Alliance Airborne Anti-Submarine Warfare
A Forecast for Maritime Air ASW in the Future Operational Environment
As the Cold War ended and the Russian Federation’s naval projection was challenged both by the internal politics of glasnost and the stark realities of their national economic situation, their submarine deployments throughout the NATO theatre nearly ceased. Many nations in the Alliance re-focused naval assets away from submarine tracking and monitoring to support emerging mission portfolios which supported NATO’s new operational environment. The Alliance is today experiencing a resurgence in submarine patrols throughout much of the NATO Area of Responsibility and finds itself with limited ability, both in resources and, arguably, in a strategic imperative, to resume large-scale submarine prosecutions. As NATO struggles with many other challenges, the changing future with respect to increased non-NATO submarine operations should not be discounted.
Following a Request for Support from Allied Maritime Command (MARCOM), the JAPCC completed this study to investigate the current Maritime Air support capability for Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW). The aim of this project is to define the current challenges experienced by ASW-capable air platforms in both today’s operational environment and in a range of possible future environments assessing whether the Alliance has a capability shortfall in the ASW mission area. This will involve a review of environmental challenges, oceanography and NATO’s Maritime Air history with this mission to set the stage for detailed discussions about the current and future challenges in the ASW domain. This will be followed by an analysis of current and projected Non-NATO submarine capability to include a review of national intent and a brief discussion about the use of submarines as an element of sea power. Finally, the project will examine current NATO maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) and ASW helicopter force structure and explore procurement plans to meet future ASW challenges.
“Many assessments of what the Russian military can and cannot do have been inaccurate. This isn’t just problematic for the facts’ sake – more troubling, it risks skewing our assessment of how far Moscow will go… When Western analysts – and in turn, Western leaders – seek to discredit Russian military capabilities, Moscow will likely continue to take the opportunity to prove them wrong.”
Since non-NATO submarine deployments nearly ceased in the mid-1990s, NATO now has a generation of officers and civilian leaders who did not grow up experiencing the “cat and mouse” environment of submarine warfare which existed during the Cold War. NATO has conducted three major joint operations during since the end of the Cold War. None of these operations were conducted in an area challenged by the presence of an adversary submarine. Just as air chiefs fight the perception NATO will always have air superiority in any campaign, maritime leaders must also engage to challenge the perception that NATO’s maritime forces will always have maritime superiority. This perception, coupled with inaccurate beliefs regarding the capability of the Russian Federation’s maritime capability, has coloured maritime defence spending for decades. As a result, NATO has ceded much of the advantage it earned at the conclusion of the Cold War. Therefore, to dispute this prevailing theory, this study is intended to be read by a much broader audience than purely the maritime component.
Unlocated submarines present numerous problems for both the Maritime component and for NATO writ large. An adversary submarine which is not tracked from a theatre level will have freedom of movement to pose numerous threats to NATO forces and territories. A single submarine can effectively close a maritime choke point, such as the Strait of Gibraltar, preventing merchant traffic or naval forces from transiting. An unlocated submarine can lie in wait for a naval task force and effectively pick off the high value capital ships, removing in a single blow a significant part of the joint capability to project power (aircraft carrier, amphibious assault ship) or resupply naval forces at sea Adversary attack submarines (SSN) are charged with detecting and potentially engaging not only NATO surface ships, but NATO’s ballistic missile submarines serving as the seaborne aspect of the nuclear deterrent. If those submarines are not tracked at a theatre level, it puts the nuclear deterrent force at risk. Furthermore, an unlocated submarine could establish a covert operating area close to a NATO nation’s coastline. From there, it can project striking power deep into NATO, exploiting recent advancements in modern cruise missile capability (some with ranges in excess of 1500km) and ballistic missile capability. All of these situations become significantly mitigated by tracking submarines throughout their deployment at a theatre level. NATO excelled at tracking submarines in the Cold War, but the skills have atrophied and the resources have dwindled.
This study concludes maintaining a credible theatre-wide submarine monitoring capability is a critical enduring peacetime function, but NATO is not currently capable of doing it.
It identifies four critical findings with significant impact on NATO’s current and future ability to conduct ASW:
- NATO should create a theatre-wide ASW Commander, vested with the proper authorities to more efficiently coordinate NATO’s limited ASW resources across ships, submarines, and aircraft.
- NATO should identify a common aircraft replacement for the P-3 Orion series.
- NATO should identify a common mechanism for MPA and MPH post-mission acoustic analysis and request national aircraft mission support centres adopt this standard.
- NATO should develop Experimental Tactics and test them for ratification into formal doctrine.
The JAPCC wishes to thank members of the Centre of Excellence for Confined and Shallow Water Operations (COE CSW) and the Centre for Maritime Research and Experimentation (CMRE) for providing insightful comments throughout the development of findings.
NATO has a history of misreading Russian intent and being ill prepared for Russian military activity. A pervasive feeling amongst many maritime strategists and naval planners is that submarines are a relic of the Cold War. Subsequently, anti-submarine force development has not received the proper prioritization in many national procurement programs. In addition to the four critical findings listed above, 21 additional findings and recommendations to mitigate shortfalls identified in the study were identified. Although the Cold War is not returning, the Bear is awakening from hibernation and NATO cannot afford to function with a future capability shortfall against a growing submarine presence.