Sunday, August 14, 2005

Submarines True Systems of “Transformation”

Cross posted by Lubber's Line at "Hundreds of Fathoms"

Consider the following questions:

Do submarines provide a valuable asset to the “Transformation” of the American military into a network-centric fighting force or are they just inflexible relics of the Cold War and 20th century?

What is today’s force level requirement for Submarines? Do we need the Cold War level of roughly 100 SSNs or should we let the submarine force draw down to about 30 boats?

Capt. James H. Patton Jr. USN (Ret.), president of Submarine Tactics and Technology, Inc. and former member of the Naval War College faculty addresses the above questions in a recent Newport Naval War College linked white paper “THE SUBMARINE AS A CASE STUDY IN TRANSFORMATION – Implications for Future Investment.” I recommend reading the entire paper, about five pages, but I've also provided a summary and some thoughts below.


Mr. Patton’s paper outlines the evolution of the submarine from 1900 to present providing examples of submarine designs adapting to unforeseen requirements. Part of that evolution:

S-Boats designed in the 1920s for coastal defense and fleet boats designed in the 1930s as battle-fleet scouts found themselves in 1942 as distantly deployed commerce raiders.

The Skipjack class, designed to provide terminal guidance for nuclear-tipped Regulus cruise missiles fired from a large fleet of Halibut-class SSGNs, never materialized because of the advent of the Polaris ballistic missile.

The Thresher/Permit-class SSNs, designed to operate in pairs while firing rocket-propelled nuclear depth charges at distant Soviet subs, never carried out that mission, due to the failure of Sesco, a secure acoustic communications system needed for information exchange and the triangulation of sonar bearings for target localization.

Escorting carrier battle groups was the justification for the high speed of the Los Angeles class in the late 1960s. Even though submarines were used in direct support of battle groups in a 1977 Pacific Fleet exercise (RimPac), and a Navy warfare publication was published in 1980 based on further experimentation in RimPacs 1978 and 1979, this mission was not routinely assigned until after the Cold War ended, when many of the class were being decommissioned.

With the above examples and others, Mr. Patton presents an argument in that “To avoid obsolescence, it was sometimes necessary for extreme variant requirements to be made technically (and tactically) during a ship’s (and crew’s) lifetime. As a result it can be safely said that no U.S. submarine has ever been employed for its designed purpose, and no commanding officer ever performed that for which he was trained.” The only exception I would make is that of SSBN Fleet Ballistic Missile submarines who's purpose of nuclear deterrence has not changed since the 1960s only the targeting packages.

But then again, excess 726 Class SSBN capacity post the Cold War has resulted in four Tridents scheduled for conversion to the new Ohio Class SSGN. This will result in adapting a submarine platform from its initial design of nuclear deterrence to one of an Information Systems Research (ISR) intelligence processing node and Special Operation Forces (SOF) platform with land strike capability. A truly network-centric warfare system as Mr. Patton qualifies with using the Giant Shadow and Silent Hammer counterterrorism exercises as examples.

USS Virginia (Source: US Navy)

Another point made in the white paper is this:

It should also be clear, to those who think deeply about such matters, that the SSGN program is far more than just a way to extend the operational viability of declining SSBNs; it is a pilot program to investigate just what the Virginia class should become when it has fully evolved in ten years.

Essentially the Ohio SSGN program is a proving ground for technologies and tactics that well evolve and be incorporated into the new Virginia class submarines.


The latter part of the Mr Patton's paper briefly addresses the number of submarines we will require for our furture submarine force "Force-Level" with this.

However, with the world situation becoming increasingly unstable, there are more than one or two places where a credible, actual, or virtual U.S. presence must be claimed or maintained. Therefore, to sustain persistently unseen assets around the world, there is a force-level number that must be maintained. This number is significantly more than thirty, the level resulting from a one-per-year build rate of thirty three-year-design-life hulls, when operating tempos, maintenance, and transits are factored in. All post–Cold War submarine force level studies by several agencies indicate an enduring need for numbers of SSNs far in excess of what can be sustained by a one-per-year build rate.

I think what unstable areas Mr. Patton alludes to is obviously the Middle East and Western Pacific. But without long forward deployments a SSN force of 30 hulls, with some in the shipyard some deployed for carrier taskforce ASW protection and some in port, the Navy would be hard pressed to “sustain persistently unseen assets around the world”.

It is stated in the paper that "SSN taskings by fleet and national commanders have essentially doubled since the end of the Cold War" even though the force level of SSNs has dropped from 100 to roughly 50 today. The predicted affect is: “Because of this submarine shortage, existing ships must now transit at much higher sustained speeds than originally planned, which threatens the life span of their reactors.” If this is true then SSNs would be heading to the shipyard sooner for refueling thereby putting addition pressure on our existing submarine assets.


To me all the above (Submarine systems adaptability and increased force requirements and tasking) seems to run counter to the current DOD and Navy decisions with regards to the New London Sub Base being on the Brac list and the reduced build rate for the Virginia class Subs. My concern is that the powers that be (budgetary and political) may indeed hurt Submarine Force and lessen this country’s ability to defend itself.


At 8:42 AM, Blogger PigBoatSailor said...


A couple of points, mostly in agreement:

-True, sub tasking has increased. However, the rationale for dropping the sub numbers is the ability of other platforms to cover this tasking (LCS for example), or just letting this tasking slip, if it is judged to be of low enough priority (a lot of the tasking coming in is not necessarily fleet tasking, but other agency tasking, etc...). Not that I agree with this, just sayin'...

-Subs are indeed burning though fuel much more quickly than planned. FOr proof of this, all the Navy leadership has to do is look at the EFPH watch list. THe number of boats on it that at current rates will deplete their cores before the expected time is staggering.

-I agree that the SSGN has a lot of value, is a powerful and viable weapon for the sub fleet and the Navy in general. However, I am not really willing to call it a proving ground for VA-class technology. Its electronics are for the most part rather outdated - it maintains the same legacy equipment backbone that the Ohio SSBNs are built on. Sure, it has some cool systems overlayed on top of this, but this is not a great test bed for the all-new VA, and it is not intended as such, I do not think. Additionally, its primary tasking will be to deploy the hammer of the gods in the form of 150-some odd tomahawks should the time come. This is something that another sub, be it VA, 688, or Seawolf class, could only dream of. A 12 to 16 shot ripple is all they can hope for...

-ISR stands for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance. ;-)

Overall, though, great analysis. Subs always have been, and always will be, adaptable and capable. They can play a part is just about any mission thrown their way. I only hope the national command can wake up to that fact.

At 1:42 PM, Blogger Vigilis said...

Nice post, LL. There are a few more biggies to keep in mind:

August 14, 2005
WASHINGTON (AP) - "The Navy makes other big promises regarding the DD(X): It will be stealthy and as difficult to detect as an attack submarine;"

In the same article though, there
is real meat: "The Navy is trying to improve its ability to conduct fire support - using heavy guns to assist Marines or soldiers ashore, much like land-based artillery does. The frequency of such naval fire support missions have declined during conflicts of the last half-century, and the Navy has turned to expensive cruise missiles instead of guns to hit targets farther inland."

Molten Eagle: Cruise missles cost up to about $1 Million each; the Navy wants a cheaper, standoff ship to replace BBs. The DD(X) will have crew 1/10 the size of a BB's and carry two 155-millimeter guns to fire cheaper guided, rocket-propelled rounds, whose accuracy makes up for size. Current test versions of the gun have hit targets 68 miles. Compare that to only 3o mile range for the BB's 16" guns(1900lb unguided, shells).

(3) The first DD(X) is not expected to join the fleet until 2013 or so, and the Navy has to fight to get even that funding.
Submarines are going to be very busy doing typically stealthy things.

The Navy does not want to increase the number of any "existing" sub class. It is delaying until plans for the successor class are finalized (at least 5-6 years out). The Navy is also hoping for a more favorable budget climate. It has had to be very defensive with after legitimate Army and AF complaints over the Navy JAG's prevention of hitting solid targets during Afghanistan. -Molten Eagle

At 8:54 PM, Blogger Lubber's Line said...

PBS and Vigilis, I agree the DDX and LCS surface systems will probably be able to draw away some of the tasking that only SSNs currently do. However, these systems are currently unproven, especially the ability to be stealthy, the key asset of submarines. The first LCS just had the keel laid in June and the DDX program has had its share of budget blowups. Who knows they may prove to be great weapons platforms, fair in the ISR role and a disappointment concerning operating budget savings, my guess.

PBS, Your right I did stretch the Trident SSGN role in relation to the Virginia class. Proving ground was overstated; probably saying of a proof of some concepts would have been closer to reality. Thanks on the ISR acronym clarification.

Vigilis, If your right about the Navy killing the procurement of existing class Submarines in favor of the development of a successor class, then that may put it in direct budget competition with any follow on LCS and DDX once they have proven themselves. Then again timing is everything and things may swing back towards submarine procurement due to a steady increase in Chinese submarine advancements and the proliferation of AIP subs to not so US friendly countries.

At 4:40 AM, Blogger PigBoatSailor said...


My point exactly. The LCS is not only unproven, but it is made out to be "a ship for every mission." Its concept of swappable mission modules actually increases its logistics tail, yet the missions it is attempting to achieve (mine sweeping, ISR, etc...) it is not that suited to do, while other platforms are much better platforms in those respects.
However, it is a surface warship, and therefore Navy command favors it over less sexy single purpose surface ships, and over subs. So I would contend it already is in direct budget competition with subs, and subs consistently lose out to this unproven platform. I fear the proliferation of AIPs will not help us either. The LCS is being touted as an effective ASW weapon(!), and cheaper than subs - so why throw a $1B sub against a $250M diesel when you can do the job with a cheaper LCS? Yes, this is the language that gets tossed around NAVSEA today - ignore the fact that our $1B subs can *safely* eliminate multiple subs, and that the LCS can not even prove it will safely navigate. Nope, the cost risk is too great with nuke subs, goes the logic, so cheap LCS's are the wave of the future. If this lack-of-logic persists, not only is the sub fleet in trouble, but the Navy as a whole will be in a rude awakening when the rubber meets the road...

At 11:05 AM, Blogger Vigilis said...

LL, PBS in the backs of your minds you know why the DD(X) (or whatever its final version will be called) is essential to a modern Navy. In a word, survivability. Today's destroyers have too little. Features of the DD(X) like tumblehome hull (image at Molten Eagle), standoff distance (up to 268 miles), top speed (secret), anti-sub weapons, etc. are dramatic survivability improvements.

As you both say, it is unproven and to look at it as a submariner, the thing already appears half sunk. Can't be done...Difficult.

China? Our present sub fleet can handle China's threat for a few more years. Then we will have to leapfrog technology again (faster than ever before).

The advanced ship proposals are a peek into what the Pentagon sees as threats and opportunities. Advance subs will have a smaller crew than Virgina class, improved drives and really classified stuff. Modular reactors could make for quicker, cheaper (less downtime) replacement than onboard refueling. Hmmm, a lot of cutting, re-welding and testing to overcome. Can't be done ..Difficult.

For every nuclear plant crew eliminated by better automation, the Navy saves not only big bucks, it probably improves overall morale. Can't be done .. Difficult.

At 11:39 PM, Blogger MKSheppard said...

30 boats as a SSN force for the future? Pure Insanity. We wouldn't even be able to keep up our minimal force levels in various areas.


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