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Submarines and Their Future

Unmanned vehicles expand the footprint of the submarine. For example, several years ago EDO Corporation (now part of ITT Corporation) displayed a signals intelligence collection system adapted to an unmanned vehicle, which a submarine could launch from well offshore. A submarine might operate one such device in hopes of staying farther from an enemy’s anti-submarine defenses; but such defenses are slim to nonexistent throughout much of the Third World. It would probably be much more important that one submarine could operate several such devices at the same time, gaining much better and more continuous coverage of an enemy area. Each device would record signals, but it would take specialists aboard the submarine to make sense of them for onward transmission. Given improvements in underwater communication since the late 1990s, the submarine might also exert a degree of control over the unmanned intelligence collectors.

Intelligence collection in the Third World benefits from the fact that in many countries, nearly the entire national telephone system is based on cell phones – on radios. Some years ago, a U.S. presentation on future submarine systems included a mass launch of micro-UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) intended specifically to settle on (and exploit) cell phone antennas.

Intelligence collection in the Third World benefits from the fact that in many countries, nearly the entire national telephone system is based on cell phones – on radios. Some years ago, a U.S. presentation on future submarine systems included a mass launch of micro-UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) intended specifically to settle on (and exploit) cell phone antennas.

Another unmanned mission that a large submarine can support is mine reconnaissance. No one would send a submarine into a potential minefield in order to map it in advance of a surface force. However, the submarine can certainly launch an unmanned vehicle that can explore such an area. Several such vehicles can explore the area more quickly. Again, it takes operators and analysts aboard the submarine to make sense of what the vehicles find. They in turn can provide an approaching surface force with guidance as to where mines may and (probably more important) may not be. Mine reconnaissance or, better, automatic mine detection, might be envisaged as a kind of intelligence gathering.

Why use a submarine for the mission? Because mine clearance or even overt mine reconnaissance by surface ships tips off a potential enemy. It is conducted only if some follow-on force is likely to be operating in the possible minefield. That might be particularly critical if the area of interest was off a projected amphibious assault area. If a landing is a surprise, it has a good chance of success. But if the enemy knows what is coming, he can build up a force on the beach (or near the amphibious objective). No one today has enough surface mine countermeasures craft to clear multiple potential operating areas at the same time, so the sudden appearance of many such craft offshore is a definite tipoff. Moreover, mine clearance takes a long time, so if the enemy does not get the idea immediately, he has plenty of time to reconsider. On the other hand, the enemy usually has a limited supply of mines – he cannot lay them everywhere. Knowing where they may be laid allows us to appear somewhere else. We have already spent heavily to ensure that the Marines can cross extremely varied terrain en route from the sea to an objective, so an enemy can no longer limit his attentions to a few attractive beaches.

Virginia-Class Attack Submarine New Hampshire

Submariners assigned to the Virginia-class attack submarine New Hampshire (SSN 778) practice manning their ship during rehearsals for the boat’€™s commissioning ceremony at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine. Submarines may be more valuable in the future for the intelligence gathered through their sensors, from optronic periscopes to radio masts and conformal arrays, than for more traditional blue-water missions. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Fernando Allen

The unmanned vehicle(s) and the analysis on board the submarine are only part of the story; the data has to get back to the surface force. Submarines can employ high data-rate satellite communications, so relatively brief exposure of an antenna makes it possible to relay back what the submarine gathers of the offshore situation, including minefields. Even brief exposure is dangerous, but the farther out to sea the submarine can operate, the less likely that an enemy will be able to exploit it.

Submarines are the obvious means of inserting special operations forces (SOF), and for years considerable effort has gone into developing small submersibles they can ride to a beach (success has been mixed). The most interesting development, first tested about a decade ago, was the use of unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) to shuttle between a special operations team and a submarine acting as their command center. Again, anything that the submarine can deploy from a distance expands its footprint. In this case, the submarine was the converted ballistic missile submarine Florida (SSGN 728). A big UUV launched from one of its vertical missile tubes carried supplies to a team investigating a nominal weapons site. On its return trips, it carried soil for analysis aboard the submarine. The submarine, in turn, was far enough out to sea that it could transmit results of analysis back to shore, so that a decision could be made as to whether the SOF team should attack. Florida had been fitted with cruise missiles in place of her ballistic missiles, so in theory, the SOF unit would find targets for them. However, the most important part of the experiment was undoubtedly the support of the SOF unit.

Clearly, SOF can also be delivered by air, although it is not clear that they can be supported as easily once in place. What is clear is that the aircraft involved are sufficiently unusual as to be instantly recognizable.

Of course, there is also the anti-submarine mission so important to the U.S. Navy during the Cold War. Now it seems most often to involve diesel-electric submarines in relatively shallow water.

Anyone who follows aircraft blogs, moreover, will notice that unusual aircraft at overseas airfields are often quickly seen and reported – which might just ruin the element of surprise central to special operations. Covertness, the submarine’s key value, matters.

Of course, there is also the anti-submarine mission so important to the U.S. Navy during the Cold War. Now it seems most often to involve diesel-electric submarines in relatively shallow water.

For example, when NATO forces, including aircraft carriers, attacked the Serbians in Kosovo during the late 1990s, they had to contend with a Serbian navy that included small submarines. As it happened, the submarines never went to sea, but reportedly the U.S. Navy assigned several nuclear attack submarines to watch them.

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Norman Friedman is an internationally known strategist and naval historian. He is the author of...


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