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Swarming Sea Mines: Capital Capability?

Future Capital Ship Topic Week

By Zachary Kallenborn

A ‘capital ship,’ rightly understood, is a ship type that can defeat any other ship type. In the days of sail and dreadnoughts, it was the type of ship having the most and biggest guns. It is the ship type around which fleet doctrine and fleet architecture are established. The question is what kind of killing weapon the capital ship supports.
—Robert Rubel1

Introduction

The Navy’s Strategic Studies Group 35 concluded the “Navy’s next capital ship will not be a ship. It will be the Network of Humans and Machines, the Navy’s new center of gravity, embodying a superior source of combat power.”2

Such a network could consist of networks of sea mine swarms and their support ships. Networked sea mine swarms could converge on masses of adversary ships, bringing to bear overwhelming force. The visibility of surface support ships would enable the network to generate conventional deterrence by signaling the swarm’s presence, while helping maintain the swarm itself.3 The history of mine warfare suggests swarming sea mines could deliver a decisive force.

Sea mines can already inflict significant damage on all other types of ship, including capital ships.4 On April 14, 1988, a single contact mine nearly sank the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG 58), causing over $96 million in damage.5 Since World War II, mines have seriously damaged or sunk 15 U.S. ships, nearly four times more than all other threats combined.6 However, unlike aircraft carriers and other capital ships, traditional sea mines offer little ability to project power and, once identified, can be avoided.

But what if sea mines could move themselves intelligently and coordinate their actions? They could rove the seas in advance of friendly fleet movements and position themselves into an adversary’s path. Multiple mines could strike a single target. Naval mines could become a critical aspect of seapower. Networks of naval mine swarms could become the future capital ship. 

Swarming sea mines can do exactly that.

Swarming Sea Mines: The Concept

Swarming sea mines consist of interconnected, undersea drones dispersed over an area. Drones within the swarm communicate with one another to coordinate their actions. Sensor drones7 within the swarm disperse, broadly searching for incoming targets. Sensor drones relay information to attack drones to engage an adversary vessel, or stand down to allow a friendly vessel to pass.

Attack drones may be either undersea turrets or free-roaming munitions. As undersea turrets, attack drones serve as platforms for launching torpedoes or other munitions. Input from sensor drones informs the trajectory for launch. As a free-roaming munition, an attack drone functions like a traditional sea mine. Using on-board propulsion systems, the attack drone maneuvers to the adversary vessel and detonates in proximity.

Interconnectivity enables swarming attacks. Multiple attack drones may launch attacks from different directions. This increases the likelihood of successfully sinking an adversary ship because (1) strikes hit different parts of the adversary hull and (2) it enables multiple strikes on the same target, putting at risk larger ships that may survive a single detonation. Interconnectivity could also enable networks of sea mine swarms to coordinate strikes, significantly increasing the number of attack drones. Such a capability would be useful in attacking an adversary fleet, with multiple swarms coordinating target selection. 

EMB Mine being laid from an S-Boote. (Photo from Suddentscher Verlag)

As the size of the swarm grows, so too does its combat power. Larger swarms mean more sensors in the network and more munitions to overwhelm targets. The Department of Defense (DoD) recently fielded a swarm of 103 aerial drones.8 China also reportedly fielded a swarm of 1,000 aerial drones.7 In theory, a sea mine swarm could consist of tens of thousands of interconnected mines, able to overwhelm any target. The primary limitation on swarm growth is the capacity to manage the rapidly increasing complexity of drone information exchange.

Strategically, swarming sea mines could play the same roles as traditional sea mines. Sea mines may be used to control critical chokepoints. During the Iran-Iraq war, Iran seeded the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz with Soviet contact mines.9 Alternatively, they could be used to inhibit amphibious forces attempting to come ashore. During the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War, Iraq deployed sea mines to limit coalition forces’ ability to launch an amphibious assault.10 Similarly, during the Korean War, North Korean mining of Wonsan Harbor “prevented over 50,000 U.S. Marines from coming ashore and allowed the North Koreans to withdraw their forces.”11 However, swarming sea mines can play additional roles, such as protecting friendly vessels.

Advantages over Traditional Mines

Swarming sea mines have qualitatively better capabilities. Compared to traditional mines, swarming sea mines have drastically increased the threat through autonomous movement, broad area coverage, and information integration.

Autonomous Movement

Advances in robotics enable unmanned systems to maneuver and act without human decision-making.13 DoD’s Perdix drone swarm shares a “distributed brain” to make decisions and react to the environment.14 The swarm fully controls its own behavior without human direction, other than setting broad mission goals. Other autonomous systems such as the South Korean SGR-A1 gun turret can reportedly identify and engage targets.15 Although DoD policy does not allow autonomous weapons systems to select humans as targets, traditional sea mines already autonomously engage targets.16

Maneuverability enhances the psychological effects of minefields. Fear over encountering a minefield can affect behavior without inflicting damage. Once a vessel passes through a traditional minefield, it is often safe. However, a swarming minefield may move to a new area, adding new uncertainties.

Greater maneuverability enables drone-based naval mines to incorporate automated retreat rules. For example, after a specified time, drones may disarm and leave the area. Friendly vessels may then retrieve and redeploy them in another location. For traditional naval mines, retrieval is a highly fraught task because a retrieving vessel may inadvertently detonate the mine. Emplaced mines cannot be reused; swarming sea mines can.

Autonomous decision-making would enable swarming sea mines to identify and respond to changes in environmental conditions that could mitigate their effects. With traditional bottom mines on the seafloor, strong tides and currents can shift the mines.17 Swarming mines could recognize this shift and adjust.

Types of Naval mine.A-underwater,B-bottom,SS-Submarine. 1-Drifting mine,2-Drifting mine,3-Moored Mine,4-Moored Mine(short wire),5-Bottom Mines,6-Torpedo mine/CAPTOR mine,7-Rising mine (Wikimedia Commons)

Autonomous movement is a significant departure from the capabilities of traditional naval mines. While some advanced mobile mines such as the MK 67 Submarine-Laid Mobile Mine can be placed from afar, the MK 67 remains in place.18 Other naval mines are able to move with the current. None of these mines can position themselves intelligently.

Information Integration

The inter-connectivity of a drone swarm enables naval mines to integrate information from many different sensors. Sensor drones could incorporate traditional influence sensors, including magnetic, acoustic, and seismic sensors.19 Data from multiple sensors may be shared to minimize false positives. Sensor drones may roam freely, studying an area for potential targets, creating greater situational awareness. Alternatively, buried sensor drones could enable live battle-damage assessment. If an adversary vessel survives an initial strike, additional attackers may be called to follow and engage.

Swarming naval mines may be connected into broader intelligence and surveillance networks. Information from these networks could enable the swarm minefield to reposition based on adversary behavior. For example, naval intelligence may identify an adversary vessel about to enter a given area and relay that information to the drone swarm to maneuver into the vessel’s path.

While traditional naval mines are already capable of incorporating multiple sensors to prevent false positives, they are unable to share information with one another.20

Broad Area Coverage

Maneuverability and information integration would enable swarming sea mines to greatly increase the threatened area. Sensor drones can disperse broadly to provide maximum situational awareness. Information may then be relayed to other drones to engage an incoming target.

Like attack drones, sensor drones may be free roaming or stationary, though there are trade-offs. Free-roaming sensor drones may actively search an area looking for targets. This enables much broader coverage; however, communication ranges may limit the distance they can travel. Stationary sensing drones may float near the surface or bury themselves in the seafloor. Sensor drones that bury themselves minimize the profile presented to adversaries, lowering detectability. However, stationary drones lose the benefits of mobility, providing less area coverage.

The increased area coverage is efficient because fewer munitions would be required to control a given area. Mines will take up less space on friendly vessels while having the same impact. This is especially important for submarine-launched mines, because submarines have very limited storage capacity. Currently, to equip submarines with mines requires removing torpedoes at the rate of one torpedo for every two mines.21

Challenges

Despite these significant advantages, however, operationalizing the concept entails some significant challenges. None of these challenges appears insurmountable, and work is already being done to address them, but they must be considered for concept viability and to realize the benefits of swarming.

Undersea Communication

The ability of the swarm to function as a unit depends on drone communication. Underwater, this is a major challenge. Traditional communication methods are often based on electromagnetic transmissions that are ineffective underwater.22 Underwater communications must rely on acoustic communication, which is slower, has small bandwidth, and has high error rates.23 The lack of electromagnetic communication also prevents drones from using GPS guidance for coordination and localization.

Initial research points to the inclusion of relays and surface-based control drones as a solution (see footnote 5 for a brief typology of drone archetypes). To address the lack of underwater GPS penetration, Jules Jaffe and his research team incorporated GPS-localized surface buoys that emit acoustic signals.24 Their underwater drones passively receive the buoy’s signals and, based on the known location of the surface floats, determine their own location.25 Similarly, Thomas Schmickl and his research team use a “surface base station” emitting an acoustic signal for localization and establishing boundaries to ensure no drone gets lost in the ocean’s expanse.26 The station also receives status updates from the swarm, such as task completion.

From a military perspective, a surface control drone may be undesirable because it could be identified and targeted, neutralizing the minefield. To prevent this, control drones could be underwater with a GPS periscope extending above the surface to receive and transmit signals. Alternatively, swarms could incorporate redundant control drones. If one is eliminated, the minefield stays live.

More broadly, the underwater environment creates difficulties in countering adversary attempts to disrupt communications. An adversary is likely to target inter-swarm communication because if communications are disrupted, so too is the swarm.27 Unfortunately, the properties of underwater communication mean terrestrial jamming detection technologies do not operate effectively.28

Tethering and Reseeding

Reseeding a minefield is often a significant challenge. If most mines have detonated, the minefield offers little utility. Adding mines in hostile terrain while incur risk such as on January 18, 1991 when Iraqi forces shot down a mine-dropping A-6 aircraft.29 The mobility of drone swarms diminishes some of this challenge because the drones may be deployed from afar to move into position.

Reseeded mines must also tether to the swarm’s network. An added attack drone needs to integrate with the other attackers and with the broader sensor network. Reseeded drones need to recognize that they are a part of the minefield’s network and vice versa. It also requires the distributed brain of the swarm to incorporate the new drones into task assignment and overall control.30

Coordinated re-positioning removes some difficulty. If few attack drones have been destroyed, the other drones can fill any gaps. However, as the losses grow larger, or if the swarm had few attackers to begin with, adding attackers becomes a greater challenge.

Power

The availability of power limits swarm operations. On-board power is required to maintain communications, use propulsion systems, and operate and interpret the results of sensing systems. These requirements limit the amount of time the swarm can pose a threat.

One possible solution is sea-based charging facilities. Support ships could be created whose primary role is to recharge undersea drones, including swarming sea mines. They could also be used for swarm maintenance, reseeding the swarm, or long-range transportation. Alternatively, the Navy’s work on unmanned undersea pods could allow for undersea recharging.31 This would likely be most useful for mining friendly territory because the pods would need to be pre-positioned and adversaries could target them. As swarm size increases, so too will this challenge. Large swarms may also encounter queuing problems if only a few drones can charge simultaneously. Regardless of the solution, time spent traveling to and from recharging facilities also limits time in a mission area.

Conclusion

A 2001 National Research Council study painted a bleak picture of U.S. naval mine warfare: “The current U.S. naval mining capability is in woefully bad shape with small inventories, old and discontinued mines, insufficient funding for maintenance of existing mines, few funded plans for future mine development (and none for acquisition), declining delivery assets, and a limited minefield planning capability in deployed battle groups.”32 This holds true today: the Navy’s FY17 to FY21 budget anticipates spending only $29.4 million on acquiring offensive mines.33 Similarly, the FY17 to FY21 budget for the Navy’s only research and development program for mine systems is $56.9 million.34 All new mine development is relegated to converting Submarine-Laid Mobile Mine warheads for underwater drone delivery.

If networked swarms of sea mines represent the Navy’s future capital ship, that picture must be repainted. Drastically.

Zachary Kallenborn is a Senior Associate Analyst at ANSER pursuing broad research into the military implications of drone swarms.

The author would also like to thank Jerry Driscoll, Steve Dunham, and Keith Sauls for providing useful comments and edits on a draft of the article. Needless to say, any issues or mistakes are the author’s own.

The views herein are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the institutional position of ANSER or its clients.

References


1. Robert C. Rubel, “The Future of Aircraft Carriers,” US Naval War College Review 64, Autumn 2011, https://www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/87bcd2ff-c7b6-4715-b2ed-05df6e416b3b/The-Future-of-Aircraft-Carriers.

2. Bill Glenney, “Institute for Future Warfare Studies Wants Your Writing on the Capital Ship of the Future,” Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), http://cimsec.org/institute-for-future-warfare-studies-wants-your-writing-on-the-capital-ship-of-the-future/33307

3. John Fleming notes the importance of visibility in conventional deterrence in John Fleming, “Capital Ships: a Historical Perspective,” Naval War College, July 12, 1993, 17, http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a266915.pdf

4. John J. Rios, “Naval Mines in the 21st Century: Can NATO Navies Meet the Challenge?” thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, June 2005, 1, www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a435603.pdf; “Mine Warfare,” Department of the Navy, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations and Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps, NWP 3-15 and MCWP 3-3.1.2, https://archive.org/stream/milmanual-mcwp-3-3.1.2-mine-warfare/mcwp_3-3.1.2_mine_warfare_djvu.txt.

5. Scott C. Truver, “Taking Mines Seriously: Mine Warfare in China’s Near Seas,” Naval War College Review 65, Spring 2012, https://www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/19669a3b-6795-406c-8924-106d7a5adb93/Taking-Mines-Seriously–Mine-Warfare-in-China-s-Ne; Bradley Peniston, “The Day Frigate Samuel B. Roberts Was Mined,” USNI [U.S. Naval Institute] News, May 22, 2015, https://news.usni.org/2015/05/22/the-day-frigate-samuel-b-roberts-was-mined.

6. Scott C. Truver, 2012.

7. In general, there are four drone archetypes: Attacker, Sensor, Controller, and Decoy (the ASCDs). Attack drones carry munitions or are themselves munitions. Sensor drones provide information about the surrounding environment. Control drones manage the swarm’s behavior to ensure the swarm can operate together, providing direct leadership or ensuring the operation of communication channels. Decoy drones serve no role other than to increase the apparent size of the swarm, creating psychological effects, or drawing fire for functional drones. This framework is the author’s own; however, it is consistent with others such as Jeffrey Kline’s Shooter, Scout, and Commander. Jeffrey E. Kline, “Impacts of the Robotics Age on Naval Force Design, Effectiveness, and Acquisition,” Naval War College Review 70, Summer 2017, https://www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/db52797a-a972-44cd-951b-f2b847b193b3/Impacts-of-the-Robotics-Age-on-Naval-Force-Design,.aspx.

8. “Department of Defense Announces Successful Micro-Drone Demonstration,” DoD news release, January 9, 2017, https://www.defense.gov/News/News-Releases/News-Release-View/Article/1044811/department-of-defense-announces-successful-micro-drone-demonstration/.

9. Gary Mortimer, “Chinese One Thousand Drone Swarm Smashes Intel Record,” sUAS News: The Business of Drones, February 13, 2017, https://www.suasnews.com/2017/02/chinese-one-thousand-drone-swarm-smashes-intel-record/.

10. Captain Gregory J. Cornish, U.S. Navy, “U.S. Naval Mine Warfare Strategy: Analysis of the Way Ahead,” U.S. Army War College, April 2003.

11. Gregory J. Cornish, 2003.

12. John J. Rios, citing Gregory K. Hartmann and Scott C. Truver. Weapons That Wait: Mine Warfare in the U.S. Navy. Updated Edition. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991), 231.

13. Determining appropriate rules of engagement is also a critical, related challenge; however, that is not within the scope of this article.

14. “Perdix Fact Sheet,” DoD Strategic Capabilities Office, June 1, 2017, https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/Perdix%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf.

15. Alexander Velez-Green, “The Foreign Policy Essay: The South Korean Sentry—A ‘Killer Robot’ to Prevent War,” Lawfare, March 1, 2015, https://www.lawfareblog.com/foreign-policy-essay-south-korean-sentry%E2%80%94-killer-robot-prevent-war.

16. DoD Directive 3000.09: “Autonomy in Weapon Systems,” November 21, 2012, https://cryptome.org/dodi/dodd-3000-09.pdf.

17. Scott C. Truver, 2012.

18. National Research Council, Committee for Mine Warfare Assessment, “Naval Mine Warfare: Operational and Technical Challenges for Naval Warfare,” Washington D.C.: National Academy Press, 2001, 58.

19. For additional details on mine actuation mechanisms, see “Mine Warfare,” section 2.2.3.2, “Influence Actuation Logic.”

20. “Mine Warfare.”

21. “Mine Warfare.”

22. John Heidemann, Milica Stojanovic, and Michele Zorzi, “Underwater Sensor Networks: Applications, Advances, and Challenges,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 370, January 2012, http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/370/1958/158.

23. Luiz Filipe M. Vieira, “Underwater Sensor Networks,” in Jonathan Loo, Jaime Lloret Mauri, and Jesus Hamilton Ortiz, Eds., Mobile Ad Hoc Networks: Current Status and Future Trends (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2012).

24. Jules S. Jaffe, et al., “A Swarm of Autonomous Miniature Underwater Robot Drifters for Exploring Submesoscale Ocean Dynamics,” Nature Communications 8, 2017, https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms14189; for a more accessible version of their research, see Jesse Emspak, “Scientists Used Underwater Drone Swarms to Solve the Mystery of Plankton Mating,” Quartz, January 24, 2017, https://qz.com/893590/scientists-used-underwater-drone-swarms-to-solve-the-mystery-of-plankton-mating/.

25. Jules Jaffe, et al., 2017.

26. Thomas Schmickl, et al., “CoCoRo—The Self-Aware Underwater Swarm,” 2011 Fifth IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] International Conference on Self-Adaptive and Self-Organizing Systems, 2011, http://zool33.uni-graz.at/artlife/sites/default/files/cocoro_SASO_paper_revision_as_finally_submitted.pdf.

27. Paul Scharre, “Counter-Swarm: A Guide to Defeating Robotic Swarms,” War on the Rocks, March 31, 2015, https://warontherocks.com/2015/03/counter-swarm-a-guide-to-defeating-robotic-swarms/.

28. S. Misra, et al, “Jamming in Underwater Sensor Networks: Detection and Mitigation,” IEE [Institution of Engineering and Technology] Communications 6, November 6, 2012, http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/6353315/.

29. National Research Council, Committee for Mine Warfare Assessment, 2001, 18.

30. Some initial work has been done on scalable drone swarm control algorithms. See Payam Zahadat and Thomas Schmickl, “Division of Labor in a Swarm of Autonomous Underwater Robots by Improved Partitioning Social Inhibition,” Adaptive Behavior 24, 2016, http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1059712316633028.

31. Michael Hoffman, “Undersea Pods to Hold US War Supplies,” Defense Tech, January 16, 2013, https://www.defensetech.org/2013/01/16/undersea-pods-to-hold-us-war-supplies/.

32. National Research Council, Committee for Mine Warfare Assessment, 2001, 57.

33. “Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 President’s Budget Submission: Navy, Justification Book Volume 1 of 1, Weapons Procurement, Navy,” Secretary of the Navy, February 2016, 307, http://www.secnav.navy.mil/fmc/fmb/Documents/17pres/WPN_Book.pdf

34. “Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 President’s Budget Submission: Navy, Justification Book Volume 3 of 5, Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation, Navy, Budget Activity 5,” Secretary of the Navy, February 2016, 947, http://www.secnav.navy.mil/fmc/fmb/Documents/17pres/RDTEN_BA5_Book.pdf.

Featured Image: EMC Contact Mines aboard a Leberecht Maas class destroyer in Autumn 1940 (via Navweaps.com)

Chinese UAV Development and Implications for Joint Operations

By Brandon Hughes

Drone Diplomacy

On December 15, 2016, a United States Navy (USN) unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) was seized by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) about 80 miles from Subic Bay, Philippines (Global Times, December 17, 2016). This was met with quick negotiations and the agreed return of the $150,000 research drone following complaints to Beijing. The then President-elect, Donald Trump, condemned the action from his twitter feed and responded, “Keep it!”, further escalating the situation and casting an unknown shadow on the future of the U.S.-China relationship (Reuters, December 18, 2016). Almost immediately, the seemingly mundane deployment of UUVs and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the South China Sea became a potential flashpoint in the ever-contentious territorial disputes.

Countering President Trump’s South China Sea endeavors is a legislative move by Beijing to require all foreign submersibles transiting in China’s claimed territorial waters to travel on the surface and or be subject to confiscation (China News Service, February 15, 2017). The proposed change to the 1984 China Maritime Traffic Safety Law compares to China’s East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), set up in 2013. Codifying domestic maritime law further adds a layer of validity in the event a UAV or UUV is captured while patrolling in a disputed area. Assuming a more severe response is unlikely from the U.S., Beijing may use the law as an excuse to reduce unmanned foreign Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) assets in its periphery, regardless of international opinion.

While demonizing foreign ISR activities, China continues to bolster its own ISR efforts for deployment in maritime disputes, foreign surveillance, and warfighting capacity. Advances in armed/unarmed and stealth UAVs will further integrate UAVs into the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) joint forces array. Advances such as satellite data-link systems not only extend the range of these assets, but also allow for a more seamless integration of command and control (C2). This further enhances relatively low cost and low risk surveillance mechanisms.

UAVs are already an emerging capability within the PLA, law enforcement, and civil agencies and are playing a more prominent role in operations. Real-world testing will refine the PLA doctrinal use of these systems. Control, direction of development, and interoperability in joint operations are all questions yet to be answered. Developing an understanding of how these systems are incorporated into the PLA force structure may give insight into developing doctrine and political considerations. A clear understanding of both may support a potential framework for de-escalating unmanned vehicle incidents between nations where China has interests.

Deployment

On January 20th, 2017, the Chinese North Sea Fleet (NSF) received a request for help with a distress call initiated from the rescue center in Jiangsu Province to aid in the search and rescue of 13 crew members aboard a Chinese fishing boat that sank around 6 am that morning. The PLAN NSF dispatched two navy frigates, the ‘Suzhou’ and ‘Ji’an’ to the East China Sea to search for the crew of the lost fishing vessel, named the Liaoda Zhongyu 15126. What made this search-and-rescue effort unique was the announcement that a surveillance UAV (make unknown) aided in the search.

The deployment of a UAV with two naval frigates, in coordination with a maritime rescue center, demonstrates the multi-functionality and capability of China’s UAVs. Additionally, it is likely the UAV was deployed from a non-naval platform due to the size of the helicopter deck and lack of hangar on a ‘Suzhou’ and ‘Ji’an’, both Type 056/056A corvettes (Janes, November 3, 2016; Navy Recognition, March 18, 2013). This proof of concept highlights the interoperability of air, land, and sea assets coordinating for a common purpose. What is unknown, specifically, is where the UAV was launched, who controlled it, and whether it was using a line-of-sight (LOS) or extended control system.

China’s 40th Jiangdao-class (Type 056/056A) corvette shortly before being launched on 28 October at the Huangpu shipyard in Guangzhou. (fyjs.cn)

Capitalizing on peacetime operations validates control and communication hand-offs and will integrate intelligence platforms, such as the PLAN’s newest electronic surveillance ship, the Kay Yangxin (开阳星 ), vastly expanding the reach of Chinese ISR. Additionally, integration of satellite-linked communication packages, utilizing the domestic constellation of GPS satellites known as the Beidou, or Compass, will continue to improve UAV navigation and targeting systems. These improved navigation and satellite aids will be integrated into existing UAV datalink systems and developed with future ISR systems in mind.

Command Guidance

The use of UAVs for military and ISR purposes can have unintended political and military consequences. The PLA command structure has always focused around centralization to retain political power over the military. It is fair to assume that the guidelines for deployment of UAVs used for strategic intelligence missions are developed at a high level. On November 26, 2015, President Xi Jinping rolled out one of the many updates to the Soviet-style military system that was part of a recent effort to make the PLA more efficient. According to Yue Gang, a retired Colonel in the PLA’s General Staff Department, placing all branches of the military under a “Joint Military Command” was the “biggest military overhaul since the 1950s.” On February 1, 2016, a few months after Yue Gang’s comments, China’s Defense Ministry Spokesman Yang Yujun stated that the PLA was consolidating seven military regions into five theater commands, a move likely to streamline C2 (China Military Online, February 2, 2016). The theater commands will be presided over by the Central Military Commission for overall military administration (See China Brief, February 4, 2016 and February 23, 2016).

Centralizing and reducing the number of commands will allow for each individual military component to focus on their own training objectives (China Military Online, February 2, 2016). This concept promotes component independence to enhance capability, but doesn’t talk to efforts to enhance integration of forces in joint military exercises. The logistical and financial burden of large-scale exercises naturally limit the frequency of exercises each region can conduct per year. What is not clear, yet important to understand for a high-end conflict, is how joint operations between military regions will be executed. Chinese Defense Ministry Spokesman Yang Yuju added that the new structure allows for the commands to have more decision-making power in responding to threats and requesting CMC support. (China Military Online, February 2, 2016).

Utilizing UAVs in regional operations to patrol disputed regions indicates that tactical control would be conducted at the highest level by a chief staff at a joint command center, but more likely relegated to a lower echelon headquarters element closer to the front lines. These lower-tiered units are likely bound by the strict left and right limits on where they patrol. Advances in simultaneous satellite data-link systems will allow for a more seamless handoff of ISR/strike assets between commands in a robust communications environment. The fielding of enhanced and interoperable satellite communications is likely to bolster the deployment of UAVs and further integrate them into PLA doctrine by supporting the “offshore waters defense” and “open seas protection” missions, as outlined in the PLA’s 2015 White Paper on Military Strategy (China Military Online, May 26, 2015).

Direct operational control of the PLA’s UAVs is generally given to the commander of the next higher echelon or to a commander on the ground. UAV technicians depicted on Chinese military websites tend to hold the ranks of junior non-commissioned officers E-5/OR-5 (Sergeant) to O- 2/OF-1 (First Lieutenant). This is similar to certain units of the United States Army, where platforms are directly controlled by enlisted and warrant officers. However, just like the U.S., guidance and direction is usually “tasked down” by a higher echelon, and UAVs with a strike package will likely be controlled or employed by officers under orders from above.

UAV units in the PLA are likely to be attached to a reconnaissance or communications company. Likewise, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and PLA Navy (PLAN) will likely have UAV-specific units. Advancements in communication will enable various command levels (i.e. company, battalion, brigade) to simultaneously pull UAV feeds and give guidance to the operator. Based on the size of various exercises, the training indicates UAV control is given down to the lowest level of command but under extremely strict guidance. Additionally, the authority to deploy or strike is likely to be held at the regional command level or higher. Specific rules of engagement are unknown, but those authorities will be developed through trial and error during a high-intensity conflict.

Interoperability

Communications infrastructure improvements are evident in the development of over-the-horizon satellite datalink programs and communication relays. The CH-5 “Rainbow” (Cai Hong) drone, for example, resembles a U.S. Atomic General MQ-9 “Reaper” and is made to function with data systems capable of integrating with previous CH-4 and CH-3 models (Global Times, November 3, 2016). The newest model is capable of 250 km line-of-sight datalink, with up to 2000 km communications range when linked into a secure satellite (Janes, November 7, 2016).

It is likely that improvements in interoperability will be shared among service branches. Recent developments in Ku-Band UAV data-link systems, highlighted during the 11th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exposition in November 2016, will further synchronize intelligence sharing and over-the-horizon control of armed and unarmed UAVs (Taihainet.com, November 2, 2016).

PLA Signal Units already train on implementing UAV communication relays (China Military Online, April 8, 2016). Exercises like these indicate a desire to increase the interoperability in a joint environment. UAVs with relay packages will improve functionality beyond ISR & strike platforms. Units traversing austere environments or maritime domains could utilize UAV coverage to extend the range of VHF or HF radios to direct artillery or missile strikes from greater distances. If keyed to the same encrypted channels, these transmissions could be tracked at multiple command levels.

Joined with a UAV satellite datalink, ground or air communications could be relayed from thousands of kilometers away. At the same time, a Tactical Operations Center (TOC) could directly receive transmissions before passing UAV control to a ground force commander. In a South China Sea or East China Sea contingency, UAVs could link unofficial maritime militias (dubbed “Little Blue Men”) via VHF to Chinese Coast Guard Vessels or Naval ships. These messages could also be relayed to PLA Rocket Force units in the event of an anti-access area denial (A2AD) campaign.

Capping off China’s already enormous communication infrastructure is the implementation of dedicated fiber-optic cables, most likely linking garrisoned units and alternate sites to leadership nodes. Future use technologies such as “quantum encryption” for both fiber-optic and satellite based communication platforms could lead to uninhibited communication during a military scenario (The Telegraph, November 7, 2014; Xinhua, August 16, 2016).

Functionality 

Based on the use of Chinese UAVs overseas and in recent exercises, UAVs will continue to be utilized on military deployments in the South China Sea for patrol and ISR support. In the event of a contingency operation or the implementation of an A2/AD strategy, UAVs will likely be used for targeting efforts, battle damage assessments, and small scale engagements. Against a low-tech opponent, the UAV offers an asymmetric advantage. However, the use of UAVs for something other than ISR would be greatly contested by more modern powers. UAVs are generally slow, loud, and observable by modern radar. Many larger UAVs can carry EW packages, although there is little information on how the datalink systems handle EW interference. Ventures in stealth technology, such as the “Anjian/ Dark Sword,” (暗剑) and “Lijian/ Sharp sword” (利剑) projects, would increase Beijing’s UAV survivability and first strike capability if deployed in a contingency operation (Mil.Sohu.com, November, 24, 2013). However, a large-scale deployment of stealth UAV assets is not likely in the near future due to cost and material constraints.

To reduce the risk of high-intensity engagements, China may expand its reliance on UAVs to harass U.S., Taiwanese, Japanese, Philippine, and Vietnamese vessels. Additionally, UAVs may be utilized abroad in the prosecution of transnational threats. So far, China has stuck to a no-strike policy against individuals, although it was considered as an option to prosecute a drug kingpin hiding out in Northeast Myanmar (Global Times, February 19, 2016). The “Rainbow/Cai Hong” variant and “Yilong / Pterodactyl,” made by Chengdu Aircraft Design & Research Institute (CADI), represent some of the more well-known commercial ventures used by the PLAAF (PLA Air Force) and sold on the global market. These variants are often used for ISR in counter-insurgency and counterterrorism operations (The Diplomat, October 6, 2016; Airforce-technology.com, no date).

Strike capability, aided by satellite datalink systems, is another growing capability of China’s UAV programs (Popular Science, June 8, 2016). In late 2015, the Iraqi army released images from a UAV strike against an insurgent element utilizing the Chinese-made export variant “Rainbow 4” (彩虹 4) running on a Window’s XP platform (Sohu.com, January 2, 2016; Popular Science, December 15, 2015). PLA UAVs already patrol border regions, conduct maritime patrols, and assist in geological surveys and disaster relief.

The arrival of off-the-shelf UAVs contributes to the growing integration of dual-use platforms. Technology and imagination are the only limits to the growing UAV industry. Additionally, the export of high-end military UAVs will only continue to grow as they are cheaper than U.S. models and growing in capability. The profit from these sales will certainly aid research and development efforts in creating a near-peer equivalent to the U.S. systems. For a struggling African nation held hostage by rebels (e.g. Nigeria) or an established U.S. ally in the Middle East (e.g. Jordan), the purchase of UAVs at a relatively low price will increase good will and allow for an operational environment to refine each platform’s own capability (The Diplomat, October 6, 2016; The Daily Caller, December 2, 2016).

Conclusion

UAVs for military operations are not new, however, improvements in lethal payloads, targeting, and ISR capabilities will change the role in which UAVs are utilized. Considering China’s own drone diplomacy, the deployment of UAVs is as much a political statement as it is a tactical platform. State-run media has highlighted the successes of its drone program but has not been clear on who, or at what command level, operational control of UAVs is granted. Due to Beijing’s standing policy against lethal targeting, release authority is most likely relegated to the Central Military Commission, or even President Xi himself.

The extent that doctrine has been developed in planning for a high or low-intensity conflict is still unclear. The advent of satellite data-links and communication relays means the tactical control of UAVs may be seamlessly transferred between commanders. The rapid development of UAVs will continue to be integrated into the joint forces array but must be done as part of an overall doctrine and C4ISR infrastructure. Failure to exercise their UAVs in a joint environment will affect combined arms operations and reduce the PLA’s ability to synchronize modern technology with centralized command decisions and rigid doctrine.

Brandon Hughes is the founder of FAO Global, a specialized research firm, and the Senior Regional Analyst-Asia for Planet Risk. He has previously worked with the U.S. Army, the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, and Asia Society. He is a combat veteran and has conducted research on a wide variety of regional conflicts and foreign affairs. Brandon holds a Masters of Law in International Relations from Tsinghua University, Beijing and has extensive overseas experience focused on international security and U.S.-China relations. He can be reached via email at DC@FAOGLOBAL.com.

Featured Image: CASC’s CH-5 strike-capable UAV made its inaugural public appearance at Airshow China 2016 (IHS/Kelvin Wong)

China Seizes U.S. Navy Underwater Drone

By Armando J. Heredia

Grpahic by CIMSEC Member Louis MV

On December 15th 2016, the Chinese Navy seized an American unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) operating in international waters off the Western coast of the Philippines. The USNS Bowditch, an unarmed T-AGS class hydro-graphic survey ship, was being shadowed by a People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) salvage vessel identified as a Dalang-III class (ASR-510).

The UUV had surfaced as part of a pre-programmed instruction, and sent  a radio signal marking it’s position for pick-up. As the Bowditch was preparing to recover the drone from the water, a small boat crew from the Dalang III raced in and plucked the unmanned vessel. The incident occurred approximately 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic, Luzon.

While the exact type of drone is unknown, there have been several instances of U.S. Navy Slocum Gliders snagged in local fishermens’ nets or washed ashore on beaches in the Philippines. This type of drone is not weaponized, and is used to collect a variety of environmental readings such as water temperature and salinity, to improve forecasting accuracy of extreme weather such as typhoons. The UUV uses wave movement to propel itself without any on-board engines, with an endurance time of months. The Department of Defense estimates the seized drone’s value to be around $150,000.

The crew of the Bowditch immediately contacted the PLAN vessel on bridge-to-bridge radio asking for the return of the drone. The PLAN vessel reportedly acknowledged the message, but then stopped responding and sailed away with the UUV. On Friday the 16th, the U.S. State Department issued a formal protest, or demarche, with the Chinese Department of Foreign Affairs, demanding an immediate return of the drone. At the time of this article’s publication, the Chinese government has not responded.

Purpose

Motivations behind the seizure are unclear, but tensions between the two nations have recently increased over President-Elect Donald Trump’s conversation with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in what Beijing considers a blatant disregard of the standing One-China Policy. It could also have been a quick riposte to undermine Head of Pacific Command U.S. Navy Admiral Harry Harris’ recent comments that the US is “ready to confront [China] when we must.”

Notably, the Philippines has chosen to remain silent over the incident. While traditionally a U.S. ally, the election of President Rodrigo Duterte has brought a deterioration of relations between Manila and Washington. Thanks in no small part to Duterte’s bloody prosecution of an Anti-Drug war punctuated by high civilian casualties and accusations of extra-judicial killings, a large multi-million dollar U.S aid package was just withdrawn this week – prompting the volatile President to threaten abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement. The Philippine Department of National Defense indicates they had no idea that the incident was ongoing; highlighting the enormous capability gap the Philippines has regarding Maritime Domain Awareness. The Philippine government became aware via communications from the U.S. State Department to their embassy in Washington D.C.

Coupled with Duterte’s increasingly close orbit of China following last month’s visit to Beijing, the United States could potentially find itself without bases that would ease the mission of maintaining a robust presence in the South China Sea. Recent analysis shows China has expanded militarization of their Spratly Island outposts by placing what appear to be defensive anti-aircraft and close-in weapon systems on Hughes and Gaven reefs, while fortifications have sprouted on Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs; the latter group are in close proximity to other claimant outposts in the region.

Taken together, China appears to be using it’s famous “Salami-slicing” techniques to slowly ratchet up its presence and capabilities within the region without crossing any significant “bright lines” leading to a military confrontation. The UUV seizure is consistent with opportunistic interference of U. .Navy operations while striking propoganda points with regional states. Notably, the unresponsiveness of Philippines to an international incident within their EEZ tells a tale that the U.S. cannot count upon its traditional ally going forward to assist in the presence mission.

Armando J. Heredia is a civilian observer of naval affairs. He is an IT Risk and Information Security practitioner, with a background in the defense and financial services industries.  The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, any particular nation’s government or related agency.

Featured Image: Slocum Ocean Glider. (University of South Florida)

Trident: Industry, Scotland, and Long-Range Bomber and Land-Based Missile Alternatives

By Alex Calvo

Introduction

The third installment in our four-part series begins with Trident’s impact on British industry and the Scottish factor, very much in evidence in the run up to the 2014 referendum. We then move to examine British nuclear doctrine, asking ourselves whether a minimal posture is tenable, and looking in this connection at potential cyber and undersea unmanned threats to submarines, both of which have attracted public attention over the last few months. While in July this year the UK Parliament voted to renew the Trident fleet with the building of four new submarines, it is still interesting to discuss whether Trident’s cost may have been cut by reducing the number of boats. We then move to consider potential nuclear alternatives to the program, starting with long-range bombers and land-based missiles, leaving submarine and air-launched cruise missiles for the fourth and final installment in our series. Read Part One, Part Two

Trident and British Industry

Any decisions on defense have an industrial component, leading to an uneasy conundrum. On the one hand, the acquisition of assets should be at least primarily motivated by the needs and priorities laid down in defense planning. On the other, because of the sums involved and the strong link between military and civilian research and development, it is impossible to view defense procurement separately from industrial and scientific policy. Thus, while the decision on the continuity of Trident taken in July this year by the UK Parliament should ideally not rest on the interests of the industrial actors involved, we cannot simply dismiss them when analyzing it. In particular, when pondering both nuclear and non-nuclear alternatives to Trident, it is likely that British authorities examined the resulting net effect on British defense and dual-use industries as a whole and on those companies involved in Trident.

We could say something similar when it comes to jobs, which should not have been the primary consideration, but are likely to have featured in this political decision. Some estimates say up to 15,000 jobs may have been lost had Trident not been renewed, but the net impact both in terms of figures and human capital depends on the alternatives should Trident been discontinued. BASIC notes how Trident’s base “supports some 6,700 jobs, expected to rise to 8,200 by 2022,” adding that “the UK submarine industry accounts for 3% of employment in the UK’s scientific and defense industrial base,” and that a “replacement as currently planned could employ up to 26,000 people at some point in the process.” This could at least partly explain the huge majority of 355 in a 650-strong chamber that voted for the program’s renewal with more than half of opposition Labour MPs voting aye in direct contradiction with their leader’s stance, and this after PM Theresa May had publicly made it clear she was ready to press the nuclear button if necessary. Furthemore, while Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was later reelected by an increased majority of 62 percent, his shadow defense minister, Clive Lewis, stated that his party would remain committed to an independent, sea-based, British nuclear deterrent.

The Scottish Factor: Trident and the Union

The SNP and, more widely, Scottish Nationalists, have traditionally been hostile to Trident for a number of reasons. Among them we may note the party’s weak commitment to security and defense, little regard for collective security, hostility to the notion of the UK as a major world power, and willingness to outsource key policy areas to the European Union. At the tactical level, as seen in the 2014 referendum campaign, opposing Trident may enable the Nationalist camp to attract voters not strongly for or even opposed to independence but who fiercely reject nuclear weapons. Some of these voters may see a non-nuclear independent Scotland as a lesser evil. Others in this category may have seen a vote for independence or a vote for the SNP in future elections as a tactical move to force an end to the British nuclear deterrent. The July 2016 parliamentary vote on Trident was yet another opportunity for the SNP to underline its opposition to Trident, made even more visible by the vote in favor of a majority of opposition Labour MPs. Its 54 members of parliament voted against, and the party warned it would prompt a further push for independence, although opinion polls suggest a majority of Scots favor retaining the deterrent.

In connection to this matter, in the run-up to the referendum, there was speculation that the UK may relocate Trident to Devonport (Plymouth), with a report by RUSI estimating the additional cost at £3.5bn. The report concluded that “while the technical and financial challenges presented by Scottish independence would influence this discussion, they would not be severe enough to dictate it.”

British Nuclear Doctrine: Is a Minimal Posture Tenable?

If the UK’s move to a minimal deterrence posture had been followed by other nuclear states, or at least by negotiations with that purpose in mind, the country may have gone down in the annals of history as a pioneer in the noble pursuit of nuclear disarmament. Although the concept, also referred to as “deterrence lite,” has been extensively discussed in academic and government fora, such a move does not appear likely right now. Rather the contrary, with just to mention a few examples including worsening relations between Washington and Moscow, Pakistan developing a sea-based deterrent, and Japan increasingly pondering the convenience of at the very least retaining a powerful “latent” capability on the face of a resurgent China.

The Pacific Egret docked in Tokai (Ibaraki Prefecture) in March 2016, waiting to depart to the US with a cargo of Japanese plutonium. Tokyo's large stockpiles are one of the reasons why the country is considered to be a 'latent nuclear power. (Kyodo)
The Pacific Egret docked in Tokai (Ibaraki Prefecture) in March 2016, waiting to depart to the U.S. with a cargo of Japanese plutonium. Tokyo’s large stockpiles are one of the reasons why the country is considered to be a ‘latent nuclear power. (Kyodo)

The UK is experiencing growing tensions with an established nuclear power, Russia, which shows no intention of relying on non-conventional weapons to a lesser extent in the near future. More precisely, Russian sources note how not until current military reforms reach a successful conclusion will the country be able to lessen her dependence on tactical nuclear weapons (seen as essential not only in a Euro-Atlantic context, but also in a Chinese one, although the latter is seldom publicly discussed). Even without taking into account other potential conflict scenarios, this provides a powerful incentive to retain Trident or some other form of nuclear deterrent, since otherwise the UK would not only be open to nuclear blackmail but the decision to forego the country’s nuclear status may be seen as a sign of weakness and lack of resolve.

Cyber and Undersea Unmanned Threats to the UK’s Minimal Posture

As already explained, the decision to build a sea-based deterrent rested on the assumption that it would be very difficult for a hostile power to detect and destroy submarines, thus ensuring a second-strike capability. This also allowed London to move to a minimal posture, with just one such submarine on patrol at any given time. Of course, it was noted that while “No sector of a superpower’s defense system is quite so invulnerable against a preemptive attack as its fleet of highly mobile, deep-diving, long-ranging missile-bearing submarines. These make possible a second-strike capability that acts as a forceful deterrent against aggression,” and, “this situation could become unbalanced through the development of effective techniques of strategic antisubmarine warfare (ASW).” In recent months, a public debate has emerged concerning two possible threats against British strategic nuclear submarines: cyber warfare and the advent of unmanned undersea systems (submarine drones).

In November 2015, Lord Browne of Ladyton, former British Defence Secretary from 2006 to 2008 and now vice-chair of pro-disarmament group Nuclear Threat Initiative, said: “The government … have an obligation to assure parliament that all of the systems of the nuclear deterrent have been assessed end-to-end against cyber attacks to understand possible weak spots and that those weak spots are protected against a high-tier cyber threat. If they are unable to do that then there is no guarantee that we will have a reliable deterrent or the prime minister will be able to use this system when he needs to reach for it.” Browne cited a January 2013 report by the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board to support his views. Just one week earlier, Chancellor George Osborne had announced an additional investment of £ 3.2 billion in cybersecurity over a five-year period, an amount coming “nowhere near the scale of the cyber-threat challenge” according to Browne.

Franklin Miller, a former U.S. defense official involved in nuclear policy between 1981 and 2001, refuted Browne’s arguments, saying that “If our nuclear command and control system depended upon the internet or went through the internet then the report by the defense science board would be quite an important warning. However, for those reasons it is a standalone system. It is air-gapped. It does not go through the internet.” Miller added that the 2013 report cited by Browne had been written in 2013 as a “shot across the bow” to members of the U.S. defense community thinking of having some elements of the next generation command and control system for the U.S. nuclear deterrent connected to the internet. He said “I am very comfortable saying that right now our command and control system is insulated from cyber-attack because it doesn’t go into any place that cyber would intrude.”

Concerning swarms of undersea drones, the concept is gaining traction as a possible threat to strategic submarines, even though the technology is still in its early stages. The U.S. Navy is already moving forward in this arena with plans to deploy unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) from Virginia-class attack submarines. In December 2015, Paul Ingram, BASIC’s chief executive, warned that progress in underwater drone technology threatened to make Trident submarines vulnerable, in line with other experts who have cautioned about “a revolution in underwater drones, as well as advances in sonar, satellite and other anti-submarine warfare systems” making “even totally silent submarines … likely to become detectable.” Ingram said that “There is a major transition taking place in the underwater battle space and it is far from clear how the new submarine will be able to evade detection from emerging sophisticated anti-submarine warfare capabilities.” Adding that this “raises serious questions about the wisdom of putting all your nuclear weapons on board a submarine,” Ingram called for a public debate on this impending vulnerability.

Despite much interest among major navies, underwater drones are being developed at a much slower pace than their aerial counterparts, an often cited reason being water’s much greater opacity to radio waves. According to Frank Herr, head of the Office of Naval Research’s ocean battlespace sensing department, “Underwater vehicles are much harder to do because of this inability for us to communicate robustly with the vehicles the way you can in the air. That means they are way behind in the development.” Chris Rawley, a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, believes that “the premise that UUVs will make Tridents more detectable glosses over of the complexities of ASW. The physics of underwater sound propagation don’t change just because we take the man out of the loop. Unmanned systems can potentially put more persistent sensors in the water column, but I’d guess we’re at least two decades out from them making a significant impact on ASW.” Rawley discusses this in more detail in a 2015 interview with CIMSEC.

Could Trident’s Cost be Cut by Reducing the Number of Submarines?

In the run-up to the July 2016 parliamentary vote to renew Trident, some voices, including the Liberal Democrats (the Conservatives’ junior coalition partner in the previous administration) and Labour, the main opposition party, suggested or at least speculated on the possibility of reducing the cost of Trident by cutting down the number of boats from the current four. The Liberal Democrats, which open the section in their website on Trident with harsh words, calling it “out-dated and expensive. It is a relic of the Cold War and not up-to-date in 21st century Britain,” while arguing that “It would be extremely expensive and unnecessary to replace all four submarines, so we propose to replace some of the submarines instead. They would not be on constant patrol but could be deployed if the threat from a nuclear-armed country increased.” BASIC included the option of “irregular undisclosed patrolling patterns” in its 2015 “A Memo to the Next Prime Minister: Options Surrounding the Replacement of Trident,” estimating the potential yearly savings at up to 1 billion. Right now, as emphasized by the Royal Navy itself “One of the Navy’s four strategic submarines is always on patrol, ensuring a continuous at sea deterrent, 24/7/365, carrying the nation’s ultimate weapon somewhere in the Seven Seas.” It is very doubtful whether fewer than four submarines could achieve this objective. The need to keep four submarines has been emphasized by many observers, with for example Simon Michell writing for RUSI that “if the United Kingdom is to have a credible and assured nuclear deterrent based on the submarine-launched Trident missile, then four boats are required, not three.” Therefore, it is plausible, should the cost of Trident be considered to be excessive, to move to another kind of deterrent, for example air-based, rather than relying exclusively on a number of boats too small to ensure a consistent deterrent.

Having fewer than four nuclear boats may not only deliver smaller savings than straight arithmetic may suggest given factors such as economies of scale, but would result in gaps in the deterrent with no submarine patrolling at certain given times. This may be seen by a would-be aggressor as providing a window of opportunity. Furthermore, it could be destabilizing in many ways. For example, during a crisis at a time with no boats on patrol, the knowledge that one was soon to sail may be seen by the other side as providing an incentive to strike first. It may also be interpreted as a hostile move, a step in escalation designed to increase pressure. The Trident Alternatives Review, as an exercise in coalition politics, did not rule out this possibility, while failing to discuss in depth the possibility of a sudden unannounced nuclear attack, but nevertheless gave some clues as to why three boats, as opposed to four, would mean accepting a higher degree of risk that such an attack may take place. Where the Review was crystal clear was in explaining that “Over a 20 year period, a 3-boat fleet would risk multiple unplanned breaks in continuous covert patrolling as well as requiring regular planned breaks for maintenance and/or training. Experience to date with the Resolution-class and Vanguard-class SSBNs is that no such breaks have occurred or been required with a 4-boat fleet.” Thus, we can see how lacking the capacity for continuous patrols not only means the deterrent is not always available but also introduces a new factor in an adversary’s calculus during crisis, opening up different venues of speculation concerning the possible motivations for the start and end of deterrence patrols.

Nuclear Alternatives to Trident: Long-Range Bombers

The UK may remain a nuclear power while shifting to other vectors for the country’s warheads. This may result from different motivations, such as cost calculations, a changed perspective on submarine survivability, or the desire for greater strategic autonomy vis a vis the United States, among other few possibilities. Shifting to another delivery method would have a wide range of implications, not only in terms of range, survivability, domestic politics, credibility just to name a few, but for example, inter-service considerations. Trident underscores the Royal Navy’s status as the senior service, which any non-naval alternative would not support in the same way.

Air delivery systems may consist of either missiles launched by aircraft, or gravity bombs dropped by them. An air-dropped alternative to Trident was suggested last year by think-tank Centre Forum. In its report, this organization argues that a minimum nuclear deterrent should be able to destroy “ten or more … major urban areas” of a nuclear adversary (it should be noted that British nuclear doctrine does not provide any explicit assurance to non-nuclear weapons states) and that the UK should therefore be able of delivering 30 warheads.” It goes on to say that “This requires a considerably lower level of capability than” that provided by Trident, meaning that “the UK can achieve deterrence with a considerably less capable nuclear weapons system, saving money and contributing to long-term multilateral nuclear disarmament.” Based on this and other considerations, the report suggests that the UK “move to a free-fall nuclear capability based on Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II / Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) that the UK is currently procuring and the forthcoming U.S. B61 Mod 12 (B61-12) bombs that will arm NATO nuclear Dual-Capable Aircraft (DCA) from 2020.” It estimates the capital cost of “100 anglicised B61-12s” at “approximately £16.7bn,” a figure that would include a number of additions to current planned capabilities, among them enabling the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers to operate catapult-launched, arrested-landing aircraft (with a wider range than the vertical takeoff variant currently planned) and extra naval assets such as five attack submarines and four type 26 frigates. The text presents this alternative as a compromise bringing about costs savings while enhancing conventional capabilities, preserving the submarine industrial base, and “a concrete step down the nuclear ladder and towards future nuclear disarmament as the international situation allows in accordance with the UK’s nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations.”

Given the UK’s global role and the duty to protect British Overseas Territories, any nuclear alternative to Trident should have an equivalent range. This may be a challenge for nuclear bombers, less so for submarine-launched cruise missiles, and would not apply to land-based ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles). The travails of strategic bombers when targets are far from bases were already illustrated in the Falklands War, where the strike against Port Stanley’s airport required the complex coordination of a very large number of aircraft operating from Asuncion Island. The Centre Forum document argues that a combination of existing overseas bases and “Air-to-Air Refueling (AAR) support from RAF Voyager KC2/KC3 tankers covers all of Africa, Europe, the Middle East and South America, along with the Indian subcontinent and most of former Soviet Central Asia.” Leaving aside the fact that this would not cover all existing nuclear weapons states, the sheer complexity of the necessary AAR operations to reach some corners of the world may put a dent on the deterrent’s credibility, tempting a would-be aggressor into thinking it may not ensure a British response. This was noted by a commentator, who wrote “Where the credibility gets shaky is in the delivery. A Voyager tanker can trail 4 fighter jets for 2800 miles in a transfer flight, but an actual strike mission, especially if a return to base is at least envisaged, is a whole different matter. Even bringing all 14 tankers in service (instead of just 8 + 1 transport only and 5 tankers “on demand” at 90 days notice) and fitting them with booms and receptacles so they can juggle fuel between themselves and work cooperatively, it remains dubious that it would be possible to trail a real strike package over the great distances likely to be involved. Particularly because, in order to deliver the strike with gravity-fall bombs with a stand-off reach of 40 kilometers in the very, very best case, you need a large attack squadron, knowing that many aircraft are likely not to make it to the target, even with the F-35’s stealth.”

Date:- 02 July 2011 WAD-11-0463 Background: Every year in July, RAF Waddington opens it's doors to the general public in staging the Royal Air Force's premier airshow event. In 2011, the undoubted stars of the show are the United States Air Force aerobatic display team 'The Thunderbirds'. Along with the welcome return of crowd favourites- the Vulcan and the Red Arrows, are the Battle of Britain Memorial flight and the classic B-17 bomber 'Sally B' from WW2. Image details: The Vulcan aircraft landing at Waddington. Photo By:- SAC Andy Stevens (RAF) For further information contact: Royal Air Force Waddington Media Communications Officer, RAF Waddington MCO Waddington Lincolnshire LN5 9NB Tel 01522 726804
The long-range nuclear bomber Avro Vulcan was employed in a conventional role in the 1982 Falklands War and later decommissioned. ( RAF photo by SAC Andy Stevens)

This text also questions whether it is realistic to expect the UK to sport 72 ready-to-strike nuclear bombers at any one time, as the Centre Forum defends when it states that “Using the 18 airfields shown in Figure 5 today, this would translate into 72 nuclear-armed F-35Cs and their accompanying Airbus Voyager KC2 / KC3 tankers safely airborne before a surprise attack could destroy them on the ground.” Furthermore, it argues that if that number was indeed available it would put such a dent on conventional capabilities as to make the whole exercise self-defeating. These unrealistic assumptions cast a shadow of doubt over the Centre Forum’s proposal, and prompt suspicions that it may have been designed, or at least have been liable to being employed, to underpin a tactical deal between those opposed to British national sovereignty and the country’s independent deterrent on the one hand, and those concerned about continued conventional defense cuts, on the other. By offering the acquisition of additional conventional assets as part of a package deal involving the replacement of Trident by a less able system, the former may have hoped to achieve the necessary political momentum against Trident, assembling a coalition with the latter and perhaps also other actors like the SNP. At a later stage, with Trident out of the way, the door would have been open to further conventional cuts degrading an already less than credible deterrent, thus achieving unilateral nuclear disarmament through the back door.   

Other disadvantages of a naval aircraft-based deterrent are, in the words of an undisclosed naval analyst, that “a ship is ALWAYS more vulnerable than a submarine” and a “plane can also be downed,” plus the fact that adding a further role to a carrier means an additional concentration of risk and incentives for the enemy to try to sink her. Operations by HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible off the Falklands, at a time when anti-access weapons were much more primitive (Argentine forces improvised a shore-launched Exocet missile, hitting HMS Glamorgan, but it was not available until very late in the war), illustrate the complications of sailing near a hostile shore, which would have been even greater had the British deterrent been based on those same two light carriers. At the end of the day, considering all these aspects, it is difficult not to see that moving from submarines to carrier-based planes would mean a significant downsizing of the British deterrent, with the corresponding negative impact on national security. In the words of another author, “A nuclear deterrent based on the B61-12 would be much less capable than Trident, this is definite. The key issue is not the power of the warhead, but the certainty that an enemy anywhere in the world can be reliably hit. Any possible existential enemy of the UK must be keenly aware that there is a credible deterrent which is unquestionably able to strike back and make him pay a price which cannot be possibly accepted.”

As noted later when discussing air-launched cruise missiles but equally applicable here, “The UK would be faced with the choice of having to keep nuclear-armed aircraft permanently in the air (where they would still be visible) or risk having the air base – and its neighbouring community – as the target for a nuclear strike by a potential adversary.”

Things may be different if a long-range bomber powered by Reaction Engines’ SABRE (Synthetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine) is developed in the future, since such aircraft would be able to strike at any target without aerial refueling. It must be noted, though, that any such dual-capable (nuclear and conventional) bomber may prompt the same concerns over strategic instability which have pushed Washington to withdraw nuclear Tomahawk cruise missiles from service, which we discuss in this series’ final part.   

150317-N-MF696-071 INDIAN HEAD, Md. (March 17, 2015) Members of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technology Division team at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Indian Head prepare a Tomahawk missile for a functional ground test at the Large Motor Test Facility in Indian Head, Md. The event marks the 84th functional ground test the Division has conducted since the program began 25 years ago. (U.S. Navy photo by Monica McCoy/Released)
INDIAN HEAD, Md. (March 17, 2015) Members of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technology Division team at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Indian Head prepare a Tomahawk missile for a functional ground test at the Large Motor Test Facility in Indian Head, Md.  (U.S. Navy photo by Monica McCoy/Released)

Nuclear Alternatives to Trident: Land-Based Missiles

The deployment of land-based missiles involves at least two problems. First, they are considered to be the most vulnerable asset in the nuclear triad, given their fixed location. To overcome this vulnerability, an alternative may be to deploy missiles on either trucks or trains, ideally camouflaged as ordinary vehicles, but since this alternative has not featured in the debate on the replacement of Trident (in contrast with Russian work in this area) we shall not examine it in detail here.

Second, the construction of the necessary infrastructure may pose legal (land planning) and political complications. As noted in the 2015 RUSI conference on missile defense, it is precisely these legal and political difficulties involved in deploying certain land-based assets that make a naval missile shield the most realistic alternative for British plans on national BMD (ballistic missile defense). Additionally, as discussed when dealing with cruise missiles, developing a new vector would involve significant time and treasure.

In our next and final installment in this series, we will look at other possible alternatives to trident, including both air and submarine-launched cruise missiles. This will include an examination of their technical aspects, as well as wider economic and policy issues. In the case of submarine-launched nuclear missiles, this includes the risk of confusion with their conventional brethen. Last, we will examine a very different scenario, namely the UK as a Japanese-syle ‘latent’ nuclear power. Stay tuned!

Alex Calvo, a former guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan), focuses on security and defence policy, international law, and military history, in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. He tweets at Alex__Calvo and his papers can be found at https://nagoya-u.academia.edu/AlexCalvo Previous work on British nuclear policy includes A. Calvo and O. Olsen, “Defending the Falklands: A role for nuclear weapons?” Strife Blog, 29 July 2014.

Featured Image: The Trident nuclear submarine HMS Victorious is pictured near Faslane in Scotland. (UK Ministry of Defence)