More Than the Navy’s Numbers Could Be Sinking

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Navy photo / MCS Seaman Michelle N. Rasmusson

A Navy sonar technician monitors the Anti-Submarine Warfare Module aboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington in the Philippine Sea in November.

Second of three articles

The shrinking size of the fleet is just one variable in considering its adequacy: the ability to perform assigned missions, especially after withstanding whatever threats may exist, is a far better measure than mere numbers.

As described by the Congressional Research Service, a core mission is to influence “events ashore by countering both land- and sea-based military forces of potential regional threats…including improved Chinese military forces and non-state terrorist organizations.”

This is similar to the mission described by former defense secretary Robert Gates: “to enhance…overall posture and capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region” with “numbers, speed, and agility to operate in shallow waters.”

Whether or not these sentiments are only passing conventional wisdom or profound insight, they represent the current mission. Unfortunately, it is precisely those areas of operation where the mismatch between capabilities and threats is most disconcerting.

The Diesel-Electric Submarine Threat

To put it simply, if naval exercises in the last two decades involving foreign diesel-electric submarines had been actual combat, most if not all, U.S. aircraft carriers would be at the bottom of the ocean: as many as 10 U.S. aircraft carriers have been reported “sunk” in these exercises.

The analytically conservative Congressional Budget Office was alarmed enough to officially report that “some analysts argue that the Navy is not very good at locating diesel-electric submarines, especially in noisy, shallower waters near coastal areas. Exercises with allied navies that use diesel-electric submarines confirm that problem…[For example,] Israeli diesel-electric submarines, which until recently were relatively old, are said to always ‘sink’ some of the large and powerful warships of the U.S. Sixth Fleet in exercises. And most recently, an Australian Collins-class submarine penetrated a U.S. carrier battlegroup and was in a position to sink an aircraft carrier during exercises off Hawaii in May 2000.”

There have been many such exercise “sinkings” since then, including aircraft carriers Reagan and Lincoln.

Moreover, the problem stems not just from the latest, 21st-century diesel-electric submarine technology from the West, it occurs in the form of various earlier technology submarines built in Russiaoperated by China, and/or available to various lesser navies, such as Peru’s, and throughout the world.

The latter navies include North Korea’s and Iran’s. The problem was dramatically demonstrated when a Chinese Song-class submarine surfaced—previously undetected—in the middle of a U.S. carrier battlegroup much too close for comfort to the USS Kittyhawk in 2006.

Nor is this problem new. When the U.S. Navy still possessed diesel-electric submarines (until 1990), aircraft carrier and major surface combatants were routinely “sunk” in exercises—unless carrier advocates had the exercise ruling reversed for the sake of appearances.

Indeed, the Navy was so neurotic about the repetitive success of this bureaucratically-disfavored submarine technology that in the 1980s it declared classified an analysis of exercises demonstrating their high degree of success written by a congressional staffer in the office of Senator Gary Hart (D-Colo.) on the Senate Armed Services Committee based on open source materials. I came across the memo in a classified-materials safe while working at the General Accounting Office [now the Government Accountability Office] and was informed that the Navy insisted that any public record of the analysis be suppressed via classification.

In the mid-2000s, the Navy was finally rattled enough to start a Diesel-Electric Submarine Initiative (DESI) with allied navies, such as those of Peru, Columbia, Chile and Brazil, to train in anti-submarine warfare. It even leased for two years—complete with crew—a modern Swedish Gotland-class submarine to participate in U.S. Navy exercises.

The Swedish sub and crew promptly demonstrated their proficiency by “sinking” a Nimitz-class carrier, among other ships and submarines.  The lease appears not to have been renewed, even though the Navy continued to have extreme difficulty in finding the Swedish sub at sea. The non-solution of the problem would appear to have been described in 2008 by the to-be chief of naval operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, who demurely stated “We are not satisfied with [our progress] right now.”

Subsequent to that time, I have found no public reports of the results of exercises with diesel-electric submarines—suggesting that either the exercises have stopped or the results have been suppressed. However, there is some indirect evidence that the exercises continue, as well as indications of continuing difficulties in locating diesel-electric subs. This serious problem apparently remains very unsolved.

The Mine Threat

Diesel-electric submarines are not the U.S. Navy’s only undersea problem: in the post-World War II-era 19 of its ships have been sunk or seriously damaged, 15 of them by sea mines.

Navy photo / MCS 2nd Class Toni Burton

The mine countermeasures ships USS Pioneer, USS Devastator, USS Sentry, and USS Dexrous (l-r) approach Afloat Forward Staging Base (Interim) USS Ponce to get supplies, somewhere near Iran, in August.

In the 1980s “tanker war” in the Persian Gulf, the guided-missile frigate Samuel B. Roberts struck a 1908-design Russian mine and was kept afloat only after heroic damage control efforts by the crew. In 1991, during Operation Desert Storm, the Aegis-class cruiser Princeton and the amphibious warship Tripoli were both seriously damaged by mines.

The Navy became sufficiently intimidated by the mine threat laid by Iraq that the Marines cancelled plans for an amphibious assault against Kuwait city. Things have not improved since then: in 2012 the Navy conducted join anti-mine exercises with 34 allies in the Persian Gulf; over 11 days, 24 ships (including eight of the U.S. Navy’s paltry fleet of 14 minesweepers) with 3,000 sailors found only half of the 29 simulated mines laid for the exercises.

The Navy asserts that retiring and not replacing the specialized Avenger-class of U.S. mine-hunting ships will result in an increase in anti-mine capabilities with 24 mine-warfare modules added, at times, to Littoral Combat Ships.  That the capability may increase is entirely theoretical; the LCS mine countermeasures module has proven problematic, and operational testing of it will not even start until 2014.

It is a real question whether ships not primarily designed for mine hunting with organic crews that have little to no experience in such specialized tasks (but augmented by 38 mine specialists) can outperform the specialized capability—albeit quite limited—being retired with the Avenger class.

While the Navy has ignored mine warfare, allowing capability to remain inadequate, others have not: China reportedly has 80,000 sea mines, Iran has from 2,000 to 3,000, and worldwide 50 nations have an inventory of 250,000.

Just as primitive land mines (euphemistically called Improvised Explosive Devices) made an unpleasant surprise from the start of the Iraq war continuing to this very day in Afghanistan, sea mines — even primitive ones — constitute a present and real threat to the U.S. Navy that it has not demonstrated an ability to deal with effectively.

However, the Navy is threatened not just from below the sea, but also from above.

The Air Threat

The first evaluation I was given when I joined the Government Accountability Office in the late 1980s focused on the performance of the Aegis air-defense system against anti-ship cruise missiles. We found that in highly-unrealistic, that is to say obliging, tests, Aegis generally performed at a mediocre level against its own criteria.

Even though the Navy classified all but the vaguest and most mundane parts of our assessment, it is possible to say, unclassified, that against the more-stressful targets in terms of speed and altitude, the Aegis system performed well below that. Against the most difficult targets — traveling at supersonic speeds at very low, sea-skimming altitudes — the test results were, to put it mildly, depressing.

In tests using surrogates that were both slower and higher than the Mach 2 Soviet SS-N-22 Sunburn missile, it was clear that the Aegis system could not be relied on for an effective defense of itself or aircraft carriers it was escorting.

Both China and Iran now possess that missile.

Moreover, the Sunburn has been supplanted by the significantly faster and even lower-flying SS-N-27 Sizzler, also now in the possession of China and Iran.

More than one director of the Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) shop in the Pentagon has expressed serious concern that the Navy has not even been able to replicate the Sizzler in tests. Worse, Russian arms dealers are now marketing a version of this missile that can be deployed and used from shipping containers on merchant ships or littoral craft.

To make matters still worse, the Chinese are now developing an additional but very different anti-ship technology, an anti-ship ballistic missile, the DF-21D. It is also very problematic to defend against: so problematic that in February 2012, the current DOT&E reported “No Navy target exists that adequately represents an anti-ship ballistic missile’s trajectory….[the Navy] has not budgeted for any study, development, acquisition or production” of a DF-21D target. Apparently, we do not even know how good or poor our defenses are against this newer threat; however, previous Aegis performance against high-angle, high-speed targets suggests this is a serious problem awaiting solution.

If these very-high and very-low altitude, high-speed missiles work as intended—and that is always a legitimate question—the U.S. Navy has a long way to go to demonstrate that it has the ability to intercept existing threats.

The threats from these missiles, sea mines and diesel-electric submarines have all been real and existing for decades. They have also been without an effective response from the Navy, which seems more interested in high-profile, high-cost, show-the-flag forces that are best usable against enemies like Afghanistan, Libya, and Iraq – nations that have little, if any, weapons to use against us.

Our contemporary wars have amounted to little more than “clubbing baby seals” at sea. We have been lucky in the past, and escaped with only a few ship casualties.

Can we expect our luck to continue?

Part 1: If more money buys a smaller fleet, what does less money buy?

Part 3: Is the fleet steaming forward or backward?

Winslow Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information, a part of the Project on Government Oversight in Washington, D.C.