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ASWWill We Ever Learn?

Vice Admiral James R. Fitzgerald, USN (Ret.) and Rear Admiral Richard F. Pittenger, USN (Ret.)

Then I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again
                    The Who

In 2025, a future commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet will write, “The tragedy of our defeat… is that it hinged on such small factors. At the start of Admiral John Richardson’s term as Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), he noted presciently that our margin of victory in high-end naval combat had grown ‘razor thin.’… In the years following, however, the margin shifted imperceptibly to favor the other side. The loss of our margin of victory is all the more painful because in the years leading up to the conflict we said all the right things. In many cases, we were doing the right things as well… could we have averted this disaster?” [footnote:footnote0]

We need not be time travelers to absorb the lesson. Professor James Holmes of the Naval War College poses the essential question: “…if China can dishearten its adversaries or drive the price of entry into the Western Pacific so high Washington is unwilling to pay it, then China can win without crushing them in a major fleet engagement.” Citing threats including “diesel-electric submarines packed with antiship cruise missiles,” he suggests that “[w]hat PLA defenders can strive to do is impose high—if not unbearable—costs on U.S. Pacific Fleet reinforcements surging westward…”[footnote:footnote1]

An antisubmarine warfare (ASW) campaign will be the unavoidable opening phase of conflict in the Western Pacific, one of the planet’s toughest acoustic environments. It will be a “come as you are” street fight against an adversary who may engage us in unanticipated ways. Whether this confrontation is ultimately with China, or perhaps with Russia, or any of a number of other nations with small but capable submarine forces, we are likely get an ugly surprise. Do we want to wait for it? Can we afford to wait?  

The harsh reality is that ASW is a history of surprises, and the lessons we learn—again and again—rarely seem to stick. The litany begins with World War I as the U-boat demonstrated an unforeseen open-ocean capability. In World War II, U-boats again threatened Britain’s lifeline and torpedoed tankers burned along our Atlantic beaches. The postwar revelation of the Type XXI U-boat and the prospect of the Soviet Union building hundreds of copies brought ASW to an urgent national priority[footnote:footnote2] while Nautilus forced a complete reassessment of our capabilities. The quiet Akula was the last great shock of the Cold War. Whether through hubris, apathy, or espionage, these surprises usually brought urgent responses, but rarely—beyond wartime—have the reactions, both operational and/or managerial, translated to lasting redirection of resources to solutions.[footnote:footnote3] There were exceptions. Two major academic studies, and our Cold War ASW organization—all remarkable for their broad-reaching and long-lasting effects—can and should be models if we are to resurrect what was once a well-integrated, cross-platform ASW “system of systems.”

Playing catch-up does not have to be de rigueur. The Navy’s antiair warfare (AAW) community easily related the kamikaze to the implications of massed antiship cruise missile (ASCM) attacks: junior officers at Leyte and Okinawa became senior officers who made the connection to waves of missiles and how to counter them. Having lived the terrible consequences of inadequate defense, they accepted technological and programmatic risk: “…the introduction of surface-to-air missiles… was… conducted very largely on faith, as systems moved from the drawing board almost directly into mass production.”[footnote:footnote4] Why have there been so few enduring responses to evolving ASW threats? It is because we do not have that gut-level understanding of what it actually takes to counter the modern submarine—we acknowledge it only in the abstract. We never encountered the Type XXI in combat, nor have we faced any analogous threat—in combat—since. We conduct our exercises, log the green flares, and retire to the pub to toast the victors. Who was the last battle group commander to be relieved for “losing” the carrier in a fleet exercise?

The Lessons of History

World War I began with no real ASW as we know it, as the threat of the U-boat was unforeseen and unappreciated. The allied realization that underwater detection would be the key to success led to active sonar research on both sides of the Atlantic, but while British efforts continued postwar, ours lapsed as strategists focused on a Pacific war, assuming little threat from Japanese submarines.[footnote:footnote5] We were, therefore, woefully unprepared for the Second Battle of the Atlantic, reacting slowly as our doctrines, tactics, organization—and many people—were found wanting. In 1943, the need for centralized ASW coordination finally lead to the creation of the Tenth Fleet, introducing a half-century of top-level focus.

We also learned the inestimable value of academia: “the war forced the naval scientists to take the engineers and scientists of the industrial and academic world into their confidence." [footnote:footnote6] The Antisubmarine Warfare Operations Research Group developed mathematically-based search, screening, and attack procedures, building a foundation for operations research and systems analysis that carried us through the Cold War. Similarly, wartime work carried on under the auspices of the National Defense Research Committee and others would lead to better understanding of the physics of sound in the ocean, and a decade later, to systems that could finally exploit it.

While the Type XXI U-boat arrived too late to affect the Battle of the Atlantic, it demonstrated performance not exceeded until the advent of nuclear power a decade later. With a streamlined hull and the capability to maintain a submerged speed of 15 knots for two hours, Type XXI was the first true submarine. It could evade enemies at speeds higher than a destroyer sonar could maintain contact, dramatically changing the nature of undersea warfare. Only misplaced priorities and immature engineering kept it from becoming a wartime game-changer. CNO Chester W. Nimitz made this sober assessment in response to the prospect of the Soviets completing captured Type XXI’s and building hundreds of copies: “…our present antisubmarine forces will be unable to cope with the submarine of the future with the same degree of effectiveness as attained in the past war….” This revelation, coupled with the lessons of the wartime Tenth Fleet, lead to the realization that central management of ASW must continue, and in 1946 the CNO created the Coordinator of Undersea Warfare (OP-31).[footnote:footnote7] This office continued to evolve until, in 1964, Vice Admiral Charles B. Martell, as the new Director ASW Programs (OP-95), “headed the most powerful ASW organization… since the demise of the Tenth Fleet…”[footnote:footnote8] Key to the success of this office was that it was “doubled-hatted” as the ASW Systems Project Office (PM-4), following the groundbreaking lead of the Strategic Systems Project Office with signature authority to ensure cross-program and cross-platform warfighting balance. At sea, hunter-killer groups, building on wartime lessons, and now including supporting submarines, began the task of developing tactics to defeat this new threat. It was here we first learned the difficulty of integrated submarine operations: water-and air-space management is marginally effective, and “blue on blue,” particularly air-on-sub, remains a seemingly unsolvable problem.

In recognition of the wartime contributions of academia, the Navy instituted “summer studies,” inviting leading scholars to study problems of national interest. In 1950, Project Hartwell, a “…short-term intensive assault on the technical barriers that now limit the effectiveness of anti-submarine and anti-mine warfare,” was the first major effort. Hartwell’s function was to “…explore the potentialities inherent in old and new methods, suggest future long-range programs, and formulate recommendations that could be used… to guide research and development.”[footnote:footnote9] Hartwell also recognized the importance of wartime or immediate postwar discoveries (e.g., the convergence zone and deep-sound channel, and narrowband processing and analysis of passive sonar signals).[footnote:footnote10] The study’s recommendations led to or validated efforts that included tactical nuclear weapons, helicopters with dipping sonar, the single hunter-killer aircraft that became the S-2, non-acoustic ASW, and perhaps most critically, the technologies that enabled the sound surveillance system (SOSUS).  

The second project was Nobska, convened in 1956 as the revolutionary capabilities of Nautilus fully entered the Navy’s consciousness: “[i]t is anticipated that in the period 1965–1970 increased Russian capabilities… will present a threat of a new order of magnitude.” The panel’s report “…presented a unique integrated picture of the ASW problem and its likely solutions . . . probably focused interest at a high level within the navy …might have changed priorities…” and “…helped to mold Polaris.” Concrete recommendations lead to the MK 46 and MK 48 torpedoes, fast, deep-diving quiet submarines, and supported low frequency active sonar and what we today call “rapid prototyping.”[footnote:footnote11]

Lower frequency sonars that could exploit the multipath characteristics of the acoustic environment enabled new strategies to counter the emergent Soviet threat, and the quiet submarine became the ASW platform of choice, operating in forward barriers to forestall a third Battle of the Atlantic. Close partnerships with industry and academia were essential to evolve science into systems, as we were in uncharted territory—years of well-developed wartime tactics were now obsolete. An illustrative example of this partnership was Submarine Development Group Two, later Submarine Development Squadron Twelve, joined at the hip with the research and analytical capabilities of the Naval Underwater Systems Center in New London. With an elite group of civilian contractor analysts embedded in the staff, this team supported the submarine force’s tactical doctrine program and a broad range of highly productive special operations and exercises.

A robust cross-platform revitalization of ASW soon followed. With it came the introduction of passive narrowband signal processing, the P-3—and later the S-3 aircraft—with new sonobuoy inventories. Surface ships received towed arrays and the multipath-capable SQS-26/53 series sonars and embarked helicopters (to engage long-range contacts). The sum of these improvements allowed us to confidently impose our will on the Soviets through trail operations, acoustic and other intelligence collection, and interception of SOSUS-generated contacts. We assured ourselves that ASW supremacy would endure for years against an incrementally improving threat—a confidence that quickly evaporated with the shock of Akula—a surprise on the magnitude of Type XXI or Nautilus. It was not until the extent of the John Walker spy ring’s treason was revealed that we fully understood how much of our advantage had been compromised.  

Reaction was swift, thanks to a favorable budget climate, a solid research and development foundation, and a still-extant OP-95. Campaign analyses at the Naval War College and other centers—with the Maritime Strategy as a background—led to focused investment strategies. Reviews by the Defense Science Board, Naval Research Advisory Committee, and the National Security Industrial Association asked hard questions and provided input based on years of experience.[footnote:footnote12] ASW master plans articulated the requirements and provided roadmaps for the cross-platform “system of systems” that makes ASW a unique team sport, while the Integrated ASW Assessment Team (“Team A”) monitored implementation. As the Cold War ended, the Navy was on the verge of significant new investment to counter dramatically improving Soviet submarine force. Research and development efforts were poised to deliver low-frequency active sonars—both surveillance and tactical—deployable-passive surveillance systems keyed to a quiet threat, a major update to the P-3, which paved the way to a new P-7, robust torpedo defense, and SSN-21.

ASW Pays the Peace Dividend

The Soviet collapse brought intense pressure to reap a peace dividend after five decades of massive investment. Operating “from the sea” to support operations ashore became the paradigm, and “littoral” became the budget analysts’ weapon to kill programs that could not reinvent mission statements. Many allegedly blue water ASW programs died; the fallacy betraying those cuts was that the Maritime Strategy itself presumed significant ASW prosecutions in littoral waters. Submariners are not stupid: given alternatives, they will not by choice go into waters that best suit their opponent. Did we think that the USSR—with an oceanographic fleet many times the size of ours—did not understand acoustic physics?

With the Soviet collapse, ASW priorities fell dramatically as submarines went from threatening our very national security to only our overseas national interests; research and development, modernization, operations and expertise all dwindled accordingly. The New London Laboratory—long the nation’s premiere sonar research and development center—was downsized and consolidated at Newport. The contractor base atrophied as funding for exercises and analyses disappeared. The management and oversight that ensured investment balance crumbled, as without fanfare, OP-71—the successor to OP-95—closed its doors, ending the nearly half-century of centralized oversight that brought Navy ASW to global preeminence. The ASW master plan withered and Team A was disbanded. The ability to articulate the requirement for cross-platform, integrated ASW—a relationship unique among warfare areas—has not been regained in the intervening quarter century. While the submarine industrial base was considered an essential national asset, the intellectual base of ASW was, apparently, not.

Force levels were gutted: SSN-637 and many 688-class submarines were taken out of service well before the end of their service lives. The SSN-21 program was truncated. Primary-mission ASW surface ships (DD-963 and FFG-7) were decommissioned, again many short of their expected life spans. The P-3 community was downsized, forward bases closed, and the S-3 relegated to fleet support. The Navy drastically reduced acoustic undersea surveillance, cutting investment in fixed, deployable, and mobile systems. The new paradigm gave us a littoral combat ship with “mission modules,” begging the question of how the operators accompanying the ASW module, when installed, will maintain proficiency while sitting ashore. ASW cannot be plug and play: acoustic sensors are arguably the most challenging to operate, learning curves are steep, and skills highly perishable. Limited submarine services and environmental restrictions constrain at-sea training. Experience teaches that “there is no substitute for ping time,” but we have yet to develop trainers that accurately simulate that most complex environment—the sea—for active sonar engagements.  

The Hardest Lesson

The primary lesson from WWII, the Cold War, and all experience since, is that all source surveillance is essential for the successful execution of coordinated ASW. Without cueing, offensive antisubmarine warfare becomes the proverbial “needle in a haystack”—undesirable point defense characterized by alarming false contact rates, high weapon expenditures, and negative mission impact.

No matter how effective our front-line area ASW, there will be leakers, and they will be the quietest and smartest. Commanding Task Group Alpha, then-Rear Admiral Jimmy Thach recognized that “. . . many assets were required to prosecute one adversary. . . .”[footnote:footnote13] This is no less true today, and how best do we bring these assets to bear?

Effective ASW will always be expensive, requiring major investment in platforms, sensors, and weapons. From national asset surveillance through terminal engagement, balance among many competing priorities can only be achieved through a concomitant and comprehensive investment strategy executed not by leadership vested in a specific community, but by a focused and experienced broad coalition encompassing all communities, including those outside the Navy. Complex resource allocation decisions and command-and-control organizations simply cannot be resolved within community-based organizations. This is not new: in the early 1960s, “[o]ur effort to come up with a convincing analysis of ASW forces, one that everyone would accept and agree upon, failed . . . in part, because the U.S. Navy is made up of three competing branches . . . submarine . . . surface . . . and . . . aircraft . . .”[footnote:footnote14] Beginning in 1964, resolution was achieved through the work of OP-95/PM-4, supervising and coordinating ASW planning, programming, and budgeting using detailed appraisal analyses. Acting as resource sponsor and overall manager for the entire Navy ASW program, it was the single OPNAV voice for ASW and an effective organization for meeting requirements through signature control over budget development and execution. The well-documented successes of this organization brought Navy ASW to global preeminence within what became known as a “national ASW system.”[footnote:footnote15] Over time, with the dissolution of the office of the Chief of Naval Materiel in 1985 and resultant loss of PM-4, followed by the disestablishment of OP-71 at the end of the Cold War, this warfare focus has been diluted through decentralization driven not by ASW issues, but by a desire to institute hierarchical accountability in the acquisition community.

This problem was addressed in 2015 through the establishment of the Undersea Warfare Center in New London, reporting to Commander, Submarine Force, Atlantic. The stated mission is to “ . . . enhance fleet warfighting capabilities and readiness across the theater, operational, and tactical levels of war.”[footnote:footnote16] At issue, however, is the question of broad-based leadership and influence and control over resource allocation. Presumably this organization coordinates effectively among community sponsors and outside activities to ensure comprehensive cross-platform warfare coordination, interoperability, and balance. This might provide acquisition accountability, but is it adequate for the warfighter?

If not, acquisition remains with community sponsors and will likely result in continued community-focused investment with little improvement in the overarching requirement of coordinated all-source broad-area surveillance and cross-platform operability. At the deckplate level, we demand from our commanding officers a thorough understanding of the ship’s operations, weapons systems, and engineering plant. Should we not expect the same from the leadership of this extraordinarily complex warfare area?

Our investment roadmap must therefore be balanced across platforms and charted by those experienced in multiplatform operational ASW. For this reason, the OP-95/-71 organizations were staffed with specialists from all ASW disciplines and PM-4 had broad cross-platform budget authority.

Rigorous operations analysis is still required to underpin strategic, tactical, and programmatic decisions. A budgetary misconception, even after the Cold War, spurred by the Congress and the GAO,[footnote:footnote17] holds that that ASW programs can somehow be “prioritized,” then funded in order. While there can be no argument that the attack submarine program is “more important” than, say, the MK 54 torpedo, the “n’th” submarine is clearly not, and only good analysis can develop, articulate, and defend the rationale behind these complex resource allocation decisions.

Will we get fooled again?

Time and again the Navy has disarmed ASW physically, programmatically, and intellectually. Why do we allow this, and how can we regain global ASW leadership? First and foremost, we must look to history to see what worked and why, starting in two specific areas: scientific and organizational. Hartwell and Nobksa are prime examples of how to focus academic talent on difficult questions of national importance. Today, we should be asking our scientists:

 Why don’t active systems “work” and what is the effect on operator confidence? Physics (e.g., the convergence zone) says the signal is there, and are there solutions to the classification problem?

▪ Are we sure our torpedoes will work, and can we defend against the opponent’s?

▪ Are research and development programs adequately funded and properly balanced between reactions to today’s headlines and long-term investment, and are we facilitating the best possible interactions between the fleet and the developers, labs, and contractors? It is penny-wise and pound-foolish to underfund advanced development. Technology problems can be solved in engineering development, but the solutions will be far more costly.

▪ What has happened to research in the Arctic and in non-acoustic ASW?

For nearly 50 years, we had strategies and effective cross-platform, cross-community management to defeat the Soviet submarine threat. As we seek to properly manage ASW, we should be asking our civilian and uniformed leadership:

▪ Can a single-platform sponsor organization ensure we will be able to conduct theater-level combined arms ASW in a multi-threat, cyber-intensive environment, with strategies, underpinned by rigorous analyses, to address likely threat scenarios?

▪ As noted, an adversary with little submarine experience will probably surprise us. Would a Battle of the South China Sea be a classical battle force engagement, or an analog to the 1980s tanker war, this time with attacks on container ships to disrupt our “just-in-time” manufacturing and distribution economies?

▪ Can we provide persistent detection and cueing, i.e., real-time all-source locating data, to the fleet, supported by comprehensive operational and technical intelligence, adapting security requirements to legitimate operational needs?

▪ Are our programs fully funded from advanced development through in-service engineering and maintenance?

▪ Are we training the way we will fight? The fleet still gets it.[footnote:footnote18] ASW is a thinker’s game; are we educating our operators (from the Antisubmarine Warfare Commander down to the Tactical Action Officer).

▪ Do we have enough torpedoes? What did the Falklands teach us?

▪ Can we conduct highly sensitive science and research in the modern academic environment?

▪ How are our capabilities viewed? We freely and publicly admit ASW is a challenge; do our potential adversaries perceive this as weakness?

▪ When will the Congress again ask us these same questions? [footnote:footnote19]

Submarines, their weapons and their skills will continue to advance. Though there are rarely, if ever, “silver bullets” in ASW, just hard work, we must still ask, “what have we not thought of, and what should we be asking?” The final question, however, is, “do we have the skills, resources, and confidence that we can defeat any submarine threat anywhere in the world?” If the answer is “no,” or “maybe,” then it must be fixed. If the answer is “yes,” can it be improved?

History says we cannot afford to get fooled. Again.



  • [footnote:footnote0]. Capt. Dale Rielage, USN, “How We Lost the Great Pacific War,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 144, no. 5 (May 2018): 20–21.
  • [footnote:footnote1]Professor James Holmes, U. S. Naval War College, “Visualize Chinese Sea Power,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 144, no. 6 (June 2018): 28.
  • [footnote:footnote2]R. F. Cross Associates, Sea-Based Airborne Antisubmarine Warfare 1940–1977, Vol. I, 64.
  • [footnote:footnote3]John R. Benedict, “The Unraveling and Revitalization Of U.S. Navy Antisubmarine Warfare,” The Naval War College Review 58, no. 2, (Spring 2005): 97.
  • [footnote:footnote4]Norman Friedman, U.S. Destroyers, An Illustrated Design History (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1982), 294.
  • [footnote:footnote5]Edward S. Miller, War Plan ORANGE (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991), 205, 240–241.
  • [footnote:footnote6]War History of the Naval Research Laboratory, p.82, cited in K. B. Williams Secret Weapon: U.S. High-Frequency Direction Finding in the Battle of the Atlantic (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996) 234.
  • [footnote:footnote7]Cross, Sea-Based Airborne, 61–64.
  • [footnote:footnote8]Cross, Sea-Based Airborne Vol. II, 46. For a detailed analysis of the evolution of Navy ASW
  • [footnote:footnote9]Project Hartwell Massachusetts Institute of Technology “A Report on the Security of Overseas Transport,” Sept. 21, 1950, ii.
  • [footnote:footnote10]Norman Friedman, U.S. Submarines Since 1945, An Illustrated Design History (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994), 65–69. Much of this work was done by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
  • [footnote:footnote11]“Project Nobska: The Implications of Advanced Design on Undersea Warfare,” Final Report, Dec. 1, 1956, Committee on Undersea Warfare, National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC, Vol. I Assumptions, Conclusions and Recommendations, 8–9.
  • [footnote:footnote12]D. A. Backes, Impact of CST (Critical Sea Test) on Navy Programs: The CST Process for Technology Transition and Programmatic Change SPAWAR (Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command) CST/LLFA-WP-USW-27, September 1996, 3.
  • [footnote:footnote13]John Smith Thach, Reminiscences of Admiral John Smith Thach U.S. Navy (Retired), Vols. I and II, U.S. Naval Institute, Annapolis, MD, November 1977, quoted in Manke, 9.
  • [footnote:footnote14]Alain C. Enthoven and K. Wayne Smith, How Much Is Enough? Shaping the Defense Program, 1961–1969, Harper & Row, New York, NY, 1971. Quoted in Manke, 13.
  • [footnote:footnote15]Manke, Overview, 29.
  • [footnote:footnote16]
  • [footnote:footnote17]U.S. General Accounting Office: Evaluation of Navy's Anti-Submarine Warfare Assessment, NSIAD-99-85; July 12, 1999.
  • [footnote:footnote18]Commander Nicholas Woodworth, USN “Rebuild Air ASW” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 143, no. 10, (October 2017) 35. The author, a P-3 Naval Flight Officer, uses the Red Flag training model as the basis for his recommendation to acquire AIP submarines.
  • [footnote:footnote19]Cross, Vol III, Appendix B, 85–92, or USGAO, Evaluation of Navy's Anti-Submarine Warfare Assessment.
Published: Thu Jan 31 11:33:00 EST 2019