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Published Airpower Journal -
CAPT JAMES H. PATTON, JR., USN, RETIRED
One would hardly expect a submariner to advertise himself as an expert on the developing advanced tactical fighter (ATF), and that is certainly not my intent. As a young boy growing up during World War II, however, I was fascinated by aviation and aircraft, and for three years at the Naval Academy I had intended to enter pilot training upon graduation. But during the last year, I began to have the same doubts about my eye-hand coordination that had been expressed by my Little League coach. When the opportunity presented itself, I chose the "road less traveled" of nuclear-power training--submariners needing only mind-mouth coordination.
Nonetheless, I'll attempt here to identify some parallels between the nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) and the ATF, based on the evidence that the ATF is revolutionary and represents as dramatic an advance over previous fighters as did the SSN over conventionally powered attack submarines (SS). Caution is required in drawing conclusions from these possible parallels because, in addition to other dramatic differences, there are orders of magnitude between the time constants of the two platforms. Real-time decisions concerning the combat employment of airplanes, particularly those having the projected performance of the ATF, have to be made on a continuous time scale measured in as little as tenths of seconds. On the other hand, about the smallest significant sliver of time on an SSN is 15 minutes or so--the time it takes to wake up the commanding officer (CO), get him a cup of coffee, and ask if he wants to attack now or wait until after the movie. Levity aside, the running time of an SSN-launched torpedo from one's own ship to the target, following a 12- to 24-hour approach from the point of target detection, can easily be longer than the total mission time of an air superiority fighter from takeoff to landing.
With these caveats in mind, I want to make a case for parallels between attack-submarine operations and future air-to-air operations employing stealthy ATFs. In doing so, it is interesting to note that not until the Air Force developed the B-2 bomber did the submarine community realize just what we have been doing all these years--practicing stealth warfare. I say this because I can't recall the word stealth being used very much within the submarine force until the term began to be popularized by the B-2. Since then, the more I learn about the application of stealth technologies and tactics in the air, the more it becomes apparent that concepts and principles of stealthy operation long taken for granted by submariners are now being rediscovered by aviators.
Of course, a considerable level of appreciation for the value of surprise among fighter pilots already exists. (And stealth is nothing more than the substitution of technologically assured expectations as the source of surprise for a mix of consummate skill and blind luck.) The US Navy's Top Gun syllabus from the mid-1970s emphasized, based on Red Baron studies of air combat in Southeast Asia, that 82 percent of all air-to-air victories during the Vietnam War were attributable to the victor's being able to attack prior to his opponent's awareness of his presence. Seemingly, situational awareness in the air is much like (and clearly related to) stealth under the sea--a zero-sum game. (Only one in a given duel can have it--the other is detected first and probably destroyed.) The best past practitioner of stealthy tactics in the air may have been German World War II ace (with 352 victories!) Erich Hartmann, whose personal doctrine was see, decide, attack, break. Top Gun instructors interpreted that terse guidance--based on interviews with Hartmann--to mean that a pilot should attempt to detect without being detected, judge whether he can attack covertly, close to a point that would almost assure a kill, and then disengage rapidly to repeat the process, rather than hang around in what submariners call a melee, and fighter pilots term the visual fur ball.
Hartmann, as his 352 career kills document, was quite a warrior. Had he less eye-hand coordination, his tactical leanings toward the employment of stealth would have made him a good submariner. Clearly, parallels do exist between the emphasis on stealth in air-to-air combat and the importance accorded stealth in modern submarine operations. Can these parallels furnish any insights for future air combat with stealthy platforms like the ATF? I believe they can, but--to make my case--I need to say a bit more from the submariner's side of the parallel.
Having not exactly gotten in on the ground floor of SSN deployment and employment, I was lucky enough to have gotten aboard early. When I reported to the USS Scorpion (SSN-589) at the Electric Boat Company in Groton, Connecticut, as an ensign in 1961, it had just recently joined the fleet as the 12th US nuclear submarine. During the next 13 months, while qualifying in submarines, I watched some early Navy attempts to determine just how the SSN fit into the scheme of things. The fact is, at that time the enthusiasm for SSNs within the Navy and the submarine force was far from universal. Except for the small but growing cadre of (Adm Hyman) Rickover-trained disciples.
Most People viewed the SSN as a somewhat faster SS whose greatly increased procurement, training, and maintenance costs made its justification questionable. Indeed, the increased cost and trouble of an SSN did not compete well with those of the tried-and-tested SS if all that was expected of the SSN was to perform the mission set of the SS a little faster.
Architectural dogma dictates that form should follow function. Fix the function, and there is no requirement to significantly change the form. Extending this dictum to warship design, why bear the burdens of the SSN form to provide the SS function? An unfortunate but somewhat true criticism holds that the military mind is sometimes slow to notice a new function made possible by a radical development in form. Consider the dilemma within the Army (US and others) between the world wars as to which operational box armor should be placed in--that of cavalry, infantry, or artillery. Few people (Germany's Heinz Guderian excepted) saw it as a development best exploited by a new organizational entity--the armored division--which would come to dominate land warfare in Europe and Africa during World War II.
Back aboard the Scorpion, new and more dominant functions (or missions) began to emerge. In one particular operational exercise, Scorpion was tasked to operate in a somewhat constrained area. At the same time, Task Force Bravo--a premier antisubmarine warfare (ASW) group of that time centered on an ASW carrier (CVS)--demonstrated just how easy it would be to detect, track, and simulate the Scorpion's destruction. Operating at periscope depth, the Scorpion's skipper--a tiger of a submariner who had previously commanded an SS--saw them "come over the hill" with all their active sonars blasting away, raised the radar mast, and radiated (fully realizing that every electronic support measures--ESM--set in the task force would be tuned exactly to Scorpion's frequency). While painting the task force disposition, the Scorpion saw two escorts--the "pouncers" of that period's doctrine--break off from the rest of the group and race down the line of sight toward their ESM intercept. In a controlled manner shortly after that, masts were lowered, full rudder and a flank bell were ordered, and the Scorpion corkscrewed down to test depth, leaving the world's biggest "knuckle" of turbulent, bubble-filled water remaining as a sonar-reflective column. Proceeding toward the battle group, Scorpion slowed, came back to periscope depth, and simulated shooting both units as they raced past toward their target. Oblivious to their simulated destruction, the pouncers passed, detected the knuckle, and began a series of attacks on it.
The Scorpion skipper then turned toward the remainder of the approaching battle group and increased speed to about 20 knots. Still at periscope depth, he began raising and lowering all masts capable of operating at that speed. Marked by an incredible "rooster tail" of wake and spray that these masts produced, Scorpion passed directly through the task force formation, passing a few hundred yards abeam of the carrier. When the shock of the situation passed, the lead escorts turned around to chase the contact, and the pouncers were called back, despite their objections of having pinned down Scorpion. With several destroyers now charging back in the direction of the carrier, the organization of the group of warships deteriorated dramatically and soon turned into a frenzied melee. Scorpion meanwhile had slowed and was watching from a moderate distance. When the confusion reached its peak, Scorpion moved back in and simulated emptying her torpedo room against the warships. From start to finish, the encounter had taken less than an hour, each unit of Task Force Bravo had been attacked at least once, and no valid attacks or even sonar detections had been made against Scorpion.
One would think that this debacle would have unequivocally shown that the SSN was not just another SS whose only hope against a collection of ASW forces was to employ its stealth in a defensive manner, judiciously husbanding a limited quantity of stored energy while carefully extricating itself from danger. In fact, however, the emotional and angry debrief of the exercise all but condemned Scorpion for "unfair and dangerous" maneuvers that jeopardized the safety of Task Force Bravo units. The CO of Scorpion remained completely unruffled by this criticism and ridiculed his colleagues for not appreciating that undersea warfare had taken on a significantly different aspect. No such lack of understanding of this change was evident among the officers and men of Scorpion and other US SSNs, however. We all established as an integral part of our own combat philosophy that "if you're not outnumbered, then you've been sent to the wrong place!"--a statement made credible when overwhelming stealth and adequate mobility provide the luxury of engaging and disengaging at will.
Unfortunately, some parties continued to try to pound the square peg of the SSN into the round hole of SS employment doctrine. These individuals viewed the primary attack-submarine mission in wartime as the "barrier," whereby SS/SSNs sat in assigned geographical areas at choke points such as those between Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom (the famed GIUK Gap) and waited for transiting Soviet submarines to drive in front of their torpedo tubes. They drew little or no difference between the SS and SSN regarding the assignment of areas or operational employment. Even the vestigial remains of a wolf-pack concept were to be found in the original design of the SSN-593 Thresher class, insofar as operational employment assumed that two such submarines operated together and coordinated through secure underwater communications/data links. Other operational concepts that developed through the years involved roaming the deep ocean basins in a broad-area search role and defensive escorting of carrier battle groups (CVBG). An inescapable conclusion from these years of attempting to validate the historical "concentration of forces" postulate was that the SSN usually suffered a not loss of operational effectiveness when provided local assistance from friendly forces, be they stealthy or not.
In all, about 20 years passed before the Navy found the optimum "impedance match" between intrinsic platform capabilities (the form) and mission definition (or function). This "best fit" occurred under what is now commonly referred to as the maritime strategy, when--exploiting expected intelligence and warning of an impending Soviet attack in central Europe--US SSNs are scrambled to individual areas deep in Soviet home waters. If hostilities do commence, the SSNs quite simply destroy the Soviet navy--surfaced and submerged--with an absolute minimum of communications. Some authorities view this exploitation of the principal characteristics of US SSNs as having created an "uncorrelatable force" that did much to unhinge Soviet military theory. Further, they maintain that--in conjunction with other developments--this force precipitated glasnost, perestroika, and the outbreak of peace between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. As might be expected, submariners are prepared to humbly accept their share of the credit for winning the cold war.
The principal characteristics of a modern SSN--defined several years ago by Adm Bruce DeMars in testimony to Congress--are stealth, mobility, firepower, and endurance. In retrospect, what delayed the appreciation of the vast difference between an SS and an SSN was an understandable lack of foreknowledge of the synergistic and nonlinear effects resulting from adding greater mobility and greater underwater endurance to already existing stealth, much as adding even the smallest quantities of vanadium or molybdenum dramatically affects the properties of steel. More than likely, another such dramatic and nonlinear catalytic expansion of intrinsic capabilities will occur when the advanced tactical fighter adds stealth and the ability to supercruise (the capability to exceed Mach 1 without resorting to the extraordinary fuel demands and greatly increased thermal signature of afterburner) to the existing mobility (agility and maneuverability, in fighter pilot terms) of current fighter aircraft. When the ATF is deployed, one hopes that the same difference in operational time constants between submarines and airplanes equally applies to the length of time it will take to reevaluate existing tactics and doctrine to best suit this radically new platform. With luck, the best and brightest of the fighter community will conceive and implement the "right" new concepts in only two years instead of 20.
Incidentally, one interesting but nonintuitive phenomenon seen during the continuing development of subsequent classes of US SSNs is that among the most reactionary of opponents to new or improved capabilities are the people who currently operate the present versions. Because submariners are in an incredibly introverted and externally cohesive organization, however, their objections to proposed developments are rarely heard outside the confines of submarine wardrooms. For example, personnel serving on Nautilus, the first Seawolf, and the SSN-578 Skate class saw the breaking of submarine construction "rules" on the Skipjacks (single versus double hulls, one main propulsion shaft instead of two) as radical and even dangerous--although the results of these dramatic changes made the platform far quieter. While I served on Scorpion--a Skipjack-class SSN--the SSN-593 Thresher class was being developed. Internally, officers expressed concern about why so much money was being spent on her quieting--surely Scorpion was quiet enough. Further, we thought at the time that putting torpedo tubes in the middle of the ship instead of in the bow was a dumb idea, that installing such a big sonar array was unnecessary, and that trading any of Scorpion's speed for Thresher's increased depth capabilities was foolish.
When serving on Flasher--a Thresher-class SSN--we were convinced that the changes had been worthwhile but questioned the increased cost, greater size, and even further quieting of the SSN-637 Sturgeon class. A few tours later, having served on (and become a champion of) two Sturgeons, I was now senior enough to lead discussions rather than just listen, and I actively participated in wardroom belittling of the even more stealthy SSN-688 Los Angeles class then under development and construction. Why was it so big and expensive? Who needed that much more horsepower? Why give up some depth capability for increased speed? (Complaints had come full circle!) Throughout it all, important characteristics such as firepower, speed, and depth may have been traded off, but never stealth.
In retrospect, the US policy of "stealth first" in successive generations of attack-submarine classes was money in the bank against the first incremental, than dramatic, improvements made by the Soviets. As a result, US SSNs commissioned more than a quarter of a century ago remain as quiet as the Soviets' newest and best. Because stealth is a zero-sum game, one can hardly imagine a situation whereby we would not benefit from achieving the very highest levels of low observability that are technologically feasible. As we speak, however, I suspect that many 688-class submariners are questioning why in the world we should stop building the world's "perfect submarine" in favor of the SSN-21 Seawolf--a platform "too big, too expensive and quieter than needed; besides, why do we need to double the torpedo tubes and number of weapons carried?"
I cannot authoritatively comment about professional discussions in fighter-squadron ready rooms, but it would seem almost a violation of human nature if some of the hottest F-15 and F-14 jocks were not somewhat skeptical about why their aircraft need to be replaced by advanced tactical fighters. However, as Air Force fighter pilots begin to realize and exploit the advantages that stealth brings to the arena of air superiority, doubts will soon vanish. Submariners have found intrinsic stealth a valuable asset across the entire spectrum of conflict. As a primary characteristic, stealth provides not only greater probability of mission accomplishment in general war scenarios but also offers incomparable survivability in third-world conflicts, when domestic intolerance of American casualties becomes a primary constraint on military action. Thus, rather than focus on and optimize for present or extrapolated expectations of usage, proper design policy should be to expand the set of all possible employments, particularly when dealing with breakthrough technologies such as stealth. Undoubtedly, future users will determine a purpose for what is currently "excess" capability. These as-designed excess capabilities become ever more critical as weapon systems are expected to last increasingly longer in a fast-changing world.
This approach of maximum technological advantage allowed the US submarine force to be surprised, but not outflanked, by the unexpectedly early arrival of the Soviet "quiet threat"--an SSN five to 10 years ahead of schedule but still five to 10 years behind existing US capabilities. Here again, the differing time constant between SSNs and fighter aircraft is apparent. Although my untrained perceptions tell me that US air assets are still superior to the Soviet fourth-generation fighter aircraft as weapon systems, my intuition tells me that the margin of difference is not the same in the time domain as with submarines. In any case, as present events on the Arabian Peninsula seem to bear out, the very real existence of the technological edge of equipment of superior quality and adequate quantity will hopefully deter and, if necessary, prevail on today's--and tomorrow's--battlefields.
The unique and potentially revolutionary characteristic of stealth is about to invade the military fighter-aviation community. Without being so presumptuous as to predict just how stealth will modify air superiority operations and tactical employment, let me briefly review a few lessons learned (sometimes painfully) as submariners coped with and exploited the stealthy characteristics of modern nuclear submarines. Fighter pilots can judge for themselves whether the lessons apply to them.
- Stealth is a zero-sum game. In a given encounter, one platform has it and the other does not. The tactical advantage accrued by being able to detect, close, and attack from a covert stance completely dominates all other factors in any encounter algorithm.
- Stealth is a commodity that can be employed toward different objectives. In an offensive sense (i.e., SSN), it can be employed to dramatically improve first-shot probability of kill. In a defensive sense (i.e., fleet ballistic missile submarine-SSBN), it can be employed to dramatically improve survivability.
- Stealth significantly increases the emphasis on planning specific operational employments. That is, one must consider as many contingencies and provide as much permission guidance as possible to greatly reduce two-way communications in support of real-time command and control.
- Stealth, which demands a greater degree of flexibility in the time domain, significantly reduces the desired degree of scheduling. The on-scene commander must be able to exploit stealth in support of both mission accomplishment and survivability by picking the right time and place for an encounter. Precise scheduling can create the illusion of professionalism, but--for a stealth platform--too much is forfeited if an action is directed to occur at 1032 hours when it is really needed sometime on Tuesday morning.
- Stealth requires a dramatic change in concepts of command, control, and communications. Since all stealth-platform energy emissions jeopardize its covertness, they must be eliminated or kept to an absolute minimum. Great benefits are gained from exploitation of the "broadcast" mode of command and control, whereby a nonstealthy component (ground controller, airborne warning and control system, etc.) directs actions that the stealthy components execute but do not acknowledge. If this link is "up" continuously--whether or not operational traffic is being sent--this methodology even denies traffic density analysis as a "heads up" to imminent actions.
- Stealth places an extraordinary premium on the employment of passive sensors for detection, tracking, and attack. As in the case of platform-initiated communications, active sensors with a low probability of intercept may be present, but none that are covert or secure by the absolute definition of the terms.
- Stealth dictates as high a probability of survival per engagement as possible. This generally translates to religiously avoiding a melee--a situation whereby each platform is aware of the other's presence and each is within the other's weapon range. This concept is often implemented by doctrine which encourages the release of "more than enough" ordnance in the initial attack from a covert stance if it will even marginally obviate a subsequent melee.
- Stealth is greatly enhanced by the ability to reestablish a covert stance after the conscious decision to reveal one's presence through weapon release. The Battle of the Atlantic was won not by preventing a U-boat's first attack but by denying a second or third. The U-boat simply lacked the requisite mobility to extricate itself from reactive ASW units that first noted a submarine when it was "detected" by an exploding merchant ship within the convoy.
- Stealth, by itself, provides survivability and therefore does not require mutual support. Little is gained and much can be lost by operating with other friendly units. When a stealthy platform is assigned independent areas of operation in which no friendly units are present, it can avoid the problems associated with friendly fire. As an oversimplification, one might state that when nonstealthy platforms operate together, the trade-offs between mutual support and mutual interference are such that one plus one is greater than two. When stealthy platforms operate together--or with nonstealthy platforms--one plus one can easily be less than two.
- Stealth requires a near-absolute understanding and knowledge of the surrounding environment to properly exploit low observability within it. For submarines this includes historical, synoptic, and insitu knowledge of temperature, salinity, bottom type, ocean currents, fronts and eddies, and conditions at the air/water interface. It can even include wind speed, cloud cover, and radio-frequency propagation characteristics of the column of air above and around the unit's position, as well as predictive orbital data for satellites-US and others.
Which of these parallels of stealth best transfer from the SSN to the ATF? Bright aviators will have to determine that. What does seem to be a valid observation is that air combat is at the doorstep of dramatic change. If the F-117A was the Nautilus of airborne stealth warfare and the B-2 the George Washington (the strategic nuclear counterpart), then the ATF is the Scorpion. While all but the brightest saw Nautilus as a "better" SS-more easily accomplishing the same missions--all but the dullest saw the Scorpions and the Polaris submarines as revolutionary developments--new types of platforms which gave birth to entirely new employments and missions.
The long history of the development of stealthy operations in the attack submarine suggests that the most articulate and obstructionist opponents to innovative thinking in air superiority are likely to originate from among those pilots presently flying the world's best fighter aircraft. Because the historical exploitation of stealth technology and tactics under the oceans clearly has application in the air, the Air Force and Navy would do well to ensure that their new ATF possesses as many low-observable characteristics as possible so that pilots can quickly overcome their skepticism and learn how to exploit stealth in the zero-sum game of air-to-air combat.
Capt James H. Patton, Jr., USN, Retired (BS, US Naval Academy; MS, University of Rhode Island), is president of Submarine Tactics and Technology, Inc., North Stonington, Connecticut. His 25 years of submarine-associated naval service included tours on seven nuclear submarines and command of the USS Pargo (SSN 650). His short tours involved submarine-related research and development, tactical training of Atlantic Fleet submarine wardrooms, formulation and promulgation of submarine-force tactical doctrine, and war-gaming responsibilities at the Naval War College. Captain Patton has published in journals such as the US Naval Institute Proceedings and the Naval War College Review and was technical consultant for the movie The Hunt for Red October.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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