US Navy Reacquires Urgency About Anti-Submarine Warfare

K.B. Sherman

The world of what has been traditional anti-submarine warfare for the past 50 years is gone. The king is dead. Long live the king!

Coalition maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft squadrons operating in the Persian Gulf under Commander Task Force (CTF) 57 recently reached 10,000 hours flight time in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). None of this time involved ASW. Rather, the missions involved supporting ground troops in Iraq and performing OIF maritime interception operations as part of the coalition's stopping illegal smuggling of oil. In the previous ten years, following the collapse of the USSR, the P-3s of CTF-57 had transitioned from spending most of their time flying counter-narcotics flights in the Caribbean to flying overland patrol in Bosnia and Kosovo. Then came September 11, 2001, and the Orions switched to duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. CTF-57 operates under Commander, Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing One (CPRW-1), formerly Commander, Patrol Wing Pacific, based ashore at Naval Support Facility Kamiseya, Japan. These recent overland missions have supported US Marine Corps and US Army troops. During a mission an infantry officer typically flies as an onboard communicator/coordinator, and, using the aircraft’s cameras and other imaging equipment, gives real-time intel to the ground forces, spotting such events as vehicles or snipers moving within a target area. Meanwhile, other P-3 crews foil oil smuggling at sea.

This is called meeting the needs of the service. Fine. Unfortunately, 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 (Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft GmbH of Kiel and Thyssen Nordseewerke GmbH of Endenand, Germany) and the Scorpene-class (DCN of France and Izar (formerly Bazan) of Spain). Such current technology subs can stay submerged for days without need for snorkeling. Equipped with closed-oxygen diesel drives such as the French "MESMA" (Module d'Energie Sous-Marine Autonome) AIP steam-turbine system that burns 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 MESMA 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. While limited in crew size and range, a Piranha-T’s torpedoes and mines are quite suitable for denying coastal waters to most navies ill prepared for ASW.

Recognizing this large hole in national defense, the US Navy has just announced the creation of the Fleet ASW Command and the allocation of more money to oversee ASW. The moves are recognition by the Navy that it has lost through budget cuts and neglect the ability to effectively secure shallow waters near shore from submarines, and come as China, North Korea, Iran, and others are acquiring fourth generation SSKs. These subs are exponentially more dangerous than the Foxtrot- and Juliet- classes of diesel-electric submarines fielded by the USSR in the 1950s and 60s, which even then, gave the US Navy a run for its money.

ASW against older diesel-electric subs was based upon “active ranging” – creating a noise in the water by off-set dropping an explosive SUS (sound, underwater source), waiting for an echo to reach a set of sonobouys, and then calculating an elliptical range circle to create one line of position. Two such ellipses produced an ambiguous fix. Three – a rare feat -- produced a good fix. Called “Julie,” it was the naval air equivalent of juggling flaming torches while standing on top of a beach ball, and a P-2 or P-3 crew could be reduced nearly to tears when employing it against a submerged fleeing submarine of the time. In the 1970s and 1980s, sonobouys that produced their own echoes --“pingers”-- replaced the ‘bomb-the-bouy’ technology that had preceded it, and while this was a big improvement, its still required a lot of practice – practice largely abandoned after the collapse of the USSR and the beaching of its submarine fleet.

Today’s conventional subs – SSKs -- with their “airless” diesel technology, super-quiet electric motors, greatly improved noise reduction, and great submerged dash speed in shallow water, make active ranging in most cases almost useless. The halving since 1991 of the US Navy’s submarine fleet -- a primary ASW asset itself – further aggravates the situation. The US and allied navies have become keenly aware of this danger. ASW, like anti-mine warfare, has traditionally been unglamorous, complicated, and absolutely essential to the Navy. There was no movie “Top Bunk” starring Tom Cruise as P-3 pilot Hank “Sleepy” Levey on a typical 12-hour flight looking for submarines in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the dramatic highlight of which was two off-duty crewmen flipping a coin over one bunk.

At the direction of the ADM Vern Clark, Chief of Naval Operations, service leaders in February formed Task Force ASW to examine fleet shortcomings and recommend improvements in technology, operational concepts, and training techniques. Recognizing that the current methods of searching for, localizing, and killing enemy subs in shallow water are no longer effective (as noted above), the task force reached the conclusion that distributed sensors and other newer technologies might vastly improve the tactical picture of the undersea battle space. The critical question became: ‘how do we improve upon the traditional time-dependence and clumsiness of ASW,’ in which a suspected or real contact has to be handed-off from airplane to ship to submarine to airplane? This reportedly changed the universe of accepted solutions from legacy systems and tactics to new, technology-leveraged possible solutions. As a result, research is proceeding to include networked, high data rate, and wireless communications; organic and off-board sensors; and both manned and unmanned vehicles. Task Force ASW continues, and the focus on ASW will continue as part of Sea Shield's* focus on capability assessments. According to LT M. Amy Morrison of the Navy Office of Information (CHINFO), at the recommendation of TF ASW, several ASW demonstrations, in conjunction with scheduled fleet exercises, have been scheduled through FY 2006.

How changes in both funds for ship-building and the troubled Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft Program to replace both the P-3C and EP-3E might effect these considerations has not yet been publicly addressed.

In January, 2004, to help fulfill the directive to develop a command to improve ASW readiness and capability in the next few years, Fleet Anti-Submarine Warfare Command will stand-up in San Diego, according to Morrison, with a subordinate command at Naval Station Norfolk, VA, and will report to Commander, Fleet Forces Command (CFFC). Commander, US Pacific Fleet will be the executive agent for FASWC's initial creation and operations. Fleet ASW Command will be separate from operational command but allied with it, performing the setting of standards for integrating ASW operations and training. The Navy had planned modest increases in ASW spending in FY 2004 and 2005, although the war on terrorism and the current Iraq effort may siphon money from this plan in the near term.

"ASW warfighting capability is about as high on the list as you could make it," VADM John Nathman, deputy chief of naval operations for warfighting requirements and co-leader of Task Force ASW, was recently quoted as saying. The Navy is planning to experiment with new approaches to detect subs in shallow water, to include floating sensor grids and other networked, distributed systems that operate without a vessel or aircraft nearby. "Battlespace control of the near-land environment is essential to the Navy's ability to ensure prompt access for joint forces moving from the sea to objectives inland," said ADM Clark in the September message to the fleet that established FASWC. According to Morrison, the as-yet unannounced Commander, FASWC will be flag officer who will report to Commander, US Fleet Forces Command (CFFC) as an Echelon III Commander.

The organization for the new command will be announced soon by ADM Robert Natter, Commander, Fleet Forces Command. Outlined will be cooperation with service laboratories, training organizations, program managers, resource sponsors, and operational and tactical development commands. Morrison said that ASW Command will be tasked with five mission areas: quality integrated fleet ASW training; assessing ASW performance throughout the fleet and coordinating opposition exercises; coordinating individual student ASW training and development of integrated ASW training resources; bringing new ASW technologies to the fleet quickly; and improving theater Undersea Warfare (USW) capability.

Full operation/capacity of FASWC is expected in 2005.


*Sea Shield is the name given a broadened mission for the Navy in large past as a result of the attack on September 11, 2001. It increases sea-based influence over operations ashore. It projects defense for joint forces and allies ashore; sustains access for maritime trade, coalition building, and military operations; extends homeland defense via forward presence and networked intelligence; and enhances international stability, security, and engagement. It is aimed at homeland defense, sea / littoral superiority; theater air missile defense; and enabling force entry. Technologies being examined include interagency intelligence and communications reach-back systems; organic mine countermeasures; multi-sensor cargo inspection equipment; advanced hull forms and modular mission payloads; directed-energy weapons; autonomous unmanned vehicles; a common undersea picture (esp. ASW); a single integrated air picture; distributed weapons coordination; and theater missile defense.

Source: Navy Warfare Development Command

The SP-2H is long gone, but its crews were far sharper at shallow-water ASW than are today’s P-3C crews.