TCS Daily

No Subs for Subs

By Melana Zyla Vickers - July 14, 2003 12:00 AM

In the Cold War, U.S. subs slinked around the north Atlantic, carrying multi-ton torpedoes that were meant to be fired at the Soviets. In the Iraq War, at least one U.S. sub slinked around the Persian Gulf carrying commandos armed with chemical and bio-weapons-detecting UAVs that they launched over Iraq with hand-held slingshots.

The unmanned aerial vehicle account is certainly the most colorful illustration of submarines' flexibility. But it is far from the only one. Indeed, the sub force's innovations put it among those at the forefront of the military in terms of transformation.

Consider that submarines launched some 33% of all Tomahawk land-attack missiles fired in the Iraq war, up from 4% in the 1991 Gulf War. Or that four Trident subs destined for the scrap heap, designed to carry 24 nuclear missiles, are right now being converted to carry up to 154 Tomahawks and 66 special forces troops. In addition, the sub fleet is innovating with a variety of unmanned underwater vehicle applications.

With these changes, the transforming sub fleet is positioned to perform three main missions.

Covert Land Attack: Unlike the cruisers or destroyers that have traditionally fired most of the TLAMs, a submarine can operate independent of other vessels -- it doesn't need to be escorted and thus use up other Navy personnel and assets' precious time. Because of its underwater stealthiness, it can fire missiles without warning -- a valuable advantage against a country that might otherwise rush to hide a target from attack. The four converted Tridents will give the sub fleet an even greater punch.

Intelligence Gathering: Since the last days of the Cold War, submarine intelligence missions have grown by a third. Again because of their stealth, subs can get up close to the enemy shoreline where they can place sensors, tap into cables or perform other intelligence missions. Their technological backbone has become far more substantial, with the new Virginia-class sub -- which began development in the late 1990s -- possessing 3,000 times the computer processing power of its Los Angeles-class predecessor. In addition, today's subs are connected in real time to other vessels and command posts, and they can drop unmanned sensors into the ocean and gather data from them as well. In the future, they'll also be able to collect data from temporary microsatellites that they launch over a battlespace from under the sea. These capabilities are further enhanced by the fact that a nuclear-powered sub can stay at sea for three months at a time.

Special Operations: The upcoming launch of the first converted Trident with its cargo of 66 Navy SEALS will mark a new era for submarines. They'll be able to get the troops to their destination stealthily so that they can do reconnaissance and combat missions. And thanks to craft stored right onboard, the subs can save the SEALS the exhaustion of swimming to shore in freezing water by launching them in mini-subs called the Advanced SEAL Delivery System (ASDS), the first of which was delivered this month. Another delivery method -- albeit one that's less obviously in need of launch from a submarine -- is the Mark 8 two-man, radar-evading sea kayak. The Navy tried it out in the Iraq War, according to Connecticut's New London Day newspaper.

In all these missions, the subs' ability to launch unmanned craft, microsatellites, or sensors into the water, air, or in the backpacks of Special Operations forces extends their utility further still.

While the sub's missions are changing its virtues remain the same: Stealthiness, persistence or the fact that their nuclear power allows them to remain at sea for long periods, and independence from any other vessel, which gives the submarine operational efficiency that's unmatched by other ships.

That's not a bad CV. As Congress debates how to fund the next group of Virginia class subs, as the converted Tridents are prepared for service, and as the Navy continues to innovate with unmanned aspects of the sub program, there should be no doubt in the minds of members of Congress that the $2 billion boats are worth the investment.

TCS Daily Archives