Trouble under the horizon?

SUBMARINES: The U.S. Navy Confronts the Threat From Below (July 30, 2004 entry)

Strategy Page notes the declining ASW of the US Navy.

Potential naval opponents like China, Iran and North Korea don’t, like the Soviets did, send their subs out onto the high seas. Instead, their subs are kept close to shore, in shallower water that makes it more difficult to find them. Worse, these new opponents don’t have those incredibly noisy nuclear subs the Soviets built in large numbers. The new enemy uses diesel-electric boats which, when running just on batteries, are much more difficult to find than those always loud Soviet nukes.

But it gets worse. American ASW sailors are out of practice. In the Cold War days, it was easy to find some Soviet subs to practice on. As a result, American ASW forces had lots of experience and were always ready to go to war. No more. The Chinese, Iranians and North Koreans keep their subs within territorial waters most of the time. They won’t come out on the high seas to play with our ASW people. So we have to arrange play dates with allies who operate diesel-electric subs. These allies usually kick out butts, because they practice sneaking around all the time, and our ASW folks get too little practice to deal with these experienced crews. While our allies operate better (quieter, better trained crews and superior electronics) subs than our potential opponents have, they are not available often enough for our ASW crews to perfect their skills. To be good at ASW, you have to practice regularly, and a lot. And you have to have someone realistic to practice on. Finally, the kind of superior boats our allies use will eventually be available to our opponents.

MO has kept a bit of an eye on this issue, noting both the possible significant reduction in US sub forces and the planned significant expansion of Chinese sub forces. Couple these stories with the idea that maybe our ASW crews and tactics don’t get the training they need to stay sharp and you’ve got trouble.

One new technology that I’ve got my eye on is the LASH system (noted on MO in August), which uses visual detection instead of acoustic detection. This method negates the advantages of the quiet diesel boats employed by our potential enemies, and it increases the likelihood of picking up enemy boats in coastal waters.

We cannot let our enemies get ahead of us in the submarine game. The threat of Chinese or North Korean subs would keep American carrier groups farther from the action than we want in the event of a war, and much of our current overwhelming naval advantage would be squandered.

Maybe what we should do is pick up one or two good diesel boat from an ally and crew them with top-notch personnel as a red team in a sort of submarine Top Gun. Base one sub on each US coast, provide a team of trainers and advisers to work with ship and air crews, and practice like we want to play.

We don’t want anyone to even get into the same ballpark our navy plays in. There are no points for second place.


  1. With respect to the possibility of being overshadowed by the growing sub threat, there is a saying at the Navy SEAL school, ‘Second place is first loser.’