircraft, equipped with anti-submarine missiles. The Navy announced
last month it will spend up to $44 billion on a new fleet of maritime surveillance
jets that will replace the P-3.
Aircraft such as the P-3 and their future replacement are “clearly the
best platforms for doing wide-area search and doing the localization required
to track the diesel submarine,” said Tom Laux, program executive officer
for air anti-submarine warfare. “Today’s modern diesel is a very,
very challenging threat,” he told reporters.
Another multibillion-dollar program conceived in part for anti-submarine warfare
missions is the Littoral Combat Ship.
The LCS will have several ASW roles, said Rear Adm. William E. Landay, program
executive officer for littoral and mine warfare. “The first is to be able
to provide a persistent large area detection capability.” Helicopters
or inflatable boats deployed from the LCS would be able to launch sonobuoys
to help detect and locate submarines, Landay said. To destroy submarines, the
LCS would deploy an MH-60 helicopter outfitted with missiles.
Besides developing new technology, the Navy will need to revamp training programs
and promote the need for increased ASW proficiency in the fleet, said Yoshihara.
Junior officers, particularly, “want to understand where we are headed
with ASW,” he said. The Navy’s strategy will require a cultural
adjustment, such as operating as part of a network, rather than in isolated
ships. “It’s ‘eye opening’ to be involved in a group,”
he said. “We don’t have an appreciation for that. We focus on ‘my
sonar’ or ‘your sonar.’”
A cornerstone of the ASW training program is a series of multinational exercises,
explained Waickwicz. Those drills can be particularly useful, because many allied
nations operate diesel submarines, and provide a realistic “red force”
for the United States to match up against. Bilateral exercises will take place
later this year with Japan, Chile and Canada.
For a recent exercise in Iceland involving the United States, Poland and Norway,
the Polish Navy provided Kilo diesel submarines it had received from Russia.
One drawback, however, is the inability for all exercise participants to share
data in real time and exchange “lessons learned” immediately after
the event, noted Waickwicz.
In recent months, the U.S. Pacific Fleet and the Naval Undersea Warfare Command
have been working on a so-called “ASW tactical assessment tool,”
an online database that stores information from all Navy ASW exercises and helps
assess the fleet performance.
“It doesn’t do any good to do an analysis six months after the
exercise,” said Waickwicz. “People no longer remember what it was
like or what they were doing.”
As more battle group commanders take part in ASW exercises, they will gain
appreciation for these skills, he said. “If we can bring exercises that
have merit, we can get targets to practice the science and the art of ASW, people
will want to do it.
“If you do ASW once every four months or six months, you get very frustrated,
because you cannot get the proficiency, the fidelity in training. You lose it.
If you do it on a continuing basis, at sea or ashore in synthetic simulation,
ASW is very rewarding as a warfare specialty.”