Tag Archives: ASW

The Battle of Locust Point: An Oral History of the First Autonomous Combat Engagement

Fiction Topic Week

By David R. Strachan


The following classified interview is being conducted per the joint NHHC/USNI Oral History Project on Autonomous Warfare. This is the first of an eight-part series with Admiral Jeremy B. Lacy, USN (Ret), considered by many to be the father of autonomous undersea warfare, where we discuss the development of the Atom-class microsubmarine, and its role in the first combat engagement of the autonomous era, the Battle of Locust Point.

November 17, 2033

Annapolis, Maryland

Interviewer: Lt. Cmdr. Hailey J. Dowd, USN

The last twenty-five years have witnessed extraordinary developments in naval warfare. Ever smaller, smarter, more lethal vehicles have revolutionized the way navies fight, and the way nations project power beyond their borders. Historians agree that the genesis of this “micronaval revolution” can be traced to the year 2016, when a disabled Russian Istina-class microsubmarine was recovered off the coast of Cape Charles, Virginia. The Chesapeake Bay Incident, as it became known, was a harbinger of things to come, for just ten weeks later, as crowds descended on Baltimore Harbor for Fleet Week and the commissioning of the U.S. Navy’s newest destroyer, USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000), Russian and U.S. microsubmarines would square off just beneath the surface in what would be the first combat engagement of the autonomous era, the Battle of Locust Point.

Historians also agree that the micronaval revolution can be traced to a single individual, an individual whose name, like Hyman Rickover, is virtually synonymous with the bold thinking that has come to define the modern U.S. Navy.

Admiral Jeremy Baynes Lacy, USN (ret.) graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1989, earning a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering. He served at sea aboard the USS Pennsylvania (SSBN 735), USS Henry M. Jackson (SSBN 730), USS Springfield (SSN 761), and the USS Pogy (SSN 647), deploying to the North Atlantic, Arctic, and Western Pacific, as well as conducting numerous strategic patrols. Ashore, Lacy earned a Masters Degree from the Naval Postgraduate School in Naval/Mechanical Engineering, and served as Major Program Manager for Undersea Project 7, the Atom-class microsubmarine program. Following his work on the Atom-class, he established and commanded Strikepod Group (COMPODGRU) 1, eventually serving as Commander, Strikepod Forces, Atlantic (COMPODLANT). His personal decorations include the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit (three awards), the Meritorious Service Medal (two awards), the Joint Service Commendation Medal, the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal (five awards), and Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal (two awards), in addition to numerous unit and campaign awards.

Admiral Lacy is currently enjoying his “retirement” as the Corbin A. McNeill Endowed Chair in Naval Engineering at the United States Naval Academy. He was interviewed at his home in Annapolis, Maryland.

Would you tell us a little of your background? How did you end up in the Navy?

I was born and raised in the rural New Jersey hamlet of Port Murray, nestled among cornfields and cow pastures many people can’t believe exist the Garden State. My mother was a secretary at the local elementary school, and my father managed a printing plant just outside New York City. He grew up dirt poor on a farm in New Hampshire without a whole lot of options, so he enlisted in the Navy the day after he graduated from high school. After basic, he ended up in crypto school in California, then a Naval Security Group detachment in Turkey where he eavesdropped on Soviet communications. When I was little he used to make these veiled references here and there to his time in the service, but he never elaborated on anything. He took his secrecy oath very seriously, and it wasn’t until the mid 80s, when I was a curious teenager, that he felt comfortable opening up about what he did. I was totally captivated by the stories he would tell, and the meaning that the work gave him. As luck would have it, I was a pretty good student, and managed to get accepted to the Academy. Fast forward four years and I’ve got a degree in mechanical engineering, and five years of submarine service waiting for me.

Why did you choose submarines?

Never in a million years did I expect to end up choosing submarines. It was the time of Top Gun, and boy I was gonna fly jets! But during my summer service orientation I went for a cruise on the Nebraska, and that was it. I was hooked, and fifteen months later I’m on the Pennsylvania for my junior tour.

Would you say it was the submarine service that spurred your interest in unmanned vehicles?

Oh, definitely. When I was on the Pogy we worked with some very early prototypes sent up from [Naval Undersea Warfare Center] Newport for arctic testing. Nothing too sexy – ocean survey, bathymetry. But I guess at that time I was intrigued with the idea, and started imagining the possibilities, the implications. What if these things could think for themselves? What if they were weaponized?  And what if the bad guys had them? After my tour on Pogy, I ended up at the Naval Postgraduate School working on my masters, and actually wrote my thesis on UUVs – a survey of current architecture, an examination of future technologies and how these could be leveraged for unmanned systems, and how UUVs could be integrated into fleet operations.

Legend has it DOD wanted to classify it.

[Laughs] Well, not really. It was nothing more than a skillful integration of open sources, some analysis, and extrapolation. It did manage to attract some interest, though.


Well, actually it was the folks at Newport who reached out to me initially. My advisor at NPS was friendly with the CO there, and at the time – around early 1999 – they were working with APL, SPAWAR, and some other folks on crafting the Navy’s UUV master plan. So they called me up, asked if I’d like to come aboard, and next thing I know I’m on a plane to Rhode Island.

What was your contribution to the 2000 UUV Master Plan?

Well, by the time I entered on duty, the bulk of the heavy lifting was pretty much complete. But I did manage to contribute some perspective on the vision, CONOPS (especially in ASW), as well as technology and engineering issues. But where I think I added the most value was regarding the feasibility of the SWARM [Shallow Water Autonomous Reconnaissance Modules] concept – the idea of utilizing large numbers of small AUVs to create a dynamic, autonomous sensor grid for wide area mine countermeasures.

Was the SWARM concept a precursor to the Strikepod?

Conceptually, yes. It was an early articulation of an undersea battle group, the idea of numerous autonomous vehicles cooperating together to complete a mission. But while the idea was entirely feasible, I felt that SWARM was rather narrow in its scope. As an MCM platform, I suppose it made sense, with scores of small, relatively inexpensive nodes spread across hundreds of square miles, air dropped from B-2s or Hornets. But what we needed was an entirely new class of vehicle that was flexible, adaptive, and capable of carrying out multiple missions, whether in networks of two or two thousand. So, then, I guess you could say that SWARM inspired both Strikepods and the Atom-class submarine, but for different reasons.

Can you talk about how the Atom-class program originated, and how the Strikepod concept evolved?

I’d been having discussions with some of the Newport and MIT folks while working on the Master Plan, and we were all pretty much in agreement on the core elements of a UUV pod structure – connectivity, redundancy and expendability. We were also in agreement that small is beautiful, if you will, but all of the work on miniaturization was being done in the universities. Long story short, not only did ONR find the funding, but agreed to bring the university people on board, and next thing we have a lovely, windowless compartment in the basement of the Navy Lab. And we had a nice, nondescript name: Undersea Project 7.

It was an exciting time, and it was a genuine privilege working with some of the brightest minds around, people who could have easily been making five times their salaries at Google, or JP Morgan. 

The technology was complex, and the work could be pretty tedious. Lots of highs and lows – two steps forward one step back. For some of the top brass it was hard to justify the expense, pouring all that money into a system that seemed unnecessarily complicated, and, for them, pure science fiction. Do we really need roaming schools of killer fish? Don’t forget, these were guys who came from the era of SOSUS. But that’s what we were offering – and more. A smart SOSUS that could be deployed anywhere, at any time.

We envisioned three variants – one for command & control, or what we called the Rogue, one for navigation and communications, which we called the Relay, and a third that could physically attach itself to vessels, mines, infrastructure. This we called the Remora. Together they could be organized in networks of any size, undersea strike groups capable of communicating with each other and, via the Relay, surface assets and ashore bases.

The Atom-class was under development for nearly fifteen years. Were you at all aware of what was happening with adversary developments, and did that play a role in the design?

Absolutely, and somewhat.  Over time, I became increasingly involved with the intelligence side of things – collection guidance, and analysis. There came a point where I was ping-ponging pretty regularly between Carderock and Suitland, especially by the late 2000s when we were really stepping up our efforts. We were well aware of Chinese interest in unmanned systems, and around 2010 we started receiving reports about the Shāyú program. We were also keeping close tabs on some tech transfer between North Korea and Iran, something reminiscent of their Yono and Ghadir cooperation. There was a real sense of urgency, that we needed to be out-innovating and out-classing our adversaries if we were going to stay ahead of the curve. But we believed strongly in the Atom and Strikepods, and while it was important to know what the other guys were up to, we didn’t let it distract us from our own vision.

The most intriguing stuff was the HUMINT coming out of Rubin [Central Design Bureau for Marine Engineering] – concerning a Project S3, or “Istina” – references to unmanned systems, miniaturization, and a breakthrough in energy production. And then there were reports of Russian vessels showing up unexpectedly during our boomer patrols. They seemed to just know where we were. The counterintelligence guys were in overdrive – this was eerily familiar to the red flag that plagued Richard Haver before the Walker ring was exposed. So we couldn’t just stand there and scratch our heads. But everything checked out internally. So, if there was no security breach, then, how could they know?

So, I started compiling data, and mapped it all out. CIA and DIA both believed it could be evidence of a non-acoustic sensor of some kind, and while this was certainly plausible, the evidence was mostly hearsay. We had imagery of SOKS sensors, and journal articles, and public statements by high ranking officials, but no hard data to substantiate the existence of a viable, working platform. We were, however, receiving quality product on the Istina program that suggested the Russians had developed some kind of miniaturized naval platform capable of lurking silently off Groton or King’s Bay, then trailing our boats to expose their positions to the Russian Fleet.

But you couldn’t sell it?

[Laughs] Well, no, which, admittedly, was pretty frustrating. But something that gets lost in all the scandals and the slanted reporting is the commitment to analytic rigor that permeates the intelligence community. These folks understand that their work has a direct impact not only on U.S. policy, but ultimately on human lives. The difference between right and wrong can mean the difference between life and death, and they carry that burden every day. So, no, I couldn’t sell it. And it was back to the drawing board.

And then Cape Charles happened.

And then Cape Charles happened.

Can you tell us about that day?

I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a Saturday morning, one of those heavy, dewy August mornings in D.C. I was out getting in my run before the heat of the day, when I get a call from Chandra [Reddy, the ONI liaison for Undersea Project 7]. He tells me I need to come in to the office. We were working weekends pretty regularly, but I’d blocked out that day for a round of golf with my dad. I kindly remind him of this, and all he says is, “Jay – we’ve got something.” An hour later I’m on an SH-60 out of Andrews with Chandra and four engineers from S&T, tracking the Potomac out to the Bay. 

They briefed me enroute. Apparently the Coast Guard in Cape Charles, Virginia got a call around 7:30 that morning from a fisherman about a mile off the coast who said he came across something that “looked military.” They send out an RB-M, and bring back what they believe is a U.S. Navy prototype submersible. They phone it in, and ninety minutes later we’re putting down on a grassy airfield in the middle of nowhere, where we’re greeted by an earnest seaman recruit who proceeds to leadfoot it all the way to the station.

It was being kept in a back room, sitting on a table under a blue tarp. When I first saw it, I thought it was just a radio-controlled sub, like someone’s weekend garage project had gone astray. It was basically a miniaturized Oscar II, maybe six or seven feet long, which I suppose shouldn’t be surprising, since the Oscar was built for capacity, and why go to the trouble of designing and developing a whole new hull form when you can just miniaturize one that’s already in the inventory? 

We didn’t know how long it had been disabled, or if the Russians were even aware. We did know that the [Vishnya-class intelligence ship] Leonov had been lurking offshore, and there were a couple of fishing boats we were keeping an eye on near Norfolk, but for all we knew the handlers were right nearby, somewhere on shore. We had to assume they would come looking, so we had to act quickly.

We cracked it open and took a look right there on the table. The guys from S&T were like pathologists, very careful and thorough. One of them had a video camera, which I eventually realized was patched in to the White House Situation Room. 

I don’t think I need to tell you that the intelligence value was immeasurable, a holy grail. It confirmed, of course, what I’d been speculating all along, but it also showed us just how far along the Russians were. The propulsion system alone was a quantum leap for them, and was very similar to what we had been developing for the Atom.

Too similar?

I’d say strikingly similar. Maybe alarmingly so. But there was so much information floating around in the public domain – academia, scientific journals – so much private sector R&D going on, the design could have originated anywhere. For sure there was plenty for the counterintelligence guys to lose sleep over, but at that moment we had bigger fish to fry.

Did you bring it back to Washington for further analysis?

Well, actually, no.

You see, during the autopsy, one of the tech guys notices something – a small explosive charge right against the hull, wired to the CPU. The damn thing had an autodestruct! It was right out of Mission Impossible, but it obviously had failed to activate. We’d been toying with just such an idea for the Atom-class – a small blast to punch a hole in the hull and allow it to disappear into the depths, then ping like a black box for eventual retrieval.

Chandra’s on the secure phone, presumably with the Situation Room, when he turns to me, pointing at the Istina. “They want us to blow it,” he says. “They want us to put it back.” Immediately I think – are they crazy? This is the biggest intelligence haul since K-129, and they want to just dump it?  But then I realize – of course!  The Bay is shallow enough that if the Russians come calling, they will expect to find it, and if they can’t, they’ll have to assume we did. We needed them to believe we were clueless, so we had to let them find it. That way they’d never know what we knew.

So we closed it up, drove it back out into the Bay, and scuttled it.

Was it then that the President authorized Operation Robust Probe?

The biggest question on everyone’s mind was: Is this an isolated penetration, or is it part of a larger operation? Prudence required that we take action to sanitize the Bay, so yes, Robust Probe was ordered, and the Navy immediately mobilized.

But as urgent as the situation was, there was also a need for discretion. We couldn’t exactly fill the Chesapeake Bay with destroyers. Even an increased presence of Coast Guard or small patrol craft would likely not go unnoticed, at least by the Russians. So, within hours the Navy had cobbled together a flotilla of private watercraft manned by cleared contractors and sailors in civies. They fanned out across the Bay, banging away with dipping sonar, fish finders, and whatever they could use.

Fortunately, we’d been putting Alpha, the first operational Strikepod, through its paces, and had been having a lot of success. So we fast-tracked sea trials, put a crew together, rigged up a mobile command post – the very first Strikepod Command – in what looks like a plain T.V. news van, and we’re in business. 

Within twenty-four hours Alpha had detected another Istina lurking just off Thomas Point Light. It was an odd mixture jubilation – knowing that the Atom-class was a success – and dread, the weight of knowing of what was at hand, that the Russians had not only designed, developed and deployed a sophisticated micro AUV, but they were using it to brazenly violate our territorial waters.

Was there any other reaction from the White House?

The President immediately convened the National Security Council, and, yes, yours truly was ordered to attend and provide the briefing. He was not happy. How did we not see this coming? I explained how we were aware of Russian efforts, but that our coverage had been spotty. And there were no indications that the Russians were on the brink of deploying a new vehicle to the fleet, much less inserting it into U.S. territorial waters. 

I remember how surreal it felt, sitting there in the Situation Room, the looks on the faces around me. 


Not fear. More like a mixture of deep concern and disbelief as if no one could wrap his head around the fact that this was actually happening. And I think everyone in that room knew that things were about to change, that all of our theorizing, prognosticating, and preparing for the future of naval warfare was coming to a head. The future had arrived, right in our back yard. 

The prevailing opinion in the room was that we should move immediately to destroy it and contact the Russian government. The guys from CIA made a compelling argument for restraint – one with which I concurred – that this was more an opportunity than a threat. There was no reason to believe this was Russia’s opening move against the United States, and that if anything it was the latest example of resurgent Russian bravado and Putin’s longing for the Cold War days. This was an opportunity to gather as much intelligence as possible on a new foreign weapons platform. But there was also concern that, if weaponized, the Istinas could be used to stage a terror attack and sow further insecurity and political unrest in the United States. In the end, though, we managed to convince the President to hold off, but if at any point it was determined that there existed a threat to life or property, we would have to destroy it.

Did you personally have any theories as to its intentions?

Not many. There was Aberdeen [Proving Ground]. Theoretically an Istina could get in close enough to extract some SIGINT or MASINT, depending on the vehicle’s sensor capabilities. But who really knew? Maybe the Russians were just interested in ship spotting, or counting crabs.

And then it just kind of hit me. It was September – the following month was Fleet Week in Baltimore. The Navy would be showcasing its wares –warships, the Blues – which normally wouldn’t be such a big deal, except there was something else that year.


Exactly. Zumwalt was on the agenda that year for commissioning. She’d be sailing up the Bay, and then docked for several days at Locust Point. We weren’t concerned with an Istina attacking Zumwalt, per se, but we knew that there was much to be had intelligence-wise. And while we had no desire to enable a Russian intelligence operation, we also wanted to collect as much as possible of our own.

When we examined the Istina in Cape Charles, we didn’t discover a warhead of any kind, so we assumed any others wouldn’t be weaponized either. And even if they were, it was unlikely that a single Istina could inflict any meaningful damage on an armored warship, unless the Russians had managed to develop a super compact, high yielding explosive, but there was no intelligence indicating such. Perhaps a group of Istinas detonating simultaneously could cause a problem, enough to raise some eyebrows or even provoke a crisis, but it would take dozens to equal the yield of even a single torpedo.

It was a delicate, rapidly unfolding situation that was unlike anything we’d ever experienced in the modern era. Of course, we’d ventured into Soviet waters in manned submarines during the Cold War, at great risk to both human life and the delicate balance that defined the Cold War. But had Parche or Halibut been detected or attacked and sunk during Ivy Bells, it would have provoked a political crisis that may well have triggered World War III. Were the stakes just as high now? It was anyone’s guess.

Were you able to deploy additional Strikepods?

Yes. Alpha had been working like a charm, but then abruptly it loses contact with the Istina as it moves under a passing tanker, which was of course disappointing, but not entirely unexpected. In the meantime, we’d deployed two more six-ship Strikepods – Beta to cover the central Bay, and Gamma the southern region. It was a lot of territory to cover, but that constituted the sum total of our Atom-class fleet at the time. There were eight currently in various stages of production, but it would be at least a day or two before we could deploy them.

Pretty soon we get word that Gamma has detected something down near Bloodworth Island.  At first we figured we’d reacquired the original, but an analysis of the acoustic data revealed that it was actually a new vehicle. It was alarming, for sure, knowing that there were now at least two Russian microsubmarines lurking in the Chesapeake Bay.

We tracked it for about two days, and then Beta manages to reacquire Istina number one. About twelve hours later, Alpha detects not one, but two more right at the mouth of the Patapsco River. That’s when everyone’s hackles went up. This was no longer a counterintelligence operation. 

Operation Robust Probe becomes Robust Purge?

Correct. Once we realized that we were dealing with at least four Istinas in the Bay, and they were lingering in Zumwalt’s path, the time for just being sneaky was over. We needed to at the very least disrupt, if not outright destroy them. 

By now the eight new Atoms have come off the line, so we fit them each with a makeshift warhead of C4, designate them Remoras, and deploy them immediately – four for Alpha, which was now tracking two separate targets, and two each for Beta and Gamma. They would only be employed if we felt that there was an immediate threat to life or property.

In the meantime, Zumwalt, Leyte Gulf, and Jason Dunham, and the other ships arrive, and as they transit the Bay, the Istinas take up position about 500 meters astern. Once the ships turn into the Patapsco, though, they back off and assume a position just outside the mouth of the river. They linger there for about twelve hours, until we get a burst from Alpha: One of the Istinas is headed up river.

So now we have a decision to make. Alpha is tracking two separate vehicles. Do we order Alpha to pursue, and break off contact with one of them? Turns out Sea Rays and Boston Whalers aren’t particularly effective ASW platforms, and Strikepods Beta and Gamma were both busy with their own tracks, well to the south, too far away to assist Alpha in time.

Then one of our brilliant engineers suggests splitting Alpha pod. We could repurpose one of the Remoras as a Rogue, and assign it an armed Remora and a Relay for coms. The engineers get on it, and in about fifteen minutes a small splinter pod breaks off and starts trailing the Istina up the Patapsco.  Things get increasingly tense as it nears the Key Bridge, and we decide that if the Istina begins moving toward the bridge supports, we would have no choice but to destroy it.

After a few anxious moments it passes under the bridge without incident, and continues on a path toward Locust Point, where the warships are docked. Word comes down from the Sit Room: The Istinas now present a clear and present danger, so immediately we order the splinter pod to attack. A minute later a Remora detonates about five meters below the surface, and we watch as it and the Istina disappear from the tactical display. Beta and Gamma attack as well, sending their respective contacts, as well as two Remoras, to the bottom of the Bay.

And just like that it was over?

It was over.

The Strikepods and surface vessels continued to prosecute Robust Purge until Zumwalt and the other ships made it safely to the Atlantic. By all accounts, Baltimore Fleet Week, including the commissioning of the Navy’s newest destroyer, came off without a hitch. No one had any idea that the first decisive battle of a new era in naval warfare had just occurred within throwing distance of Fort McHenry.

What were the takeaways?

Well, we had terabytes of data to analyze, of course, but perhaps even more importantly, there were myriad political, security, and even philosophical questions to consider. What exactly were AUVs? Were they vessels? Weapons? In a way they were like spies, but rather than round them up and expel them, or put them in jail, we’d have to disrupt them, or even kill them.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway, though, was the realization that a new form of conflict was dawning. Submarines had of course always been characterized by stealth and secrecy, and had engaged in high risk cat-and-mouse games in order to stay ahead of the adversary. But now that submarines were unmanned, and, like their stealthy manned cousins, operated far from the prying eyes of the public, a kind of limited war was now possible, a war with little or no risk of escalation, or political fallout, and most importantly, no loss of human life. A war characterized by secrecy, anonymity, and non-attribution.

In other words, as we sit here today in my living room, in the year 2033, with the benefit of hindsight, our vision of AUVs as merely an extension of the Fleet’s eyes and ears was really rather primitive.

And only the beginning of the story.

[End Part I]

David R. Strachan is a writer living in Silver Spring, MD. His website, Strikepod Systems, explores the emergence of unmanned undersea warfare via real-time speculative fiction. Contact him at strikepod.systems@gmail.com.

Featured Image: Arctic Sub Base by Jon Gibbons (via Deviant Art)

Hunters and Killers

Norman Polmar and Edward Whitman, Hunters and Killers: Volume 1 and Volume 2. Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 2015/2016, $44.95.

By Joe Petrucelli

In their two-volume work, Norman Polmar and Edward Whitman have written the first comprehensive history of Anti-Submarine Warfare. As the authors note in their preface, there are histories of ASW campaigns as well as  both adversary and U.S. submarine operations, but no one has examined the discipline of ASW from its humble beginnings. Polmar and Whitman do just that in these two volumes, starting with the rudimentary ASW operations of the American revolution through the massive campaigns of the First and Second World War and finishing with the nuclear revolution and post-Cold War implications. Through their analysis, one can discern four factors that make ASW campaigns effective throughout history: numbers, technology, intelligence coordination, and organizational integration and concepts.

The most important conclusion that can be drawn from Polmar and Whitman’s analysis is that in ASW, numbers matter. While acknowledged as important, most navies do not appear to consider ASW as one of their most important capabilities and invest in it accordingly. Thus, during the interwar period, Polar and Whitman observe that the U.S. and Royal Navies drastically cut their ASW platforms both in absolute and relative terms, preferring to expend limited resources on larger, more prominent line combatants. Unfortunately, all the successful ASW campaigns they examined required presence over a large open-ocean area and a small number of highly capable combatants were not necessarily helpful, leaving the Allies to suffer severe losses until embarking on emergency building programs. To emphasize this point, in 1940 none other than Winston Churchill observed that large surface combatants (even if equipped with ASW weapons and sensors) were not effective escorts because they were valuable enough to become targets themselves. The most effective force structure during the ASW campaigns they examined consisted of long-range patrol aircraft and a large number of small, relatively expendable escorts.

The history of ASW is one of technological innovation by both submarines themselves and ASW forces. Polmar and Whitman do an excellent job explaining these complex technical developments in ASW (i.e. sound wave attenuation, convergence zones, etc) and translating them into layman-ese. However, it is important to note that they do not present technology as the solution for ASW dominance, but rather as a never-ending balance between offensive and defensive technologies. As ASW forces developed new technical capabilities such as depth charges, radar, and sonar, submarines countered with technologies such as snorkels, longer-range torpedoes and air-independent and nuclear propulsion. In the end, technology provided necessary tactical capabilities for an effective ASW campaign, but by itself was not sufficient to practice effective ASW.

Additionally, the authors explores the role of intelligence and cryptology in ASW, a vital factor in historical ASW campaigns. Allied cryptology efforts, known as ULTRA during WWII, were vital to cueing ASW forces and helping convoys avoid known U-boat patrol areas, while HF/DF capabilities deployed on escort ships gave ASW forces more tactical-level cueing. Polmar and Whitman describe a similar cueing role for U.S. undersea surveillance assets during the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, it was not just intelligence and cryptology capabilities by themselves that gave ASW forces an advantage, but the fusion of intelligence capabilities into operational forces. By devising employment schemes to utilize intelligence and cryptology windfalls in the short time window that they were relevant, the Allies gained critical advantages in the ASW fight.

Underlying all of these factors and capabilities is the awareness that ASW is a team sport. Integrating ASW platforms from multiple services, intelligence/cryptology sources, and new technical capabilities into an effective campaign required new organizations and employment concepts. The most well known ASW concept, one that was initially resisted during both World Wars, was the convoy system. While convoys probably had the biggest impact in reducing the effectiveness of enemy submarines, German submarines were able to at least partially adapt to it with their own “wolfpack” concept.  Other operational concepts that proved crucial to effective ASW included the development of hunter-killer groups (including escort carriers) to reinforce the convoys and the creation of dedicated ASW organizations (such as the WWII U.S. Tenth Fleet).

USS Providence (SSN-719) snorkeling at her berth in Groton, CT before having honors rendered by the Sloop Providence. (Source)

Although these volumes are a history of ASW and do not explicitly present policy recommendations, there are some lessons from Polmar and Whitman’s work that seem increasingly relevant today. First, reliance on a breakthrough technology to turn the oceans “transparent” is a risky proposition, as the Royal Navy discovered during World War II when their planned reliance on ASDIC (or active SONAR) for ASW proved not nearly as effective as hoped. Additionally, numbers matter, and effective ASW requires a force structure we lack today – namely small surface combatants and escorts (admittedly the LCS is small, but in this reviewer’s opinion it lacks range, combat capability, and is not designed as an escort). Lastly, ASW requires organizational integration in a way that has not been stressed in recent years. While the U.S. Navy (and close allies) have maintained ASW organizations and periodically exercised those capabilities since the end of the Cold War, convoys were last utilized during Operation EARNEST WILL in the Persian Gulf while the last ASW convoys appear to have been during World War II. It is not clear if we have truly exercised convoy tactics (much less having the merchant shipping in the current era to string together a convoy system) or have war-gamed a theater level war against dozens of commerce raiding submarines.

Overall, Polmar and Whitman’s two volumes are an amazingly comprehensive history of Anti-Submarine Warfare. This reviewer’s only complaint is that the analysis largely ends with the end of the Cold War. While the intensity of ASW operations declined at this time and more recent issues are admittedly difficult to research due to classification issues, there are a number of public ASW incidents that would have been worthy of including, from the 2007 incident where a Chinese submarine surfaced inside a U.S. carrier battle group to the 2009 deployment of a Russian Akula SSN in the Western Atlantic. These recent incidents, as well as changes in technology and command structures, would better complete their description of ASW. Despite that one critique, this is a very readable and informative set of books and one that should be required reading for every naval officer serving with surface combatants, submarines, maritime patrol aircraft, and undersea surveillance organizations.

Joe Petrucelli is a former submarine officer and current Naval Reserve officer. He is a PhD student at George Mason University and a Student Fellow at the school’s Center for Security Policy Studies. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the positions of the Department of Defense or his employer.

Featured Image: An allied ship is seen sinking through the periscope of a German U-Boat in WWII. 

The Undersea Dimension of Strategic Competition in the South China Sea

South China Sea Topic Week

By Elsa B. Kania

As the South China Sea dispute continues to command headlines, such issues as China’s island building, U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS), and the contested arbitration have received justified attention, but a concurrent trend in the activities of the PLA Navy (PLAN) in the South China Sea also merits closer consideration. Within the past several months, the PLAN’s South Sea Fleet (南海舰队) has engaged in relatively sophisticated anti-submarine warfare (ASW) drills (反潜作战演练). Historically, China has remained relatively weak in ASW and continues “to lack either a robust coastal or deep-water anti-submarine warfare capability,” according to the Department of Defense.1 Despite such persistent shortcomings, the apparent advances in the realism and complexity of these recent drills suggest that the PLAN’s ASW capabilities could be progressing. Given the context, these drills, which were reported upon in detail in official PLA media,2 might also have been intended as a signaling mechanism at a time of heightened regional tension. Presumably, the PLAN is also motivated by concerns about U.S. submarines operating in the region and the submarines procured by multiple Southeast Asian nations, including rival claimant Vietnam.

While China’s ongoing investments in ASW platforms have indicated an increased prioritization of improving its ASW capabilities, the PLAN’s ability to advance in this regard will also be influenced by its level of training and experience.3 Certainly, the levels of stealth and sophistication of current and future U.S. submarines will continue to pose a considerable challenge. Although the PLAN’s ASW capabilities will likely remain limited in the short term, its attempts to realize advances in ASW reflect a new aspect of its efforts to become a maritime power and attempt to achieve “command of the sea” (制海权) within the first island chain.4

Recent PLAN ASW Drills in the South China Sea

Between May 25th and 26th, the PLAN’s South Sea Fleet engaged in ASW drills that involved a confrontation between Red and Blue Forces that continued “successively for twenty-four hours uninterrupted.”5 After entering the South China Sea through the Bashi Channel, within the Luzon Strait between Taiwan and the Philippines, the far sea training formation involved initiated the drill “under actual combat conditions.”6 The Red Force involved four surface warships, two Type 052D guided-missile destroyers (Hefei and Guangzhou), a Type 052C destroyer (Lanzhou), and a Type 054A guided-missile frigate (Yulin), as well as three unspecified anti-submarine helicopters, against a Blue Force with an unknown number of submarines.

CNS_Kunming, the first of the Type 052D destroyers._(DDG-172) (Photo: 海防先锋)
CNS Kunming (DDG-172) , the first of the Type 052D destroyers. (Photo: 海防先锋 via Wikipedia)

Since anti-submarine operations have reportedly become a “key emphasis” (重点) for the South Sea Fleet, this constituted an attempt to design a more advanced, realistic drill for ASW operations.7 It was characterized as “really rare” given the large size of the search area (1,000 square nautical miles); the multiple forms of anti-submarine forces included; the multiple ASW methods used, including five kinds of sonar; the employment of a greater number of anti-submarine attack weapons including anti-submarine rockets, depth charges, and torpedoes, and finally the length of the drill, which occurred for 24 hours continuously.8 That these aspects of the drill were considered so notable implies that prior drills were appreciably less sophisticated. 

Although the drill seemed somewhat more advanced than previous such exercises, PLA media commentary also highlighted the existing shortcomings in the PLAN’s ASW capabilities that the drill was intended to mitigate. According to one PLAN officer who had participated, difficulties included the command and control over and coordination among the forces involved. He also highlighted that the two forces had not established a set program or plan prior to the drill – implying that past drills had been organized around more of a “script” (脚本).9 This lack of a script enabled the whole process to “break through into actual combat confrontation” and “explore anti-submarine methods and approaches.”10 In particular, this realistic training was intended to address certain “important difficulties,” including coordination between ships and aircraft, coordination of firepower, and information-sharing.11 For instance, a Blue Force submarine engaged in evasive measures, such that the Red Force had to cooperate closely and engage in real-time information sharing to locate it again and enable the launching of “precision strikes” against it.12

Although it is difficult to compare this ASW drill to previous iterations qualitatively or quantitatively – given the limitations of available information and uncertainties about the consistency of open-source reporting on such training – a review of prior accounts of the PLAN’s ASW exercises suggests that these drills have advanced considerably within the past several years. There seemingly has been a shift in the PLAN’s ASW training, starting from relatively routine exercises held only annually in the South China Sea, towards these more advanced exercises. In this regard, the South Sea Fleet’s engagement in this ASW drill at a time of heightened tension in the South China Sea not only might have been intended to serve as a signaling mechanism, but also may have reflected a longer-term trend toward advances in the PLAN’s ASW training. In the past several years, the PLAN’s ASW drills in the South China Sea have included the following:

  • September 2013: In accordance with the PLAN’s annual training plan, the East Sea Fleet held training exercises in the South China Sea that involved unspecified “new type” submarines, with collaboration between anti-submarine ships and anti-submarine helicopters, which reportedly “effectively increased ASW capability under informationized conditions.”13
  • September 2014: In accordance with the PLAN’s annual training plan, the East Sea Fleet held training exercises in the South China Sea in which there was an emphasis on “testing and exploring anti-submarine tactics.”14
  • May 2015: The Sino-Russian “Joint Sea” exercise incorporated an ASW component.15
  • November 2015: The North Sea, South Sea, and East Sea Fleets all engaged in live-fire “confrontation drills” in the South China Sea, involving Blue and Red Forces, which emphasized “information systems of systems ASW capability.”16, 17
  • January 2016: PLAN exercises with the Pakistan Navy incorporated ASW for the first time.18
  • May 2016: A sophisticated, realistic drill involving the South Sea Fleet occurred in the South China Sea, as described in detail above.19
  • July 2016: The PLAN’s extensive exercises in the South China Sea, which involved all three fleets, also included an ASW component.20, 21

While the list above is probably not comprehensive, this sequence seems to illustrate a potential shift in the pattern of the PLAN’s ASW training – or, at least, in official PLA media reporting on these drills. From late 2015 to the present, the reported drills have not occurred in accordance with the prior training schedule and have often involved the South Sea Fleet or multiple fleets. Perhaps this change indicates a shift in focus towards advancing the operational ASW capabilities of the South Sea Fleet in particular. As this timeframe has aligned with heightened regional tensions, the organization of such drills and the reporting on them could have indicated an increased degree of discomfort with the potential intensification of U.S. submarine activity in the South China Sea and also the ongoing procurement of Kilo-class submarines by rival claimant Vietnam, which received its fifth of six submarines in February 2016.22, 23 Eventually, this focus on realistic, unscripted ASW drills could enable the PLAN to progress in capitalizing upon the more advanced ASW platforms that have been concurrently introduced.

Ongoing Investments to Overcome Traditional Weaknesses in ASW

Although the PLAN’s ASW capabilities have historically been lacking, the increased frequency and sophistication of ASW drills have corresponded with investments in and the commissioning of new ASW platforms within the past several years. The PLAN previously had only the Ka-28 and the Z-9C as ASW helicopters, but has introduced the more sophisticated Changhe Z-18F ASW variant.24 Notably, the Y-8FQ Gaoxin-6, an anti-submarine patrol aircraft reportedly analogous to the P-3C, which has a lengthy magnetic anomaly detector, was introduced into the PLAN in 2015.25 Although it was not reported to have participated in recent exercises, the Gaoxin-6 could critically contribute to China’s future ASW capabilities. In June 2016, the PLAN’s South Sea Fleet also commissioned the Type 056A corvette Qujing, the tenth such vessel assigned to it, which reportedly has “good stealth performance” and has been upgraded with a towed array sonar for ASW.26, 27 As of 2016, a total of twenty-six Type 056 corvettes are in service throughout the PLAN, and there might eventually be sixty or more, likely including quite a few of this ASW variant.27 

Type 056 corvette. (樱井千一 via Wikipedia)
Type 056 corvette. (樱井千一 via Wikipedia)

Beyond these existing platforms, the PLAN has been investing in multiple aspects of its ASW capability that could have significant long-term dividends. According to one assessment, the construction of a helicopter base on reclaimed land on Duncan Island in the Paracels could constitute a component of a future network of helicopter bases that would enable the PLA’s ASW helicopters to operate more effectively in those contested waters.29 The PLA’s existing and future aircraft carriers could launch multiple anti-submarine aircraft, and less-authoritative Chinese media sources have emphasized the expected efficacy of a future Chinese carrier strike group in ASW.30, 31 Concurrently, China has been establishing an underwater system of ocean floor acoustic arrays in the near seas, referred to as the “Underwater Great Wall Project” by the China State Shipbuilding Corporation responsible for its construction.32, 33 In addition, the PLAN clearly recognizes the relevance of unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) in ASW. For instance, PLA academics from China’s National Defense University characterize “unmanned operations at sea” as among today’s “important development trends.”34 There are multiple Chinese USVs and UUVs under development,34 and PLA-affiliated individuals and institutes have evidently engaged in extensive research on the topic.36


Although the operational potential associated with such investments might require years to be actualized, China could eventually become a significant ASW force in the South China Sea and beyond. While the PLAN’s ability to engage effectively in ASW will likely remain limited by persistent shortcomings and its relative lack of experience for the short term, it is nonetheless notable that the PLAN has evidently decided to compete in an area of traditional U.S. advantage, which had previously seemed to be a lower priority for it. These apparent advances in its ASW drills and increased investment in a variety of ASW platforms could allow the PLAN to become an inconvenience and eventually an impediment to the ability of other regional players, and perhaps even U.S. submarines, to operate unchallenged in the South China Sea. Thus far, the PLAN appears to be focusing primarily on near seas ASW, especially with the “Underwater Great Wall,” and this concern regarding defense within the first island chain could reflect a reaction to the intensified U.S. focus on submarines as a tool to counter China’s A2/AD capabilities.37

This undersea dimension of strategic competition will likely continue to be a priority for the U.S. and China alike, and the South China Sea will remain of unique strategic importance. Notably, the majority of China’s submarines, including its SSBNs, is based on Hainan Island and would probably transit to the Pacific through the South China Sea.38 While the prevailing “undersea balance” seems unlikely to change significantly in the near future,39 the PLAN’s undersea warfare capabilities could advance more rapidly than anticipated across multiple dimensions. For instance, by one assessment, China’s new Type 093B SSN could be stealthier than expected.40  Looking forward, the traditional dynamics could also be appreciably altered by technological change. In particular, the U.S. and China’s parallel advances in unmanned systems, which will likely play a significant role in future undersea warfare, could accelerate competition in this domain. While visiting the USS John C. Stennis in the South China Sea, Secretary of Defense Carter alluded to the Pentagon’s investment in “new undersea drones in multiple sizes and diverse payloads that can, importantly, operate in shallow water, where manned submarines cannot,” which could become operational within the next several years.41 The PLAN’s USVs and UUVs might not be far behind. Although the PLAN may prove unable to overcome the U.S. Navy’s undersea dominance beyond the first island chain, the South China Sea itself could become a zone of “contested command” and frequent undersea friction in the years to come.42

Elsa Kania is a recent graduate of Harvard College and currently works as an analyst at Long Term Strategy Group.


1. Department of Defense, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016,” April 26, 2016, http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2016 China Military Power Report.pdf. For prior assessments of China’s relative weaknesses and gradual advances in anti-submarine warfare, see, for instance: Stratfor, “China: Closing the Gap in Anti-Submarine Warfare,” July 20, 2015.

2. See the PLA articles referenced later in the article, including: Li Youtao [黎友陶] and Dong Zhaohui [董兆辉], “The South Sea Fleet Organized Anti-Submarine Operations Drills [Which] Continued for 24 Hours Without Interruption” [南海舰队组织反潜作战演练连续24小时不间断].

3. For reflection on the importance of training and experience in ASW, see, for instance: Lt. Cmdr. Jeff W. Benson, USN, “A New Era in Anti-Submarine Warfare,” U.S. Naval Institute, August 27, 2014, https://news.usni.org/2014/08/27/opinion-new-era-anti-submarine-warfare.

4. The objective of becoming a “maritime power” was also articulated in China’s latest defense white paper. See: Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China[中华人民共和国国防部], “China’s Military Strategy” [中国的军事战略],” May 26, 2015.

5. Li Youtao [黎友陶] and Dong Zhaohui [董兆辉], “The South Sea Fleet Organized Anti-Submarine Operations Drills [Which] Continued for 24 Hours Without Interruption” [南海舰队组织反潜作战演练连续24小时不间断], China Military Online, May 26, 2016, http://www.81.cn/jwgz/2016-05/26/content_7073486.htm.

6. Ibid.

7. “The Strongest Lineup! The South Sea Fleet’s Five Large Primary Warships Through Day and Night [Engaged in] Joint Anti-Submarine [Operations]” [最强阵容!南海舰队五大主力战舰跨昼夜联合反潜], PLA Daily, May 27, 2016, http://news.xinhuanet.com/mil/2016-05/27/c_129019813.htm.

8. Li Youtao [黎友陶] and Dong Zhaohui [董兆辉], “The South Sea Fleet Organized Anti-Submarine Operations Drills [Which] Continued for 24 Hours Without Interruption” [南海舰队组织反潜作战演练连续24小时不间断], China Military Online, May 26, 2016, http://www.81.cn/jwgz/2016-05/26/content_7073486.htm.

9. Ibid.

10. “The Strongest Lineup! The South Sea Fleet’s Five Large Primary Warships Through Day and Night [Engaged in] Joint Anti-Submarine [Operations]” [最强阵容!南海舰队五大主力战舰跨昼夜联合反潜], PLA Daily, May 27, 2016, http://news.xinhuanet.com/mil/2016-05/27/c_129019813.htm.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. “The East Sea Fleet’s South [China] Sea Drills Life-Fire Multiple New-Type War Mines, Successfully Destroying the Targets”  [东海舰队南海演练实射多枚新型战雷成功摧毁目标], PLA Daily, September 26, 2013, http://mil.cnr.cn/jstp/201309/t20130926_513692312.html.

14. “The Navy’s East [China] Sea Fleet Organized Live-Fire Drills Under Complicated Acoustic Conditions” [海军东海舰队组织复杂水声环境下战雷实射演练], PLA Daily, September 26, 2014, http://news.xinhuanet.com/photo/2014-09/27/c_127040400.htm.

15. “China-Russia Drill Joint Anti-Submarine [Exercise]” [中俄演练联合反潜], Xinhua, August 26, 2015, http://military.people.com.cn/n/2015/0826/c1011-27518230.html.

16. “Chinese navy conducts anti-submarine confrontation drill in South China Sea,” CCTV, November 20, 2015,

17. The Navy Held Submarine-Aircraft Confrontation Drills in a Certain Maritime Space in the South China Sea” [海军在南海某海域举行潜舰机实兵对抗演练], China Youth Daily, November 21, 2015, http://news.sina.com.cn/c/2015-11-20/doc-ifxkwaxv2563788.shtml.

18. Koh Swee Lean Collin, “China and Pakistan Join Forces Under the Sea,” National Interest, January 7, 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/china-pakistan-join-forces-under-the-sea-14829

19. Li Youtao [黎友陶] and Dong Zhaohui [董兆辉], “The South Sea Fleet Organized Anti-Submarine Operations Drills [Which] Continued for 24 Hours Without Interruption” [南海舰队组织反潜作战演练连续24小时不间断], China Military Online, May 26, 2016, http://www.81.cn/jwgz/2016-05/26/content_7073486.htm.

20. “The Three Large Fleets’ Realistic Confrontation,” [三大舰队实兵对抗], China Navy Online, July 14, 2016, http://jz.chinamil.com.cn/n2014/tp/content_7154202.htm.

21. Ibid.

22. “The Fifth Russian-Made Kilo Submarine [Has Been] Consigned to Vietnam”  [第五艘俄制基洛级潜艇“托运”到越南], Xinhua, March 3, 2016, http://youth.chinamil.com.cn/view/2016-03/03/content_6907855.htm.

23. Minnie Chan, “China and US in silent fight for supremacy beneath waves of South China Sea,” South China Morning Post, July 8, 2016, http://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/1985071/china-and-us-silent-fight-supremacy-beneath-waves-south.

24.“The Z-18 Anti-Submarine Helicopter [Has Been] Fitted With a New Radar [That] Can Attack Air-Independent Propulsion Submarines” [直18反潜直升机配新雷达 可攻击AIP潜艇], Sina, April 30, 2014, http://mil.news.sina.com.cn/2014-04-30/1712776972.html.

25.“Expert: “Gaoxin-6” improves China’s anti-submarine capability greatly,” China Military Online, July 10, 2015, http://eng.mod.gov.cn/Opinion/2015-07/10/content_4594293.htm.

26. “China commissions new missile frigate Qujing,” China Military Online, June 12, 2016, http://english.chinamil.com.cn/news-channels/china-military-news/2016-06/12/content_7096962.htm.

27. “A New-Type Corvette Has Been Officially Delivered to the Navy” [新型护卫舰正式交付海军],Ministry of National Defense Website, February 26, 2013, http://www.gov.cn/gzdt/2013-02/26/content_2340335.htm.

28. Department of Defense, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016,” April 26, 2016, http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2016 China Military Power Report.pdf.

29. Victor Robert Lee, “Satellite Images: China Manufactures Land at New Sites in the Paracel Islands,” The Diplomat, February 13, 2016, http://thediplomat.com/2016/02/satellite-images-china-manufactures-land-at-new-sites-in-the-paracel-islands/.

30. “The PLA Is Building an Effective Weapon in the South [China] Sea’s Seabed Against the American Military’s Submarines” [解放军针对美军潜艇在南海海底打造利器], Sina, June 18, 2016, http://mil.news.sina.com.cn/jssd/2016-06-18/doc-ifxtfrrc3844240.shtml.

31. “Our Aircraft Carrier Fitted with an Anti-Submarine Weapon [Will] Make American and Japanese Submarines Not Rashly Dare To Draw Near” [我航母配一反潜利器 使美日潜艇不敢轻易靠近], Sina, June 29, 2016, http://mil.news.sina.com.cn/jssd/2016-06-29/doc-ifxtsatm0986174.shtml.

32. Richard D. Fisher, “China proposes ‘Underwater Great Wall’ that could erode US, Russian submarine advantages,” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, May 17, 2016, http://www.janes.com/article/60388/china-proposes-underwater-great-wall-that-could-erode-us-russian-submarine-advantages.

33. See also: Lyle Goldstein and Shannon Knight, “Wired for Sound in the ‘Near Seas,’” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, April 2014, http://www.theguardian.pe.ca/media-ugc/items/2014-04-28-11-39-30-Goldstein&Knight%20-%20Wired%20for%20Sound%20in%20the%20Near%20Seas%20-%20Apr14.pdf.

34. Li Daguang [李大光] and Chan Jiang [姜灿], “Unmanned Surface Vehicles Have Become a Cutting-Edge Weapon for Future Maritime Warfare,” [无人艇成未来海上新锐武器], PLA Daily, February 12, 2014, http://military.china.com.cn/2014-02/12/content_31445672.htm.

35. Jeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer, “The Great Underwater Wall of Robots,” Eastern Arsenal, June 22, 2016, http://www.popsci.com/great-underwater-wall-robots-chinese-exhibit-shows-off-sea-drones.

36. For instance, Jiao Anlong [焦安龙],“An Exploration of Unmanned Anti-Submarine Warfare Platforms Under Informationized Conditions” [信息化条件下无人反潜作战平台探析], Science and Technology Horizons, (33), pp. 403-404, http://www.cqvip.com/qk/70356a/201333/48101887.html.

37. See, for instance: Megan Eckstein, “CNO Richardson: Navy Needs Distributed Force Of Networked Ships, Subs To Counter A2/AD Threat,” USNI News, March 11, 2016, https://news.usni.org/2016/03/11/cno-richardson-navy-needs-distributed-force-of-networked-ships-subs-to-counter-a2ad-threat.

38. For recent commentary on the topic, see, for instance: Minnie Chan, “South China Sea air strips’ main role is ‘to defend Hainan nuclear submarine base,’” South China Morning Post, July 23, 2016, http://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy­defence/article/1993754/south­china­seaair­strips­main­role­defend­hainan.

39. For a more detailed consideration of the undersea balance, see: Owen Cote, “Assessing the Undersea Balance Between the U.S. and China,” SSP Working Paper, February 2011. 

40. Dave Majumdar, “Why the US Navy Should Fear China’s New 093B Nuclear Attack Submarine,” National Interest, June 27, 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the­buzz/why­the­us­navy­should­fear­chinas­new­093b­nuclearattack­16741 .

41. Geoff Dyer, “U.S. to sail submarine drones in South China Sea,” Financial Times, April 18, http://www.cnbc.com/2016/04/18/us-to-sail-submarine-drones-in-south-china-sea.html.

42. This term is taken from: Bernard Brodie, A Layman’s Guide to Naval Strategy, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.: 1942.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (July 13, 2016) A sailor from the Chinese navy submarine rescue ship Changdao (867) sits in an LR-7 submersible undersea rescue vehicle off the coast of Hawaii following a successful mating evolution between the LR-7 and a U.S. faux-NATO rescue seat laid by USNS Safeguard (T-ARS-50), during Rim of the Pacific 2016. The evolution was the final event and practical portion of a multinational submarine rescue exercise between seven countries. (Chinese navy photo by Kaiqiang Li)

Putting it Back Together Again: European Undersea Warfare for the 21st Century

The following article is adapted from a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Undersea Warfare in Modern Europe.

By Andrew Metrick

Increasing Russian submarine operations over the past several years have caused considerable concern in capitals across Europe and in the United States. The resurgence of the Russian Navy in the undersea domain prompted a senior U.S. naval official to declare that we are now in the midst of the “Fourth Battle of the Atlantic.”1 Such pronouncements may overstate, to some degree, the extent of Russia’s reemergence,  however, they helpfully shine a light on the dramatic decline of anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities across NATO and key partner nations, including Sweden and Finland.As part of a recently released study on the challenges posed by Russian undersea capabilities across Northern Europe, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) analyzed the extent of the decline in U.S., allied, and partner capabilities,  and offered recommendations to reverse it in a timely, cost-effective, and strategic manner.

The CSIS report highlights two incidents that demonstrate how far NATO and partner capabilities have fallen. In a widely publicized 2014 episode, the Swedish Navy spent a week scouring the Stockholm archipelago for an alleged Russian submarine believed to be operating inside Swedish territorial waters.3 The intruder was never publicly identified, though the circumstantial evidence overwhelming suggests it was, in fact, a Russia submarine. In years past, Sweden arguably maintained the best shallow water anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability in the world. This incident, however, calls that status into question. The UK was likewise confronted with a similar incident in late 2014 when the Royal Navy (RN) suspected that Russia was operating a submarine in close proximity to Faslane, the home of the RN’s nuclear submarine force. Given the UK’s lack of fixed-wing ASW platforms, it was forced to request allied assistance to protect this vital military installation—a less than proud moment for the former maritime heavyweight.4 The UK has since announced that it will be investing in nine P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft.  

How did once-capable ASW nations like Sweden and the UK find themselves in this position? In the mid-to-late 1990s, NATO shifted its focus from internal territorial defense to external conflict management and stability operations. We now see that this change was overly pronounced and negatively impacted investments in both platforms and skills needed for undersea warfare in and around NATO waters. For example, in 2000, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Sweden, the UK, and the United States operated 136 submarines, with the European nations accounting for roughly half of the force.5 By 2016, the combined fleet had shrunk to 109 vessels, with the United States accounting for 65 percent of the total.6 More worrisome, a good portion of the European submarine fleet may now not be effective against the most modern Russian subs. Similar trends emerge when comparing past and present totals related to ASW-capable surface vessels and aircraft. In this case, no platform better showcases the overly executed shift in NATO priorities than the new German frigates, the F125 Baden-Wurttemberg-class. These frigates, the largest surface combatants built by Germany in over 60 years, have little to no high-end naval warfighting capabilities, including ASW.7

Beyond capabilities and platforms, ASW warfighting skills have similarly atrophied. Given highly complex operating environments, many of these skills require consistent realistic training to build and subsequently maintain. There is now an entire generation of naval officers without a detailed know-how to counter and defend against Russian undersea activities in the North Atlantic and Baltic Seas. There are signs that navies across NATO are beginning to recognize these shortcomings and are taking steps to address them. The increased frequency of NATO’s Dynamic Mongoose ASW exercise is one such example. However, nations will have to commit to robust training beyond annual NATO exercises in order to create and maintain a culture of ASW excellence.8 Dynamic Mongoose and similar exercises should not be viewed as the panacea to current training shortfalls, but rather as the culminating event for separate national training programs.

Exercise DYNAMIC MONGOOSE - All participants ships in formation - 27 JUN 2016 - Photo by WO C. ARTIGUES (HQ MARCOM PHOTOGRAPHER)
Exercise DYNAMIC MONGOOSE – All participants ships in formation – 27 JUN 2016 – (WO C. ARTIGUES/ MARCOM)

In order to meet these challenges, NATO and partners will not only have to recommit to the platforms and people required for ASW and undersea warfare, but also to working together in an operationally effective manner. There are two tasks that NATO and its partners must complete as soon as possible. First, relevant nations must establish mechanisms to bridge the organizational gap that results from critical ASW partners Sweden and Finland not being in NATO. The creation of a framework that respects the sovereignty and neutrality of Sweden and Finland while enabling close tactical and operational collaboration is vital. The deepening security relationships between these nations and NATO provides an opportunity for greater collaboration on ASW issues, which could potentially be expanded within a NATO-NORDEFCO format. Second, and looking beyond the Baltic Sea region, NATO needs to create an operationally effective theater ASW framework that distributes roles and responsibilities in a way that best leverages differing national capabilities and commitments. Such a framework will likely require changes to one of the standing NATO maritime groups, improvements to information sharing across the alliance, and continued integration of ASW elements in NATO and regional exercises. The goals represent the first steps of a longer process of rebuilding ASW capabilities across Europe. What is clear is that effective integration of national capabilities is required if the current Russian challenge is to be met.

Read the full report here.

Andrew Metrick is a research associate with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and one of the authors of Undersea Warfare in Northern Europe. His work has covered a broad range of issues, including amphibious warfare, maritime capabilities, and unmanned systems. 

1. James Foggo III and Alarik Fritz, “The Fourth Battle of the Atlantic,” Proceedings, June 2016, 142.6, http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2016-06/fourth-battle-atlantic.

2. Dmitry Gorenburg, “Russian shipbuilding still in trouble,” Russian Military Reform, January 19, 2016, https://russiamil.wordpress.com/2016/01/19/russian-shipbuilding-still-in-trouble/.  

3. Peter Walker, “Sweden Searches for Suspected Russian Submarine off Stockholm,” The Guardian, October 19, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/19/sweden-search-russian-submarine-stockholm.

4. Ben Farmer, “Britain Forced to Ask NATO to Track ‘Russian Submarine’ in Scottish Waters,” Telegraph, December 9, 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/defence/11283926/Britain-forced-to-ask-Nato-to-track-Russian-submarine-in-Scottish-waters.html.

5. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), The Military Balance 2000–2001 (London: IISS, 2000).

6. IISS, The Military Balance 2016 (London: IISS, 2016).

7. “F125 Baden-Wurttemberg Class Frigate, Germany,” naval-technology.com, accessed on: July 18, 2016, http://www.naval-technology.com/projects/f125-frigate/.

8. “NATO launches antisubmarine warfare exercise in Norwegian Sea,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, June 20, 2016, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_132596.htm.

Featured Image: Norwegian submarine in the Fjord near Bergen (NATO/MARCOM)