US Navy Struggles to Recapture, Keep ASW Proficiency

In the past several years the US Navy has reacquired an urgency about anti-submarine warfare. A poor step-child of the Navy since the fall of the USSR (along with mine-hunting), ASW is once again being recognized as a critical capability.

Of the more than 10,000 hours flown by Navy P-3Cs in the Persian Gulf, none of this time involved ASW. Rather, the missions involved supporting ground troops in Iraq and performing maritime interception operations as part of the coalition's stopping illegal smuggling of oil. While meeting the current needs of the service after essentially abandoning ASW after the collapse of the USSR, the world’s navies – the US Navy in the forefront -- find themselves ill-equipped to counter the explosive growth in the Third World fleet of stealthy, fourth generation diesel-electric subs like the U-212/214-class and the Scorpene-class. Such current technology subs can stay submerged for days without need for snorkeling. Equipped with Air Independent Propulsion closed-oxygen diesel drives that burn ethanol and liquid oxygen to make steam to drive a turbo-electric generator, the design permits retrofitting into existing submarines by adding an extra hull section. Typical cost for a new submarine powered by AIP is $250 million. These warships are openly for sale to almost anyone with a big enough checking account (except Taiwan, but that’s another story). For the budget-conscious – or someone simply in a hurry to raise hell with an allied navy -- a Russian P-130 or Piranha-T Small-class submarine may be purchased for a fraction of the cost of a Scorpene. In the past several years, both US and allied forces have been dismayed to have their ships “sunk” (including an aircraft carrier) by small but new diesel-electric submarines such as Sweden’s “Gotland” playing the enemy in exercises.

Recognizing this large hole in national defense, the US Navy in 2004 stood up the Fleet ASW Command and allocated more money to oversee ASW training. In addition to a new generation of active sonobouys, the Navy is working on such advanced technologies as floating sensor grids and other networked, distributed systems that operate without a vessel or aircraft nearby. The P-8A aircraft, to replace the P-3C (and perhaps the EP-3E as well) has been in development for several years, although its eventual production in sufficient numbers to do the job remains in serious doubt.

In late 2005, the Navy released additional information regarding current and foreseeable multiple missions with a smaller, more disperse maritime patrol and reconnaissance force – today’s P-3Cs and the promised P-8A replacement. The Navy’s fleet of operational P-3Cs has decreased from a listed 227 in 2003 to just 150 by mid- 2005, with 54 of these grounded for serious maintenance or re-winging (the P-3 was designed for a service life of 20,000 hours; many are now pushing 30,000 hours and are 40 years old, flogging through the harsh, unforgiving environment of salt water spray and constant low-level flight). The P-8A isn’t scheduled to hit the fleet starting in 2013 and replacing the last P-3C in 2019. Whether the Navy buys the P-8 as the replacement for the EP-3E is unknown. The Army recently rejected the ERJ-145 planned replacement for the Aerial Common Sensor Aircraft. The 145 was to have served both the Army and the Navy.

The critical shortage of P-3Cs has resulted in an almost total cessation of training when a squadron returns home from deployment as most of its aircraft are quickly cycled back to the fleet for overseas operations. In 1991 the Navy had 25 active and 13 reserve VP squadrons, each with nine airplanes. Today it has 12 active operational and six reserve squadrons, with all reserve squadrons to have been decommissioned by 2007. There are simply no aircraft to spare for the reserves any longer. Today, the Navy is down to just three deployment sites with each squadron having just eight airplanes each, a total of 24 planes. With the P-8 still just a drawing, the future of US Navy patrol aviation is in serious doubt at a time when the threat from Middle Eastern diesel-electric subs is ever more intense. The Navy’s decommissioning of its S-3B squadrons leaves the fleet even more vulnerable to this threat. Further, the P-8 is a big airplane unsuitable for the low-level (i.e. 200 feet over the water) active prosecution tactics used by the P-3 with such sensors as MAD. Instead, the Navy is planning to go with such untested upgrades as a new generation of extended echo range (EER) active (pinger) sonobouys, each equipped with GPS so as to have a constantly updated tactical plot.

While -- according to the Navy’s ASW Command/Fleet Replacement Patrol Squadron THIRTY -- ASW is still the primary mission focus for P-3s, annual ASW training done at the squadron level is approximately one-third of that conducted twenty years ago.

As the Navy plans for a fleet of perhaps 265 warships (down from 586 in 1988 and the smallest Navy since 1912), it states that the P-8A is fully funded through fleet introduction planned for 2012-2013. Full funding for replacement of the P-3C is yet to occur and not a sure thing, especially as the War on Terrorism is likely to continue into the foreseeable future. The Navy admits that even today’s 12 active VP squadrons are “likely to decrease” in number. This reporter estimates a total of four active P-8 squadrons plus a fifth fleet replacement squadron. Each active squadron (there will be no reserve VP squadrons) is likely to have eight aircraft. With another twelve or so for the FRS, we are likely to see, at best, fifty P-8 aircraft trying to do the job of over 200 P-3Cs. Look for UAVs to assume an ever greater portion of military aviation. While the outlook for success under this plan is clouded, the danger posed by enemy submarines is sharply defined.

In recent fleet exercises, the Swedish diesel-electric submarine "Gotland" gave the US Navy a run for its money

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