James Holmes

Move, Countermove in the Anti-Access Game

New technologies like unmanned surface ships could put a dent in some nation’s anti-access plans.

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.