Strategic ASW in 2020 – A Stunningly Bad Idea

Purpose

To assess the desirability of strategic ASW as a wartime mission of the Navy today and for the foreseeable future. The mission is defined as attacking Russian SSBNs to alter the intercontinental nuclear balance in the favor of the US on behalf of larger purposes. During the Cold War these strategic purposes included: 1) SLOC protection—by forcing the Russian GPF navy to stay tied up defending SSBNs; 2) reducing the overall strength of a possible Russian nuclear attack on the US and so protecting the US proper; and/or, 3) to gain strategic leverage to affect the course of the war on the ground.

This is not a theoretical issue. In 2018, a Navy spokesman let it be known that, in a war with Russia, the Navy intends to use its submarines “to deny bastions to the Russians,” on behalf of “defending the homeland,” presumably meaning to destroy Russian SLBMs and so reduce the weight of a Russian intercontinental nuclear strike.* The homeland defense objective was repeated in March 2020: An SSN exercise in the Arctic was described as needed “to maintain readiness and capability to defend the homeland when called upon,” according to Rear Adm. Butch Dollaga, Commander, Undersea Warfighting Development Center. Note that the comments in 2018 were offhand remarks during a Q&A at a public conference. The situation in 2020 was quite different. RADM Dollaga was speaking officially to the world via the the Navy’s Office of Public Affairs.

What threat to the US homeland that might emerge from the Arctic was left unnamed. Russian submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles, deployed in the Arctic (and Sea of Okhotsk) are the only plausible candidates.

Beyond these (barely) veiled “announcements,” little is known about today’s private Navy thinking regarding strategic ASW. During the Cold War the mission was an explicit component of the (recently declassified) National Security Decision Directive 238, September 2, 1986, signed by President Reagan (NSDD 238 1986-CIA-RDP01M00147R000100130003-0.pdf, p.17). NSDD 238 incorporates one of the defining features of the “Maritime Strategy” which was publicly described by CNO Adm. James Watkins in the Proceedings in January 1986. Strategic ASW presumably disappeared when the strategy was officially retired in the mid-1990s. It is not mentioned in any of the documents reflecting current Navy strategic thinking reviewed by Tangredi in 2019 (Sam J. Tangredi, “Running Silent and Algorithmic: The U.S. Navy Strategic Vision in 2019,” Naval War College Review, Vol .72, No. 2 (2019).)”

Assumptions

It must be assumed that the strategic ASW idea is being entertained in parts of the Navy’s system of strategic planning. Whether the Navy possesses the capabilities to execute the mission is not known. The Navy spokesmen named did not address the matter, nor will this writer. It is nonetheless true that the Navy has acquired forces uniquely tailored for Arctic operations, and, as will be addressed below, exercises them regularly.**

It is theoretically possible that, with or without actual capabilities to execute, the Navy thinks it’s a good idea to talk up the mission in the hopes that doing so will force Russian planners to intensify their concern with the security of the SSBN force and make war plans that amount to keeping their GPF navy hunkered down in a strategic defensive crouch.

Such a stratagem—a military ploy—suffers from three serious shortcomings. First, it is entirely unnecessary. The Russian GPF navy, like that of its Soviet predecessors, has long been committed to defend its SSBNs in a wartime force employment scheme that blends smoothly with its mission to defend the homeland against attack from the sea. Second, to this inherently defensive proclivity, one must add the fleet-in-being effect. The fact that the US possesses a force of 60-plus of the quietest SSNs in the world means that prudent Russian planners can never relax their commitment to defense no matter what the US actually plans to do with its submarines. I will venture that, while the Russians pay attention to what the US says about its strategic intentions, US words cause little change in Russia’s plans. Third, “playing” with a matter as serious as the intercontinental nuclear balance must be ruled off limits. Serious, responsible planners don’t toy with an issue where the survival of the nation would be literally at stake. Other, lesser shortcomings are taken up below.

Whatever the case, strategic ASW will always be a possibility as long as SSBNs exist. The problems it raises must be recognized and dealt with via the actions suggested here or otherwise. It is one of those rare missions where failure would be a far better outcome than success.

The Logic of Strategic ASW in the Current Era

Although the mission is to be carried out with conventional weapons, its consequences are mainly nuclear. Let’s look at three likely effects of prosecuting the mission and the policy actions implied for each.

Intercontinental Nuclear War

Is a strategic ASW campaign a sensible choice? The answer is an unqualified No. The logic of the Cold War cannot be extrapolated to the situation vis-à-vis Russia today, or in the foreseeable future. A particularly misguided idea is that a successful ASW campaign would significantly reduce the damage the US would suffer should there be an intercontinental nuclear exchange. “Defending the homeland” through strategic ASW, as Navy spokesmen have suggested, is simply impossible. SLBMs comprise a relatively small fraction of Russian intercontinental strike power. Even if the entire SSBN fleet were eliminated, a huge strike potential would remain in Russian ICBMs ashore, and only a small fraction of that would be more than capable of destroying the US as a nation.

(Indeed, Michael Kofman has wondered aloud why the Soviets in the past and Russia today ever built an SSBN force to serve as a strategic nuclear reserve when they had ample rail and road-mobile ICBMs that could serve that purpose. Kofman,”The Role of Nuclear Forces in Russian Maritime Strategy,” March 12, 2020 ) (This same conclusion was reached by Michael MccGwire during the Cold War.)

In addition, a strategic ASW campaign could destabilize the longstanding, stable intercontinental nuclear relationship. The Russians might reasonably conclude that US willingness to attack the most secure components of their triad—missiles the US knows are the ultimate guarantors of the Russian state, missiles whose principal targets are the cities of the United States—must presage dire intent: regime change in Moscow, seizure of Russian territory, or even a disarming nuclear first strike. This last, backed up by air and missile defense of US territory against Russian retaliation, would mean that the US contemplates fighting a nuclear war. This idea was correctly rejected as a lethally dangerous impossibility during the Cold War. It makes no more sense today.

Strategic ASW is a grave step. It can only be justified if undertaken on behalf of the defense of a value deemed vital to the survival of the US as an independent nation. During the Cold War the US saw the prevention of Soviet dominance of Western Europe as exactly such a vital interest. The US committed itself to escalate to the use of nuclear weapons on behalf of that goal—first at the tactical battlefield level, then at the theater level, and ultimately at the intercontinental nuclear level.

The logic of strategic ASW during the Cold War—which a number of US strategic thinkers strongly rejected at the time—was simple: Faced with possible defeat on the ground at the conventional level, the US planned to engage in strategic ASW to gain leverage over the Soviets, avoid nuclear escalation, or add to its strategic effect. Strategic ASW was indirectly endorsed by US allies in NATO for obvious reason: It reinforced the US commitment to the Alliance by showing that the US was willing to put its territory immediately at the same, or even greater, level of nuclear risk that its allies in Europe already faced.

Today, no US interest of comparable magnitude has been identified that would justify the risks to the nation entailed by strategic ASW. Moreover, no threat to any such interest has been identified or foreseen. On the contrary, while Russia enjoys local conventional superiority on the ground along its immediate periphery, it is the West that has the greater overall potential at the conventional level, especially at sea. Indeed, Russian strategists are likely well aware that Russia can use the world ocean only at the sufferance of the US and its allies (see the Global Blockade vs. Russia post).

The general conventional superiority of the West, particularly at sea, in and of itself, is a powerful reason for the West to avoid any actions that push the Russians in the direction of nuclear use. Threat of escalation is a common feature of Russian strategic declarations and seems hardly unexpected from the party that knows itself inferior in conventional capabilities.

During the Cold War, however, two arguments were made in favor of executing strategic ASW. First, it was said that by attacking Soviet SSBNs the US would tie down the GPF navy on the defensive and thus protect Western SLOCs. But protect against what threat? It is now generally recognized that the Soviet navy never in its seventy-year history had any intention of attacking Western SLOCs on the high seas and indeed was not up to that mission if it had been ordered to execute it.

As noted, the “fleet-in-being”effect of the US SSN force obliged Soviet planners to hold their GPF navy in a defensive stance under essentially all circumstances. If SLOC defense were the goal, actually executing strategic ASW to achieve it would have been superfluous—pointlessly putting at risk irreplaceable naval assets.

Second, some in the US argued that attacks on Soviet SSBNs would not have had immediate escalatory effects because Soviet planners expected them. This last is almost certainly true but says little about how the Soviets might have responded to a generally successful US campaign, especially if success came fairly quickly. The “use-them-or-lose-them” decision would have been extremely fraught for the Soviets. In August 1991, the Soviets conveyed to the world that they were capable of the “use them” option when, reportedly, a Delta IV launched all sixteen of its missiles in less than four minutes.

However, if missiles in the nuclear reserve were fired early, then the reserve would have failed to fulfill its reason for being, vitiating the broader Soviet design for war. Launching reserve nuclear missiles is not like committing a reserve battalion of tanks. If the missiles were fired at their presumed targets—US cities—the result would be an answering salvo of US missiles against Soviet cities. Acknowledging that the Soviets would not have been surprised when they found their SSBNs under attack says nothing about how they might actually have responded.

Suggested actions: Careful analysis of probable Russian calculations must be completed before reaching a decision about the desirability of the strategic ASW mission—or the absence thereof. Such analysis should be carried out at a level within the government commensurate with the potentially catastrophic national impact of its results. This is a case where conventional war only has nuclear consequences. Perhaps an assessment akin to the Nuclear Posture Review would seem appropriate. It is obvious that decisions of such gravity for the nation should not be made by one of the military services on its own, especially where within the Navy its submarine service is uniquely central to Navy decision-making regarding the mission.**

NPR-level assessment of strategic ASW is not an idle possibility. There are other reasons to reconsider the NPR itself. Technological advances in long-range precision-guided conventional strike weapons dictate that, if a future NPR is to meet that document’s stated purposes, its scope must widen. The NPR needs to address conventional weapons whose use can directly affect the nuclear balance. That balance specifically means not just the numbers and performance parameters of nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles. It also includes the early warning and command and control systems on which their effective use depends. To this increasingly complex conventional-nuclear nexus, we must also take note that our Russian ‘great power competitor,” has made clear that Russia envisions that attacks by conventional weapons on its strategic forces (as just defined) or against its critical governmental infrastructure will be answered with nuclear weapons. (Vladimir Isachenkov, “Russia Warns It Will See Any Incoming Missile As Nuclear” (ASSOCIATED PRESS 09 AUG 20) … Thus strategic ASW might take its place in a new conventional-cum-nuclear category in a revised remit for the NPR.

During the Cold War the Navy introduced the concept of strategic ASW, first through intensely private planning but, after a fairly short interval, quite publicly. It has now put strategic ASW back into the public domain today. Thus far, it appears to be acting on its own. Saying things like “what we [the Navy] are doing [strategic ASW] aligns with the National Security Strategy” (based on a GAO report reflecting strong Navy input) does not suffice. As far as can be inferred from information in the public domain, nothing suggests that the JCS, OSD, or the National Security Council have approved, much less ordered, the Navy to voice strategic ASW intentions and to exercise forces in preparation to execute the mission.

A strategic ASW campaign would put the survival of the nation directly at risk. The national decision-making process should be fully engaged. The NCA should issue explicit directions to the Navy on what to do, and not do, regarding strategic ASW vis-à-vis the Russians and generically for the long-term future of a mission that will likely be a potential as long as SSBNs are a factor in naval planning.

If the NCA’s decision goes against strategic ASW, then the mission should, at a minimum, be held in abeyance. That decision should become the object of national declaratory policy and of military-to-military diplomacy with the Russians.

Words should be accompanied by deeds. For over 30 years the Navy has been acquiring capabilities for anti-SSBN operations in the Arctic. Much of the cost of the most expensive class of attack submarines ever purchased, the Seawolf class, was owed to giving it unprecedented capacity to operate under-ice and also in shallow waters, both areas where Soviet SSBNs were estimated likely to conceal themselves. Seawolf and later classes with similar capabilities are in the Navy’s active inventory. The message of strategic ASW intent they bespeak cannot be changed. The same is not true however of Navy operations. Those that can be construed as active preparations for strategic ASW should be reviewed and adjusted accordingly. A leading example: The Navy should suspend, modify or even end its ICEX operations, a long-running biennial exercise under Arctic ice.

One of the high points of ICEX 2018 was to practice and display improving capabilities to fire torpedoes under Arctic ice. Under-ice torpedoes are uniquely target-specific weapons. Their only conceivable targets would be Russian submarines, obviously including Russian SSBNs. This reality is doubtless not lost on Russian navy planners. (There was no mention of under-ice torpedos in any of the public affairs materials connected with ICEX 2020, just completed in March. It would be surprising if they were not fired and if the Russians did not detect such firings.)

A decision if, when, and how to modify, at least, ICEX should itself be subjected to careful analysis. It could be argued that if the US is moving toward “giving up” a strategic capability, it should seek some “concession” of comparable strategic weight from the Russian side. Possibly. But it does not seem logical to continue to develop capabilities like under-ice torpedoes that you never will want to use. Never is used here advisedly. It is up to proponents of the strategic ASW mission to articulate the circumstances, if any, under which it might be executed.

Equally important, potential discussions with Russia regarding the near-inviolability of the SSBNs of both sides in war might afford an opportunity to engage with Russia in a cooperative mode. I can think of no other area—certainly not one of comparable importance—in the naval sphere where such a thing might be possible. Competition dominates Navy thinking – as it does my own.

On this score, there is one, entirely hypothetical, strategic case to consider: that US SSBNs become detectable and so subject to Russian attack. In addition to mounting a defense of its own SSBNs, the US would want to be able to answer in kind. (Note that this would not be “strategic ASW” at US initiative.) Thus the possible need for under-ice torpedoes would arise. But if very quiet, essentially stationary US SSBNs on patrol had become detectable—presumably by non-acoustic means—would not the same Russian detection systems be brought to bear on US SSNs moving forward to fire under-ice torpedoes?

Possible radical breakthroughs in submarine detection would obviously transform naval warfare. Whether to continue to develop and exercise under-ice torpedoes as a hedge against a breakthrough in submarine detection and so be needed in the hypothetical scenario described here should be analyzed carefully and a deliberate decision made.

In any case, it is theoretically possible that under-ice torpedoes are needed for purposes other than strategic ASW. If so, those purposes should be articulated and evaluated in light of their inescapable strategic ASW implications. If, despite the logic and evidence adduced above, the NCA should decide that strategic ASW is desirable, then the Navy should be prepared to address, and answer with confidence, two questions that arise should execution of the mission become successful: First, would it lead to tactical nuclear war at sea?; and/or, second, would it have undesirable nuclear ecological consequences of unknown scale?

Tactical Nuclear War at Sea

The Russians would be highly unlikely to accept the loss of their SSBN force at the hands of US conventional strategic ASW forces without resort to use of their tactical nuclear ASW weapons. They, like their Soviet predecessors, have many such weapons in their arsenal,*** and the threshold for their use is relatively low for at least two reasons: 1) in contrast to their use ashore, nuclear weapons fired at sea produce no immediate collateral damage; and 2) the Russians have placed great emphasis on their readiness to go nuclear in response to Western conventional superiority. The US no longer possesses nuclear ASW weapons and so could not answer in kind at sea, even if it wanted to. It would be unlikely to have reason to escalate ashore.

Independent of these military factors, the Russians could reasonably expect their decision to use nuclear weapons at sea to have a powerful demonstration effect on their adversaries, perhaps producing a fracture in the Western alliance. Some states might choose to fight on, but others might wish to withdraw from a  war that has turned nuclear. The ranks of the latter would likely be larger if the US is viewed as taking actions at sea, on a unilateral basis, that lead to nuclear escalation. (For further argument on this point see the post Global Blockade vs. Russia.)

Suggested Actions: The Intelligence Community should be directed to estimate the capabilities for, and the likelihood of, the use of Russian nuclear ASW weapons in a campaign to defend SSBNs. The Navy itself should evaluate its readiness to fight a strategic ASW campaign in a tactical nuclear environment with existing conventional ordnance or, if deemed necessary, a new generation of US nuclear ASW weapons.

Further, policy analysis should focus on the expected effects on the West should the Russians cross the nuclear threshold at sea in a variety of scenarios of war ashore. The course of war ashore is likely to be an important, if not the dominant, factor in determining the decisions of the Alliance—primarily the US NCA—regarding responses at sea and ashore. The degree of endorsement of US strategic ASW plans by allies should be assessed and, if need be, sought in advance.

Nuclear Ecological Damage

A successful campaign to kill Russian SSBNs would result in unavoidable and possibly catastrophic damage to the environment. At a minimum it would leave the sea floors of the Arctic Ocean, the Sea of Okhotsk, and adjacent Pacific waters littered with large amounts of radioactive material from nuclear reactors and from the many megaton-scale missile warheads that would be destroyed or damaged. (The amount of radioactivity released would depend the losses on both sides and on the number of Russian SSBNs sunk. A typical Russian SSBN carries between 100 and 200 individual nuclear warheads. Thus sinking even one or two could produce considerable loose radioactive material.) In a worst case, a missile warhead might detonate resulting in the vaporization of the considerable volume of nuclear materials in other warheads if not their detonations as well. The intensity of the radiation and the area of its dispersal could be large. Immediate effects on US territory in Alaska and on allies like Canada, Norway, the UK, Japan, and Korea might be severe. Should longer term contamination of the global ocean follow, the continental US itself could be threatened.

During the Cold War, ecological damage of this kind was a lesser included case in the nuclear Armageddon that confronted the world. Today, there are no issues at stake between the US and Russia that are remotely comparable to those vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. (Indeed, some students of US national security policy regard Russia as a minor “regional” annoyance compared to the emerging strategic competition between the US and China.) Possible ecological damage is no longer a lesser included case. It is fully case on its own.

Suggested actions: Review existing studies or initiate new studies of the ecological consequences of even a moderately successful campaign against Russian SSBNs, including estimates of the probability that attacks might detonate strategic nuclear warheads. The aim would be to verify that a strategic ASW campaign would not be environmentally self-defeating: a 21st century update of the Pyrrhic victory concept—gaining sea control of waters that can no longer be used by humans.

The Navy must study these environmental questions internally and be able to answer them satisfactorily in public. Such questions would seem certain arise in the Congress from Alaska’s delegation, for example, or from private parties with deep commercial commitments in the Arctic like Exxon-Mobil. They will also likely come from close allies who may fear exposure to toxic waters. Indeed, it will be surprising if US critics abroad, who have long charged that the US is indifferent to the fate of its allies in war, do not pick up this line of argument. The specter of apocalyptic damage to the world ocean will likely be raised.

Conclusion

The weight of fact and logic means that strategic ASW in the new era is simply a stunningly bad idea. A carefully managed relinquishing of the mission may offer the opportunity for useful cooperative exchanges with Russia, if not formal arms control agreements.

Sources

*Jeffrey Barker, deputy branch head for Policy and Posture in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (Op 515B) in remarks delivered Dec. 4, 2018, at a forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, entitled “The Arctic and US National Security.” The Forum was streamed in real time and is available from the Center as a Webcast. Mr. Barker’s remarks were not a part of his prepared presentation. In Part 1, starting at 2h 9m, during Q&A, Mr. Barker observed that the purpose of bastion denial was “So that the Russians don’t have bastions to operate from—defending the homeland.” And “what we [the Navy] are doing [strategic ASW] aligns with the National Security Strategy.” First reported by Richard R. Burgess, “Navy Must Be Agile But Sustainable,” Sea Power Magazine, 04 Dec 18. To confirm the enduring persistence of the strategic ASW idea in 2019 see Magnus Nordenman, The New Battle for the Atlantic, Emerging Naval Competition with Russia in the Far North, Naval Institute Press (Annapolis, MD, 2019), p. 201. The point is repeated in Admiral, USN, James Foggo’s, highlights of Nordenman’s book found in “The Fourth Battle of the Atlantic, the Nordics and the Direct Defense Challenge,” 08/17/2019, SLDinfo.com.


** The exact process through which strategic ASW was officially approved by the NCA is open to some uncertainty for future historians to resolve. That the Navy initiated the mission is not.


*** Wikipedia “R-29RM ‘Shtil’’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R-29RM_Shtil

Bradford Dismukes, San Francisco, November 24, 2020

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  1. Great work. I would double some of my comments from twitter as you do not appear to be there.

    While I agree with the bulk of this article, I have some technical points I would like to make, I hope you would find them of interest.

    So beyond the nitpick of pointing out that a typical load of a Russian SSBN is expected to be 64-96 RVs, not 100-200 RVs I think the important question to ask is not only how would a strategic ASW operation affect SSBNs on patrol (which due to their low patrol rates indeed carry few RVs) but how this would affect vulnerable launchers (SSBNs and ICBM TELs in bases) due to the relevant forces (SSNs, SSGNs) also being capable to carry long range precision strike weapons (such as SLCMs).

    As such this strategic ASW force would not only threaten the 1-2 SSBNs on patrol, but in fact the bulk of Russian RVs, which are concentrated on the vulnerable launchers. And I am not talking about silos (though those are entire different problem), I am talking about SSBN and TEL bases, according to my research it would appear that in fact SSBNs are the greatest source of vulnerable (as in not on patrol) RVs (~600), surpassing even more survivable silos (~580) followed by ICBM TELs (~400).

    This, together with those vulnerable launchers being on LoW alert together with how exposed they are and the trend for faster acting (ie hypersonic) precision weapons would lead to a very unstable situation in my opinion, opening the road to all sorts of pathways to unpleasant outcomes such as entanglement, inadvertant escalation and so on.

    Like

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