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The U.S. Navy’s Next Problem: The Submarine Could be Obsolete?

Seawolf-Class Submarine
The Seawolf-class fast-attack submarine USS Connecticut (SSN 22) transits the Pacific Ocean during Annual Exercise (ANNUALEX 21G). ANNUALEX is a yearly bilateral exercise with the U.S. Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Adam K. Thomas/Released)

What would happen if U.S. nuclear attack submarines—some of the most sophisticated and expensive American weapons of war—suddenly became obsolete?

Imagine a scenario where these important systems became the hunted instead of the hunter, or just as technologically backward as the massive battleships of years past. Think that sounds completely insane? If advances in big data and new detection methods fuse with the anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) ambitions of nations like China and Russia, naval planners around the world might have to go back to the drawing board.

Submarines: The New Battleship?

The revelation is alluded to in a report published years back by the Washington, D.C.–based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) called “The Emerging Era in Undersea Warfare.” Smartly named by a certain TNI editor as the “think-tank’s think-tank,” CSBA has crafted in the last decade many of the most detailed and sophisticated reports regarding the most pressing national-security challenges around—sometimes years before anyone else. Ever heard of a little operational concept called AirSea Battle? They were at the forefront of it before it was in the news.

In a piece a few years ago, the report’s author, Bryan Clark, lays out the problem in more layman’s terms:

Since the Cold War submarines, particularly quiet American ones, have been considered largely immune to adversary A2/AD capabilities. But the ability of submarines to hide through quieting alone will decrease as each successive decibel of noise reduction becomes more expensive and as new detection methods mature that rely on phenomena other than sounds emanating from a submarine. These techniques include lower frequency active sonar and non-acoustic methods that detect submarine wakes or (at short ranges) bounce laser or light-emitting diode (LED) light off a submarine hull. The physics behind most of these alternative techniques has been known for decades, but was not exploited because computer processors were too slow to run the detailed models needed to see small changes in the environment caused by a quiet submarine. Today, “big data” processing enables advanced navies to run sophisticated oceanographic models in real time to exploit these detection techniques. As they become more prevalent, they could make some coastal areas too hazardous for manned submarines.

Could modern attack subs soon face the same problem as surface combatants around the world, where some areas are simply too dangerous to enter, thanks to pressing A2/AD challenges?

Breaking Down the Dilemma:

“We need to think about a new strategy for undersea warfare,” explained Clark in a piece for DefenseNews. “Right now we tend to rely on submarines doing tactical operations on their own, in an environment where they can operate largely with impunity. All those things are going to change in the future…”

So what are the United States and other nations to do if Clark’s predictions come to pass?

Consider the problem in these terms: Washington is laying down two Virginia Class Attack submarines a year at a cost of roughly $1.8 billion per boat. These advanced subs were to be the backbone of Washington’s past Air-Sea Battle operational concept, renamed and now retooled as the “Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons” (JAM-GC). With even more expensive U.S. aircraft carriers facing mounting challenges, thanks to A2/AD weapons systems—specifically ballistic and cruise missiles being fielded by China, Iran, Russia and others—undersea platforms like submarines were to help Washington ensure it was one step ahead. While not completely replacing the capabilities of America’s carrier battle groups, U.S. attack subs armed with land-attack cruise missiles (TLAMS) would retain at least a portion of the capability to attack command and control nodes and work to destroy land-based threats, as well as advanced enemy sub or naval surface forces. If CSBA’s predictions become fact in the near-to-medium term, America and its allies will have a major problem to contend with.

The problems deepen when you consider even large issues like the deployment of America’s nuclear weapons. With Washington also needing to replace its aging Ohio Class SSBN submarines—armed with a good deal of America’s undersea nuclear deterrent—the problem set becomes even direr.

How to Solve the Problem: Underwater Aircraft Carriers?

So what can Washington do to mitigate the problem? While presenting a number of solutions, one alluded to by CSBA’s Clark seems quite genius: essentially turning submarines into underwater aircraft carriers that would carry drone-like underwater unmanned vehicles or UUVs.

“Submarines will increasingly need to shift from being front-line tactical platforms like aircraft to being host and coordination platforms like aircraft carriers” explained Clark. “Large UUVs and other deployed systems that are smaller and less detectable will increasingly be used instead of manned submarines for tactical missions such as coastal intelligence gathering, land attack, or anti-ship missions.”

One could imagine a scenario where UUVs move into A2/AD environments for surveillance missions, land attack or even hunting manned attack subs, allowing much more expensive and manned traditional submarines the ability to stay out of range. While there are obvious questions—feasibility, cost, if a new generation of “carrier” subs would need to be built or existing subs could be modified into such a platform—the idea seems certainly worth strong merit as a solution. A quick, informal polling I took of multiple security experts here in Washington felt that such an idea was very feasible with existing technology.

Parting Thoughts: Admitting You Have a Problem Is the First Step

As nations around the globe develop ever more advanced commercial capabilities, along with increasingly sophisticated technologies that easily diffuse across borders, traditional areas of U.S. military dominance will begin to degrade unless innovation continues—some would say they already have considerably. Over the last several years, America has come to terms with the challenge of A2/AD and developed various tools to counter such problem sets (think Air-Sea Battle/JAM-GC and now the Third Offset Strategy). Clearly, no military advantage is guaranteed forever. Just as Washington has innovated to find unique ways to maintain its battlefield edge, the challenge that will likely soon present itself in the underwater domain will also be met.

The first step in solving a problem is admitting you have one. For America and what seems like a very threatening challenge to its undersea dominance, we seem to have made that leap and are already working on possible solutions. You can’t really ask for any more than that.

Harry Kazianis is a Senior Director the Center of the National Interest. A prior version of this appeared several years ago and is being published due to do reader interest. 

Written By

Harry J. Kazianis (@Grecianformula) serves as a Senior Director at the Center for the National Interest in Washington, D.C., a Washington D.C.-based think tank founded by President Richard Nixon in 1994. Kazianis in the past served as Editor-In-Chief of the Diplomat and as a national security-focused fellow at CSIS, the Potomac Foundation, and the University of Nottingham (UK). His ideas have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, CNN, CNBC, and many other outlets across the political spectrum.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Pete Orsi

    June 20, 2021 at 2:03 pm

    I hope smart people are thinking long and hard about the viability of carriers

  2. Jacksonian Libertarian

    June 20, 2021 at 4:03 pm

    Long range drones at a cost of $1-2 million/each will replace all these strategically outdated, expensive, and vulnerable ships and subs. For the price of one Aircraft Carrier ($14 billion), thousands of drones can be fielded, for a massive increase in combat power, while removing a battle/war losing vulnerability.

  3. Blowme

    June 20, 2021 at 11:58 pm

    Well shucks! This Henny Penny is freaking out right now. Thank goodness Master Biden is at the helm.

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