Appreciate the Un-deterrable Sub

by Craig Hooper on April 23, 2018

Future undersea attackers will become far less deterrable. That’s a big shift–the idea that attacking submarines are deterrable has been enshrined in ASW Doctrine since World War I, and, even today, the idea that undersea attackers can be forced to break off their attack (or other mission) informs the resourcing and posture of ASW assets. But as humans cede the undersea domain to the robots, those robots are going to be far harder to deter.

A primary goal for many ASW practitioners (outside of oh, say, World War II hunter-killer groups and SSNs prosecuting SSBNs or SSGNs) has largely been to protect a defended asset. With that defensive goal in mind, deterring the attacking submarine became an acceptable goal–and one far more likely (and easier to achieve) than obtaining a confirmed kill. As long a the target was “neutralized”, life was good.

Killing, of course, is always preferable, but any grizzled ASW warrior will tell you that it is far easier to unravel a sub’s attack/mission than to kill it. Killing a submarine demands far more resources–more sensors, more platforms and more munitions–than many modern warfare planners care to realize.

Gonna be less of a Psychological Game

The psychological aspect of submarine warfare is reflected–again and again–on the strong appreciation human factors can have upon submarine effectiveness. As the NATO Joint Air Power Competence Center’s ASW doctrine from 2016 reminds us:

“One man–the submarine commander–can have enormous impact on the capability of that lone submarine.”

Psychology counts–despite all the technology, undersea warfighters are still living in a “The Enemy Below” fairyland where gallant leaders like Lieutenant Commander Murrell matches wits with the equally gallant Kapitan-Leutnant von Stolberg. So a good bit of ASW is still built around “scaring” the undersea prey or or otherwise encouraging the offending sub to go “defensive” and depart from the sub’s immediate mission to go and live–and attack–some other target on some other day. At some level, ASW techniques have been crafted to tax human tenacity as much as the undersea boat.

That “neutralizing” goal is economical and makes certain sense–but, today, the longstanding hypothesis that submarines can be deterred influences needs to be retested. The faith that undersea platforms are deterrable has become somewhat blindly accepted.

Faith in deterrability undersea informs far too much–everything from strategic defensive posture, force structure decisions, munitions design and sensor purchases. The warfighting community needs to do some hard thinking about what, exactly, is going to happen when undersea warfare platforms start defying the vagaries of human psychology and begin relying on cold, hard–and likely learning–algorithms. We just don’t know what will happen.

Undersea platforms will certainly still be deterrable–even a machine will recommend a mission abort, or, possibly, reflect cautious biases of their programmers–but the defining line between caution and constant robotic derring-do will, in time, decrease. And, unless there is some incredible ASW technology out there that guarantees one kill per weapon, the world ASW community is not ready for undersea platform that reflect all the strengths of the most tenacious skippers and…none of the weaknesses.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

kathyxs16 May 11, 2018 at 7:22 am

Project page moved:


TMark April 27, 2018 at 3:45 am

Great topic delving into how theories of warfare impact system design and its cascading effects. Unmanned systems blur the line between peace and war, and even congressional approval is discounted as quaint with there being no troops in harm’s way. Not to get off-topic, but the concept of unmanned systems, I believe, tends to interfere with one of the U.S. Navy’s most unsung strengths: national resolve, or “skin in the game.”

Imagine an adversary (think Persian Gulf or South China Sea) observing three U.S. ‘bogies’, each one week apart. One is a flying surveillance drone (UAV), the second is a surface or undersea drone (UUV). The third is a manned surface vessel with a crew of 100-300 sailors.

The drones – and the adversary – can afford to be brazen without sparking a conventional force-on-force conflict. After all, nobody died, no bodies in the water, no ‘blood lust’ triggering a response or escalation. The drones can get away with violating territorial sea/airspace, and the adversary gets away with neutralizing them. It’s an argument for keeping unmanned systems cheap and expendable to limit tech espionage.

But while unmanned systems eliminate casualties, they can also represent a lack of national resolve. With no American blood onboard, they are a proverbial ‘peasant messenger’ sent to a rival King who expected a fully credentialed emissary; the King thinks nothing of killing the messenger. America’s ‘real’ navy would be respected, but not its ‘robot’ navy. Insurgents and pirates would open fire for sport. Even if armed, naval drones would likely NOT engage ambiguous adversaries like paramilitary fleets dressed up as fishermen.

Unmanned vessels in territorial disputes would not receive recognition for FONOPS, which are designed around legal constructs that measure national resolve in international courts. A robot is not resolve. It’s a poor witness in international relations.

This balance of resolve/presence vs safety/efficiency has to be done right. Imagine the aftermath of a shooting match in which the U.S. Navy is scrutinized with opposing questions: 1. Resolve: “Why didn’t you allocate a dominant force to deter the adversary?” 2. Safety/Efficiency: “Why did our sailors have to die when unmanned systems could have done the job?” Not an easy balance to strike.

I foresee an era of “optionally manned” and lightly crewed vessels that maintain ambiguity in the adversary’s mind about whether U.S. assets are robotically expendable or humanly resolute.


Bryan April 27, 2018 at 8:10 am

You’ve said what I was trying to say, just much more clearly. LOL. But you’ve got it correct. The first Unmanned aircraft the navy uses of China’s shore will likely be shot down if they, “Know” it’s unmanned.

They, as we’ve seen with the P-3 can easily be brought down. But the national leadership should be asked by the Navy what will happen when it is. In that way it still could happen, “Once”.

If we don’t ask those questions of our leaders before the event, we should leave the field of battle as we have already lost.


Bryan April 27, 2018 at 8:20 am

And in the world of UUV, as Craig and I discussed earlier, it is very hard to, “see” if it’s unmanned or not. For aircraft that is easier. As technology progresses the airborne platform can react more to the presence of other aircraft. That will obscure the line even more.

There are easy Conops that will also blur the lines and make potential enemies think twice if that drone is really alone. But I don’t disagree with you or Craig. It will change things. How much depends more on our national resolve and literally, how much money we have to conduct operations properly. I fear we will be forced to continue to try and do things on the cheap with predictable results.

Perhaps that last thought is borne out of long experience being in and watching how Government works. Or perhaps I just need another cuppa. LOL.


dumpster4 April 24, 2018 at 3:31 pm

Considering that the Chinese have already snagged one U.S. UUV:

The temptation to capture something like this:

or maybe a Sea Hunter:

Would be hard for them (or the Russians) to resist, since it would be quite the Intel coup. It would also be less likely to trigger retaliatory measures than an attempt to capture a manned platform.

We’ve already seen manned platforms come to the aid of endangered aerial robots:

I wonder if we’ll also need manned platforms to escort the seagoing drones when they’re deployed?


Craig Hooper April 26, 2018 at 6:35 am

Hey, thanks for leaving a comment, but please reduce the number of links next time!


Chris April 24, 2018 at 2:23 am

G’day Craig,
You have identified the key elements to the problem, firstly the impact of removing the human decision maker from the immediate area of risk, and overlaid in this particular case is the complexity around the (detection) identification and classification of underwater contacts. Submariners are sneaky. I am more of an advocate of being where the submarines are not, I have always thought that if you are in a ship and deliberately prosecuting a submarine, you are doing it all wrong.
In anti-surface warfare the tension between offence and defence has been pushing the engagement range for surface air and subsurface threats further out from the main body. So the counter is to either launch from outside the engagement range, which is not always possible, or try to cross the weapons gap preferably undetected. However the identification and classification problem for air and surface threats is comparatively easy when compared to underwater threats. This was marginally less difficult in the cold war context, but with the proliferation of neutral submarines in and around contested regions it is getting more complex.
In the context of large UUV, it is going to be particularly difficult to determine the nature of the threat, but I am not sure that we are yet at the stage where we might seek to classify by ordnance. While the destruction of an unmanned system would probably be below the threshold of conflict, as Bryan has suggested it still comes down to the difficulty in determining the nature of the underwater contact, and whether it is actually autonomous.
I am still waiting for that technological panacea that will lift the fog of war from the underwater battle space.


Bryan April 24, 2018 at 11:18 am

The unmanned revolution goes both ways. So when DARPA wanted to send the Sea Hunter out to trail subs, I thought the same thing as the Triton (P-3 replacement). Easier to confirm it’s unmanned and easier to destroy during peace time.

But using the Sea Hunter as a manned/unmanned teaming just as we’ve explored with UAV’s is essential. Thinking of the Sea Hunter as a cheaper replacement for the OHP frigates in the CAG is a good start. Or if we get an actual effective frigate then the Sea Hunter just adds another layer to the defense.

When we look at the what has been described at a revolution in ASW signal processing we start to get an idea of possible changes. I say possible because the ASW crowd is rightfully so secretive and I’m just an old retired LEO. But understanding the changes in RADAR signal processing and the revolution it brought about and seeing the correlation to SONAR is actually quite exciting.

For submarines that’s just a newer version of constantly upgrading sensors between rivals. But for something like a CAG who has no hope of hiding, but as you suggest runs away from subs in a controlled manner, that has a more dramatic effect. Because ships have all the disadvantage in ASW knowing you can’t hide a 100,000 ton warship liberates ones tactics. I can use SONAR more. Any improvement that increases range is good. Any improvement that drastically decreases the time it takes to range and bearing makes the kill chain much shorter for the ship and much harder for a submarine trying to fire and then slip away. That’s true whether manned or unmanned.


Craig Hooper April 26, 2018 at 6:54 am

Good points. But going back to Chris’s almost offhand comment about determining the nature of the underwater contact “and whether it is actually autonomous…” Forget neutrals…it’s the manning piece that’s a real headache-inducing question…

Optionally manned craft are getting more and more interesting. Killing a robot is one thing, but killing a robot with a person or two on it is something entirely different. Forcing other forces to wonder if vexing things have people on ’em is…

Let’s just say that it’s going to raise the stakes a bit, eh?


Bryan April 23, 2018 at 3:00 pm

While I understand your point as an exploration of the possible, I’m not sure much has changed when we put it into the context of peace, first day of war and war.

I always thought of it not as driving off the sub but as making the sub decide to strike the little ship or try to slip by and strike the big ship at the risk of a suicide mission.

Looking at it from that angle, autonomy certainly makes the first strike less of a suicide mission. But that doesn’t change the fact that someone, somewhere decided when the first day of war was. Our ships have always been at risk of being struck first when in a peace time footing. It’s a, “sucker punch”. Just like in a bar, with the police or the Navy; that will work, once.

To me the human element is absolutely still there. In fact I believe it’s increased.

In fact that makes it all the more dangerous for the enemy. If I don’t have a human to blame on the sub, I certainly can have one to blame in your ports, factories, etc.

Does the U.S. understand this concept? I believe so. I think the Navy takes too much risk with it’s best assets forward deployed. Yet as a whole of government I believe we could look at the use of, “little green men” in Ukraine juxtaposed against the use of little green men in Syria. The outcome is more than a line in the sand.


Craig Hooper April 23, 2018 at 7:11 pm

I hear ya Bryan. I think uncrewed platforms will, in time, make the world a far more dangerous place–I mean, any commander who observes something robotic tracking the ship/fleet/etc. will be sorely tempted to mess with it in some way. And in a shoot-first world like that, things could get pretty interesting pretty fast.

It’ll make grey zone warfare a lot more, ah, exciting, to say the least.


Bryan April 23, 2018 at 7:25 pm

I think it would be hard to tell a small manned sub from an unmanned? Not sure. But I know where you’re coming from. With the little I’ve heard about how they intend to deploy the Triton I suspect that will be the first robot shot down by China. Or maybe they will just clip the wing?


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