James Holmes

Full-Spectrum Anti-Submarine Warfare

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James Holmes

Full-Spectrum Anti-Submarine Warfare

By shifting its outlook on undersea combat, the U.S. Navy can restore that competitive dimension of war at sea.

Hey, get off my lawn, William Toti, you whippersnapper! Writing about submarine warfare belongs to me now!!!

Er. Forgive the outburst. Upon further review, it appears the Naval Diplomat is the whippersnapper this time. Captain Toti is a seasoned sub skipper, whereas I remain one of the Young Turks of maritime strategy, and a surface-navy sailor to boot. In any event, he has a nifty article in the current edition of the Naval Institute Proceedings, wherein he describes a new yet ancient approach to combat in the deep. Read the whole thing, then hurry back.

Toti recounts the U.S. Navy’s search for “full-spectrum” anti-submarine warfare over the past decade. His essay is noteworthy in several respects. One, he tries to shatter American seafarers’ assumptions about — and, at times, complacency toward — ASW, dating from the Cold War. For mariners of a certain vintage, hunting enemy boats is something we do in the open ocean. Detecting, tracking, and targeting the godless foe demands ever more discriminating acoustic sensors operated by savvy sonar techs. In this default view, Western navies should resume old practices using new hardware in order to compete with the likes of China and Russia.

Not so, says the author. He grants that subs command a virtually insuperable advantage in cat-and-mouse games on the open sea. This will remain true until and unless new technology renders the oceans transparent. He seems to counsel despair.

Except that, two, all is not lost. The classics of strategic theory are conspicuously absent from the piece, but they hover nearby. Clausewitz, Corbett, and Mahan are smiling, wherever they are. Toti tries to retrieve the submarine from the rather abstract place it occupies in maritime strategic thought. It’s a black box, or tube, that appears out of nowhere before disappearing again. The jokes American submariners tell are revealing. Old salts wisecrack, for example, that subs are built to submerge while surface ships are made to submerge — once! You get the idea. The sub emerges from the trackless depths to smite helpless “skimmers” in their surface vessels. Then it vanishes. Abandon all hope.

Well, maybe. But depicting sea combat as intrinsically one-sided takes interaction, and indeed the human factor, out of it — always a perilous thing to do. Toti points out that sub crews are human, and that fellow humans riding the surface or flitting around the skies can do things to mold their behavior. Surface commanders can choose favorable battlegrounds, blunting submariners’ advantages. Or they can deceive, exploiting the severe limits on subs’ capacity to find, track, and assail surface shipping. Broadcasting false signals, for instance, can mislead sub skippers into taking station somewhere on the nautical chart where they can do little harm. It could prompt them to waste finite resources chasing false targets.

By shifting its outlook on undersea combat, then, the U.S. Navy can restore that competitive dimension of war at sea. Its surface fleet can grapple on more equal terms with subsurface antagonists, much as Clausewitz’s metaphorical wrestlers grapple constantly for strategic advantage, trying to one-up each other. (A certain Mao Zedong was another eloquent spokesman on behalf of the human factor in international competition.) Sea monsters — Captain Nemo’s Nautilus comes to mind — will lose some of their terror, and some of the tactical edge granted them by their murky operating environment.

Which leads to point three. Toti implies, without quite saying it, that full-spectrum ASW is a throwback to the age of sail. Corbett and Mahan both point out — Corbett more eloquently, as usual — that the high seas is an exceedingly difficult combat environment. That’s a vast amount of sea space to monitor, while the biggest ship is tiny by contrast. (That’s doubly true when you include the three-dimensional water column underneath where submarines prowl.) Sail-driven fleets or individual raiders could easily lose themselves once beyond sight of land, and turn that uncertainty to advantage. They could pop up most anywhere to make mayhem.

Ergo, the best place to find an adversary in days of yore was at the origin of his voyage, at its destination (if you knew it), or at focal points such as straits where shipping had to converge, nozzle-like, to pass from one expanse into another. Like sailing vessels, submarines must obey geography. Indeed, like land armies, they either have to cope with terrain when operating in the shallows, or run aground and become tactically worthless. Knowing such basic facts about the surroundings, and taking advantage of them, can help surface navies do battle against subs with better prospects of success.

The game’s afoot. Let’s play it on our playground.