Are Submarines About to Become Obsolete?

America and others have "sunk" trillions of dollars into advanced submarines. They could simply become the next battleship.

What would happen if U.S. nuclear attack submarines—some of the most sophisticated and expensive American weapons of war—suddenly became obsolete? Imagine a scenario where these important systems became the hunted instead of the hunter, or just as technologically backward as the massive battleships of years past. Think that sounds completely insane? If advances in big data and new detection methods fuse with the anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) ambitions of nations like China and Russia, naval planners around the world might have to go back to the drawing board.

Submarines: The New Battleship?

The revelation is alluded to in a recent report by the Washington, D.C.–based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) called “The Emerging Era in Undersea Warfare.” Smartly named by a certain TNI editor as the “think-tank’s think-tank,” CSBA has crafted in the last decade many of the most detailed and sophisticated reports regarding the most pressing national-security challenges around—sometimes years before anyone else. Ever heard of a little operational concept called AirSea Battle? They were at the forefront of it before it was in the news.

In a piece for TNI, the report’s author, Bryan Clark, lays out the problem in more layman's terms:

Since the Cold War submarines, particularly quiet American ones, have been considered largely immune to adversary A2/AD capabilities. But the ability of submarines to hide through quieting alone will decrease as each successive decibel of noise reduction becomes more expensive and as new detection methods mature that rely on phenomena other than sounds emanating from a submarine. These techniques include lower frequency active sonar and non-acoustic methods that detect submarine wakes or (at short ranges) bounce laser or light-emitting diode (LED) light off a submarine hull. The physics behind most of these alternative techniques has been known for decades, but was not exploited because computer processors were too slow to run the detailed models needed to see small changes in the environment caused by a quiet submarine. Today, “big data” processing enables advanced navies to run sophisticated oceanographic models in real time to exploit these detection techniques. As they become more prevalent, they could make some coastal areas too hazardous for manned submarines.

Could modern attack subs soon face the same problem as surface combatants around the world, where some areas are simply too dangerous to enter, thanks to pressing A2/AD challenges?

Breaking Down the Dilemma:

“We need to think about a new strategy for undersea warfare,” explained Clark in a recent piece for DefenseNews. “Right now we tend to rely on submarines doing tactical operations on their own, in an environment where they can operate largely with impunity. All those things are going to change in the future...”

So what are the United States and other nations to do if Clark’s predictions come to pass?

Consider the problem in these terms: Washington is laying down two Virginia Class Attack submarines a year at a cost of roughly $1.8 billion per boat. These advanced subs were to be the backbone of Washington’s evolving Air-Sea Battle operational concept, recently renamed and now being retooled as the “Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons” (JAM-GC). With even more expensive U.S. aircraft carriers facing mounting challenges, thanks to A2/AD weapons systems—specifically ballistic and cruise missiles being fielded by China, Iran, Russia and others—undersea platforms like submarines were to help Washington ensure it was one step ahead. While not completely replacing the capabilities of America’s carrier battle groups, U.S. attack subs armed with land-attack cruise missiles (TLAMS) would retain at least a portion of the capability to attack command and control nodes and work to destroy land-based threats, as well as advanced enemy sub or naval surface forces. If CSBA’s predictions become fact in the near-to-medium term, America and its allies will have a major problem to contend with.

The problems deepen when you consider even large issues like the deployment of America’s nuclear weapons. With Washington also needing to replace its aging Ohio Class SSBN submarines—armed with a good deal of America’s undersea nuclear deterrent—the problem set becomes even more dire.

How to Solve the Problem: Underwater Aircraft Carriers?

So what can Washington do to mitigate the problem? While presenting a number of solutions, one alluded to by CSBA’s Clark seems quite genius: essentially turning submarines into underwater aircraft carriers that would carry drone-like underwater unmanned vehicles or UUVs.

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