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USW: Sunset for Stovepipes
by Joseph J. Buff, [IMAGE]2006


Photo Courtesy: Walter P. Noonan
[IMAGE] As the globe we live on grows ever more volatile and dangerous, it's good to know that the U.S. Navy is pursuing undersea warfare (USW) integration at flank speed. The vision behind USW is greater cooperation of related oceanborne mission tasks at all levels, from improving network-centric data fusion to exploiting commonality of hardware to implementing wiser command organization and better cross-training of personnel.

USW encompasses several military arts and sciences that have too often been thought of as separate or different. These disciplines include mine warfare; antisubmarine warfare; submarine-on-submarine combat in blue water or in the littorals; many Sea, Air, Land (SEAL) operations across hostile beaches, even sea-based espionage; and salvage of adversaries' sunken high-value technical artifacts. But, the vast oceans by themselves no longer provide our homeland passive protection the way they once did. We need to break down remaining harmful intramural barriers beneath the umbrella of USW -- inefficiencies that management theorists call "stovepiping."

Take as one example the recently announced merger of mine warfare and antisubmarine warfare. This is a positive step. The fundamental goals of the two efforts overlap considerably, as both are concerned with locating and destroying (or avoiding) dangerous enemies lurking under the water. As a result, a lot of the tactics and gadgets have similarities. A merger should produce benefits everywhere from cost savings in research and development, acquisitions and personnel budgets, through to institutional enhancements via improved and streamlined people relationships, communications and interchange of insights and ideas. The gains would apply to operational readiness needed for dissuasion and deterrence, as well as credible diplomacy. Such gains would apply even more so to the warfighting punch indispensable to achieving victory (if worse came to worst).

Another great example of USW cross-collaboration is the conversion of the four oldest Ohio-class Trident ballistic missile submarines into stealthy near-shore reconnaissance and land strike platforms, with very impressive payload capacity. Here, the submariner and SEAL communities -- each elite, but in disparate ways -- will work cheek to jowl on months-long submerged deployments. The 24 giant hydrogen bomb-bearing missile tubes on each vessel were deemed surplus to requirements in the thermonuclear deterrent arena. So, rather than scrap the subs, their tubes were adapted. Now they can carry anything from seven Tomahawk cruise missiles each to equipment and ordnance for SEAL raids to unmanned undersea vehicle probes (like Seahorse), unmanned aerial vehicles (such as the experimental Cormorant) and more. Two tubes are devoted to next-generation swimmer lock-in/lock-chambers. Each modified Ohio ship can transport, side by side on her back, two pressure-proof dry deck shelters for housing rubber rafts and undersea scooters, or two commando minisubmarines, or one of each. One hundred sixty submariners and up to 99 SEALs will sleep in separate spaces, but will dine together and, more to the point, will plan and execute missions together as a genuine joint force. Once again, by thinking USW and acting accordingly, brilliantly repurposed platforms and innovative blending of people cultures have produced littoral battle assets that are invaluable against a full spectrum of current or future deadly threats.

USW in its fullest form incorporates that best weapon against any "bad-guy" submarine: one of our own submarines. Technical breakthroughs and further erosion of distrust, bias or complacency between distinct nautical "unions" are at last permitting the U.S. Submarine Force to function fully as one with the rest of the Navy and also the U.S. Coast Guard. A major program called "Communications at Speed and Depth" is allowing the nuclear submarine fleet to stay in frequent, even continuous, covert contact with friendly surface ships, aircraft and satellites. Radio, laser, and acoustic links are part of this classified effort. Critical information can originate from a submarine and be injected into the data net in real time, and similar information or orders can be passed swiftly to the submarine. Submarines working on their own are not nearly so effective as hunter/killers as when they can be cued toward targets by sensors permeating the 3D battlespace. Enhanced coordination with nearby carrier strike groups, amphibious assault groups, distant national command authorities and worldwide intelligence sources, is reaching the stage of a revolution in military affairs.

This revolution in totally integrated USW comes none too soon. Repeated experience has shown that a daring enough sub skipper has an excellent chance of penetrating a modern carrier's escort screens, if those screens are at anything less than their absolute peak of performance.

This being true of carrier groups, imagine the devastation awaiting merchant ships (think oil supertankers) if any evil entity with subs starts running amok. For secretly detecting, tracking and interdicting terrorist or rogue-state vessels approaching our coasts with weapons of mass destruction, superb USW is our primary line of defense.

The dangers out there to U.S Sailors and Marines are real. Anything that threatens American naval power with potentially painful losses threatens the sea lines of communication on which our commerce and way of life depend. Undersea warfare is a team effort, a constant process, a blood sport. It deserves the heftiest possible backing from the Pentagon and U.S. Congress.

(This article originally appeared in the November 2006 issue of Sea Technology Magazine. It is reproduced here with permission.)

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