Current / Warfare

The Silent Service–Still Superior?

I came across this article entitled “China thinks it can defeat America in battle,” which argues China is in for an ugly surprise should the PLA try to invade Taiwan:

It’s not surprising that Beijing would overlook America’s subs. Most Americans overlook their own undersea fleet — and that’s not entirely their own fault. The U.S. sub force takes pains to avoid media coverage in order to maximize its secrecy and stealth. “The submarine cruises the world’s oceans unseen,” the Navy stated on its Website.

Unseen and unheard. That why the sub force calls itself the “Silent Service.”

The Navy has 74 submarines, 60 of which are attack or missile submarines optimized for finding and sinking other ships or blasting land targets. The balance is ballistic-missile boats that carry nuclear missiles and would not routinely participate in military campaigns short of an atomic World War III.

Thirty-three of the attack and missile boats belong to the Pacific Fleet, with major bases in Washington State, California, Hawaii, and Guam. Deploying for six months or so roughly every year and a half, America’s Pacific subs frequently stop over in Japan and South Korea and occasionally even venture under the Arctic ice.

According to Adm. Cecil Haney, the former commander of Pacific Fleet subs, on any given day 17 boats are underway and eight are “forward-deployed,” meaning they are on station in a potential combat zone. To the Pacific Fleet, that pretty much means waters near China.

America has several submarine types. The numerous Los Angeles-class attack boats are Cold War stalwarts that are steadily being replaced by newer Virginia-class boats with improved stealth and sensors. The secretive Seawolfs, numbering just three — all of them in the Pacific — are big, fast, and more heavily armed than other subs. The Ohio-class missile submarines are former ballistic missile boats each packing 154 cruise missile.

U.S. subs are, on average, bigger, faster, quieter, and more powerful than the rest of the world’s subs. And there are more of them. The U.K. is building just seven new Astute attack boats. Russia aims to maintain around 12 modern attack subs. China is struggling to deploy a handful of rudimentary nuclear boats.

A year-and-a half ago, I ran through a scenario what this might look like:

The U.S. Navy’s submariners have dominated their potential adversaries for seven decades.  The Soviet navy was well aware American hunter/killer attack submarines (SSNs) in all probability would slaughter the Russian forces with ease if war came.  The Chinese navy is far less capable than the U.S.S.R.’s was.  The PLAN would be at the mercy of the U.S. Navy’s Silent Service.

The battles of the East and South China Seas commences with an American retaliation to a Chinese attempt at invading Taiwan.   The opening strike sees 15 attack submarines of the Los Angeles, Seawolf and Virginia-class that have been trailing hapless Chinese SSNs for months dispatch the entire PLAN nuclear submarine fleet without warning.  Meanwhile 30 more American SSNs hunt down most of the Chinese navy’s diesel/electric boats.

The five remaining American SSNs not employed on submarine killing duty smash the Chinese landing force arrayed against Taiwan.   The combined  wolf pack of 50 American nuclear-powered attack submarines then turn their fangs into the Chinese surface fleet, killing thousands of sailors in the wanton destruction of over 60 PLAN destroyers and frigates.  After the USS Seawolf plows eight Mark 48 ADCAP torpedoes into the side of Liaoning, the 55,000 ton Chinese aircraft carrier rolls over and sinks rapidly with the loss of an estimated 2,500 hands, eliminating the only possible threats to the American hunter/killers. 

Simultaneously, just off the Chinese mainland coast the SSGNs USS Ohio, USS Michigan, USS Florida, and USS Georgia receive via VLF final target coordinates from datalink and radar return intercepted by USAF and ROC ELINT (electronics intelligence) aircraft.  The four huge ex-ballistic missile submarines receive orders from NMCC (National Military Command Center) to attack China’s ballistic missile forces before salvoing 616 cruise missiles at the radar sites and DF-21 launchers.  Flames and smoke billow into the night sky as radar command and control facilities, communication links, mobile launchers and the ballistic missiles themselves explode into a massive Chinese fireworks display.

I assumed the U.S. Navy would have ample time to deploy the entire sub force to counter the PLAN, but is this much worse an outcome for the Chinese?

Able to lurk silently under the waves and strike suddenly with torpedoes and missiles, submarines have tactical and strategic effect greatly disproportionate to their relatively small numbers. During the 1982 Falklands War, the British sub Conqueror torpedoed and sank the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano, killing 323 men. The sinking kept the rest of the Argentine fleet bottled up for the duration of the conflict.

America’s eight-at-a-time submarine picket in or near Chinese waters could be equally destructive to Chinese military plans, especially considering the PLA’s limited anti-submarine skills. “Although China might control the surface of the sea around Taiwan, its ability to find and sink U.S. submarines will be extremely limited for the foreseeable future,” Cliff testified. “Those submarines would likely be able to intercept and sink Chinese amphibious transports as they transited toward Taiwan.”

So it almost doesn’t matter that a modernized PLA thinks it possesses the means to fight America above the waves, on land, and in the air. If it can’t safely sail an invasion fleet as part of its territorial ambitions, it can’t achieve its strategic goals — capturing Taiwan and or some island also claimed by a neighboring country — through overtly military means.

The above assumption that the Chinese would dominate the surface in a hypothetical naval war is strange to me.  I still feel the four U.S. SSGNs would be tasked primarily with eliminating the DF-21Ds–American warfare doctrine emphasizes offense above defense (the 2000s disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq notwithstanding, this is still the policy of the U.S. military).  But missile defense in a Taiwan theater of operations has been a major concern for over a decade, and the USN and USMC are also investing massively in the development of electromagnetic rail gun and high-energy lasers (which will be far more effective against hypersonic or faster attackers than SM-2 and -3 Aegis missiles alone)–a sure sign that the threat posed by Chinese ballistic missiles is taken very seriously.

“We won’t invade China, so ground forces don’t play,” pointed out Wayne Hughes, a professor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. “We won’t conduct a first nuclear strike. We should not adopt an air-sea strike plan against the mainland, because that is a sure way to start World War IV.”

World War IV? When exactly did the plant fight World War III? OK, continue…

Rather, America must deny the Chinese free access to their near waters. “We need only enough access to threaten a war at sea,” Hughes said. In his view, a fleet optimized for countering China would have large numbers of small surface ships for enforcing a trade blockade. But the main combatants would be submarines, “to threaten destruction of all Chinese warships and commercial vessels in the China Seas.”

Cliff estimated that in wartime, each American submarine would be able to get off “a few torpedo shots” before needing to “withdraw for self-preservation.” But assuming eight subs each fire three torpedoes, and just half those torpedoes hit, the American attack boats could destroy all of China’s major amphibious ships — and with them, Beijing’s capacity for invading Taiwan or seizing a disputed island.

Yeah, sure, right.  I’m fairly certain the submarines would fire more than three shots each (VLS tubes enable each SSN to launch up to a dozen Tomahawks simultaneously).  Moreover, if the PLAN is stupid enough to fire at a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, Japan or Guam, the USN is going to respond with a massive strike against the Chinese mainland; the advisability of a air-sea strike plan be damned.  What would be the vanguard of such a strike?  Perhaps 616 missiles from four Ohio-class SSGNs…

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One thought on “The Silent Service–Still Superior?

  1. Pingback: Sub-Surface Stupidity | In The Corner, Mumbling and Drooling

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