Tag Archives: Undersea

What the Loss of the ARA San Juan Reveals about South America’s Submarines

The Southern Tide

Written by W. Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“The security environment in Latin America and the Caribbean is characterized by complex, diverse, and non-traditional challenges to U.S. interests.” Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, before the 114th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee, 10 March 2016.

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

The Argentine Navy’s submarine ARA San Juan (S-42) disappeared in the South Atlantic, off the coast of Argentina, on 15 November. At the time of this writing, a multinational effort is underway to locate the platform and its 44-person crew. This tragic accident has prompted a discussion in Argentina regarding whether the country’s armed forces are being allocated sufficient budgets to repair or replace aging equipment. Additionally, the San Juan incident must be placed in a wider discussion about civil-military relations, defense budgets, and the present and future of South American submarines.

ARA San Juan

Theories revolving around what happened to San Juan focus on an electrical malfunction that was reported by the crew prior to disappearing, though it was reportedly solved. The platform was returning to its home port of Mar del Plata when communications were lost. Naval protocol dictates that San Juan should have surfaced and traveled back to port, and it is unclear why the submarine continued its voyage submerged in spite of the aforementioned electrical problem. Adding to the mystery and overall concern was an apparent underwater explosion that reportedly occurred around 23 November in the general area where San Juan disappeared. The fear is that the explosion may have actually been an implosion due to pressure on the submarine’s hull.

ARA San Juan at an exhibition in Buenos Aires. (Photo: AFP/Ministerio de Defensa de Argentina)

San Juan, constructed by the West German shipyard Thyssen Nordseewerke, was commissioned by the Argentine Navy in 1985. The platform, a TR-1700 class, weighs slightly over two thousand tons, measures 66 m in length, with a max speed between 15 kts (surfaced) or 25 kts (submerged), and as it is powered with diesel engines – it went through mid-life repairs in 2008. Its sister vessel is ARA Santa Cruz (S-41).

Other South American Submarine Incidents

The disappearance of San Juan prompted a plethora of articles listing other notable incidents regarding submarines. One recent example that is often mentioned is the loss of the Russian submarine Kursk (K-141), an Oscar-class platform that suffered an explosion in the Barents Sea in August 2000. The U.S. has also lost submarines, like the USS Thresher (SSN-593), a nuclear-powered platform, in 1963, and the USS Scorpion (SSN-589), which disappeared in May 1968. That same year Israel’s INS Dakar and France’s Minerve (S-647) also disappeared.

When it comes to South America, submarine accidents are rare but, unfortunately, they have occurred. For example in 1919, the Chilean submarine Rucumilla, an H-class platform, was carrying out maneuvers, when it started to flood; thankfully, all 23 members of the crew were rescued alive. More recently, the Brazilian submarine Tonelero (S-21) sank while it was undergoing repairs at a harbor in Rio de Janeiro in 2000. The crew members aboard also managed to escape safely and the diesel-powered, Oberon-class submarine constructed in the 1970 was successfully refloated only to be decommissioned shortly after.

There has also been one reportedly deadly accident: in 1988 the Peruvian submarine BAP Pacocha (SS-48), a Balao-class platform, was rammed by the Japanese fishing trawler Kiowa Maru off the Peruvian coast, close to the Callao port. Pacocha settled on the seabed, at a depth of around 144 ft (43 m). A massive rescue operation involving several vessels, including another Peruvian submarine, BAP Abtao (SS-42), was carried out and the 52-person crew was rescued in groups. Tragically, eight sailors including Pacocha’s commander, Captain Daniel Nieva Rodríguez, perished. Additionally, some of the survivors would live face health issues, as since they “were exposed to gradually increasing pressure for nearly twenty-four hours, their tissues were saturated with nitrogen at a depth deep enough to produce decompression symptoms.”

The Region’s Aging Submarines

Because submarines are a key element of a nation’s naval deterrent, detailed information regarding their status, including armament, is a sensitive issue. With that said, we can provide some general points from what is publicly known, and how these platforms fit into regional maritime strategies.

South America’s submarines are generally old, as most platforms were constructed in the 1970s or 1980s. Regional navies have focused on mid-life and other upgrades in order to extend their operational life. For example, the Ecuadorian daily El Universo has reported that the country’s two submarines, Shyri and Huancavilca, type U209, were purchased in the late 1970s and have undergone three modernization processes already, “1980-1983 in Germany, 1991-1994 in Ecuador, and 2008-2014 in Chile.”  

While most regional submarines are operational, others have been undergoing repairs for a significant amount of time. For example Argentina’s San Juan underwent mid-life repairs that required over five years of work (the Argentine media has critiqued this). Meanwhile the ARA Santa Cruz has been undergoing repairs at an Argentine shipyard since 2016, leaving the navy with only one submarine, ARA Salta (which was constructed in the early 1970s). Additionally, Venezuela’s Caribe (S-32) has been in a dry dock since 2004-2005, awaiting repairs. It is somewhat bizarre that in spite of the billions of dollars spent on the Venezuelan military during the Hugo Chavez era, the submarine fleet was not modernized or expanded, and it consists of only two platforms, Caribe and Sabalo (S-31), both are U209A/1300 constructed in the mid 1970s.

In recent years, there have been a few new acquisitions. A decade ago (in 2005-2007), Chile incorporated O’Higgins (SS-23) and Carrera (SS-22), two Scorpene-class submarines constructed by DCN-Bazan (now Navantia), to replace the old Oberon-class platforms. Additionally, in 2015 the Colombian Navy received two refurbished German submarines, U206A-class, for its Caribbean and Pacific fleets. The platforms, now renamed ARC Intrépido (SC-23) and ARC Indomable (SC-24), were constructed in the 1970s and served in the German Navy until 2010-2011, when they were retired and sold to Bogota the following year.

ARC Intrépido. (Helwin Scharn/MarineTraffic.com)

Finally, Brazil has the ambitious goal of domestically manufacturing submarines, as it is currently constructing with French support four Scorpene-class submarines and one nuclear-powered platform (the author has discussed this program in a November 2016 commentary for CIMSEC, “The Status of Brazil’s Ambitious PROSUB Program”). Of the region, the country has the most modern fleet as its current submarines (four Tupi-class and one Tikuna-class) were manufactured in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Why Do South American Navies Want Submarines?

Ultimately, what is exactly the role of undersea forces in South America in 2017 and beyond? The last conflict in the region was the Cenepa War in 1995 (Ecuador vs. Peru), while the last conflict with a maritime theater of operations was the Falklands/Malvinas War of 1982 (Argentina vs. United Kingdom).

While inter-state warfare in South America is not unthinkable, it is highly unlikely. Thus as regional naval strategies continue to evolve to properly address broad-spectrum maritime security threats (illegal fishing, drug trafficking, and humanitarian relief), the raison d’être of undersea forces must adapt, too.

In an interview with the author, Christian J. Ehrlich, Director of Intelligence at Riskop and Non-Resident Fellow at the Mexican Navy Institute for Strategic Research, explained that navies have three main missions: maritime security, naval diplomacy, and defense. Latin American navies have focused, particularly in recent decades, on the first objective – given the lack of inter-state conflict and generally peaceful diplomatic relations. This new reality has made it “financially difficult to maintain naval platforms that are mostly, if not exclusively, aimed at defense operations.” Mr. Ehrlich adds that navies that possess attack submarines have had to find a new “role” for these platforms, such as supporting surveillance or combating illegal fishing, such as when Ecuador’s submarine Huancavilca was deployed to combat illegal fishing after a recent incident involving a Chinese vessel off the Galapagos Islands.

Without a doubt, submarines are a powerful naval deterrent, a “just in case” tool if relations between two countries should deteriorate to the point that armed conflict is a real possibility. There are still occasional incidents, including maritime disputes, that highlight how South America is far from being a peaceful region where inter-state warfare is unthinkable. Hence, these hypotheses of conflict, combined with adapting to new security threats, ensures, as Mr. Ehrlich explains, that “the silent service will continue to be part of [South American] navies, which have invested decades in these platforms.”

Final Thoughts

The tragic disappearance of San Juan has brought to light a number of issues. In Argentina, the media and public are demanding both answers and culprits, and it is likely that the navy’s high command will have to resign. The Argentine media has discussed the military’s current status, blaming the civilian leadership of not providing adequate budgets to the armed forces to replace old equipment. At a regional level, this incident has brought to light the problematic reality of South American submarine fleets. Generally speaking, they are quite old, in need of replacement, and they need to find new roles to be relevant to contemporary maritime security strategies.

Thankfully, submarine-related incidents have been scarce, though the 1988 incident of Peru’s Pacocha and the current disappearance of Argentina’s San Juan exemplifies how just one accident can claim so many lives instantaneously. Such is the perilous life of the submariner.

W. Alejandro Sanchez is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military, and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez

The views presented in this essay are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

The author would like to thank Erica Illingworth for editorial advice.

Featured Image: The Argentine military submarine ARA San Juan and crew are seen leaving the port of Buenos Aires, Argentina June 2, 2014. (Armada Argentina/Handout via REUTERS)

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

Fiction Topic Week

By David R. Strachan

TOP SECRET/NOFORN

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.

From ONR? DARPA?

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. 

Fear?

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.

Zumwalt? 

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)

Narco Submarines: A Problem That Will Not Sink

The Southern Tide

Written by W. Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“The security environment in Latin America and the Caribbean is characterized by complex, diverse, and non-traditional challenges to U.S. interests.” Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, before the 114th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee, 10 March 2016.

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

In the past year a number of narco submarines have been seized in several Latin American states. Narco submarines continue to be a problem as hemispheric security forces combat drug trafficking. Unfortunately for every narco sub that is seized, another is under construction. While recent successful operations should be applauded, combating narco subs needs a regional strategy of its own.

This commentary is a continuation of previous articles published by CIMSEC on this issue: “An Update on Narco Submarines and Maritime Law Enforcement Agencies’ Efforts to Thwart their Operational Effectiveness,” “Narco submarines: Drug Cartels’ Innovative Technology,” as well as the author’s “U.S. Southcom vs Caribbean Narco Pirates.” The incidents mentioned in this commentary will focus on events that have occurred over the past year. (The colloquial term “narco sub” will be utilized for these platforms, though we will later do a more thorough analysis of their characteristics.)

Recent Narco Sub Incidents

In recent months, several narco submarines have been seized in various Latin American states. For example, on 5 August, Ecuadoran marines located one in the Las Delicias area, close to the border with Colombia. For Colombia, a narco sub was seized in an operation by army and naval personnel in the San Juan and Baudó Rivers in the Choco department in late July. The platform, which was carrying approximately four tons of cocaine, was apparently manufactured by ELN rebels. The Colombian Navy explained that this was the first time a narco sub was operating in a river, and that it probably took some five to six months to be constructed. Not long after, in mid-August, the Colombian Navy located yet another narco sub, this time in the Nariño department and with the capacity to transport up to four tons of drugs. This one measured 14 meters, with a diesel motor and propellers, the Navy explained in a communiqué.

On the Ecuadorian Colombian border, the Colombian National Navy located and seized a submarine that had the capacity and autonomy to transport approximately five tons of cocaine. (Colombian National Navy photo)

Narco subs have also been located in Central America. For example, a narco sub, reportedly 16 meters in length and capable of transporting up to five tons of drugs, was found in Guatemala in mid-April. Months later, in late July, the Costa Rican Coast Guard found a similar illegal platform on a beach. Local authorities believe that the vessel, with the capacity to transport up to four tons of drugs, had a motor problem and was discarded by the crew, until it washed ashore and got stuck in the sand.

Catching Them At Sea

The aforementioned examples highlight one fact. So far, the vast majority of narco-platforms are captured in the mainland (meaning either on dry land or “docked” in some body of water), either before they depart or upon arriving to their destination.

As far as the author has been able to find, in the past couple of years, there have only been a couple of narco subs intercepted in open waters. One was in July 2015, when during a “joint operation, the U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, and assets from the Customs and Border Protection Office of Air and Marine, intercepted a “narco submarine” off the coast of El Salvador,” Business Insider explains. The platform was carrying over 16,000 pounds of cocaine.

U.S. Coast Guardsmen board a narco sub as part of a drug seizure in September 2016. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

More recently, in early September 2016, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Waesche intercepted a narco sub in the Pacific Ocean off the Central American coast. The Cutter reportedly launched two vessels and an armed helicopter in pursuit. U.S. personnel caught up with the sub, apprehended five suspects, and thwarted a scuttling attempt by pumping water out of the interior of the sub.” By preventing the sinking of the sub, the USCG seized more than 5,600 pounds of cocaine, with an estimated value of USD$73 million.

Who Finds The Narco Subs?

Nowadays, several Latin American and Caribbean navies and coast guards are undergoing a modernization process, which includes the acquisition of new platforms. For example, Colombia and Mexico are domestically manufacturing new fleets of patrol vessels. Christian Ehrlich, a director of intelligence for Riskop, a Mexican Strategic intelligence and risk control company explained to the author that  the Mexican Navy is in the process of adding Damen Sigma 10514 frigates to its fleet, “this will provide a decisive boost to Mexico’s Maritime Domain Awareness but unfortunately it will be some time before this system has an acceptable operational level” (construction for the first of the new frigates commenced in mid-August). Meanwhile The Bahamas is in the final stretch of its ambitious Sandy Bottom Project, via which it is obtaining a fleet of different patrol boats from Damen Group. Similarly, in late June IHS Jane’s reported that Louisiana-based shipbuilder Metal Shark and Damen will construct near coastal patrol vessels (NCPVs) for regional U.S. partners like “the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Guatemala.” It is worth noting that Mr. Ehrlich, remarked how Mexico possesses aircraft like CASA CN—235 and Beechcraft King Air 350ER for ISR; Colombia also possesses similar assets.

Nevertheless, in spite of more modern navies and coast guards, locating narco subs at sea continues to be a problem. In an interview with the author, Gustavo Fallas, a journalist for the Costa Rican daily La Nacion, explained that “[Costa Rica] depends on the Americans to combat [narco submarines]. In 2006 we detained a submersible with three tons [of drugs] and it was thanks to an American frigate. In 2012 we chased another one in the Caribbean, and it was also after the Americans alerted us. For those reasons it is vital to have U.S. aid to locate these platforms.” Mr. Fallas added that Costa Rica must create a shield (meaning more vessels, radars, personnel) to prevent drug traffickers from using the country as a warehouse or transit path for drugs.

Unfortunately, Randy Pestana, a policy analyst at Florida International University’s Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy, has a gloomy assessment about regional naval forces vis-à-vis narco subs. Mr. Pestana explained to the author how “relying on partner nations to stop, slow, or detain these shipments is difficult in itself as they do not have the necessary tools to do so unless provided by the U.S.” Of a similar opinion is Mr. Ehrlich, who stated to the author that “there isn’t a navy or coast guard in Central America with the [necessary platforms] to detect, follow and interdict [narco submarines].” 

In other words, Central American navies will continue to rely on the U.S. (be it SOUTCHOM or the Coast Guard) to monitor maritime areas in order to combat, among other threats, narco submarines. This is problematic, since, as Mr. Pestana remarked, even U.S. security agencies have limits to their abilities, particularly nowadays when the U.S. has other security operations and geopolitical concerns around the globe. Furthermore, there is the problematic and ever-present red tape, namely, “the inability of the U.S. to respond to an identified narco submarine without permission from higher leadership. This often led to the narco submarine to either get away, or move out of the U.S. areas of operation,” the FIU expert explained.

How To Find A Narco Sub

Locating a narco submarine at sea is a tricky business. In an interview with the author, Mario Pedreros, a retired Chilean Naval officer and an expert in airborne maritime patrol, provided an excellent analysis on this problem.

As previously mentioned, the term narco submarine is commonly utilized for these vessels, however they are not really submarines. As Mr. Pedreros explains, these platforms are semi-submersibles, meaning that they cannot go completely underwater, and if they can do so, it is for brief periods of time. (“Narco submarine” is still a catchier name than “narco-semi-submersible” though). However, even if these vessels cannot fully dive, they are nonetheless difficult to locate at sea. Mr. Pedreros explained how some of these platforms have electronic motors, which makes them more silent than diesel engines, making them harder to find with passive sonar. “When it comes to semi-submersibles, utilizing  sonar is not very efficient,” Mr. Pedreros concludes. Adding to the problem is that the vessel is pretty small, and “once at sea, the submersibles have 20 percent of their structure above the surface,” making them hard to pinpoint by radar.

A narco submarine found by the Costan Rican Coast Guard (MSP)

Mr. Pedreros recommended maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) as an ideal tool to combat narco submarines at sea, as these aircraft possess superior sensors and radars for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Obviously, locating the target is only part of the solution, because then it has to be intercepted. “The aircraft must work with together with a vessel to capture the submersible. In other words, there are three components in this process: an aircraft (MPA), a vessel, and a light boat that can board the submersible and detain the crew,” the retired Chilean Naval officer explained. As previously discussed, various Latin American and Caribbean navies are acquiring OPVs with attached light boats, while Colombia and Mexico have platforms for maritime patrol, fulfilling the requirements by Mr. Pedreros; what is needed is greater multinational support, apart from additional platforms. 

The Future of the Narco Sub

It would be naïve to assume that recent successful operations by regional security forces will convince drug traffickers to stop investing in narco submarines. There is simply too much money to be made in drugs, and the subs cost only around USD$1 million to manufacture. Even if five narco subs are stopped, drug traffickers only need one or two successful deliveries to make up for their losses.

Moreover, recently seized narco subs show they are becoming more technologically advanced, including bigger in size so they can transport greater quantities of contraband. The narco sub seized in mid-July in Choco had space for a crew of four, measured 9 meters in length by 4 wide, had radars, stabilizers, ballast weights and was powered by over 100 batteries, according to the Colombian daily El Colombiano.

Indeed, the (brief) history of narco subs shows a trend towards modernization, particularly as drug lords are always looking for new methods to transport drugs, from Cessna aircraft and go-fast boats during the Pablo Escobar era to drones and narco subs nowadays (though of course, narcos continue to utilize the former as well). Mr. Pestana drives this home remarking how “top drug traffickers are relatively smart and have a good grasp on technology and history.” Moreover, the attractive wages narco-organizations can afford to pay means that they can hire “former engineers or other trade workers,” as Mr. Pestana explains, to continuously improve previous designs.

Final Thoughts

From a scholarly point of view, the appearance of the narco sub is a fascinating development as it highlights drug traffickers’ ingenuity as they continuously think of new ways of transporting their contraband. Unfortunately, this represents an ongoing problem for regional security forces, as new narco subs become more technologically advanced. Unfortunately, even though many narco subs have been stopped, it only takes one successful trip to make a large profit.

In spite of several successful operations, combating narco submarines requires both a multiagency and multinational strategy of its own. Mr. Ehlrich stresses the necessity to disrupt the construction of these platforms (which requires cooperation between police and military units). As for when narco submarines are at sea, the Greater Central American region requires united front, such as a regional anti-narco submarine task force. By combining resources, in which member states can contribute platforms to create the three-platform interception teams that Mr. Pedreros described, this unit would ideally be more successful at locating narco subs at sea, and not just in inland waterways. This will decrease the region’s dependency on the U.S., which Mr. Pestana and Mr. Fallas highlighted.

Unfortunately, narco submarines are a problem that will not sink, hence new strategies are needed in order to combat them more efficiently.

W. Alejandro Sanchez is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez

The author would like to thank the various experts that contributed to this commentary:

Christian J. Ehrlich, Director of Intelligence, Riskop; External Analyst, Mexican Navy

Gustavo Fallas, Journalist, La Nacion (Costa Rica)

Mario Pedreros, a retired Chilean Navy Officer, expert in aero-maritime patrol. He participated as a Tactical Coordinator Officer (TACCO) in different missions overseas onboard Chilean Navy P-3 Orion aircrafts. Missions include Anti Submarine Warfare, Anti Surface Warfare, Anti Terrorism missions and Search and Rescue operations. He is currently based in Washington, DC. doing consulting for several Defense and Security companies.

Randy Pestana, Policy Analyst, Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy, Florida International University

The views presented in this essay are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

Featured Image: Members of the Colombian Navy stand guard on a seized submarine built by drug smugglers in a makeshift shipyard in Timbiqui, Cauca department. Colombian authorities said the submersible craft was to be used to transport 8 tons of cocaine into Mexico. (REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga)

Crash Dive: America’s Pending Submarine Crisis

By Austin Hale

The future of naval warfare is increasingly shifting to undersea competition, in both manned and unmanned systems. American seapower has excelled in this domain and holds a competitive edge today beneath the waves. But the U.S. Navy, by a combination of compressed funding and potentially crippling procurement cost increases, may not be well positioned to sustain its mastery of undersea warfare.             

Today’s Eroding Competitive Advantage

Near-peer competitors, such as Russia and China, are both committed to improving their undersea capabilities. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) now possesses one of the largest fleets in the world, with more than 300 ships, including five SSNs, four SSBNs, and 53 diesel-powered attack submarines (SS/SSPs).1 Russia has engaged in increasingly hostile naval activity, including targeted provocations and intimidation of NATO partners and allies, and continues procurement of the fast, heavily armed, and deep diving Severodvinsk-class SSN/SSGN.2 Additionally, China’s and Russia’s development of Anti-access/Area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities pose a major threat to the United States’ ability to secure sea control in their respective regions and, in the case of China, threaten critical United States naval facilities in the Western Pacific.3

Furthermore, these challenges come at a time when dwindling numbers and the need to replace aging ships have placed the submarine force under a tremendous amount of pressure to meet its existing obligations to Combatant Commanders (CCDR). In a March 2016 hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Admiral John Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations, admitted that the Navy is only ‘‘able to meet about 50 to 60 percent of combatant commander demands right now’’ for attack submarines.4 Admiral Harry Harris Jr. affirmed this fact when he told lawmakers “we have a shortage in submarines. My submarine requirement is not met in PACOM, and I’m just one of many [combatant commanders] that will tell you that.”5

Submarine Force of the Future

In 2014, the Navy updated its 2012 Force Structure Assessment (FSA), concluding that a total battle force structure of 308 ships, including 48 SSNs, 0 SSGNs and 12 SSBNs, would be required to meet the anticipated needs of the Navy in the 2020s. While the projected 2017 submarine force—51 SSNs, 4 SSGNs and 14 SSBNs—currently exceeds the requirements as laid out in the March 2015 308-ship plan, the Navy anticipates a shortfall as Los Angeles-class SSNs are retired at a faster rate than Virginia-class SSNs are procured (See Table 1).6

Table 1. Projected SSN Shortfall

(As Shown in the Navy’s FY2017 30-Year Shipbuilding Plan)

 

 

Fiscal Year

Annual Procurement Quantity  

Projected Number of SSNs

SSN Shortfall relative to 48-ship goal
FY2017 2 52
FY2018 2 53
FY2019 2 52
FY2020 2 52
FY2021 1 51
FY2022 2 48
FY2023 2 49
FY2024 1 48
FY2025 2 47 1
FY2026 1 45 3
FY2027 1 44 4
FY2028 1 42 6
FY2029 1 41 7
FY2030 1 42 6
FY2031 1 43 5
FY2032 1 43 5
FY2033 1 44 4
FY2034 1 45 3
FY2035 1 46 2
FY2036 2 47 1
FY2037 2 48
FY2038 2 47 1
FY2039 2 47 1
FY2040 1 47 1
FY2041 2 47 1
FY2042 1 49
FY2043 2 49
FY2044 1 50
FY2045 2 50
FY2046 1 51

Source: Table adapted from information presented in Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class Attack Submarine Procurement, Ronald O’Rourke, CRS. May 27, 2016.

As depicted in Table 1, the Navy’s FY2017 30-year SSN procurement plan calls for the procurement of 44 Virginia-class SSNs by FY2046, with production varying from one to two SSNs per fiscal year, at a cost of $2.4 billion each.7 If implemented, the SSN force would drop below the 48-ship requirement beginning in FY2025, reach a minimum of 41 ships in FY2036 and would not meet the 48-ship requirement until FY2041.8

Beginning FY2027, the Navy’s 14 Ohio-class SSBNs are scheduled for retirement at a pace of one ship per year until the class is retired in FY2040. Table 2 shows the Navy’s schedule for the retirement of the Ohio-class SSBNs and the procurement of 12 Columbia-class SSBNs set to begin replacing the Ohio-class in FY2030.9

Table 2. FY2017 Navy Schedule for Replacing Ohio-class SSBNs
 

 

 

Fiscal Year

Number of Columbia-class SSBNs procured each year Cumulative number of Columbia-class SSBNs in service Ohio-class SSBNs in service Combined  Ohio– and Columbia-class SSBNs in service
FY2019 14 14
FY2020 14 14
FY2021 1 14 14
FY2022 14 14
FY2023 14 14
FY2024 1 14 14
FY2025 14 14
FY2026 1 14 14
FY2027 1 13 13
FY2028 1 12 12
FY2029 1 11 11
FY2030 1 1 10 11
FY2031 1 2 9 11
FY2032 1 2 8 10
FY2033 1 3 7 10
FY2034 1 4 6 10
FY2035 1 5 5 10
FY2036 6 4 10
FY2037 7 3 10
FY2038 8 2 10
FY2039 9 1 10
FY2040 10 10
FY2041 11 11
FY2042 12 12

Source: Table adapted from Navy Columbia Class (Ohio Replacement) Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN[X]) Program: Background and Issues for Congress, Ronald O’Rourke, CRS, October 3, 2016.

As can be seen in Table 2, the proposed Columbia-class program schedule calls for the procurement of the new SSBNs to begin in FY2021, with the last ship being procured in FY2035 with all 12 boats entering into service by FY2042. Under this proposed procurement plan, the Navy’s “boomer” force will drop below the stipulated 12-ship requirement by one or two ships between FY2029 – FY2041.10   

Submarines in the 350-Ship Navy

The Navy has recently updated its assessment of the fleet and has proposed a larger 355-ship force.11 The resource implications of building and manning almost 70 more ships beyond today’s fleet is daunting. The underlying strategic rationale for this force and its resource implications have not well-articulated by the new Pentagon leadership or the administration. Of particular note, the force structure assessment calls for 66 SSNs.

The Navy’s new plan is supported by other analysts who have advocated for alternative force structures. According to the Heritage Foundation, the Navy should be composed of 346 ships, with 55 SSNs.12 Another alternative structure, developed by Bryan Clark at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, proposes a fleet architecture “to provide the United States an advantage in great power competition with China and Russia or against capable and strategically located regional powers such as Iran.”13 This proposed architecture calls for a fleet composed of 343 ships, with 66 SSNs. In another proposed alternative, analysts at the Center for a New American Security conclude that a 350-ship navy is “the bare minimum that is actually requires to maintain presence in the 18 maritime regions where the United States has critical national interest” and calls for the enlargement of the Navy’s SSN force to “more than 70” ships.14

It is clear from these studies that conventional wisdom from the naval cognoscenti shows a strong consensus for not only sustaining our submarine force but actually increasing it. It is equally clear that the U.S. Navy’s shipbuilding plan is unlikely to achieve the desired fleet totals and that the plan, in its current state—that is largely based on optimistic cost assessment factors—is unfeasible. The administration may resolve that with an infusion of funding but sustainable support may not be forthcoming from either OMB or the Congress. Moreover, there are plausible factors that could exacerbate the shipbuilding crisis for the Navy that could cripple even today’s nearly anemic plan. This paper explores that scenario.

Potential Problems

In pursuing its proposed SSN and SSBN procurement plan, the Navy faces a number of potential problems. One major concern is the anticipated cost of the Columbia-class program and its potential impact on other Navy shipbuilding and procurement programs. According to the Navy’s 2014 estimate, the cost of the lead ship is approximately $14.5 billion in constant TY dollars, with the average cost of ships 2-12 at $9.8 billion in constant TY dollars.15  Measured in constant FY17 dollars, the total cost for the program will be over $100B.16 Given the Navy’s FY2017 budget, Navy officials have been consistently concerned that procurement of the Columbia-class will adversely affect other Navy programs. As Admiral Jon Greenert, then Chief of Naval Operations, testified to a House subcommittee on February 26, 2015:

“In the long term beyond 2020, I am increasingly concerned about our ability to fund the Ohio Replacement ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) program—our highest priority program—within our current and projected resources. The Navy cannot procure the Ohio Replacement in the 2020s within historical shipbuilding funding levels without severely impacting other Navy programs.”17

However, given the current budget constraints under the Budget Control Act of 2011, as amended, and the Navy’s current share of the overall Department of Defense budget—nearly 28 percent in FY2017— it is unlikely that the Navy will receive the robust funding it needs from both its Shipbuilding and Conversion, Navy (SCN) account and the National Sea-Based Deterrent Fund (NSBDF).18

As a critical program for the nation due to its status within the strategic deterrence force and the Navy’s designated top priority, the Columbia-class program will be fully funded and any resulting pressures on SCN account will be borne by other Navy programs.19 In testimony delivered to the House Armed Service Committee on February 25, 2015, Navy officials testified that:

“Absent a significant increase to the SCN [Shipbuilding and Conversion, Navy] appropriation [i.e., the Navy’s shipbuilding account], OR SSBN construction will seriously impair construction of virtually all other ships in the battle force: attack submarines, destroyers, and amphibious warfare ships.”20

Any negative impact on the construction of other ships will commensurately impact the shipbuilding industrial base, reducing economies of scale, causing shipbuilding cost to “spiral unfavorably.”21 Thus, the Navy clearly recognizes that its current shipbuilding plan is highly risky and cannot be reasonably executed without additional funding.

Even with additional funding, it is entirely possible that the funds would be used to properly fund the shipbuilding account or meet unplanned cost growth. Historically, the Navy has systematically underestimated the cost of procuring new ships and the accuracy of the Navy’s estimated procurement cost for the Columbia-class ship is soft at best. In an October 2015 report by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), it was estimated that the Navy’s FY2016 30-year Shipbuilding Plan underestimated the cost of Virginia-class SSNs by around three percent and the cost of the Columbia-class ships by as much as 22 percent.22 Historical underestimation of shipbuilding cost led CBO to estimate that the lead Columbia-class SSBN would cost 13.2 billion in FY2015 dollars, with boats 2 through 12 costing $6.8 billion in FY2015 dollars, an average of $7.1 billion per ship.23 This cost growth would consume more of the Navy’s constrained shipbuilding and procurement accounts, and either stretch out the program (increasing total costs) or more likely, divert funds from Virginia-class production.

Given how the Navy has increased its requirement for ships and submarines while underestimating the cost of programs, it is very possible that the Navy will be able to afford to procure only one SSN per year after FY2023. The implications of this scenario are profound for undersea dominance (see Table 3). Without substantial increases in the Navy’s shipbuilding accounts or successful acquisition management of the predicted costs of the Columbia-class SSBN program, it is likely that the SSN shortfall will be more severe and lengthier than depicted. 

Table 3. Adjusted Projected SSN Shortfall

(Adjusted by reducing the total SSN procurement from 2 to 1 in FY2025 and FY2036-FY2039 and FY2041)

 

 

Fiscal Year

Annual Procurement Quantity  

Projected Number of SSNs

SSN Shortfall relative to 48-ship goal
FY2017 2 52
FY2018 2 53
FY2019 2 52
FY2020 2 52
FY2021 1 51
FY2022 2 48
FY2023 2 49
FY2024 1 48
FY2025 1 47 1
FY2026 1 45 3
FY2027 1 44 4
FY2028 1 42 6
FY2029 1 41 7
FY2030 1 41 7
FY2031 1 42 6
FY2032 1 42 6
FY2033 1 43 5
FY2034 1 43 4
FY2035 1 45 3
FY2036 1 46 2
FY2037 1 47 1
FY2038 1 46 2
FY2039 1 46 2
FY2040 1 46 2
FY2041 1 45 3
FY2042 1 46 2
FY2043 2 44 4
FY2044 1 45 3
FY2045 2 44 4
FY2046 1 45 3

Source: Table adapted from information presented in Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class Attack Submarine Procurement, Ronald O’Rourke, CRS, May 27, 2016.

As can be seen in Table 3, if procurement of Virginia-class SSNs is reduced from two to one per FY in FY2025, FY2036-FY2039 and FY2041, the shortfall of SSNs will continue beyond FY2046. Furthermore, by FY2046 the Navy will have six less SSNs than predicted in its 30-year Shipbuilding Plan and be three SSNs short of its 48-ship goal (See Figure 1).

Implications and Mitigation Discussion

The first implication of this scenario is the need for senior Navy leaders to gain approval and the requisite funding for their Force Structure Assessment from the new Administration and Congress. The second implication is the need to prioritize available SCN funding for Virginia-class attack boats to ensure that the potential “crash dive” scenario does not come about. 

That said, we still foresee a drop in capacity in the near to mid-term that will increase operational risks. To mitigate the impact of the major shortage of SSNs would have on the Navy’s undersea forces, it is recommended that the Navy continue to explore and expand its use of unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs). As advancements in technology continue to improve the undersea surveillance and monitoring capacity of long-loiter unmanned systems, unmanned undersea operations will be the next frontier in naval warfare.24 As Bryan Clark notes:

“With computer processing power continuing to rapidly increase and become more portable, dramatic breakthroughs are imminent in undersea sensing, communications, and networking. Advancements are also underway in power generation and storage that could yield significant increases in the endurance, speed, and capability of unmanned vehicles and systems. These improvements would compel a comprehensive reevaluation of long-held assumptions about the operational and tactical employment of undersea capabilities, as well as the future design of undersea systems.”25

As the seabed grows in economic and military importance, UUVs can act “as force multipliers and risk reduction agents for the Navy” and work autonomously or in conjunction with manned systems conducting a wide range of missions.26

UUVs can be used to monitor United States and allied seabed systems and survey, and if necessary attack, adversary’s seabed systems. Furthermore, UUVs can provide access to areas that are too hazardous or too time consuming to reach with manned platforms. With this enhanced access, UUVs could act as long-term ISR platforms and provide real-time, over-the-horizon targeting information for manned vessels.27 Likewise, large-scale UUVs could also be used to conduct intelligence gathering missions because of their ability to carry a lot of advanced sensors at a fraction of the cost of the Virginia-class SSN.  The Navy is pursuing extra-large unmanned undersea vehicles with this in mind.28 Allowing UUVs to conduct such missions not only unburdens the SSN fleet, but also minimizes the risks to the multi-billion dollar Virginia-class SSNs and their crews.

Furthermore, UUVs have the capacity to conduct routine yet important and repetitive missions that may not require the attention of multi-million dollar manned vessels. For example, UUVs could be used to maintain and observe valuable undersea infrastructure—such as the U.S. undersea cables that carry the bulk of the world’s Internet data.

Another important capability of UUVs is their potential to provide the Navy with an option for non-lethal sea control. As pointed out in the most recent Navy Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (UUV) Master Plan, “current undersea capabilities limit options for undersea engagement of undersea and surface targets to either observation/reporting or complete destruction.”29 Non-lethal options provided by UUVs could be used in situations short of war and support de-escalation during times of heightened tension.30

Adding to the potential efficacy of UUVs is their ability to be deployed and recovered stealthily from submarines. Beginning with Block V Virginia-class SSNs—procurement set to begin in 2019—the Navy plans to build its SSNs with an additional mid-body section, known as the Virginia Payload Module (VPM). Nearly 70 feet in length and containing 4 large-diameter, vertical launch tubes, the VPM increases the amount of Tomahawk cruise missiles or other payloads that the Virginia-class can carry from 37 to about 65—more than tripling the offensive capability of each ship.31 In addition to increasing the storage capacity for missiles, the VPM also has the ability to store and launch Large UUVs up to 80-inches in diameter.32 Not only does this capability allow UUVs to deploy significantly closer to enemy territory and military infrastructure, but also greatly increases the range at which submarines can track adversary’s vessels. As Rear Adm. Barry Bruner, then chief of the Undersea Warfare Division (N97) stated in reference to UUVs, “it sure beats the heck out of looking out of a periscope at a range of maybe 10,000 to 15,000 yards on a good day… Now you’re talking 20 to 40 miles.”33

Conclusion

As Russia and China continue to improve their undersea capabilities, the competitive advantage long enjoyed by the United States in undersea warfare will continue to diminish. This challenge to U.S. naval hegemony comes at a time when the Navy’s fleet of SSNs is struggling to meet existing obligations to Combatant Commanders around the globe, and is set to suffer a shortfall in the number of available attack submarines in the near future. Exacerbating the expected shortfall is the strategic necessity of building the Columbia-class SSBN; a program that is likely to exceed its predicted cost. The new administration may provide very significant increases to the Pentagon’s coffers that could offset much of the concerns raised in this article, but probably not all of them. To mitigate the impact of the SSN shortage it is imperative that the Navy focus on submarine production and move more aggressively into the development and procurement of advanced UUVs. As so eloquently put forth by Dr. T. X. Hammes, it is time for the United States to embrace the small, many and smart over the few and exquisite.34

Austin Hale is currently working as a research intern at the National Defense University’s Center for Strategic Research and is a student at George Washington University. Special thanks to Dr. F. G. Hoffman for guidance and editorial assistance on this project.

References

1. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016,” Washington, DC (April 2016): 25-26, http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2016%20China%20Military%20Power%20Report.pdf

2. Kathleen Hicks, Andrew Metrick, Lisa Sawyer Samp and Kathleen Weinberger, “Undersea Warfare in Northern Europe,” Washington, DC: Center for Security and International Studies (July 2016): 7, https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/160721_Hicks_UnderseaWarfare_Web.pdf; Dave Majumdar, “Russia’s Next Super Submarine Is Almost Ready for War,” The National Interest, March 27, 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/russias-next-super-submarine-almost-ready-war-15610?page=show.

3. Dmitri Trenin, “The Revival of the Russian Military,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2016, 23–29, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russia-fsu/2016-04-18/revival-russian-military; Office of Naval Intelligence, “The Russian Navy: A Historic Transition,” Washington DC (December 2015), http://www.oni.navy.mil/Portals/12/Intel%20agencies/russia/Russia%202015print.pdf?ver=2015-12-14-082038-923;  Stephen Frühling and Guillaume Lasconjarias, “NATO, A2AD, and the Kaliningrad Challenge,” Survival, Vol. 58, no. 2 (March 2016), 95­–116; Sydney J. Freedberg Jr “Russians In Syria Building A2/AD ‘Bubble’ Over Region: Breedlove,” BreakingDefense,” September 28, 2015, accessed at http://breakingdefense.com/2015/09/russians-in-syria-building-a2ad-bubble-over-region-breedlove/; Guillaume Lasconjarias and Alessandro Marrone, “How to Respond to Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD)? Towards a NATO Counter-A2AD Strategy,” Rome: NATO Defense College, Conference Report No. 01/16, February 2015; Mikkel Vedbey Rasmussen, “A2/AD Strategy for Deterring Russia in the Baltics,” in Baltic Sea Security, ed. Ann-Sofie Dahl (Centre for Military Studies, University of Copenhagen, 2015), 37-39, http://cms.polsci.ku.dk/publikationer/2015/Baltic_Sea_Security__final_report_in_English.pdf; Major Christopher J. McCarthy, “Anti-Access/Area Denial: The Evolution of Modern Warfare,” Lucent: A journal of National Security Studies, 2010, 3, https://www.usnwc.edu/Lucent/OpenPdf.aspx?id=95.

4. Dave Majumdar, : The U.S. Navy’s Master Plan to Rebuild Its Sub Fleet,” The National Interest, March 16, 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/the-us-navys-master-plan-rebuild-its-sub-fleet-15515.

5. Franz Stefan-Gady, “US Admiral: ‘China Seeks Hegemony in East Asia,’” The Diplomat, February 25, 2016, http://thediplomat.com/2016/02/us-admiral-china-seeks-hegemony-in-east-asia/.

6. Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class Attack Submarine Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress,” 9; Congressional Budget Office, “The U.S. Military’s Force Structure: A Primer,” 59 and 117.

7. Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class Attack Submarine Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress,”10.

8. Ibid., 10.

9. O’Rourke, “Navy Columbia Class, Background and Issues for Congress,” 7.

10. Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Columbia Class (Ohio Replacement) Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN[X]) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” 7.

11. The executive summary can be found at https://news.usni.org/2016/12/16/document-summary-navys-new-force-structure-assessment.   For some criticism see Bryan McGrath, “Quick Review of the Navy’s New Force Structure Assessment,” War on the Rocks, December 16, 2016.

12. “U.S. Navy,” 2017 Index of U.S. Military Strength, The Heritage Foundation, available at http://index.heritage.org/military/2017/assessments/us-military-power/u-s-navy/.

13. Bryan Clark, email on Alternative Future Fleet Architecture Study, 16 Jan. 2017.

14. Jerry Hendrix, “12 Carriers and 350 Ships: A Strategic Path Forward from President Elect Donald Trump,” The National Interest, November 14, 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/12-carriers-350-ships-strategic-path-forward-president-elect-18395.

15. Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Columbia Class (Ohio Replacement) Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN[X]) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” 10-12.

16. Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr., “Columbia Costs, Is it $100B or $128B?,” BreakingDefense, Jan. 9, 2017,  http://breakingdefense.com/2017/01/columbia-costs-is-it-100b-or-128b-well-yes-read-the-adb-memo/

17. Statement of Admiral Jonathan Greenert, U.S. Navy Chief of Naval Operations, Before the House Subcommittee on Defense, Committee on Appropriations on FY2016 Department of Navy Posture (26 February 2015): 7, accessed at http://www.navy.mil/cno/docs/150303%20_CNO_Posture.pdf.

18. Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Force Structure: A Bigger Fleet? Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service (November 2016): 7, available at https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/R44635.pdf;  Sam LaGrone, “FY 2017 Budget: Tight Navy Budget in Line With Pentagon Drive for High End Warfighting Power But Brings Increased Risk,” USNI News, February 29, 2016, https://news.usni.org/2016/02/09/fy-2017-budget-tighter-navy-budget-in-line-with-pentagon-drive-for-more-high-end-warfighting-power.

19. Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Columbia Class (Ohio Replacement) Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN[X]) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” 25.

20. Ibid., 25.

21. Ibid., 25.

22. Congressional Budget Office, “An Analysis of the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2016 Shipbuilding Plan,” Washington, DC (October 2015): Appendix B, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/114th-congress-2015-2016/reports/50926-Shipbuilding-2.pdf

23. Ibid., 25.

24. For a forecast in this area, see Bryan Clark, “The Emerging Era in Undersea Warfare,” Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (September 2016), 8–16 available at http://csbaonline.org/research/publications/undersea-warfare/publication; Christian Davenport, “The New Frontier for Drone Warfare: Under the Oceans,” The Washington Post, November 25, 2016, A16.

25. Bryan Clark, et al. “Alternative Future Fleet Architecture Study,” 16.

26. Department of the Navy, “The Navy Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (UUV) Master Plan,” (November 9, 2004): xvii, http://www.navy.mil/navydata/technology/uuvmp.pdf; Department of the Navy, Report to Congress: Autonomous Undersea Vehicle Requirements for 2025 (February 2016): 3, available at https://news.usni.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/18Feb16-Report-to-Congress-Autonomous-Undersea-Vehicle-Requirement-for-2025.pdf#viewer.action=download.

27. Report to Congress: Autonomous Undersea Vehicle Requirements for 2025 (February 2016): 8.

28. Valerie Insinna, “Navy About to Kick Off Extra Large UUV Competition,” Defense News, January 10, 2017.

29. Report to Congress: Autonomous Undersea Vehicle Requirements for 2025 (February 2016): 5.

30. Ibid., 5.

31. O’Rourke, “Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class: Background and Issues for Congress,” 7.

32. Dave Majumdar, “Russia vs. America: The Race for Underwater Spy Drones,” The National Interest, January, 21 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/america-vs-russia-the-race-underwater-spy-drones-14981.

33. Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “Run Silent, Go Deep: Drone-Launching Subs To Be Navy’s ‘Wide Receivers,” Breaking Defense, October 26, 2012, http://breakingdefense.com/2012/10/run-silent-go-deep-drone-launching-subs-to-be-navys-wide-rec/.

34. T.X. Hammes, “The Future of Ware: Small, Many, Smart vs. Few & Exquisite?,” War on the Rocks, July 16, 2014, http://warontherocks.com/2014/07/the-future-of-warfare-small-many-smart-vs-few-exquisite/

Featured Image: Electric Boat workers prepare submarine Illinois for rollout on July 24, 2015. (Photo: General Dynamics Electric Boat)