Tag Archives: ASW

The Undersea Dimension of Strategic Competition in the South China Sea

South China Sea Topic Week

By Elsa B. Kania

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

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

Recent PLAN ASW Drills in the South China Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ongoing Investments to Overcome Traditional Weaknesses in ASW

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

6. Ibid.

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

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

9. Ibid.

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

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21. Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Andrew Metrick

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the full report here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Future of Undersea Competition Topic Week Concludes on CIMSEC

By Dmitry Filipoff

Last week CIMSEC launched a topic week focused on the future of undersea competition where contributors responded to our Call for Articles to highlight the importance of the undersea domain in a geopolitical and warfighting context and explore evolving challenges. We are thankful for their contributions and insightful analysis.

Below is a list of articles that featured during the topic week.

India’s Submarine Situation: Evolving Capabilities and Opportunities by Vidya Sagar Reddy and Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

“Two events set the stage for India-China strategic competition going underwater – one is the docking of China’s submarine in Sri Lanka’s Colombo port and the other is the loss of India’s submarine INS Sindhurakshak in a major fire incident. These and subsequent events showed that China is signalling its strategic intentions in the Indian Ocean via its submarines while the resident power is scrambling.”

Information Management in Next Generation Anti-Submarine Warfare by Michael Glynn

“Some observers have claimed that advancements in sensor systems and data analysis will strip stealth away from submarines. This erosion of stealth will not happen unless the U.S. Navy solves three distinct challenges: gathering, analyzing, and disseminating environmental information, integrating operations analysis at the operational and tactical levels of war to maximize sensor and weapons effectiveness, and ensuring that ASW task forces are equipped with standardized equipment and highly effective training.”

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Reach the CIMSEC editorial team at Nextwar@cimsec.org.

Featured Image:The USS Birmingham (SSN-695) executes an emergency ascent demonstration during her sea trials in TOTO (Tongue of the Ocean), circa late 1977-78. USN photo courtesy of Newport News & Drydock Co.

Information Management in Next Generation Anti-Submarine Warfare

The Future of Undersea Competition Topic Week

By Michael Glynn

The last decade has featured rapid advances in computing power, autonomous systems, data storage, and analytics. These tools are double-edged weapons, offering possible advantages to the U.S. while also opening the door to increased adversary capabilities. When combined with legacy systems and current doctrine, these technologies offer the U.S. Navy the chance to retain an advantage in the undersea contests of the future. The service must capitalize on these technologies. If they do not, they should realize that the low barrier of entry may drive potential opponents to do just that, eroding comparative advantage.

For the last 25 years, the Navy’s anti-submarine warfare (ASW) community has enjoyed the luxury of a permissive threat environment. What limited money was available to be spent on ASW was allocated to defensive measures to protect high value units in a close-in fight. The sensors and weapons that make up the stockpile are holdovers or incremental improvements of systems conceived in the late 1980s. The once dominant ASW task forces that tracked fleets of Soviet submarines have suffered from neglect, brain drain, and disuse in the last quarter century.

Despite these challenges, the U.S. currently retains a decisive advantage in the undersea domain. The service’s doctrine has been recently rewritten, and draws lessons from effective ASW campaigns of the past. Full-Spectrum ASW seeks to degrade the submarine threat as a whole.[i] It seeks to attack the adversary kill chain at every point, making damaging and sinking submarines only one piece of the ASW campaign.

Some observers have claimed that advancements in sensor systems and data analysis will strip stealth away from submarines.[ii][iii] This erosion of stealth will not happen unless the U.S. Navy solves three distinct challenges: gathering, analyzing, and disseminating environmental information, integrating operations analysis at the operational and tactical levels of war to maximize sensor and weapons effectiveness, and ensuring that ASW task forces are equipped with standardized equipment and highly effective training. Let’s discuss each of these challenges in detail.

Environmental Information

The ocean is an enormously complex and variable warfare domain. The properties of the ocean can change rapidly over small distances, just like weather ashore. Temperature, salinity, pressure variations, and the features of the ocean floor alter the way that sound energy moves through water. Characterizing the environment is critical to conducting effective ASW.

For decades, the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command (NMOC) has provided the service with oceanographic and bathymetric information. NMOC
a fleet of survey vessels, gliders, and sensors to gather information on the water-column.[iv] Computers ingest the information and build forecast ocean models.[v][vi]Operational planners and ASW operators use these products to model how sound energy will travel between their sensors and the submarine they are hunting. Without accurate ocean models, ASW operations are exercises in guesswork. Models are critical tools for effective ASW.

Paleobathymetry in the Southern Ocean. Photo: NOAA.

The Navy of tomorrow will need to make better use of the environmental data it collects and the models it produces. Many tactical platforms constantly collect data such as ambient noise or sound velocity profiles. Unfortunately, much of this raw data never makes it back to NMOC, due to communications limitations and process shortfalls. This hurts the quality of oceanographic models, and means the fleet will show up to the fight already at a disadvantage.

The undersea competition of the future will feature better dissemination and use of oceanographic models and bathymetric information. Ships and aircraft will automatically record environmental data and upload it to NMOC databases. When bandwidth makes it possible, ships, submarines, and aircraft should be constantly fed the most recent environmental model and use this information to drive radar and sonar performance predictions inside their combat systems. Fusion algorithms will automatically ingest real-time environmental measurements from sensors in the water to merge with the model and improve the accuracy of sonar performance predictions.

Operations Analysis

In the past, ASW planners have been able to degrade their adversary’s submarine force and maximize the effectiveness of a small number of ASW platforms by using operations analysis. In World War II, the British Submarine Tracking Room and U.S. ASW Operations Research Group used all-source intelligence to re-route convoys, assign aircraft to guard threatened ships, target submarine transit routes, and hunt down individual high-value submarines.

During the Cold War, the U.S. Navy used applied mathematics and computational modeling to predict the location of Soviet submarines. These search systems used track information of past patrols to build models of how Soviet commanders tended to operate. Cueing information was used to identify high probability search areas and recommended platform search plans.[vii] Real-time updates of positive and negative information during a search were fed to the computer to modify the search as it progressed.[viii] These computerized systems allowed planners to double their rate of successful searches compared to manual planning methods.[ix] Despite two decades of operational success, these planning systems were defunded and shut down after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

ASW forces of tomorrow will have to rediscover the value of operations analysis and apply these efforts at the operational and tactical levels. ASW task forces will be equipped with all-source intelligence fusion centers. Cueing information will flow from traditional means such as the Integrated Undersea Surveillance System, signals intelligence, and novel means assisted by big data analytics. Methods as unusual as monitoring the social media or Internet activity of adversary crew members and their families may provide indications that a submarine is getting underway.

A U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon with Patrol Squadron 45, is at Clark Air Base, Philippines in support of Exercise Balikatan 2015, April 9. (U.S. Navy photo)
A U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon with Patrol Squadron 45, is at Clark Air Base, Philippines in support of Exercise Balikatan 2015, April 9. Photo: U.S. Navy

Legacy computational search systems could only be run ashore due to the limits of processors of the day. Today’s hardware allows these systems to be run on a laptop. In the near future, tactical platforms will ingest cueing information and generate employment plans for themselves and assets nearby. A P-8A will generate optimized sonobuoy drop points, sonar dip points for two MH-60R’s flying nearby, and search plans for an ASW Continuous Trail Unmanned Vehicle and three unmanned underwater vehicles.[x][xi] The search plans and sensor points will automatically be broadcast via Link 16 and other future networks. The ability to direct multiple ASW platforms in today’s environment exceeds human capabilities, but tactical operations analysis systems will reverse this deficiency.

Optimized Task Force Training and Equipment

The final key to enabling next generation information management is revamping the equipment and training of the task forces who direct ASW at the Combatant Commander level. The increasing lethality of cruise missile armed submarines means focusing ASW planning at the Carrier Strike Group (CSG) level and fighting a close-in defensive battle is unacceptably risky. Future ASW campaigns will be won or lost at the theater level, with CSGs being only one piece of a multi-faceted approach. While 25 years of low budgets and disuse have blunted theater ASW (TASW) task forces, it is these commands that will direct the undersea battles of tomorrow.

Today, each TASW task force uses a hodgepodge of various systems and local information management procedures that have grown up to fit the unique challenges of the area. Lack of oversight means each task force uses its own training syllabus, communications procedures, and unique methods to maintain a common operating picture (COP). Despite this disunity, personnel are expected to flow from one task force to another in times of crisis and seamlessly master a system they have never trained with. This is not a recipe for success in an increasingly complicated information management environment.

The Navy should ensure each TASW task force is equipped with a standard suite of analysis and information management tools. The forces will adopt and master the Undersea Warfare Decision Support System and maintain a worldwide COP backed up at each task force. Standardized qualifications cards, methods for maintaining the COP, and disseminating information will allow personnel to rapidly surge and integrate with another task force. An open architecture construct will allow adjustments in managing relationships with regional allies, information release, and the unique nature of the adversary threat.

The aviation community uses the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center to develop and rigorously standardize tactics. The surface community has recognized that standardized employment and highly trained Weapons and Tactics Instructors are crucial for operating today’s exquisitely complex and capable weapon and sensor systems.[xii] The TASW community should adopt a similar focus on standardization of information management and search employment, just as their colleagues in the aviation and surface communities have. The Undersea Warfighting Development Center will take a much more central role in tactics development and employment standardization.


Operations analysis has proven itself a force multiplier in ASW. This will be critical as fleet size continues to shrink. In the information age, the problem is not too little ASW information, but rather how to properly ingest, analyze, and disseminate information. If the Navy capitalizes on the opportunities listed above, it will be well on its way to maintaining undersea superiority. If it does not, it should remain wary that the barrier for entry for other nations to build effective information management and operations analysis systems is low. The technology required is relatively cheap and has current commercial applications. There is extensive open source literature on the topic. Without having to contend with an entrenched defense bureaucracy and legacy programs of record that stifle innovation, these nations will certainly seek to rapidly capitalize on these concepts as a means to disrupt U.S. undersea superiority.

Lieutenant Glynn is an active-duty naval aviator. He most recently served as a member of the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell. The views expressed in this piece are entirely his own and do not represent the position of the Department of the Navy.

[i] William J. Toti, “The Hunt for Full-Spectrum ASW,” Proceedings, (June 2014), http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2014-06/hunt-full-spectrum-asw, (accessed May 22, 2016).

[ii] Bryan Clark, “The Emerging Era in Undersea Warfare,” (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, January 22, 2015), http://csbaonline.org/publications/2015/01/undersea-warfare/, (accessed May 22, 2016).

[iii] James Holmes, “U.S. Navy’s Worst Nightmare: Submarines may no Longer be Stealthy,” The National Interest, (June 13, 2015), http://nationalinterest.org/feature/us-navys-worst-nightmare-submarines-may-no-longer-be-13103, (accessed May 22, 2016).

[iv] “Oceanographic Survey Ships – T-AGS,” (U.S. Navy, August 23, 2007), http://www.navy.mil/navydata/fact_display.asp?cid=4500&tid=700&ct=4, (accessed May 23, 2016).

[v] “Naval Oceanographic Office Global Navy Coastal Ocean Model (NCOM),” (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration), https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/data-access/model-data/model-datasets/navoceano-ncom-glb, (accessed May 22, 2016).

[vi] “Naval Oceanographic Office Global Hybrid Coordinate Ocean Model (HYCOM),” (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration), https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/data-access/model-data/model-datasets/navoceano-hycom-glb, (accessed May 22, 2016).

[vii] Henry R Richardson, Lawrence D. Stone, W. Reynolds Monach, & Joseph Discenza, “Early Maritime Applications of Particle Filtering,” Proceedings of SPIE, Vol. 5204, 172-173.

[viii] Daniel H. Wagner, “Naval Tactical Decision Aids,” (Monterey: Naval Postgraduate School, September 1989), II-5.

[ix] J. R. Frost & L. D. Stone, “Review of Search Theory: Advances and Applications to Search and Rescue Decision Support,” (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Coast Guard, 2001), 3-4.

[x] “Anti-submarine Warfare (ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vehicle (ACTUV),” (Arlington, VA: Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), http://www.darpa.mil/program/anti-submarine-warfare-continuous-trail-unmanned-vessel, (accessed May 22, 2016).

[xi] Michael Fabey, “ONR Seeks Long-Duration, Large-Diameter UUV’s,” Aviation Week, (October 29, 2012), http://aviationweek.com/defense/onr-seeks-long-duration-large-diameter-uuvs, (accessed May 22, 2016).

[xii] Sam LaGrone, “Navy Stands up Development Center to Breed Elite Surface Warfare Officers,” USNI News, (June 9, 2015), https://news.usni.org/2015/06/09/navy-stands-up-development-command-to-breed-elite-surface-warfare-officers, (Accessed May 22, 2016).

Featured Image: A P-8A Poseidon surveillance plane conducts flyovers above the Enterprise Carrier Strike Group on February 3, 2012. REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Daniel J. Meshel/Handout