November 13, 2017

Taming Sea Dragons

Maintaining Undersea Superiority in the Indo-Asia-Pacific Region

By Sean Liedman

Executive Summary

In his 2010 book, titled Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, Robert Kaplan asserted that the Indian Ocean “is at the heart of the world, just as it was in antique and medieval times.” Kaplan’s definition of the Indian Ocean was expansive: “a geography that encompasses, going from west to east, the Red Sea, Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal, and Java and South China seas.” U.S. government officials have taken to calling the maritime region that extends from the East Coast of Africa to the West Coast of the United States the “Indo-Asia-Pacific Region.” In a 2016 statement to Congress, Admiral Harry B. Harris supported Kaplan’s assertion of its strategic importance by citing that the region currently contains seven of the 10 largest standing armies and five nuclear-capable nations, and will contain 70 percent of the world’s population by 2050. The importance of the region’s maritime shipping routes cannot be overstated: 70 percent of all maritime petroleum and 50 percent of all maritime container shipments flow through the Indian Ocean.

Within this strategic maritime setting, the United States and its regional allies face a grave challenge to their undersea superiority in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region during the next decade. Three potential adversaries – the People’s Republic of China, Russia, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) – have bolstered the capability and capacity of their undersea warfare (USW) forces, and all three nations possess proven submarine-launched ballistic-missile (SLBM) capabilities. Additionally, they are proliferating USW platforms and technologies to expand the capabilities of other American adversaries, like Iran, and to undermine relationships with traditional American security partners like Thailand and Pakistan.

The United States and its Asia-Pacific treaty allies (Japan, the Republic of Korea [South Korea], Republic of the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada) are maritime nations and dependent upon the movement of economic and security goods via the sea. A loss of undersea superiority would threaten a loss of their freedom of movement on the sea, as illustrated by the crippling losses of commercial and military ships to German U-boats in the Atlantic during World War II. Maintaining undersea superiority will be a strategic imperative during any major power conflict in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, and the capital-intensive nature of naval forces – in terms of both equipment and highly trained personnel – underscores the mandate to maintain sufficient capability and capacity in peacetime so as to deter conflict, and, should deterrence fail, prevail in conflict.

The American and allied response to the burgeoning Soviet submarine threat in the Atlantic provides a historic analog; by the late 1950s, the Soviet Navy had amassed a force of more than 400 diesel submarines. As the Cold War bloomed into an existential struggle with the Soviet Union, the United States and its NATO allies invested significant resources in anti-submarine warfare (ASW) forces, doctrine, and training to strive to maintain undersea superiority in peacetime – and prevail in the event of conflict. This effort spawned major technological leaps such as the first nuclear-powered submarine and a revolution in signal processing that enabled the U.S. and NATO navies to achieve dominance in passive sonar techniques. Additionally, the United States built significant ASW capacity to find, track, and hold at risk Soviet submarines around the globe; this capacity peaked at a force of 184 ASW-capable destroyers and frigates, 102 attack submarines (SSNs), and 24 active and 14 reserve patrol squadrons operating nearly 450 P-3C maritime patrol aircraft by the mid-1980s. Additionally, NATO members such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Norway, and the Netherlands also built significant ASW forces and routinely employed them under both national and NATO command during Cold War operations versus the Soviet submarine threat.

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, America and its allies (NATO in the Atlantic, plus Japanese, South Korean, Australian, and New Zealand treaty allies in the Pacific) became the sole proprietors of undersea supremacy. In a nod to the prevailing strategic calculus that forecasted a theoretical “peace dividend,” the United States reduced its USW force structure by half, resulting in a force of 116 ASW-capable cruisers, destroyers, and frigates; 56 attack submarines; and 12 active and 7 reserve maritime patrol squadrons operating 225 P-3Cs. Additionally, the opportunity cost of two prolonged counterinsurgency campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq beginning in 2001 slashed the training and proficiency of American USW forces as their focus was diverted to other mission areas like strike warfare; maritime security operations; and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.

By 2010, U.S. Department of Defense leadership recognized the imperative to maintain undersea superiority in light of renewed Russian submarine threats as evidenced by The New York Times’ reporting of two Russian Akula-class attack submarines operating near the east coast of the U.S. in August of 2009. The U.S. ramped up investment in USW capital equipment through the acquisition of platforms like the Virginia-class SSN and the P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and successfully recovered some tactical proficiency by re-emphasizing ASW training in fleet exercises. However, those restored American USW capabilities cannot mask a fundamental reality: The lack of American capacity generates an unacceptable level of risk of the loss of undersea superiority in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region during the next decade. Doubters of this thesis need only look at the U.S. Navy’s program to install surface ship torpedo defense (essentially an anti-torpedo torpedo) systems on all major surface combatants by 2025 at an estimated per-unit cost of $15 million. The urgency and magnitude of investment in this program serves as evidence of the Navy’s institutional lack of confidence in its ability to maintain undersea superiority.

Three factors contribute to this reality. First, the size of the potential Indo-Asia-Pacific battlespace is immense – approximately three times larger than the Atlantic theater during the Cold War. Second, the potential adversaries listed above have attained sufficient submarine capacity to distribute throughout that large battlespace and execute a sea denial strategy. China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) currently operates a fleet made up of 330 surface ships and 66 submarines, and some naval observers have forecast that the PLAN is on a vector to operate a fleet of 430 surface ships and 100 submarines by 2030. Third, the United States remains a global power with competing strategic interests in 18 maritime regions of historic national interest. While President Barack Obama’s “rebalance to the Pacific” spurred the U.S. Navy to homeport 60 percent of its fleet in the Pacific, the fact of the matter is that 40 percent of new USW platform investments will likely be based in the Atlantic to meet other strategic imperatives. That is not the case for China or North Korea; 100 percent of their USW investment will affect the strategic calculus of the Indo-Asia-Pacific theater. Russia is a different case in that its USW forces are predominantly based in the North Sea Fleet and focused on operations in the Atlantic and Mediterranean regions; however, that fact will continue to divide the strategic focus of American force planning.

There are four broad ways to mitigate a military capacity shortfall: (1) buy/build more capacity, (2) contract for more capacity through alliances and coalitions, (3) develop revolutionary “leap ahead” technologies to alleviate conventional capacity shortfalls, and (4) counter the capacity shortfall in one domain by leveraging superiority in other domains. Even in light of President Donald Trump’s campaign pledge to build a 350-ship navy and the U.S. Navy’s release in December 2016 of a force structure assessment calling for a 355-ship navy, the U.S. will not be able to buy or build its way out of this USW capacity shortfall – at least not within the next decade. Virginia-class SSNs and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers currently require five years to build. Those timelines could be reduced by bolstering shipyard capacity, but that will take time to expand the facilities and recruit, hire, and train a workforce to perform that highly skilled labor. Additionally, any increased output of the shipbuilding industry will be offset in the near term by a waterfall of decommissionings of the Reagan-era “600-ship navy” buildup. The Navy commissioned as many as six attack submarines per year in the 1980s, and the curse of that buildup is that those ships are simultaneously reaching the end of their surface lives during this decade.

Simultaneously, NATO allies’ investment in their national USW forces has not kept pace with the undersea threat. Of the 28 NATO allies, only five (the United States, the United Kingdom, Greece, Estonia, and Poland) met their commitment to spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense in 2016. To illustrate the effect of this underinvestment in real terms, the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy – formerly the vanguard of a global Pax Britannica – has allowed its USW force structure to dwindle to only 23 ASW-capable ships and seven attack submarines, while the Royal Air Force divested of its maritime patrol aircraft capability in 2010. It should be noted that the UK has increased its defense spending to meet the 2 percent threshold in 2016 and recently announced the purchase of nine P-8A maritime patrol aircraft; however, those aircraft will not become operational until 2019. This affects the Indo-Asia-Pacific security calculus in that it forces the United States to maintain significant USW capability and capacity in the Atlantic to protect American and allied interests against Russian undersea threats.

America’s Asia-Pacific allies have increased their defense spending to record levels in light of aggressive Chinese behavior and North Korean nuclear saber-rattling. Japan’s 2017 defense budget is its largest ever at more than ¥5 trillion ($42.5 billion) and marks the fifth consecutive year of defense spending increases. South Korea’s 2017 defense budget is also its highest ever at 40.33 trillion Korean Wan ($36.49 billion). However, Chapter 3 highlights the lack of capacity of those nations’ USW forces to maintain their undersea superiority against rising Chinese and North Korean threats, and there is currently no regional alliance or coalition structure to aggregate their USW capacity.

As previously stated, any large-scale U.S. military operations in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region are wholly dependent upon the maritime movement of materiel in the form of food, fuel, and ammunition. Therefore, the United States cannot choose to substitute supremacy in the air domain for a loss of supremacy in the undersea domain as an example of an alternative, asymmetric strategy. These facts leave only two viable strategic ways to maintain the undersea superiority calculus from today to 2025. The first is to partner for more USW capacity by building a coalition of like-minded nations in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. The second is to operationalize affordable leap-ahead USW technologies such as autonomous, unmanned undersea vehicles and expendable, distributed, networked undersea sensors to quickly remedy some of the current capacity shortfall.

Recommendations to achieve these two strategic imperatives follow:

1. Build a Standing Indo-Asia-Pacific USW Coalition

The United States maintains strong bilateral treaty alliance relationships with Canada, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand and accordingly has developed effective USW information-sharing mechanisms and habitual training and operating relationships with each of those nations. However, historical enmity, coupled with the lack of an overarching political alliance structure like the North Atlantic Council within NATO, has prevented the development of an effective, multilateral USW force that multiplies the effects generated by each national force.

The United States should lead the establishment of a USW coalition built around the following elements:

  • A Coalition Undersea Warfare Center (CUSWC) that facilitates USW information sharing and coordination
  • Common USW doctrine, analogous to the NATO Allied Tactical Publication series
  • A USW information-sharing regime, with a classified information systems technology solution to enable it

A good starting point for the coalition would be the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and Japan, which would double the USW force structure that the United States possesses. The existing AUSCANNZUKUS Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and Intelligence agreement offers a successful template on which to model the initial core coalition information sharing effort.

Other Indo-Asia-Pacific nations should be considered for future coalition membership based on political orientation, geographic location, and USW capability. India, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia represent a second tier, and the prospects for integrating each of those nations into the coalition is addressed in Chapter 4. The Republic of China (Taiwan) represents a third tier for consideration. While it is uncertain whether the first-tier coalition members would be willing to violate their “One China” policy and admit Taiwan into the USW coalition in peacetime, it is likely that in any conflict that threatens Taiwan’s existence as a free-market, democratic polity, the United States and other regional allies will fight in concert with Taiwanese armed forces, including in the undersea domain.

2. Build Habitual Multilateral USW Training and Operating Relationships Beyond the Core Coalition

Coordinated USW (involving ships, submarines, aircraft, unmanned vehicles, and other distributed sensors) is a complex undertaking at both the operational and tactical levels of war. Coordinated USW must be rehearsed and practiced in peacetime to ensure success in the event of conflict. The United States has led the execution of multilateral exercises that include USW, such as the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) biennial exercise off Hawaii, and in 2015 and 2016, Exercise Malabar was executed in the Indian Ocean as a trilateral exercise with American, Japanese, and Indian participation. However, the frequency and membership breadth of these multilateral exercises should be increased, and USW should be a core mission focus. This recommendation is not solely aimed at USW coalition members. As an example, while India is not proposed for initial coalition membership, both the coalition and India would benefit greatly through the conduct of regular multilateral USW exercises.

3. Foster Coalition Research, Development, and Acquisition of Affordable Technologies to Increase Coalition USW Capacity

The United States is investing in the research and development of numerous technologies such as unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs) and distributed, networked undersea surveillance sensors that may present affordable solutions for coalition partners to boost their distributed undersea surveillance capacity. Inviting coalition partners to participate in the development and acquisition strategies for these emerging technologies could increase the economies of scale of these programs and improve affordability for all partners. Traditional barriers to cooperative acquisition programs include the fear of compromise of national and/or proprietary technologies and a strong motivation to protect national industrial bases and domestic employment in an increasingly globalized economy. The “Buy American Act,” first passed in 1933 and amended frequently since, serves as an illustrative example of the second barrier. However, exemptions may be granted to qualifying nations, and this coalition research and development initiative should facilitate multilateral sales of USW technologies, including American purchases from coalition partners. None of the allied nations in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region can go it alone to maintain their undersea advantage in the region.

Critics of this coalition-building approach may point toward three significant barriers to achieving these recommendations:

  1. The historic and cultural enmity that dominates the region, e.g. Japanese-Korean, Japanese-Filipino, American-Vietnamese, etc.
  2.  The inherently classified nature of undersea warfare, coupled with a strong desire to protect the security of coalition members’ undersea forces – national technology, tactics, techniques, and procedures, and USW operations that pursue national vice coalition objectives.
  3. The fundamental flaw of coalition warfare in that it lacks political and strategic coherency that enables long-term planning to generate success in complex military operations like coordinated ASW.

While the United States and its allies and partners in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region currently lack the political coherency that underpins NATO, the regional strategic challenges they face are trending toward existential threats, at least when viewed through the eyes of the Japanese and South Koreans – and their American treaty allies. The recent trilateral cooperation among Japan, South Korea, and the United States on ballistic-missile defense (BMD) in the face of a rising North Korean threat dispels all three of those critiques. The historical enmity between the Japanese and Korean cultures is profound, BMD technologies and techniques are highly classified, and there is no overarching political agreement that underpins this effort; rather, they have formed a coalition due to their common national security interests. The same case should be made for preserving superiority in the undersea domain, as Japan and South Korea are dependent upon maritime flows of energy and commerce for their national security, and a loss of superiority in the undersea domain could threaten their security.

International relations theorists might point out that this coalition-building effort seems to be directed at China, which could be counterproductive to securing Chinese cooperation on other regional and global policy goals of mutual interest. Frankly, it is. China’s increasingly assertive behavior in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region since 2009, coupled with recent efforts to undermine U.S. leadership of the post-World War II international rules-based order, makes it clear that China poses a challenge to regional security and stability and that it is building the military capability and capacity to make that threat credible. A 2016 RAND Corp. report titled “War with China – Thinking Through the Unthinkable” opened with this quote:

War between the United States and China could be so ruinous for both countries, for East Asia, and for the world that it might seem unthinkable. Yet it is not: China and the United States are at loggerheads over several regional disputes that could lead to military confrontation or even violence between them. Both countries have large concentrations of military forces operating in close proximity. If an incident occurred or a crisis overheated, both have an incentive to strike enemy forces before being struck by them. And if hostilities erupted, both have ample forces, technology, industrial might, and personnel to fight across vast expanses of land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace. Thus, Sino-U.S. war, perhaps a large and costly one, is not just thinkable; it needs more thought.

The South China Morning Post newspaper (based in Hong Kong) recently reprinted an opinion-editorial titled “China Has All but Ended the Charade of a Peaceful Rise.” The title speaks for itself. The Chinese have used naval, coast guard, and paramilitary vessels to harass regional neighbors over disputed maritime claims in the East and South China Seas; they have militarized seven newly reclaimed islands in the Spratly Island chain in the South China Sea despite President Xi Jinping’s pledge to avoid doing so; and they have continued to provide material support to North Korea while it flouts United Nations prohibitions on nuclear and ballistic-missile proliferation and threatens regional stability in the process. Meanwhile in the United States, despite a reported admonishment by the Obama administration’s National Security Council to stop using the term “competition” when speaking about China, Department of Defense leaders continued to use the phrase in their public statements in a clear-eyed assessment of Chinese capabilities and intent.  

Finally, in addition to the three recommendations listed above, the U.S. and its regional allies should execute more assertive deterrence in the undersea domain as described below.

4. Demonstrate Conventional Deterrence in the Undersea Domain Through “Hold at Risk” USW Operations

Any Chinese or Russian submarine that ventures beyond its territorial sea in the Western Pacific should be continuously tracked and signaled to be “held at risk” by the United States and its USW coalition partners. Political scientist Richard K. Betts called deterrence “the essential military strategy behind containing the Soviet Union and a crucial ingredient in winning the Cold War without fighting World War III.” A key part of the United States and NATO’s deterrent strategy was demonstrating undersea superiority by holding at risk Soviet ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) and the SSNs that were deployed to protect them. In a similar fashion, the United States and its USW coalition partners should sow doubt in the minds of Russian and Chinese naval commanders that their submarine force would survive in the event of conflict.

Implementing this recommendation is not simply a matter of executing more effective ASW operations; rather, it is a policy decision by national leadership to permit ASW forces to be more overt and aggressive in the prosecution of Chinese submarine deployments, which is certain to induce friction in the broader American-Sino relationship and China’s relationships with regional coalition partners. However, friction in the undersea domain does not necessarily prohibit strategic security cooperation in other areas of mutual interest, such as maritime counterpiracy or sustaining the free flow of commerce, particularly the maritime shipment of hydrocarbons from the Middle East. At the operational level, some U.S. commanders have expressed concerns that aggressive, sustained ASW operations will expose our tactics, techniques and procedures to the Chinese and enable them to develop technological and doctrinal countermeasures that could erode American and allied advantages in the event of a conflict. This concern misses the broader point: Effective, aggressive ASW operations in peacetime would serve as a powerful deterrent that prevents conflict, just as it did versus the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The United States, its Asia-Pacific allies, and their Indo-Asia-Pacific partners must acknowledge that their undersea security is in grave danger. The rational response to that acknowledgment is to devise an appropriate strategic response and then demonstrate its efficacy to potential adversaries. Failure to sustain the United States’ and allied undersea superiority could result in a strategic disaster for the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, and perhaps the entire global community.

The full report is available online.

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  • Sean Liedman

    Adjunct Senior Fellow, Defense Strategies and Assessments Program

    Sean Liedman is an Adjunct Fellow in the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security.  He is concurrently the Founder and President of...

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