Tag Archives: Undersea

The Deep Ocean: Seabed Warfare and the Defense of Undersea Infrastructure, Pt. 1

By Bill Glenney

Introduction

Given recent activities by the PLA(N) and the Russian Navy, the matters of seabed warfare and the defense of undersea infrastructure have emerged as topics of interest to the U. S. Navy.1,2 Part One of this paper presents several significant considerations, arguably contrary to common thinking, that highlight the challenges of bringing the deep sea and benthic realm into cross-domain warfighting in the maritime environment. Part Two presents three warfighting concepts drawn from the body of work done by the CNO Strategic Studies Group (SSG) that would give the Navy capabilities of value for the potential battlespace.

The Deep Ocean Environment

For clarity the term “deep ocean” will be used to cover the ocean bottom, beneath the ocean bottom to some unspecified depth, and the ocean water column deeper than about 3,000 feet.3 The deep ocean is where the U.S. Navy and the submarine force are not. Undersea infrastructures are in the deep ocean and on or under the seabed for various purposes.

How does the maritime fight on the ocean surface change when there must be a comparable fight for the deep ocean? In the maritime environment, it is long past time for the U.S. Navy to be mindful of and develop capabilities that account for effects in, from, and into the deep ocean, including effects on the ocean floor. Cross-domain warfighting demands this kind of completeness and specificity. As the Army had to learn about and embrace the air domain for its Air-Land battle in the 1980s, the Navy must do the same with the deep ocean for maritime warfare today and for the future.

However, the current frameworks of mine warfare, undersea warfare, and anti-submarine warfare as practiced by the Navy today are by no means sufficient to even deny the deep ocean to an adversary let alone control the deep ocean.  To “own” a domain, a force must have the capability to sense and understand what is in and what is happening in that domain. The force must also have the capability to act in a timely manner throughout that domain.

Today, the Navy and many nations around the world have radars and other sensors that can detect, track, and classify most of anything and everything that exists and happens in the atmosphere from the surface of the ocean and land up to an altitude of 90,000 feet altitude or higher, even into outer space. The Navy and many nations also have weapons – on the surface and on land, and in the air – that can act anywhere within the atmosphere. Some nations even have weapons that can act in the atmosphere from below the ocean surface. In short, with regard to the air domain, relevant maritime capabilities abound, including  fixed or mobile, unmanned or manned, precise or area. Naval forces can readily affect the air domain with capabilities that can cover the entire atmosphere.

But the same cannot be said for the deep ocean. Figure 1 below is based on information drawn from unclassified sources. Consider this depiction of the undersea in comparison with the air domain. Notice that there is a lot of light blue space – space where the Navy apparently does not have any capability to sense, understand, and act. The Navy’s capability to effect in, from, and into the deep ocean is at best extremely limited, but for the most part non-existent. Capabilities specifically relative to the seabed are even less, and with the Navy’s mine countermeasures capabilities also being very limited. What systems does the Navy have to detect unmanned underwater vehicles at very deep depths? What systems does the Navy have to surveil large ocean areas and the resident seabed infrastructure? What systems does the Navy have to act, defend, or attack, in the deep ocean?

Figure 1 – The Deep Ocean

Arguably, the Navy has built an approach to maritime warfighting that dismisses the deep ocean, and done so based on the assumption that dominating the top 3,000 feet of the waterspace is sufficient to dominating the entire waterspace – ocean floor to ocean surface. Undersea infrastructure is presumably safe and protected because the ceiling over it is locked up.

However, the force must have the capabilities to sense, understand, and act in the deep ocean.

While the assumption for dominating the deep ocean by dominating the ceiling may have been useful in the past, it clearly is no longer valid. In the past, it was very expensive to do anything in the deep ocean. The technology was not readily available, residing only in the hands of two or three nations or big oil companies. This no longer holds true. The cost of undersea technology for even the deepest known parts of the ocean has dropped dramatically, and also widely proliferated. If one has a couple hundred million dollars or maybe a billion dollars, they can sense, understand, and act in the deep ocean without any help from a nation or military. Unlike the U.S. government-funded search for the SS Titanic by Robert Ballard, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen independently found USS Indianapolis in over 15,000 feet of water in the Philippine Sea. The capabilities to sense, understand, and act in the deep ocean are available to anyone with a reasonable amount of money to buy them.

Figure 1 is misleading in one perspective. At the level of scale in figure 1, the ocean floor looks flat and smooth. If something is placed on the ocean bottom, such as a towed payload module, a logistics cache, sensors, or a weapon system, could it be easily found?

Figure 2 is a picture of survey results from the vicinity of the Diamantina Trench approximately 700 miles west of Perth, Australia in the Indian Ocean. The red line over the undersea mountain is about 17 miles in length. The water depth on the red line varies from 13,800 feet to 9,500 feet as shown on the right.4

Figure 2 – Diamantina Trench

Consider figure 3. The red line is just under three miles in length. The depth variation ranges from 12,100 feet to 11,900 feet.5 These figures provide examples of evidence that the abyssal is not featureless. The assumption of a flat and smooth ocean floor is simply wrong, and severely understates the challenge of sensing and acting in the deep sea.

Figure 3 – A Closer View in the Diamantina Trench

How hard would it be to find a standard-sized shipping container (8ft x 8ft x 20ft or even 40ft) on this floor? It could be incredibly difficult, requiring days or weeks or even months with many survey vehicles, especially if the area had not been previously surveyed. This is a lesson the U. S. Navy learned in the Cold War and has long since forgotten from its “Q routes” for port access. And it would be harder still if one were purposefully trying to hide whatever they placed on the ocean floor, such as in the pockmarks of figure 3.

Based on reported results from a two-year search for Malaysian Airlines flight MH-370, approximately 1.8 million square miles of the ocean floor were searched and mapped to a horizontal resolution on the order of 100 meters and vertical resolution of less than one meter.6 Yet, the plane remains unlocated.

Hiding things on the seabed is fairly easy, while finding things on the seabed is incredibly difficult. Unless one is looking all the time, and has an accurate baseline from which to start the search and compare the results, sensing in the deep sea is significant challenge. The next consideration is that of the matter of scale of the geographic area and what resides within it. This is what makes numbers matter.

Figure 4 provides a view of the Gulf of Mexico covering about 600,000 square miles in area and with waters as deep as 14,000 feet. There are about 3,500 platforms and rigs, and approximately 43,000 miles of pipeline spread across the Gulf.

Figure 4. – The Gulf of Mexico (National Geographic)

Of note, the global economy and worldwide demands for energy have caused the emergence of a strategic asymmetry exemplified by this figure. China gets most of its energy imports by surface shipping which is vulnerable to traditional anti-shipping campaigns. The U. S. gets much of its energy from undersea systems in the Gulf of Mexico. While immune from anti-shipping, this infrastructure is vulnerable to seabed attack. In late 2017, the Mexican government leased part of their Gulf of Mexico Exclusive Economic Zone seafloor to the Chinese for oil exploration.

Figure 5 provides a depiction of global undersea communication cables with some 300 cables and about 550,000 miles of cabling.

Figure 5 – Global Undersea Telecommunications Cables

Figure 6 provides a view of the South China Sea near Natuna Besar. This area is about 1.35 million square miles with waters as deep as 8,500 feet. Recall that in the two-year search for Malaysian Air flight MH 370 they surveyed only 1.8 million square miles, and did so in a militarily-benign environment. 

Figure 6 – The South China Sea

The deep ocean demands that a maritime force be capable of surveilling and acting in and over large geographic areas just like the ocean surface above it. Undersea infrastructure is already dispersed throughout those large areas. In addition, because the components of undersea infrastructure are finite in size, the deep ocean also demands that a maritime force be capable of surveilling and acting in discrete places. While it is arguable that defense in the deep ocean is a wide-area challenge and offense is a discrete challenge, the deep ocean demands that a maritime force be capable of doing both as part of the maritime battle. Therefore, the deep ocean presents an “area” challenge and a “point” challenge simultaneously, and both must be addressed by maritime forces.

In addition, the size of the area and the number of points of interest means that a dozen UUVs or a couple of nuclear submarines are not in any way sufficient to address the maritime warfighting challenge of defending the deep ocean and undersea infrastructure of this scale. Furthermore, the situation is exacerbated by systems and vehicles in the deep ocean above the seabed. The threat is not a few, large, manned platforms, but many small unmanned vehicles and weapons.

The historical demarcation among torpedoes, mines, and vehicles is no longer productive except maybe for purposes of international law and OPNAV programmatics. Operationally and tactically, the differentiation is arbitrary and a distraction from operational thinking. The Navy should be talking in terms of unmanned systems – some armed or weaponized, and some not; some mobile and some not; some intelligent and some not. Torpedoes can easily become mobile, armed UUVs with limited intelligence. Mines can also become mobile or fixed UUVs with very limited intelligence.

In the course of the author’s research and in research conducted by the CNO SSG, there were no situations or considerations where reclassifying mines and torpedoes as UUVs was problematic with regard to envisioning war at sea. Doing so eliminated a significant tactical and operational seam and opened up operational thinking. The systems for the detection and neutralization of UUVs are the same as those needed to detect and neutralize torpedoes and mines, and the same for surveilling or attacking undersea infrastructure.

Conclusion

Ultimately, understanding the deep ocean and warfare in the deep ocean is a matter of numbers and time – requiring plenty of sensors, and plenty of time. Part Two will present three warfighting concepts drawn from the body of work done by the CNO Strategic Studies Group (SSG) that would give the Navy capabilities for the deep sea battlespace.

Professor William G. Glenney, IV, is a researcher in the Institute for Future Warfare Studies at the U. S. Naval War College.

The views presented here are personal and do not reflect official positions of the Naval War College, DON or DOD.

References 

1. This article is based on the author’s remarks given at the Naval Postgraduate School Warfare Innovation Continuum Workshop on 19 September 2018. All information and conclusions are based entirely on unclassified information.

2. See for example Rishi Sunak, MP, Undersea Cables:  Indispensable, Insecure, Policy Exchange (2017, London, UK);  Morgan Chalfant and Olivia Beavers, “Spotlight Falls on Russian Threat to Undersea Cables”, The Hill, 17 June 2018 accessed at http://thehill.com/policy/cybersecurity/392577-spotlight-falls-on-russian-threat-to-undersea-cables;  Victor Abramowicz, “Moscow’s other navy”, The Interpreter, 21 June 2018 accessed at https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/moscows-other-navy?utm_source=RC+Defense+Morning+Recon&utm_campaign=314b587fab-EMAIL;  Stephen Chen, “Beijing plans an AI Atlantis for the South China Sea – without a human in sight”, South China Morning Post, 26 November 2018 accessed at https://www.scmp.com/news/china/science/article/2174738/beijing-plans-ai-atlantis-south-china-sea-without-human-sight;  and Asia Times Staff, “Taiwan undersea cables ‘priority targets’ by PLA in war”, Asia Times, 6 December 2017 accessed at http://www.atimes.com/article/taiwan-undersea-cables-priority-targets-pla-war.

3. Based on unclassified sources, manned nuclear submarines can operate to water depth of 1,000-1,500 feet, manned diesel submarines somewhat shallower, and existing undersea weapons to depths approaching 3,000 feet.

4. Kim Picard, et. al., “Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 search data reveal geomorphology and seafloor processes in the remote southeast Indian Ocean,” Marine Geology 395 (2018) 301-319, pg 316.

5. Kim Picard, et. al., “Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 search data reveal geomorphology and seafloor processes in the remote southeast Indian Ocean,” Marine Geology 395 (2018) 301-319, pg 317.

6. Kim Picard, Walter Smith, Maggie Tran, Justy Siwabessy and Paul Kennedy, “Increased-resolution Bathymetry in the Southeast Indian Ocean”, Hydro International, https://www.hydro-international.com/content/article/increased-resolution-bathymetry-in-the-southeast-indian-ocean, accessed 13 December 2017.

Featured Image: Deep Discoverer, a remotely operated vehicle, explores a cultural heritage site during Dive 02 of the Gulf of Mexico 2018 expedition. (Image courtesy of the NOAA/OER)

Spasibo

Fiction Topic Week

By Evan D’Alessandro

The containers arrived at Norfolk early in the morning, with the snow a powdered sugar-like dusting on the trucks as they moved through the port. The darkness failed to hide their arrival from the Russians watching them through the hijacked security cameras. Another shipment in the cold weather of nondescript containers, their true propose not yet revealed. The containers had traveled for 36 hours to arrive on time and be loaded onto the requisitioned container ship MV Lt. Lyle J. Bouck. The watching Russians marked the containers as convoy supplies without a second thought, oblivious to what they had just missed.

Days before the containers were moved an AI had considered each ship’s cargo carefully. It speed, tonnage, fuel, acoustic signature, and survivability from a number of threats were all variables in the calculation. Ultimately, the AI decided that this convoy was not worth protecting. The cargo was all non-personnel, and the ships were old and only the commander’s ship was manned. The Navy had been stretched thin even with the Royal Canadian Navy and the Coast Guard ships that had been pressed into convoy duty. No ships would be assigned to protect them. They would be listed as unprotected, having to use the winter storms to shield themselves from satellites, as they attempted to dash across the Atlantic, praying for the best.

Vasily Sokolov read the report gleaned from a backdoor purchased off the Dark Web, checked the box for ‘no escort’ and moved on. He scrolled through the supply manifest slowly and then pulled up the satellite imagery for the ships, a satellite composite only four hours old.  The only visible armaments on the ships was the M109 Paladin, undoubtedly with its hypervelocity projectiles for air and missile defense. It sat atop a stack of red and blue containers, moored to them by large metallic brackets. A bulky cable snaked its way back to the superstructure of the ship, terminating in its dark underbelly. Vasily checked the ‘3D’ box and turned the ship, revealing a short ugly dome perched atop the superstructure, the predictive software pulling from known ship plans and previous satellite imagery. Quickly checking the projected dimensions on the dome against shipment records, Vasily confirmed that it contained the fire control radar that had been bolted on by techs the day before. With three of the ships in the convoy carrying a Paladin, it was hoped there would be some protection from hypersonic missiles. Vasily chuckled, as if missiles would be wasted on these low-value ships. A quick look at the aft decks of the ships confirmed that each was carrying two ‘Grasshoppers,’ the ASW drone that the Americans used. As he moused his way through the other ships, he could see Paladins emplaced onboard the other convoy ships, and prefabricated hangers being assembled on the back decks for the Grasshoppers. The tiny dots of technicians on his computer screen would be working through the night to get them finished in time to depart on their dangerous voyage.

The convoy sailed at 0800, picking up a low-pressure front that the predictive weather AI’s expected to turn to rain in the next 16 hours. The winter storms of the Atlantic were notorious, but the front seemed destined only for continual, dismal rain. The Grasshoppers went to work immediately, making sure that they weren’t picking up a tail when they exited the anti-drone net across the mouth of the harbor. The cycle of one hour on, two hours charging would continue as long as the weather permitted.

At 2100, in the darkness of the cloudy night, the containers were opened. Large cylinders were wheeled out and quickly put underneath the superstructure and covered in canvas. In the morning, they would be unseen by any satellite that managed to catch the convoy, and the Russians would be none the wiser. The convoy’s secret weapon, two Mk. 2 Autonomous Underwater Combat Vehicles (AUCVs) were prepared for battle. As their last restraint was being tightened the rain began, cloaking the convoy in its misty hold; the convoy would hide under this front for the rest of its journey.

Vasily Sokolov looked at the computer screen and leaned back. He stifled a yawn, and longed to go back to bed, but, no, there was a war going on, and his job needed to be done. His eyes ran down to the last box simply titled ‘Recommendations.’ Once again he paused, the convoy was equipped to deal with hypersonics, but not torpedo carriers, so that’s what he would recommend. One should be enough for an unarmed convoy, no, two for safety. Better safe than sorry his father had always said. Give them torpedo interceptors? No, the convoy wouldn’t be able to fight back, they only had 12 Grasshoppers. Better to load as many torpedoes as possible. His mind made up, Vasily Sokolov cracked his fingers and began to type.

The rain had begun to lessen in the middle of the Atlantic as the Captain arrived on the bridge from her all too short sleep. The USNR had called her up, and assigned her to what she considered to be little more than a oversized bathtub with propellers. The Captain’s voice echoed out across the bridge as she put on her VR display. “What does the report say?” The Tech looked out at the whitecaped waves as the threat report started to print out.

“Report for 41°37’41.5″N 31°33’22.5″W. Two Type 34 Autonomous Torpedo Carriers detected, no other threats at this time.”

 “Two Mother Hens” the Tech called out, “both are probably carrying a full load of eggs, no interceptors, the Autonomous Acoustic Monitoring AI predicts them to be here, but no one’s sure.” The Captain grumbled, she had never been comfortable with the idea of the football-sized drones floating through the water replicating SOSUS, but it was undoubtedly effective. “They went silent 4 or 5 hours ago, switched over to electric,” the Tech continued. “Any idea on what type of eggs?” the Captain asked with her light southern drawl. “Nope, the report has nothing on the torps,” the Tech replied wearily once again staring back out at the waves. The captain sighed as she stripped off the VR display, and went off to make up for her lack of coffee. For a brief moment her eyes gazed across the overcast rain and the Grasshoppers doing their job. There was nothing else she could do.

Ten miles out the Mother Hens were studying the acoustic signatures of the convoy. The onboard AI’s knew everything that Russian Naval Intelligence had gleaned about the convoy and were locked in deliberations. After a few minutes, they decided on a simultaneous pincer movement from the front and back as their plan of attack, and both slowly set off to get into attack position.

Grasshopper 4 was completing a set of passive dips on the north side of the convoy as droplets of rain pinged off its aluminum body. It had just popped up and moved 300 feet further north, covering the left flank of the convoy, and lowered its sonar when something unexpected happened. Imperceptible to the human ear, but detectable to the computer was a slight rumble. The computer reached a decision in seconds, deciding to stay put in the cold, grey rain, and requested Grasshopper 7 to immediately move into the area. Onboard the Bouck, a track popped up on the freshly-caffeinated Captain’s VR display, simply reading ‘possible threat.’ Beneath the waves of the Atlantic, the Mother Hen continued on its way oblivious to the threat above. Grasshopper 4 asked for permission to go to active sonar but the Captain denied it as  Grasshopper 7 sped its way towards Grasshopper 4, and the Bouck’s own Grasshopper 9 lifted off. The active could wait. As Grasshopper 4 waited it compared the rumble to previously recorded signatures in the Grasshoppers’ database, the VR display showing a rapidly increasing chance that the contact was a Mother Hen.  Calmly, the Captain watched the hostile track as the probability reached 60 percent, and then gave the order to fire.

Across the waves, Grasshopper 4 dropped the lower part of its body. The dull-grey, square casing discarded from the torpedo as it fell into the black water below, and the torpedo immediately went active. The Mother Hen detected the crash of debris ahead, and within milliseconds of hearing the first ‘ping,’ let off its own countermeasures. On the Bouck’s bridge the Captain looked on at the command map. Three of the four-noisemaker patterns were known, having been stolen from Russian firms under cyber espionage, and the torpedo immediately ignored them. The fourth noisemaker was unknown, and the Captain watched as the torpedo waivered for a heart-stopping second, then turned to chase the first Mother Hen.

The first Mother Hen had made it far too close to the convoy, nearly guaranteeing a hit with its torpedoes. The onboard AI considered trying to run but discarded the idea instantly. With an air of sadness, the first Mother Hen turned in towards the convoy and the oncoming torpedo, and unceremoniously fired all of its ‘eggs.’  A wave of  torpedoes lanced out in a spread: the Hen’s final gamble. As the torpedoes left, the two canisters on the Mother Hen’s back were blown upwards in a silver stream of bubbles towards the surface. One immediately broadcast the position of the convoy and the fate of the doomed Mother Hen. The second one popped out, and with an eruption of fire flew after Grasshopper 4. With little formality the missile closed, as Grasshopper 4 tried to hug the dark ocean for safety, before being turned into a bright ball of flame. The sorrow that was felt upon the loss of Grasshopper 4 was immediately overshadowed by the churning sea that signaled the death of the Mother Hen. Grasshopper 7 dipped into the cold waters and went active, ensuring that the Mother Hen was not playing dead. No return on the sonar. A confirmed kill.

Onboard the Bouck, the VR display changed to ‘threat destroyed.’ On the bridge, the Captain had already ordered a hard turn to starboard, turning parallel to the torpedoes and minimizing the convoy’s cross section. With the threat of incoming torpedoes and the possibility of a second Hen, the Captain unveiled her trump card. With an unceremonious crash into the Atlantic, the two carefully hidden Mk. 2 AUCV’s dropped into the waves, their long grey forms diving into the depths. All available Grasshoppers simultaneously rose from their charging ports in a frenzy of activity, as they moved across the convoy seeking out their enemies.

One of the Mk. 2’s now sat underneath the hull of the Bouck, trying to hide the fact that two were now in the water. The other Mk.2 assessed the incoming torpedo spread. The Mk.2’s AI pulled information from Grasshopper 7 and its own sensors, overlaying the convoy’s turn, and projecting forward. Three threats, the Mk.2 AI decided, and it dived and launched. Six ‘Silverfish’ torpedo interceptors raced out from the Mk. 2, closing in on the inbound torpedoes. The Captain looked on from the bridge. By the way the Mother Hen’s torpedoes were dodging, it was obvious they were outdated; clearly the Russians had underestimated the convoy’s defenses.

The Silverfish jabbered the whole way there, determining the Mother Hen’s torpedoes’ type and patterns. The first torpedo went left when it should have gone right, meeting its end in a mess of debris. The second torpedo dodged the first Silverfish, slipping through by diving at just the proper time, only to be met by the second Silverfish. The third torpedo dodged left, then right, the first Silverfish missing by mere inches, shortly followed by the second Silverfish mistaking a feint for a move and shooting underneath the torpedo.

The Mk. 2 looked on impassively, quickly calculating the chance of hitting the third torpedo, and launched a further three Silverfish. The torpedo was within 1000 feet and closing as the Silverfish streaked towards it, separated by mere seconds. The torpedo danced left, right, up, and down in an attempt to throw off the Silverfish gaining on it. But in the end it was not successful, the second Silverfish tearing its engines to pieces leaving it dead in the water. The Captain looked up coolly from the command map, only to hear klaxons blare.

The second Mother Hen had made it much closer to the convoy, slipping in through the convoy’s baffles while they were distracted, and finding itself a wolf among a flock of sheep. Sitting under the hull of one of its prey, it reached its decision and cut its engines, drifting slowly back, unseen in the darkness of the Atlantic.

The Captain sat up in shock as the VR display squealed an alarm, ‘FISH IN THE WATER! FISH IN THE WATER!’ and twisted around to see the tracks of four torpedoes from the second Mother Hen heading towards the Bouck and her sister ship the Sgt. William L. Slape. Behind her the Mk. 2 that had dealt with the initial torpedo barrage spit out the last of its 12 Silverfish at the new incoming wave, hoping that the interceptors would overtake the torpedoes before they hit. A Grasshopper also dropped down behind the convoy and went active, trying to acquire the threat. Within a second, another barrage of torpedoes from the second Mother Hen headed towards two other ships in the convoy, traveling underneath the water, preparing to pop up and hit the ship’s hulls perpendicularly.

The Captain waved her hand and the VR display stopped its alarms and calmly showed the tracks towards her convoy. Below her the fresh Mk. 2 was considering its options. It could try to destroy the torpedoes targeting the Bouck and the Slape, or it could go after the torpedoes targeting the ships farther forward. Grasshopper 5 noticed a lack of sound as one of the torpedoes targeting the Bouck stopped accelerating; it was now unguided and slowing as its propeller stopped, the watertight seals failing and the engine being swamped. The tracks of the Silverfish from the first Mk. 2 glowed green on the VR display, but it was more than clear that they would not stop the torpedoes in time.

The fresh Mk. 2 made its decision, and started to flip 180 degrees. Halfway through its turn it launched all 12 of its onboard Silverfish towardsthe torpedoes planning to pop-up, and brought its motors onto full. The Captain watched as her Mk. 2 launched its Silverfish, and her VR display show a 94 percent kill chance on the torpedoes targeting the ships farther down the line. The fresh Mk. 2 dropped both its torpedoes on the now acquired Mother Hen and pushed its engines to full, accelerating towards the torpedo.

The VR display shuddered as the rear end of the Bouck was lifted six inches from the water and its rear decks were covered in a spray as the Mk.2 met the oncoming torpedo. The torpedo tried to fight until the end, but the Mk. 2 imposed its bulk between the torpedo and the Bouck. An explosion was seen in the distance, the death of the second Mother Hen that had attacked. There was a second of calm then the Slape lifted several feet in the air as she too was hit. Two great spouts of water shot up from the side of the Slape as the torpedoes impacted just below the waterline. The VR display made an all-clear noise as the Silverfish intercepted and destroyed the remaining torpedoes, overtaking them and shattering them into a thousand pieces. Damage reports flooded in from the dying Slape. Like stricken rats, the Slape’s Grasshoppers, recharging from their last shift, fled the ship as it filled with water quickly shuttling to open charging ports on other convoy ships. The VR display marked the Slape as a loss, with a bright red outline, as the Grasshoppers buzzed, diligently searching for more enemies.

Behind the convoy a beacon popped up transmitting the location and death of the second Mother Hen. The Captain watched its progress as the noise of the fight slowly faded from her ears. Slowly the Mother Hen’s beacon was swallowed into the Atlantic, along with the shattered wreck of the Slape. The rain slowly picked back up in intensity as it covered the convoy with its grey cloak.

Vasily looked once more at his computer screen as it displayed the fate of the Mother Hens. “Spasibo”, he said to himself as a wry smile grew on his face, “Thank you for showing me your countermeasures.” He perched a cigarette between his smiling lips, reached out, and began to type, “To all AI Anti-Shipping Deployments….”

Evan D’Alessandro is a student at Luther College studying astrobiology, data science, and international relations. He enjoys military history and policy debate, and aspires to become a naval intelligence officer in the future. He can be contacted at evan.dalessandro@gmail.com.

Featured Image: Torpedo Exexutor, concept art by Markus Biegholdt, 3D art by Miroslaw Cichon.

The Nanxun Jiao Crisis and the Dawn of Autonomous Undersea Conflict

Fiction Topic Week

The following story is the next installment of a series on micronaval warfare. Read Part One of Admiral Lacy’s oral history on the emergence of micronaval warfare, “The Battle of Locust Point.”

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.

Admiral Jeremy B. Lacy, USN (Ret.)

November 19, 2033

Annapolis, Maryland

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


Good morning.

We are joined again today by Admiral Jeremy B. Lacy, widely considered the father of autonomous undersea conflict, or what has come to be known as micronaval warfare. Admiral Lacy spearheaded the Atom-class microsubmarine program, eventually going on to establish Strikepod Group 1 (COMPODGRU 1), and serving as Commander, Strikepod Forces, Atlantic (COMPODLANT). He is currently the Corbin A. McNeill Endowed Chair in Naval Engineering at the U.S. Naval Academy.

This is the second installment of a planned eight-part classified oral history focusing on Admiral Lacy’s distinguished naval career, and his profound impact on modern naval warfare. In Part I, we learned about the genesis of the Atom-class microsubmarine and its operational construct, the Strikepod, and the series of events leading up to the first combat engagement of the micronaval era, the Battle of Locust Point, where a Strikepod of prototype Atoms tracked and engaged several Russian Istina-class microsubmarines prowling the upper Chesapeake Bay during Baltimore Fleet Week, 2016. Today our discussion will focus on the aftermath of Locust Point, the continued development of the Atom-class microsubmarine, as well as the early days of autonomous undersea conflict, including the first major confrontation of the micronaval era, the Nanxun Jiao Crisis.

The period following Locust Point was a time of high tension and uncertainty. With the United States now facing an unprecedented undersea threat to both the homeland and forces abroad, the president, through a series of classified executive orders, mobilized a full range of U.S. defensive capabilities. This included authorizing a broad expansion of the Atom-class microsubmarine program via the Joint Undersea Initiatives Group (known colloquially as FathomWorks), a consortium of leading defense contractors and specialized units of the United States Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps charged with, among other things, developing a coastal undersea network to defend against foreign micronaval threats.

We joined Admiral Lacy again at his home in Annapolis, Maryland.

Let’s begin today with FathomWorks. Paint the picture, if you will, of those early weeks in the wake of Locust Point.

It was all about testing, evaluation, and improvement. The Atom had performed admirably, but for all intents and purposes, it was still a prototype, and there were serious gaps in coms and navigation that needed addressing, as well as kinks with Falken [the Atom’s artificial intelligence]. Our vision for the Atom-class was achievable, but in order to get there we had to enhance Falken dramatically. Strikepods would be operating – and fighting – in a complex, communication-denied environment for extended periods. This demanded a highly advanced form of artificial intelligence, as well as a more evolved approach to human-machine teaming.

We emerged from Locust Point feeling pretty validated, and confident that Strikepods could be more than just another club in the bag, that they promised much more than minehunting or intel gathering. We knew that this was a capable platform in and of itself that could be integrated into the fleet at the operational level.

But there was no time to dream and tinker. Our mandate was clear, and the sense of urgency was unmistakable. The Russians were on the move, and the threat they posed to our security was greater than at any time since the Cold War. Our analysts had taken one on the chin with Locust Point, but they’d been warning for months that Moscow was working on something highly advanced and very closely guarded, but there was no indication that anything was operational, much less poised to invade our inland waters. A lot of folks at the Pentagon laughed it off. But they weren’t laughing now, especially when we took a closer look at Poseidon.

So Locust Point influenced the Navy’s perception of the Poseidon program?

When we first heard of it, it seemed more implausible than Istina. That the Russians had the know-how or the resources to develop an autonomous microsubmarine was difficult enough to believe, but when we started receiving information on a nuclear-tipped autonomous torpedo, we were honestly beginning to wonder if we were the target of a wildly excessive disinformation campaign. Even when we received intelligence that it had been test fired from the Sarov, we just didn’t see it as a viable platform. But the Istina changed all that.

In what way? 

If the Russians were capable of the miniaturization and AI integration – and audacity – we’d experienced with the Istinas, then we had to assume that Poseidon would eventually threaten our shores as well. We needed a viable micronaval defense.

And so the Atlantic Undersea Network was born? 

Yes. The Atom was incredibly flexible by design, and could be configured to fulfill a multitude of roles. We’d been tossing around concepts for mine warfare, including a variant optimized for the seabed, something akin to a mobile, local area SOSUS, with the capability to detect and engage both surface and subsurface targets. The idea, conceptually, was to have Strikepods fanned out across the seabed near certain approaches to the eastern seaboard – Bangor, Boston, New York, the Chesapeake, Norfolk, Kings Bay. These would serve as the ears for either roving hunter-killer Strikepods, or Atoms housed in undersea microsubmarine batteries. In this way, AUDEN would essentially be an integrated minefield.

The signature feature of the seabed-optimized Atom was the Advanced Seabed Warfare module which, in addition to providing a suite of highly advanced communication and sensor technologies, also housed the SEASTAR [Seabed Static Array] – a passive microsonar array that would deploy from the module and extend about 150 feet upward into the water column. With their SEASTARs deployed, the networked seabed Atoms could act as a large array, identifying and classifying targets and passing that information along to the Strikepods – either roving, or turret-based.

AUDEN was clearly prompted by the immediacy of the Russian micronaval threat, but were you also troubled by other adversary programs, such as the Chinese Shāyú-class microsubmarine? 

We were keenly aware of adversary developments, particularly with the PLAN. The intelligence we’d been receiving on the Shāyú was spotty, but given China’s public successes with Haiyi gliders and deep diving vehicles like the Hailong III, as well as their commitment to an Undersea Great Wall, we were fairly confident that not only did the program exist, but that it was in all likelihood operational. And it wasn’t long before our suspicions proved correct.

In the South China Sea? 

About six months after Locust Point, late in the spring of 2017, I got a call from Seventh Fleet inquiring about our progress on the improved Atom, and whether we’d be up for an overseas deployment. At that point we’d pretty much improved the coms issues, and Falken’s training and testing was nearly complete. After checking with the engineers, we thought we were up for the challenge, and on April 1, 2017, half a dozen 5-ship Strikepods were deployed to the Spratlys in what was called Operation Eminent Shadow. Each pod’s initial configuration was one rogue, two remoras, and two relays, and their mission was to carry out general ISR and ASW operations, focusing primarily on the waters off of Subi, Mischief, and Fiery Cross, and to escort both surface ships and submarines performing FONOPS throughout the central Spratlys.

So there was harassment under the sea as well? 

Oh, absolutely. Of course, none of these encounters ever made headlines. It simply wasn’t in anyone’s interest to publicize them, and anyway there was more than enough high-profile harassment happening on the surface to keep the public and media buzzing.

The concerning thing was that Chinese subs were showing up unexpectedly, at times and places that suggested they knew where we were. Their Y-8s were dropping buoys practically right on top of our boats, and destroyers and frigates would show up suddenly to shoo us away. It was reminiscent of what we were experiencing with our boomers right before the Istinas showed up at our front door. Needless to say, COMPSUBPAC’s hackle was up. So the Strikepods were there to help figure out what the hell was going on.

Were they under the control of COMSUBPAC?

Actually, they were under the control of COMPODGRU 1, out of Norfolk, Virginia. There’d been a great deal of debate over this – whether Strikepods were a platform or payload, whether there should be a centralized Strikepod command versus a more decentralized payload approach. But we pointed at the Air Force piloting Reapers and Predators out of the southwest, and said look, there’s no reason why Strikepods can’t be run out of Norfolk, particularly when we’re talking about providing a persistent forward presence like any high-value asset.

So we’d airlift the Atoms to Guam, load them onto waiting Virginias, who’d then deploy them – from the torpedo tubes, initially, until we were able to fully integrate a launch and recovery system with the Virginia Payload Module.  And then we’d get to work, reporting contacts, keeping tabs on the PLAN. We were even able to test the Remora Module in a live environment, tracking a Yuan-class submarine for ten straight days all over the Central Spratlys. It was all going pretty smoothly, with high fives all around. But the Chinese were still showing up unannounced.

What was it like when you finally encountered the Shāyú? 

It was another day of Eminent Shadow, nothing particularly unusual. It’s Caitlyn’s thirteenth birthday, and I’ve got chaperone duty at 1400 for ice-skating and a fondue dinner, so I skip out early, but then at around 1545 I get an “urgent” from the watch: Something’s happened.

When I get back, the place is going bananas, and a watch officer briefs me. One of our Strikepods – Delta – on patrol off Subi had detected three small contacts closing at about fifteen knots. Initially they were classified as biologicals, given their signatures and behavior, and sensing a collision, the rogue ordered evasive action, accelerating and diving, while ordering a relay to break off and come shallow, probably to ensure communications. A second later, one of the contacts breaks formation and heads toward the relay.

So now Falken is faced with something it’s only experienced in the lab. We’d been developing some rudimentary combat tactics and introducing them into the training regimen, running scenarios where Falken would encounter something hostile. But in almost every case it chose to flee rather than fight. There were just too many variables, too much ambiguity for it to go lethal without a human on the loop giving the order.

The first contact reaches the relay and their signals promptly disappear. With the two remaining contacts closing on Delta, Falken orders Flee, and the Atoms scatter. The contacts split up and lock on to the two remoras, and thirty seconds later they also disappear. The rogue scans for additional threats, and finding none, orders relay-2 to head to the surface to phone it in.

Fortunately Falken had ordered all ships to fire their onboard imaging systems, so from the moment Delta went evasive there was running video. Of course 99 percent of it was just black water and bubbles, but there were five screen grabs that were very compelling.

You had a visual? 

It was another one of those moments – like Cape Charles when we first laid eyes on an Istina. I was honestly half expecting to see an eye, some flukes, or a long jaw and teeth. But there it was – a short hull, a propulsor. We knew it then – we’d just encountered the Shāyú-class microsubmarine.

Was there continued harassment by the Shāyús during Eminent Shadow? 

Almost daily, and as such there was a real sense of urgency at FathomWorks to get Falken in a place to adequately defend itself. We were losing Atoms at a rate of nearly five per week. They needed to fight back.

Were there no attempts at communication? No back channel diplomatic overtures by either side? 

It’s important to understand – this was the dawn of autonomous undersea conflict, a time when there were very few environments left for sovereign governments to carry out covert operations without risk of exposure. The Chinese tactics were risky, to be sure, but they believed – correctly – that we had a shared interest in keeping this sort of thing quiet. The undersea community, regardless of nationality, has always been characterized by a cult-like devotion to secrecy, and in the unmanned era, it would be no different. In fact, in some ways there would be an intensification of that silence, if you will, given the willingness to take greater risks with systems that were hidden from public scrutiny, and posed no risk to human life.

But the risk, of course, was that this new type of conflict could spill over into the manned, visible world and precipitate a more serious, potentially bloody crisis. I’m referring, of course, to the Decatur, and the Nanxun Jiao Crisis. 

Yes, of course. Just because the conflict is unseen and unmanned doesn’t insulate it from the overarching strategic reality. It’s woven into that reality, and its effects can indeed break the surface and escalate, as it did at Nanxun Jiao.

Can you tell us about the Decatur incident, and the events leading up to the strike on the Nanxun Jiao installation? 

So, after Subi we could confirm the Shāyú’s existence, and that the Chinese were serious about it as an ASW platform. It was an eye-opener for sure, but beyond that we knew very little – its capabilities, performance characteristics, or Chinese microsubmarine tactics, or doctrine. But then we had a HUMINT breakthrough.

CYAN? 

In early 2018, we get a call from the CIA station chief in Manila. Apparently the embassy received something in the mail that might be of great interest to us – a letter with a simple handwritten sketch of what looks like a missile turret, but on closer inspection the missiles are actually small submarines. Below that sketch are a series of random dots that are actually a fairly accurate representation of the Spratlys. One of the dots has a circle drawn around it – the northern reef of the Gaven Reefs, what the Chinese call Nanxun Jiao.

Needless to say, we were intrigued, but what was particularly intriguing was how the sketch bore a striking resemblance to our working concept for AUDEN.  So the CI folks immediately open a file, and we’re left pondering the possibility that the Chinese have deployed a battery of microsubmarines, and that it could be based on a design stolen from a highly classified U.S. Navy program.

What was the response? 

Well, we were alert to the possibility of disinformation, but to what end? To draw us in to Nanxun Jiao? A lesser-militarized island, one that appeared to be used primarily for logistics and resupply?

We weighed the options carefully, and ultimately decided we needed to take a look. Rather than divert resources from Eminent Shadow, we shipped a new 5-ship Strikepod via SH-60 to the nearest destroyer, USS Decatur, and about six hours after delivery, the FONOP is underway, with the Strikepod sweeping the reef. At first it’s pretty routine, nothing unusual, but then at the five minute mark, we get a flash: seabed contact. Falken positions the Strikepod for a closer look, and thirty seconds later, another flash. Shāyús in the water. Six of them. So we order an immediate withdrawal to Decatur, and the Shāyús give chase.

By now the PLAN destroyer Lanzhou has made her appearance, and has closed to around three miles. The Strikepod, with the Shāyús in pursuit, is at flank, but won’t reach Decatur before it can be safely recovered. So we have a decision to make. Since the encounter at Subi, the engineers at FathomWorks had been working nearly nonstop on combat scenarios, and even worked with DARPA to develop a special wargame for Falken to help it anticipate conflict and learn how to fight. But we were still uncomfortable with it making the call. So we dipped a SUMO [Shipboard Undersea Modem] and hoped it would get the message.

What followed was seven minutes of sheer chaos. The Strikepod goes hot, and now it’s a furball. All that training seems to have paid off, and we were looking at a much different outcome than Subi. But what we quickly realize is that the Strikepod isn’t the Shāyús’ objective. Three of them disengage and resume course toward Decatur, and by the time the captain orders the ATT [Anti-Torpedo Torpedo System] to engage, it’s too late, and they slam into Decatur’s hull just aft of the sonar dome. Meanwhile, the remaining Shāyús and the Strikepod fight it out until the end. About a minute later the Lanzhou makes its aggressive pass across Decatur’s bow.

Was there any damage to the Decatur? 

Nothing of any consequence. Some scratched paint. The Shāyús were inert. It was a warning, and a damn stern one at that.

What was the reaction in Norfolk? 

Shock, on a host of levels. We’d just experienced the most aggressive harassment yet. Chinese employment of microsubmarines was unsettling enough, but they were based on the seabed near disputed areas, and were tasked with threatening our manned warships and kinetically engaging our unmanned systems.

But more unsettling still was what the imagery revealed. As CYAN’s letter suggested, the Chinese system was nearly identical to AUDEN. The turret, the network of sensors on the seafloor, complete with SEASTAR-like tentacles.

They’d gotten there first?

AUDEN was still in testing, so it certainly appeared so. Maybe they’d already made a lot of headway, and the stolen design helped push them over the edge. We knew the Chinese were making huge strides in AI and seabed warfare, but this was too much too soon. The signs were clearly there. They’d either hacked us, or they’d had help.

We knew this was coming, though. We knew that microsubmarines were the future of offensive mining operations, and we were well on our way with Strikepods. But we weren’t expecting our adversaries to be quite so far along.

What was the reaction in Washington? 

We’d been patched into the Situation Room from the very beginning, so all the principals were well aware of what we’d found. Needless to say, they shared our concerns, but were also particularly concerned with the strategic implications – that China had moved beyond island building to leveraging the seabed for weapons emplacements. And of course, if it was happening at Nanxun Jiao, surely it was happening at Subi, Mischief, Fiery Cross, and others.

It was a complex situation to say the least, and there were some fairly heated discussions on how to proceed. Many believed we should strike immediately, to send a message that this type of illegal installation would not be tolerated, particularly as it has been used to destroy sovereign U.S. property and threaten a U.S. warship. Others called for expanding Eminent Shadow to include all of the waters off disputed outposts in order to build a diplomatic case and compel the Chinese to dismantle the sites.

And where did you fall on the matter? 

I felt the crisis called for a blended approach, that neither one alone would have done the trick. Even though a show of force risked emboldening the Chinese, we needed to send a strong signal. Diplomacy could come later, but behind closed doors. A Cuban Missile Crisis-style U.N. confrontation would have made for riveting diplomatic theater, but what if the Chinese didn’t blink? We were talking about what they believed was their territorial sea. So they don’t blink – they refuse to dismantle their microsubmarine batteries. What then? U.S. credibility would be on the line, and we would have no choice but to take action – what would be, at that point, very public action. And suddenly we’re at war in the South China Sea.

And ultimately your approach won the day? 

Yes, it did. The president ordered an immediate expansion of Eminent Shadow. We were deploying Atoms by the dozen to the South China Sea, and all told, spent about eight weeks gathering evidence. 

As you might imagine, we encountered quite a bit of resistance. The Chinese were onto us now, and were expecting us to go sniffing around. The PLAN was on high alert, stepping up air and surface activities, and Shāyús were everywhere.

The Atom’s LENR [Low Energy Nuclear Reactor] afforded excellent standoff capability, so we were able to launch all of the sorties from well offshore. The Strikepods would arrive on station, form up, and wait for the go order. They’d fight their way in, and, with any luck, a few Atoms would penetrate far enough to capture some imagery, beam it to the others, and then race to the surface to relay the data. The plan worked about 75 percent of the time, gathering more than enough evidence to satisfy the policymakers. We lost nearly 120 Atoms out of the 150 participating in the expanded Eminent Shadow. Expensive, yes, but they weren’t human casualties. This new form of conflict was evolving right before our eyes.

And what did you find? 

Ultimately we found operational systems off of Subi, Mischief, and Fiery Cross, with partial construction off Hughes, Johnson, and a few others.

So you have the evidence you need to make a compelling case. Now you move on Nanxun Jiao?

Yes, the planning for the Nanxun Jiao strike – or what was now being called Operation Roundhouse – was complete.

Tell us about Operation Roundhouse. 

During the expanded Eminent Shadow, we were also keeping a close eye on Gaven Reefs, with particular focus on any human comings and goings at the Nanxun Jiao undersea installation. The last thing we wanted was casualties, and from what we could tell, the schedule was routine. Every Wednesday at 10am local, a dive tender would head out over the spot and they’d deploy, and we’d listen as they performed routine maintenance, and after about two hours or so they’d surface and head in.

After several weeks of recon, the date was set – a Saturday at 0300 to avoid any possibility of human activity or unwanted attention from satellites or passing aircraft. (The turret was at a depth of fifty meters, so there would surely be a disturbance on the surface.)

The package was sixty Atoms strong, organized into three waves of Strikepods that would make a staggered approach. The Shāyús had a tendency to be all in at the first sign of trouble with almost no reserve, so we hoped the first wave would draw them out, exposing the turret’s flanks and allowing waves two and three to penetrate and carry out the mission.

The package launched at 0215 for the cruise to staging, approximately 10 miles west of Nanxun Jiao. The go order went out at 0245, and then we waited, watching a real-time feed via a surfaced relay trailing approximately 500 yards behind.

At three miles out we hear the Shāyús pinging away, and at two miles they engage the first wave. Resistance is light, which, in hindsight, should have been cause for concern. We only lose about fifteen Atoms during the first wave, and waves two and three meet with almost no resistance at all. Falken had been trained to race toward the target and detonate at the last possible moment, but with such little resistance we were able to perform a static demolition to ensure more thorough destruction.

So we pull back, and we’re watching the split screen with feeds from various perspectives, including the kill vehicles as they continue to close, and as the turret comes into view…

[Admiral Lacy pauses here.]

That’s when you saw them?

I called immediately for confirmation. The pilots switched frantically between feeds, and, yes – quite distinctly. Dive suits. Four of them.

The room erupted, and we immediately fired off a flash to abort. The relay confirmed, but it was already too late, and half a second later the screens went blank. BDA later confirmed that the mission was a success. The turret was completely destroyed, and many of the surrounding network sensors appeared badly damaged or disabled. We searched in vain for three hours, but there was no trace of any divers.

The next day we received the news.

From Chinese state television?

The lead story was an explosion at a CNOOC facility that claimed the lives of four offshore divers. Of course, it wasn’t uncommon for Beijing to cover up accidents of any kind, particularly when they were security related or politically sensitive. But then we received word from CIA, who’d been running CYAN from the beginning. They’d been trying to track him down, to recruit him for more, and in the course of their research they’d determined that the letter had likely come from a member of the Nanxun Jiao dive team, and that one of the four divers reportedly killed in the CNOOC accident – a Mr. Xin Li – was in fact CYAN.

The Chinese had been onto him?

 Perhaps CIA had been careless while poking around and attracted the attention of Chinese counterintelligence, or…

Or they’d been tipped?

 A very real possibility as well.

And they’d known you were coming?

The fact that Mr. Li had been exposed, and that this had likely led to his death – his execution – along with those of three others, was of course problematic enough. But the fact that there were divers down as Roundhouse was underway, and that one of those divers was most likely the individual who led us there in the first place – the implications were unimaginably grave.

Some questioned whether they’d been killed elsewhere, and were never down there at all. But I’m fairly certain they died there that night. The Chinese wanted to send a message to would-be traitors, and especially to us. It was textbook psychological warfare. They wanted us to know we’d pulled the trigger.

What I can tell you is that there were people in the room that day who were never the same again.

I know I wasn’t.

And the aftermath?

Nanxun Jiao was spun as a stalemate, but it was really a Chinese victory. Four casualties and the perils of autonomous undersea conflict were too much for the politicians to stomach, and so, much as Chinese island building had gone unchecked for years, so too would their undersea buildup continue. 

In just three years we were an order of magnitude beyond Locust Point, and the brave new world of autonomous undersea conflict was coming into focus. The underwater realm was more secretive, more complex, and more dangerous than ever before, but one thing in particular was becoming inescapably clear:

Nothing less than total undersea dominance was at stake.

[End Part II]

David R. Strachan is a naval analyst and 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: Project 885 Yasen Class Submarine by Isra Tan.

Chinese Evaluations of the U.S. Navy Submarine Force, Pt. 2

This article originally featured in The Naval War College Review in 2008 and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here. Read Part One of the republication here.

By Gabriel Collins, Andrew Erickson, Lyle Goldstein, and William Murray

Sensors, Systems, Research, Development, and Training

American efforts at exploiting advancements in commercial off-the-shelf technology have received attention. One article observes that “the updated (COTS) CCS MK II [fire control] system is not only used on the Los Angeles and Ohio classes, but is also used on the new Seawolf and Virginia class submarines”;44 another points out that “92% of the hardware and 90% of the software used in non-publicly available projects in fact come from popular commercially available technologies.”45 China’s intense interest in the U.S. Navy’s use of COTS may stem in part from Beijing’s effort to develop a world-class commercial information technology industry and to incorporate its products into the PLA.

Chinese analysts also monitor American submarine sensor development. One article notes, “At present, the U.S. is the world leader in developing periscope technology and using it on its submarines.”46 U.S. efforts to bolster the submarine force’s mine warfare capabilities receive particular attention.47 Moves to develop and acquire the Long Term Mine Reconnaissance System (LMRS) have been noted, with one researcher stating that “the U.S. is now buying 8 long-range mine scouting systems to be put on the Los Angeles and Virginia class nuclear attack submarines.”48

Chinese observers pay fairly close attention to American submarine-related research and development efforts. For example, websites on Chinese naval matters frequently report on the awarding of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Office of Naval Research (ONR) contracts.49 Chinese journals take advantage of these announcements and also scour the U.S. open press for sources that can be exploited. For example, a rather lengthy article in the June 2002 issue of 现代舰船 (Modern Ships) reprinted the “Submarine of the Future” briefing slides (complete with a logo in the upper left-hand corner of each) generated by the DARPA-sponsored, Lockheed Martin–led industrial consortium “TEAM 2020.” These slides depict futuristic hull forms, sonar configurations, propulsors, weapons storage ideas, interfaces for unmanned underwater vehicles, and other elements of advanced submarine designs and concepts.50 It seems that little, if any, publicly released information regarding U.S. submarine-related research and development escapes the attention of Chinese analysts.

In keeping with the technological dynamism of U.S. platforms and their constant improvement, Chinese analysts also credit the American submarine force with an extremely rigorous selection and training process for commanding officers. In a coauthored article in Modern Navy, Rear Admiral Yang Yi, a PLA expert on the United States and former naval attaché in Washington, emphasizes that “the U.S. Navy’s selection process for the commanding officers of nuclear submarines is very strict.” Yang details the numerous education and training programs that successful candidates must attend, as well as the periodic qualifying tests they must undergo. A major emphasis of his article is the extent to which submarine commanders must periodically update their “specialized [technical] knowledge.”51

Historical Issues

Although China is emerging as a submarine power, its submarine force, and indeed its navy overall, generally lacks blue-water experience, to say nothing of a combat history. Of course, this paucity of experience stands in stark contrast to the U.S. submarine force, and PLA Navy analysts are acutely aware of that disparity. In fact, Chinese naval analysts have expressed particular admiration for the record of American submarines in World War II, pointing out that “the U.S. submarine force had the fewest losses” of any major submarine force “but had high combat effectiveness. According to statistics, the U.S. submarine force destroyed 1,314 enemy ships during the war.”52 Moreover, Chinese sources indicate an appreciation for the accumulated knowledge that the U.S. Navy has achieved through decades of intense submarine operations. Another Chinese source observes: “The U.S. is a country with 100 years of experience in building submarines, and with so many years of experience the USN constantly emphasizes the ability of a submarine to take punishment [and survive].”53

While there are numerous Chinese writings on the U.S. Navy’s submarine force’s campaign against Japan, this article focuses on the Chinese perceptions of American submarine operations during the Cold War. Some of the observations made in this context may explain aspects of contemporary PLA Navy submarine doctrine. For example, an article in Modern Ships relates an anecdote of a “Soviet Type 627 [known in the West as “November”] nuclear attack submarine [that] once went all out in a race with a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, revealing the Soviet attack submarine’s capabilities. [This revelation] apparently has had a major impact on the development of a new class of American submarines.”54 This appraisal of the peacetime interaction between the two navies may suggest that overly aggressive tactics employed by the Soviet Navy yielded too much information to the U.S. Navy. In general, it is quite clear that Chinese sources understand that a “main mission of [U.S.] nuclear attack submarines [during the Cold War] was to deal with the Soviet Navy’s SSBNs.”55

With respect to the Cold War at sea, one Chinese book published in 2006 is worthy of particular note.56 The translation of a Russian book, Secrets of Cold War Undersea Espionage, states that “U.S. nuclear and conventional submarines would often lurk along the routes of Soviet warships, and even within Soviet territorial waters, conducting intelligence activities.”57 It is noted that “the SOSUS [Sound Surveillance] system substantially helped the U.S. to cope with the capabilities of the Soviet submarine force.”58 The subject of acoustic signatures is also raised: “In the ocean, there are simply too many sources of noise. . . . In order to cope with this problem, the U.S. decided to build an acoustic signature catalogue (resembling a fingerprint) for Soviet submarines.”59

Chinese ASW and the U.S. Navy Submarine Force

When considering Chinese views of the American submarine force, it is certainly relevant to consider how China appraises its own antisubmarine warfare forces. Generally, China considers its ASW forces to be weak. One Chinese naval analyst observes: “[Chinese] people are focused on China’s submarine force (both conventional and nuclear) development, but often neglect the threat we face from [U.S. Navy] submarines.”60 It is, moreover, suggested that “there is still a relatively large gap between [China’s] ASW technology level and that of the world’s advanced level.”61 In appraising the ASW capabilities of its own surface forces, another naval analyst notes, “Across the world, most naval ships are now equipped with towed array sonars, which has increased their ASW capabilities, but most of our ships only have hull mounted sonars.”62 Finally, there is a concern that these antisubmarine assets are themselves highly vulnerable: “Submarines can carry out ferocious missile attacks from tens or even 100–200km ranges, causing the submarine hunting vessels to become the hunted targets.”63

Chinese aerial ASW is also highlighted as a particular weakness. One Chinese analyst judges that the Z-9 helicopter lacks adequate range and internal space for the ASW mission.64 A second argues that while the Z-8 has better range and capacity, it is too big for most surface combatants to carry and chronic engine troubles have limited production.65 The Russian-import Ka-28 ASW helicopter is reported to be capable but few in numbers.66 As for Chinese maritime patrol aircraft, some designs have apparently been developed, including a variant of the Y-7 Fearless Albatross, but the outlook is said to remain bleak.67 Thus, one evaluation of Chinese aerial ASW concludes, “Our country at the present stage does not have an ASW maritime patrol aircraft . . . but the number of submarines in our peripheral seas is increasing, and their technological sophistication is also increasing. This contradiction is becoming more obvious every day, creating a grim situation.”68

In Chinese discussions of Russian ASW systems, there is a pointed recognition that the Soviets leaned heavily toward the use of tactical nuclear weapons (e.g., nuclear depth charges and torpedoes) in ASW operations.69 Tactical nuclear weapons are also mentioned in the context of mine warfare. An article in the July 2006 issue of Modern Navy, in discussing possible PLA Navy use of sea mines, suggests the potential combat value of nuclear-armed versions.70 It will be important to watch closely for any sign of Chinese efforts in this direction.

While the overall impression is that of Chinese ASW weakness, there is one notable exception. Significant prioritization appears to be given to the use of sea mines for the antisubmarine mission, as if to produce a “poor man’s ASW capability.”71 One discussion explains, “Because of a tremendous change in the maritime strategic environment, since the early 1990s the PLA has made mobile ASW sea mines a focal point of weapons development.” The analysis continues, “[China] is energetically undertaking the research mission [of] using [mobile ASW sea mines] against U.S. nuclear submarines.”72 The same discussion also hints at a review possible PLA Navy ASW role: “The major mission of self-guided sea mines is to isolate American nuclear submarines outside the First Island Chain.”73

It is noteworthy for the future development of Chinese antisubmarine warfare that hydroacoustics has been called a “key point” technology for state investment.74 The conventional wisdom has long been that the Chinese submarine force is focused entirely on the anti-surface ship mission. This assumption may have become outdated, perhaps especially after the PLA Navy received the last of eight new Kilo-class diesel submarines (and accompanying weaponry) from Russia in 2006. According to Professor Li Daguang of China National Defense University, these new Kilos have four missions: to blockade Taiwan, threaten carrier battle groups, employ land-attack cruise missiles as a “strategic weapon,” and “form an underwater threat to the U.S. nuclear submarine force.”75 There is also preliminary evidence that China is moving toward deploying antisubmarine rocket weapons on its newest surface combatants.76 This system is no “silver bullet,” as the Chinese would still have severe, perhaps insurmountable, targeting and cueing problems, but successful acquisition and deployment of ASROCs would extend the engagement range of Chinese ASW weapons significantly. It is also worth noting that Chinese sources discuss “many openly published dissertations concerning underwater targeting for a homing depth charge.”77

To reverse the equation: How do Chinese naval analysts appraise American ASW, and in particular the submarine force’s part in it? Clearly, the PLA Navy understands the overall centrality of SSNs in U.S. antisubmarine warfare. Thus an article in Modern Navy states: “The nuclear attack submarine . . . is the most effective tool for ASW.”78 However, some PLA Navy observers appear rather unimpressed by American efforts in ASW. The same official Chinese Navy journal observes: “The U.S. Navy actually has not had sufficient exercises in the [ASW arena] and also lacks experience.”79 In the same article, it is likewise noted that “conducting ASW in the littorals represents a special difficulty for the USN” and that “the combat advantage of the U.S. Navy nuclear submarine force in the littoral areas is far from obvious.”80 On this note, Campaign Theory Study Guide, a 2002 textbook written by China National Defense University scholars that draws on a variety of high-quality doctrinal publications, emphasizes that “nuclear powered attack submarines have difficulty operating in close proximity to shore due to natural conditions.”81 Another Chinese naval analysis suggests that “up to 2005, the USN has altogether 350 ASW platforms, just 11% of the number of [ASW] platforms it fielded in 1945. Moreover, many of these current naval and air platforms are not specialized for ASW, but more often are multi-mission platforms.”82 This quantitative comparison across historical periods is crude in some ways, but there is no denying that inherent physical principles combined with the vast geographical area of the Pacific Ocean will likely keep ASW an asset-intensive mission, even in the age of “net-centric warfare.”

The U.S. Navy Submarine Force-Level Trajectory

Chinese discussions of the American submarine force focus heavily on the continuing decline in its size. As one article from a People’s Republic of China (PRC) naval interest publication states, “The decline of U.S. submarine strength is inevitable.”83 Indeed, that a wide variety of Chinese naval sources share this evaluation suggests that this “decline” now passes for conventional wisdom within the PLA Navy. The Chinese naval community is likely paying close attention to internal U.S. debates, knowing that investments made (or forgone) today in submarine fleet modernization shape the future fleet.

Some Chinese assessments of the Seawolf program appear to point out indirectly the internal political tensions that hold down American submarine build rates now and perhaps in the future. One volume notes: “Although the Sea Wolf– class SSN gathers the era’s most advanced technology in a single hull, and possesses beyond-first-class performance, the appraisals of ‘Sea Wolf’ by American public figures from all walks of life differ, with a roughly half-and-half split between praise and condemnation.”84

Taking the long view, Chinese naval strategists recognize that force levels have dropped drastically from Cold War levels. One source observes, “Since 1989, the U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered attack submarine [force] has been reduced by half.”85 A more recent Chinese naval press article estimates that “[U.S.] nuclear attack submarines will decline in number by close to 40%, eventually reaching 30 boats.”86 This calculation is roughly consistent with a projection in Modern Navy that anticipated a sustained build rate of one boat per year.87 Rear Admiral Yang Yi, writing in 2006 on the future size of the American submarine force, quoted one American analysis as follows: “China already exceeds [U.S. submarine production] five times over. . . . 18 [USN] submarines against 75 or more Chinese navy submarines is obviously not encouraging [from the U.S. perspective].”88

A Reputation for Mastery?

This article demonstrates that Chinese strategists are keenly interested in the U.S. Navy’s submarine force. Thousands of articles have reviewed various aspects of American submarine capabilities, operations, and developmental trends. There is clear evidence that Chinese naval analysts have enormous respect for U.S. submarines, submariners, and their weapons. Certainly, China aspires to be a submarine power and hopes to emulate certain aspects of American experience. However, it is equally clear in these writings that the U.S. submarine force is seen as a key challenge in any military confrontation between Beijing and Washington. It is significant in that regard especially that Chinese analysts are increasingly drawing attention to, and seeking to remedy, their antisubmarine warfare deficiencies. The study also reveals an apparent assumption within Chinese naval analytic circles that American submarine force levels are on a downward trajectory.

The authors are research faculty in the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. They are members (Dr. Goldstein is the founding director) of the College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. The opinions expressed in this report are those of the authors alone and not the assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other entity of the U.S. government.

References

  1. “美国雷声公司拟用商用流行技术更新潜 艇作战系统” [U.S. Raytheon Corporation Draws Up a Plan to Use COTS to Upgrade Subs’ Systems], 情报指挥控制系统与仿真 技术 [Intelligence, Command, Control, and Simulation Technology], no. 10 (2003), p. 19.
  2. 戴维 [Dai Wei], “ESM 对潜艇支持的新 作用” [ESM’s New Role in Submarine Support], 情报指挥控制系统与仿真技 术 [Intelligence, Command, Control, and Simulation Technology], no. 7 (1999), p. 19. 46. 李平, 陆炳哲 [Li Ping, Lu Bingzhe], “美 国虚拟潜望镜研究及进展” [Research and Progress of the American Virtual Periscope], 船舶电子工程 [Ship Electronic Engineering] 26, no. 5 (2006), p. 199.
  3. This article does not analyze Chinese examinations of U.S. sonar, navigation, combat control, ESM, or radio systems.
  4. 李书甫 [Li Shufu], “水下无人航行器” [UUVs], 舰载武器 [Shipborne Weapons], (April 2003), pp. 57–60.
  5. See, for example, the “US Submarines, Antisubmarine Warfare and All News” section of the China Defense.com Forum at www .china-defense.com/forum/index.php ?showtopic=1541.
  6. 王绪智 [Wang Xuzhi], “潜艇大革命—近岸 作战催生美国下—代多用途核潜艇” [The Submarine Revolution: Littoral Warfare Will Drive the Multirole Nature of America’s Next Generation Nuclear Submarine], 现代舰 船 [Modern Ships] (June 2002), pp. 30–33.
  7. 杨毅, 赵志军 [Yang Yi and Zhao Zhijun], “美国核潜艇艇长是怎样选拔的?” 17 Collins et al.: 85 [How Are American Submarine Commanding Officers Selected?], 当代海军 [Modern Navy] (December 2001), p. 17.
  8. 杜朝平 [Du Zhaoping], “美国为什么不装 备常规潜艇” [Why the U.S. Is Not Equipped with Conventional Submarines], 舰载武器 [Shipborne Weapons] (January 2004), p. 19.
  9. Qi Yaojiu, “Reflecting Again on the San Francisco,” p. 41.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Du Zhaoping, “Why the U.S. Is Not Equipped with Conventional Submarines,” p. 21.
  12. 拜科夫, 济科夫 [Zykov and Baikov—in Russian], 水下间谍战的秘密 [Secrets of Undersea Espionage] (Shanghai: Shanghai Translation, 2006).
  13. Ibid., p. 10.
  14. Ibid., p. 12.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Tai Feng, “Does China Need Antisubmarine Patrol Aircraft?” p. 70.
  17. 管带 [Guan Dai], “走向未来的中国反潜作战” [Looking toward Future PLA Navy Antisubmarine Warfare], 舰载武器 [Shipborne Weapons] (August 2005), p. 33.
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  19. 巡抚 [Xun Fu], “中国海军反潜武器的发展” [PLA Navy Antisubmarine Weapons Development], 舰载武器 [Shipborne Weapons] (August 2005), p. 29.
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  21. Xun Fu, “PLA Navy Antisubmarine Weapons Development,” p. 30.
  22. Tai Feng, “Does China Need Antisubmarine Patrol Aircraft?” p. 73.
  23. Ibid., p. 75.
  24. Ibid., p. 73.
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  27. For a much more detailed discussion of this issue, see Andrew Erickson, Lyle Goldstein, and William Murray, “China’s Undersea Sentries: Sea Mines Constitute Lead Element of PLA Navy’s ASW,” Undersea Warfare (Winter 2007), pp. 10–15.
  28. Lin Changcheng, “The Hidden Dragon in the Deep,” p. 30.
  29. Ibid., p. 31. The “first island chain” comprises Japan, its northern and southern archipelagoes, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and the Greater Sunda Islands. See Xu Qi, “Maritime Geostrategy and the Development of the Chinese Navy in the Early Twenty-first Century,” trans. Andrew S. Erickson and Lyle J. Goldstein, Naval War College Review 59, no. 4 (Autumn 2006), pp. 47–67, esp. note 11.
  30. Xun Fu, “PLA Navy Antisubmarine Weapons Development,” p. 28.
  31. 陈位吴 [Chen Weiwu], “解放军新基洛” [The PLA’s New Kilos], 国际展望 [World Outlook] (July 2006), p. 25.
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  33. Ibid., p. 32.
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  35. Ibid. For an equally unimpressed American view, see John R. Benedict, “The Unraveling and Revitalization of U.S. Navy Antisubmarine Warfare,” Naval War College Review 58, no. 2 (Spring 2005), pp. 93–120.
  36. Xu Shiyong, “The U.S. Navy’s New Network ASW Strategy,” p. 44.
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Featured Image: Virginia-class submarine Indiana (SSN-789) Departs for Sea Trials, May 2018. (via Navsource)