How the US Is Preparing to Hunt New Chinese, Russian Subs

 In China, Sea, Russia, Forces & Capabilities, U.S. Navy, Norway, Threats

A sailor watches an MH-60R Seahawk take off from the USS Wasp during Exercise Black Widow.

WASHINGTON: The Navy’s newest fleet and sub­ma­rine com­mands teamed up this week for an inten­sive anti-sub­ma­rine drill off the East Coast, waters Navy com­man­ders say are now open game for Russian sub­marines. 

“This is where the fight is…where the com­pe­ti­tion is. Specifically in the Atlantic [and] the under­sea capa­bil­i­ty of the Russians. We have got to main­tain that advan­tage.” Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis, com­man­der of the new Norfolk-based 2nd Fleet, told reporters.

“It’s pretty well-known now that our home­land is no longer a sanc­tu­ary,” Vice Adm. Daryl Caudle, Submarine Forces Atlantic told reporters Wednesday. “So we have to be pre­pared here to con­duct high-end combat oper­a­tions in local waters, just like we do abroad now because…nothing’s a sanc­tu­ary any longer.” 

The exer­cis­es come as the Navy is devel­op­ing new capa­bil­i­ties, includ­ing unmanned ships, fast-moving frigates, and a new sub­ma­rine-basing agree­ment and expand­ed base with Norway, to meet the rapid mod­ern­iza­tion of Chinese and Russian under­sea fleets as they oper­ate more fre­quent­ly in the Arctic and could poten­tial­ly begin creep­ing up to the US coast­line.

But it’s not clear how inter­est­ed Moscow is in play­ing near American coasts. Their sub­ma­rine fleet is pri­mar­i­ly con­cerned with pro­tect­ing Russian crit­i­cal infra­struc­ture and its own bal­lis­tic-mis­sile sub­marines, key to Moscow’s second strike capa­bil­i­ty. There is prob­a­bly little appetite in Moscow to send its subs on reg­u­lar long-range, high-endurance mis­sions near US coast­lines. The fleet is small and such a far-flung deploy­ment would leave its other assets unpro­tect­ed.

What the 2nd Fleet may be most inter­est­ed in close to US shores, said Michael Kofman, direc­tor of the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analysis, are the sub­marines of Moscow’s 10th Department, which oper­ates sev­er­al mas­sive nuclear-pow­ered subs which oper­ate sep­a­rate­ly from the Russian navy.

The agency, also known as the Main Directorate of Deep-Sea Research, has con­vert­ed sev­er­al bal­lis­tic mis­sile sub­marines to act as moth­er­ships to dock other sub­marines or unmanned under­sea ves­sels on spe­cial deep-dive mis­sions.

This fleet of sub­marines also can manip­u­late under­sea cables and other under­sea infra­struc­ture, using retractable arms that can reach out and grab items off the ocean floor.  

“A sec­ondary con­cern for the United States is the activ­i­ty of this second navy,” Kofman said. “Think of them as spe­cial­ized sub­marines that have a host of capa­bil­i­ties — some of that sur­round­ing fiber optic cable infra­struc­ture on the ocean seabed — but it’s an entire­ly dif­fer­ent set of oper­a­tions” from the Russian navy.

The “Black Widow” exer­cise, which start­ed Monday, puts sev­er­al high-end assets in the water, includ­ing the amphibi­ous assault ship Wasp, destroy­ers USS Arleigh Burke and McFaul, P‑8 sur­veil­lance planes, heli­copters, and two fast-attack sub­marines. 

A key part of the exer­cise is to work out any flaws in the com­mand and con­trol between the new sub­ma­rine com­mand and the 2nd Fleet, as the two orga­ni­za­tions work though how to coor­di­nate activ­i­ties. Things learned over this week will help com­man­ders forge a closer work­ing rela­tion­ship, and iron out the kinks in coor­di­nat­ing and com­mu­ni­cat­ing, in future oper­a­tions.

“Because I have 2nd Fleet now stood up and a true fleet com­man­der, with a the­ater under­sea warfight­ing com­man­der work­ing for him, it really is a rehearsal,” Caudle said. “So the sub­marines and sur­face ships that are involved in this exer­cise are in a com­mand and con­trol struc­ture that would be iden­ti­cal that if they were deployed to 6th Fleet.”

Late last month, a Russian sub­ma­rine unexpectedly popped up on the sur­face in inter­na­tion­al waters off the coast of Alaska, catch­ing Northern Command by sur­prise. The sub, part of a larger Russian mil­i­tary exer­cise, never entered US waters but its prox­im­i­ty was a signal that many Russian naval capa­bil­i­ties have improved great­ly since bot­tom­ing out in the imme­di­ate after­math of the Cold War. 

The Black Widow exer­cise fol­lows confirmation earlier this month that Norway had made improve­ments to a port above the Arctic Circle to pave the way for increased visits by US nuclear sub­marines, pro­vid­ing a major new jump­ing off point for watch­ing Russia’s active Northern Fleet as it tran­sits into the North Atlantic.

The Russian sub near Alaska appeared just days after the American fast attack sub­ma­rine USS Seawolf emerged from the Arctic off the coast of Tromso, Norway to take on new crew mem­bers. The boat is one of just three Seawolf-class fast attack sub­marines spe­cial­iz­ing in intel­li­gence col­lec­tion, and the Washington-based sub­ma­rine was likely oper­at­ing under the Arctic ice before stop­ping off the Norwegian coast.

Twice over the past year, the US Navy has pub­li­cized its nuclear sub­marines dock­ing in Norway, send­ing a clear signal to Russia about the American pres­ence in the region and pro­vid­ing a rare glimpse into the secre­tive world or under­sea deploy­ments. The new work will allow American and NATO sub­marines to pull into the port and replen­ish, allow­ing for longer deploy­ments to the crit­i­cal Arctic region.

The Navy’s increased focus on sub­ma­rine oper­a­tions is a key indi­ca­tor as to what the Pentagon is most con­cerned about in coming years the Russians and Chinese deploy new subs. “Anti-sub­ma­rine war­fare is a pri­ma­ry mis­sion for every­body in the United States Navy, regard­less of what you wear on your chest,” Lewis said.

The Navy’s Medium Unmanned Surface Vessel — still in devel­op­ment — is expect­ed to play a role in hunt­ing subs in the coming years as part of its intel col­lec­tion capa­bil­i­ty, pro­vid­ing a risk-free alter­na­tive to expen­sive, crewed ships or air­craft doing cir­cles in the ocean look­ing for small sub­marines in the vast expans­es of the ocean. 

A new report from the Hudson Institute points out that the cur­rent approach that uses slow-moving and easily track­able towed arrays “cannot scale to address more than a few adver­sary sub­marines at a time after they leave choke points and deploy into the open ocean,” but employ­ing MUSVs towing active and pas­sive arrays, net­worked with aerial drones, more sub­marines can be tracked simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. 

Adm. Lewis, with­out naming the MUSV specif­i­cal­ly, appeared to under­line that point. “The future of under­sea war­fare, as well as a lot of other war­fare, is in the com­bi­na­tion of unmanned and manned and the inte­gra­tion of those,” he said.

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