Why We're Worrying About Submarine Warfare Again

Our standoff with the Soviets may be over, but a future of renewed submarine-borne threats is looking increasingly likely.

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Sep 17 2015, 11:00am

The USS Albuquerque and Royal Australian Navy's HMAS Rankin participate in anti-submarine warfare exercises in March 2015. Image: US Pacific Fleet, via Royal Australian Navy/Flickr

Better find a VHS player and queue up your copy of The Hunt for Red October, because anti-submarine warfare is back.

While everyone has their eyes on cyberwar, the US Navy has been turning its attention back towards the sea—and not purely as an exercise in Cold War nostalgia. Our standoff with the Soviets may be over, but a future of renewed submarine-borne threats—both China and Russia have expressed renewed interest in building submarines, and operating their fleets farther and farther from home shores—is looking increasingly likely.

That's partly why, over the past several years, the US Navy has been building an Undersea Warfare Training Range (USWTR) off the Florida coast, to be completed in 2019. The range is 500 square nautical miles in size (25 nm long by 20 nm wide), and is part of the larger Jacksonville Range Complex, which spans from the coast of North Carolina to Florida, 250 nautical miles out to sea.

Most importantly, it's a next-generation war games playground for finding, tracking, and even capturing simulated undersea threats.

"Over the past 20 years, those skills have to some degree atrophied," explained Eric Wertheim, an author and defense consultant with US Naval Institute, "but they're becoming more and more important again."

"A future nuclear submarine deployment off the West Coast of the United States may occur in the next five years or possibly sooner"

According to Wertheim, after the fall of the Soviet Union—and with it, a scaling back of Russia's undersea ambitions—anti-submarine warfare training was no longer considered as necessary as it once was. War shifted to new and different theatres, and required unconventional operations, a la Stuxnet and Seal Team 6. But in recent years, powers new and old have returned their attention to the sea.

Both China and Russia are building new submarines, for example, which are quieter are harder to spot than any of their predecessors. Russian submarines are being sighted more frequently and farther from home than they have in years. China, meanwhile, has reportedly deployed its own submarines in the Indian Ocean—and "with continued submarine growth," wrote US Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jeff W. Benson this time last year, "a future nuclear submarine deployment off the West Coast of the United States may occur in the next five years or possibly sooner."

Such developments have left the US no choice but to once again hone its anti-submarine warfare skills.

"I think it's fair to say that… there's an an increased emphasis on it again," Wertheim told me. "But there's no doubt that the US needs to do a lot of work to get back to where they were before the end of the cold war," he added later.

DARPA, meanwhile, has been developing a prototype autonomous, robotic submarine finder

Part of this renewed emphasis includes the construction of technologically advanced training spaces such as the USWTR, located off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida, near the Mayport Naval Station. The range will consist of "more than 600 nautical miles of node cable" and "up to 300 underwater acoustic devices, called nodes," according to a recent Navy press release, and will be used "to provide ships, submarines and aircraft the ability to track targets on the surface and subsurface for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) training."

The USWTR failed to respond to a request for comment.

The USWTR isn't the only piece of technology in the US Navy's upgraded ASW arsenal, however. In Lt. Cmdr. Benson's post on the US Naval Institute's website, he outlined some of the Navy's other coming improvements in anti-submarine warfare technology—namely an array of new sensors and platforms that are currently being deployed.

DARPA, meanwhile, has been developing a prototype autonomous, robotic submarine finder, dubbed the Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel, which according to Defense One will be ready this fall. Although DARPA's test boat has yet to trail an actual vessel, the agency did demonstrate its ability "to complete an autonomous trip without crashing into rocks, shoals, or erratically behaving surface vessels," per Defense One's report—with the intent of eventually tracking Russian, Chinese and other seaborne threats on its own.

It all sounds very impressive. But in a post on The Diplomat, author James R. Holmes, like Wertheim, muses that when it comes to more traditional forms of anti-submarine warfare, "Whether the human factor is up to the challenge is another question."

If the construction of facilities such as the USWTR is any indication, it's a question that's on the Navy's mind, too.

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