Navy at risk of losing submarine edge to advanced undersea defenses by China and Russia
Advances in undersea warfare and defenses by China and Russia are endangering the key strategic ability of U.S. Navy nuclear attack submarines to deter a war in the Taiwan Strait or track adversarial missile submarines, according to a report by two experts on American defense capabilities.
“Improved adversary defenses could degrade or defeat U.S. undersea operations, preventing U.S. submarines from conducting critical missions such as sinking a Chinese invasion fleet or tracking Russian ballistic missile submarines,” according to the report published recently by the Hudson Institute.
The report identifies Navy attack submarines as the “crown jewel” of U.S. military capabilities because the vessels operate secretly and are difficult to track, based on advanced quiet propulsion systems.
The submarines for decades have provided the U.S. military with strategic asymmetric warfare advantages — until recently.
A Navy spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the June 2 report.
During the past decade, both the Chinese and Russian militaries began bolstering undersea defenses in the South and East China Seas and in the Arctic Ocean, respectively.
These military bastions now contain networks of fixed and mobile acoustic and non-acoustic sensors capable of spotting and tracking submarines.
The sensor networks are backstopped by aircraft and ships “capable of pouncing on contacts or deploying dense mine barriers,” according to the Hudson Institute report.
Navy attack submarines play a critical role in monitoring Russia’s growing fleet of ballistic missile submarines for the Strategic Command.
For China, Navy attack submarines would play a major role in countering a Chinese amphibious assault on Taiwan that U.S. military commanders have said could take place in the next several years.
China now has a multi-dimensional surveillance network to detect and target submarines and create protected areas for Chinese submarines. The networks are in the South China Sea and near Taiwan.
To better utilize U.S. attack submarines and maintain the offensive advantage they provide, the Navy needs to support the submarines with systems that can suppress or destroy enemy undersea defenses.
The Hudson Institute report urges the Navy to utilize undersea noise rather than trying to avoid it.
“This imperative will fundamentally shift the paradigm for US submarine operations from ‘alone and unafraid’ to ‘it’s all about team,’” the report stated. “Moreover, the emergence of new generations of capable long-range active sonars will demand that the U.S. undersea force increasingly rely on jamming and deception to counter enemy sensors, much as their counterparts already do above the water.”
New systems with advanced technology can be deployed within five years to better counter undersea defenses. Methods can include the use of short- and long-range unmanned underwater vehicles for mapping sensors, locating threats, and jamming, decoying or destroying the systems.
This could be key for U.S. attack submarines.
The Navy currently operates 29 Los Angeles-class fast attack submarines, three Seawolf-class attack submarines and 19 Virginia-class attack subs. All are nuclear powered and operate using very quiet propulsion systems that make them difficult to detect and track.
The Navy also is working on a next-generation attack submarine called the SSN(X) that will include many of the technologies advocated in the Hudson Institute report.
The report calls for unmanned aerial and underwater vehicles to be used for countering adversary submarine sensors to free up U.S. attack submarines for other missions.
The drones could deploy the Navy’s new high-tech Hammerhead mine, as well as the air dropped and powered Quickstrike mine.
A third capability to improve attack submarines would involve deploying longer-range torpedoes and maritime strike Tomahawk missiles. These could allow submarines to attack enemy vessels outside of areas with dense undersea defenses.
“Submarines are the U.S. military’s crown jewel and are relied upon to deliver decisive effects in campaigns against adversaries like the [People’s Republic of China] and Russia,” the report stated. “However, unless it begins to use noise and field teams for offensive operations, the U.S. submarine force could be denied or simply rendered ineffective in waters where future confrontations are most likely to occur.”
The Navy should adapt proven methods used by bombers to suppress, defeat and circumvent defenses, the report stated, adding that, “unless the U.S. undersea force embraces these new concepts and capabilities, it risks becoming marginalized when it is needed most.”
The report, “Fighting into the Bastions: Getting Noisier to Sustain the U.S. Undersea Advantage,” was written by Hudson senior fellows Bryan Clark and Timothy A. Walton.
Mr. Clark is a former Pentagon official who has worked in several different offices, and with the Navy on undersea warfare strategy. Mr. Walton has been a defense consultant for the Pentagon who worked on U.S. and Chinese military concepts.