With the end of the Soviet Union, it looked like there was no longer a significant threat from submarines. The Coast Guard, whose ASW assets were already largely obsolete, took the opportunity to simplify its training and maintenance requirements by eliminating what remained of the Coast Guard’s ASW capability. It made sense at the time, but times have changed.
The Emerging Threat
For the first time, with narcotics traffickers starting to use true submarines, it looks like an ASW capability is essential to do a peacetime mission. (The primary surface ship ASW sensor, the towed array, can also help us find semi-submersibles and possibly other targets as well.)
In addition, the threat of military submarines has reemerged. There are still relatively few nuclear submarines in the hands of possible adversaries (other than possibly Russia) but their numbers are growing, and new air independent submarine technologies are making diesel electric submarines deadlier then ever.
Why the Navy will need Help
The Navy’s ASW forces, which were also scaled back after the collapse of the Soviet Union, while high quality, have been drastically reduced in numbers. The number of Maritime Patrol Aircraft, Attack Submarines and ASW surface ships is now only about half what they were in 1991. Soon the last of the once numerous frigates, that were the Navy’s ASW specialists will be decommissioned. The only remaining ASW surface ships will be cruisers, destroyers, and those Littoral Combat Ships equipped with ASW modules.
By 2020 the Navy expects there will be about 99 Cruisers and Destroyers. Currently there are 82. These are multipurpose ships, optimized for Anti-Air Warfare along with the relatively recent addition of Ballistic Missile Defense. They have high quality ASW systems, but they also have notable omissions. The 28 Arleigh Burke Class Flight I and II destroyers (DDG 51-78) have no helicopter hangers, and the Flight IIA Destroyers (currently about 32 ships, at least 37 by 2020, DDG-79-115) have no towed array.
The LCSs may or may not be equipped for ASW. 55 are planned, but they also do mine countermeasures and anti-surface warfare. Only 16 ASW modules are planned. With a maximum of approximately 115 ASW ships, probably less than 60 each in the Atlantic and Pacific, some in maintenance status and many committed to non-ASW missions, the Navy will not have enough ships to protect all the possible targets. The Navy’s preference is to forward deploy, so if any submarines make it to the US coast, their opposition could be minimal. To assume that no hostile submarines will make it into the waters off the US would be the ultimate in arrogance, considering in 1942, both the Germans and the Japanese managed to get submarines as small as 740 tons off our coasts.
A lot has changed but ASW is still a numbers game. As a point of reference, at the end of June 1943, when the U-boat had finally been defeated and the Battle of the Atlantic won, but not yet over, the US Navy and Coast Guard had 1281 vessels of all sizes used in anti-submarine warfare and escort duty world wide. (The British Commonwealth and the European Governments in exile, probably had even larger numbers, so close to 3,000 vessels.)
What the Coast Guard Can Do
This will require some coordination with the Navy, but at relatively little cost, the Coast Guard can insure the design of the Offshore Patrol Cutter incorporates an ASW capability. I would think this would include the same multi-mode towed array that is being used on the LCS and facilities (including magazines and storage space) to support the MH-60R. We can look at modifying the NSCs but back fitting is likely to more complex.
Ultimately the Navy plans to establish 20 MH-60R squadrons, and purchase 300 aircraft, so there should be enough to equip the OPCs in addition to all the Navy ships.
It appears the LCS will use the towed array as a component of its replaceable ASW module, rather than have it permanently installed. The Coast Guard could follow their example, but it would be better if the array were permanently installed. Not only will it be useful against drug smuggling submarines and semi-submersibles, it has the potential to provide beyond radar range detection against all sorts of surface targets including go-fast boats. It might even help us distinguish between fishing vessels doing bottom trawls instead of mid-water trawls long before boarding.
Why Would We Want to Do It?
First, it’s the right thing to do. We don’t build ships for the purpose of fighting wars, but if we are building ships with the potential of being useful warships, that the nation needs, by making additions at small marginal cost, it would be negligent not to make those additions. (Conversely, if the Nation needs to build warships (with appropriate characteristics) for wartime, but the Navy doesn’t really need them in peacetime, why shouldn’t the Coast Guard use them.)
Making a good ASW ship also makes it a good cutter and helps to justify desirable characteristics. Being able to escort 20 knot amphibs, fleet train, and merchant ships with a speed margin to move around them requires the 25 knots we think is needed for our Coast Guard Missions. The ability to support Navy MH-60R helicopters means the ship will have good aviation support facilities for our own MH-60s in addition to MH-65s. The size ship required to support a towed array and ASW helicopter tends to be large enough to have the seakeeping ability we think is necessary. The quietness that is desirable for ASW ships is also one of the “green” technologies and concepts already identified as an OPC objective.
Why Prepare for War?
However unlikely a major war may seem now, the country devotes a lot of assets to its military services. Much of it, like F-22s, Ballistic Missiles, Aegis missile systems, Submarines, and Nuclear Weapons, reflect a fear of a major conflict against an adversary of comparable power. We can think of this as creating a credible deterrent. Creating a credible deterrent means having no obvious vulnerabilities. Right now our ASW capability is an obvious vulnerability.
Giving 25 Coast Guard ships an ASW capability is far cheaper than providing 25 Coast Guard ships and 25 ASW ships to the Navy. We spend a tremendous amount of money preparing for war, but wouldn’t it be better if some of fruit of that spending was also being routinely used for peacetime purposes.