Move, Countermove in the Anti-Access Game
Image Credit: Wikicommons

Move, Countermove in the Anti-Access Game


Wired’s Spencer Ackerman reports on the Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vehicle (ACTUV), a futuristic unmanned surface ship equipped to track enemy submarines over long spaces of time. Defense contractor Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) is developing the concept under a $58 million contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA is the government body charged with pursuing exotic new technology.

If the concept works out as designed — and show me the money! remains the prudent attitude toward concepts in their infancy — these surface craft will boast the capacity to maintain contact with nuclear or even silent diesel-electric submarines operating underwater. Once vectored toward a contact by one of the U.S. Navy’s new P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine aircraft, the ACTUV would possess sufficient endurance and autonomy to cling to it for up to ninety days. Indeed, Ackerman implies that SAIC is designing its drone to follow a boat back to its homeport. The only obvious drawback is that the craft will be unarmed — and thus unable to prosecute engagements without help from other surface or air assets.

That’s heady stuff. Flotillas of low-cost drones able to hunt submarines for operationally significant intervals, and to do so without breaking contact, would help nullify the undersea component of the anti-access defenses erected by the Chinas and Irans of the world. It would also start turning the logic of anti-access against its users. Anti-access is a variety of what late cold warriors called “competitive strategies.” Practitioners of competitive strategy search out inexpensive weaponry, hardware, and methods. Their goal is to impose outsized costs on strategic competitors — compelling them to spend lavishly on countermeasures. Ultimately the competition proves unaffordable, or at least forces the adversary to divert resources from pressing priorities. It misshapes and enfeebles his strategy to our advantage.

The ACTUV is part of an “interaction game,” the term we use around our department to describe the intellectual and material one-upsmanship by which competitors jockey for strategic advantage. There are other ways to win than to defeat an adversary outright. As Clausewitz notes, you can also convince him he can’t win, or that he can’t win at an acceptable price. If the U.S. Navy can negate inexpensive fleets of diesel-electric boats primed to contest its access into Asian waters, it will have taken major strides in the right direction. And if it can display that capability convincingly in peacetime, it may not need to fight for access to important theaters.

Stay tuned.

January 9, 2013 at 00:49

So USA can tail China's ships? China cannot do the same in return?

January 8, 2013 at 12:50

And would Beijing be allocating for 'fishermens' hazard pay? Mind you, with the climate change, we now have more typhoons in SEA. If Chinese tail US ships, be aware that a choppy sea might very well cost some lives.

January 6, 2013 at 04:56

The concept of widely dispersed unmanned vehicles (sea or air) ask interesting questions not only of anti access tactics but of other doctrines as well.
Little of the technology involved in the ACTUV is beyond the capability of other countries (with the exception of autonomous decision making and absolute endurance). If the concept were to proliferate only self interest would prevent an adversary from utilising such systems – if numerous enough – to erode the sanctuary of, and therefore utility of, ballistic missile armed submarines.
Unless one were willing to sink such USV operating in international waters unilaterally it may eventually become impossible to 'de-louse' SSBNs leaving port – especially submersible versions can attain a practical endurance.
Low cost, ubiquitous air, surface and submersible autonomous vehicles tracking and submarine they find by loitering a respectful distance offshore major naval bases – now what?

January 6, 2013 at 04:39

You are putting words in the authors mouth, he did not say anywhere in the article about the ACTUV being any of the following: "boasting ACTUV as a killer app is plainly naïve" he was not saying anything of the sort, putting words into the authors mouth is an act of propaganda agents.
The ACTUV is not a killer app by any means and is not some sort of ultimate weapon. It is merely one tool among many that the US navy could potentially use against anti-access submarines that are being deployed. The ACTUV provides for more options and more abilities for the US navy to adapt and develop. Afterall, having more tools is better than having less.
The ACTUV could also be equipped with silent/stealth technology in the future so that targeting and destroying them could prove to be very difficult. At this early stage all we can do is speculate as to what the future capabiltiies of these ACTUV's could be. It is always best to look for as many tools, options and capabiltiies as possible as this is what gives you an edge over an opponent that is simply copying others. If you can keep ahead of the curve, then your opponents will never really know what you are truly capable of; this advantage cannot be underestimated.
You also said "ACTUV is merely one of the episodes of a continuous contest of talents and resources" which is very true indeed. In this regard, the US navy has far more resources to deploy than anything China currently has to offer. China right now and in the forseeable future is playing the game of catch up and, in order to catch up they are obviously not developing anything new. This is the advantage that the west has over China because while China is busy getting technology that has already been developed for decades, the West, using their superior universities, scientists, nobel laureates etc…. can develop even more new tech, thus making China continuously play the game of catch up.

January 5, 2013 at 06:10

The counter move of this type of under water unmanned vehicles is use fish boat to fish them out. China has over 100,000 fishing boats/ships. Then copy it. Send the copies to follow US ships around. However, sending anything into other people’s territory is an invasion.
The best countermove is to apply the same concept with satellites. China can send out small satellites to follow American satellites around. And let Americans know that their satellites can all be destroyed in a few seconds. That will keep Americans away from China. Space is common area. Anybody can deploy anything there. China did not sign the space treaty Russia and USA signed many years ago. China should not sign it.

January 4, 2013 at 21:31

The two occasions where the Chinese people have sided with the American people in fighting darkness are:
- during the WWII, against Imperial Japan
- during the Cold war, against the Soviets
In both occasions, China (the state, not the people) has taken rather a "back-seat" driver, limited-risk attitude.
But the PRC has also actively helped  the other side of the US, the dark side, this time as a flagship rather than a mere follower: it was when China maneuvered frantically to get political supports for the Pol Pot regime, over a decade. Flip-flopping is the first trait of a darkside character. Count how many times the "new" China has flip-flopped (and rewrite its history consequently) in the last 50 years.
Bankotsu, you are championning a multipolar world today because China is a would-be challenger. Similarly, some years ago, "peaceful rise", "shelving dispute" were part of your government's official language because China did not have the essential military tools.

January 4, 2013 at 06:13

Don Quixote would be proud to lead your quest.

January 4, 2013 at 06:12

I don't know… Washington's been lording it over Havana for over 50 years but so far no invasion yet. Mexico's relationship with the US isn't hostile. And with Chavez' health not being what it was, Venezuela's future is uncertain. Why would those 3 spend for countering something that is very unlikely to happen?

January 4, 2013 at 06:09

Make that drone a sub variant. One that would submerge whenever a sizable vessel approaches it and would resurface once the surface it's clear. R&D will be a pain but not the agony that the F-35 is. Outsource their production to a reliable ally and then base them from an allied country that's close to the hot spot. Those measures would somewhat help in negating their disadvantates.

January 4, 2013 at 02:49

This strikes me as the obvious flaw with this interesting concept: as long as the trackers are unmanned, the barrier to their destruction is relatively low.  China, Russia, or anyone else (including the U.S.) finding their subs tracked by robots would face little disincentive to disabling or destroying the trackers.  After all, just as no one (yet) goes to war over a computer virus, no one will go to war over the loss of a drone.  What is seen as an advantage in some domains– the ability of unmanned vehicles to perform their missions without putting humans in jeopardy– ironically becomes a *disadvantage* when playing the peacetime ASW tracking game. 
If I'm China, in peacetime I'm not shooting down a Seahawk or torpedoing a Burke.  But I'm sure as heck ramming one of these drones with a patrol boat.

January 4, 2013 at 01:06

I thought it was the chinese who are helping U.S to break away from the darkness of the unipolar world?

January 3, 2013 at 22:23

And the next thing: a Chinese midget drone that carries a nuclear warhead that sails autonomously and silently from Hainan to somewhere near California coast. It will have sensors and autonomous decision logic to launch its warhead under certain conditions…
Mr Holmes, we don't need the Mayas to predict the end of the world! You don't fight darkness with darkness. The best way to save this planet is to help the Chinese themselves breaking away of darkness.

January 3, 2013 at 15:43

"…would help nullify the undersea component of the anti-access defenses erected by the Chinas and Irans of the world…"
I think Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela and others should also start to upgrade on anti-access capabilities. Maybe Iran and China can provide help in this regard.

Drive by
January 3, 2013 at 13:12

All China has to do is to build up its nuclear arsenal. The only real thing AirSea battle will achieve is to transfer yet more tax-payer money to the military-industrial complex and deepen America's fiscal cliff. In a real war where battle space is actively contested, P-8s will be aerial targets and ACTUVs are just sitting ducks. In fact, any unmaned system will be nothing but sitting ducks in contested space. 

January 3, 2013 at 12:04

John Chan: You make some good points, but the way I read it the author is explaining the theory, not advocating for it.     

January 3, 2013 at 07:33

The problem with ACTUV and the concept behind is that no country will allow their billion dollar nuclear submarines (or a cheaper diesel-electric submarines) be made impotent by an unmanned robot tailing them. If one of these is anywhere near the South China Sea (and to a lesser degree in the East China Sea) one should logically expect the Chinese to 'accidentaly' crash into/ram it and in times of great tension even blow it out of the water. Such actions are not unprecedented (the Hainan EP-3 incident and quite recent cable cutting incident come into mind). As Professor Holmes has stated, this is part of an 'interaction game'. I expect this concept to meet the same fate as the unofficial 'Offshore Contorl' concept being pushed for by T.X. Hammes in leiu of Air-Sea Battle/Joint Operational Access Concept. By publicizing a nuclear posture review that can shut such ideas down instantly (and appear to have done so as covered by The Diplomat). 
This 'game' doesn't have a real end as long as each side seeks to decrease its vulnerabilites and/or increase its strength. However, this does not mean some concepts are better kept on the drawing board. ACTUV is simply too simple to deal with. Will the U.S. go to war if one relatively cheap unmanned ship is sunk? Thie question shows one of the problems unmanned vehicles create. Furthermore and perhaps more importantly, is it really inconceivable that the Chinese (and others) can grab this concept and produce a similar/inferior/supeirior concept and equipment? Surely this favours China (thanks to geography) and should they get such a system (working with their new Y-8 MPA and other systems) the South China Sea (and even the E. China Sea) can be turned into Chinese bastions. 
I see some commentators are calling ACTUV a game changer. I find it unlikely (due to its inherent vulnerability)  but perhaps it may. However,a secondary question is for whom and finally: at what cost(s)? 

Oro Invictus
January 3, 2013 at 00:52

That’s the thing about this whole “Area Denial” craze that’s been going on in military-watcher circles recently (although, as Dr. Holmes notes, it has happened before in the past), so many make it sound like all the advancements made by the state implementing the AD strategies are done so in a vacuum; they tend to imply the “other” state has no countermeasures that would be effective or that they are not working on measures of their own (or, at least, tend to just mention it as an afterthought). Nevermind that the US and other such states have been working on ASW and anti-missile systems (including anti-ballistic) for decades and has proven capabilities in this regard, instead all the focus is put on the unproven technologies (in both normal function and functionality against such countermeasures) and strategies of the PRC, Iran, and such.
Not that it’s surprising, saying such groups have developed “carrier-killers” and “national targes” sounds a lot better in the papers than “unproven missiles” and “strategies untested in modern combat scenarios”.
This isn’t to say that there is nothing to area-denial, quite the opposite really; the technologies and strategies do have a lot of promise. The problem I have is that so many take it too far, too quickly, and don’t consider things as a whole. History is full of technologies and strategies that were hailed as “war-winners” and simply could not perform under combat conditions or were outmatched by opposing groups. It’s the difference between wielding Greek Fire on the Bosphorus or just a bunch of concrete bunkers sitting in the Ardennes.

John Chan
January 3, 2013 at 00:24

The article has some obvious fallacies as below.
1. China is defending its independence, it has to do whatever it takes to meet foreign threats; meanwhile the USA is the predatory imperialist trying to enslave China with militarism. Therefore the author said “convince him he can’t win, or that he can’t win at an acceptable price.” is simply a “blaming the victim” fallacy, an expression of king of law of jungle, and Al Capone’s mentality.
2. ACTUV is merely one of the episodes of a continuous contest of talents and resources. Unless the USA and its lackeys believe “only the West can invent and only the West can succeed” fallacy, and the USA can reverse its Debt Cliff, it seems USA is determined to walk the path of the former USSR.
3. The Chinese adage said “there is no impenetrable shield and there is no unstoppable spear,” boasting ACTUV as a killer app is plainly naïve; there are so many inherent vulnerabilities of the ACTUV, it could be considered a Pentagon’s mental fallacy if they regard the ACTUV as a counter anti-access magic bullet.

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief