Submarine Roles And Missions Essay Research Paper

Submarine Roles And Missions Essay, Research Paper


The fundamental changes in the U.S. Submarine Force since the end of the Cold War involve major shifts in submarine warfighting concepts and doctrine, from the deterrence of global war to the support of U.S. national interests in regional crises and conflicts; from a primary Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) orientation against nuclear powered submarines to taking full advantage of the modern submarine’s multi-mission capabilities; from weapon loadouts of primarily MK 48 torpedoes to Tomahawk Land-Attack missiles or other weapons. This changing operational context has rippled through all elements of U.S. submarine operations, from peacetime presence to strategic deterrence.

The transitions in the submarine force follow directly from the transitions in the world order and the evolving nature of the U.S. Navy. The world order has shifted from a bi-polar superpower alignment to a multi-polar collection of interests. While the likelihood of global conflict is greatly reduced, there is an increasing chance of regional conflict. The composition and operational posture of the U.S. Navy reflects this, having changed from a blue water emphasis to a littoral emphasis. For the submarine force this has meant several changes in roles:

+ Prior to the end of the Cold War, Anti-Submarine Warfare was the major role for U.S. Attack Submarines. Now U.S. submarines are more multi-mission oriented.

+ Intelligence gathering has shifted from strategic to tactical reconnaissance.

+ The “Silent Service” is no longer completely silent, but exchanges information covertly with other U.S. forces.

The submarine force is learning how to synergistically interoperate with other Navy and Joint communities for mutual mission accomplishment. This includes “community alliances” such as:

+ Force Protection/Strike with Aircraft Carrier Battle Groups and Amphibious Ready Groups.

+ Special Warfare with Special Operating Forces (such as Navy SEALs)

+ Intelligence with the Surveillance community.

The primary roles and missions for the U.S. submarine force are:

+ Peacetime Engagement

+ Surveillance and Intelligence

+ Special Operations

+ Precision Strike

+ Battlegroup Operations

+ Sea Denial

+ Deterrence


Although the United States is at peace, there is always the potential of regional crises threatening to erupt into armed conflict. During the past half-century, the United States has become involved in similar regional conflicts and crises. Recently, the Navy has played major roles in the evacuation of Americans and other foreign nationals from the unrest in Liberia (Operation Sharp Edge), the liberation of Kuwait and the destruction of Iraq’s offensive capability (Operation Desert Storm), and the simultaneous rescue of Americans from revolution in Somalia (Operation Eastern Exit). In peacetime the deployment of submarines in forward areas can demonstrate U.S. interest in the region. Alternatively, submarines are valuable if the President decides that interest should not be visible until a specific time. The long endurance and high transit speeds of nuclear submarines make them particularly attractive for rapid deployments to forward areas in such circumstances. Once on station the attack submarine can be highly visible – in 1991 U.S. submarines conducted more than 200 port visits to 50 cities around the world – or invisible. This operational flexibility is combined with the versatile firepower of the modern attack submarine. Also, the same submarine can also be used to land small groups of special operations forces, or to conduct surveillance of an area, or carry out electronic surveillance to gain valuable intelligence. These submarines can also operate independently or in direct support of carrier battle groups, surface task forces, or with other submarines.

Return to roles and missions list.


For the past 45 years the attack submarine has been an invaluable platform for surveillance, intelligence, and warning. This capability comes from the submarine’s stealth characteristic… the ability to enter an area to watch, to listen, to collect information without being seen. While satellites and aircraft are used to garner various types of information, their operations are inhibited by weather, cloud cover, and the locations of collection targets. In some situations it is difficult to keep a satellite or aircraft in a position to conduct sustained surveillance of a specific area. And, of course, satellites and aircraft are severely limited in their ability to observe or detect underwater activity. Submarines have been employed in various forms of surveillance and intelligence collection throughout the Cold War. Continuing regional crises and conflicts will require such operations in support of U.S. and allied interests. In the future, submarines may also use Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV) or drones to collect intelligence or conduct sustained surveillance of critical regions of the world. These vehicles will be sent out from a submarine to carry sensors into areas where it may not be safe or prudent for the submarine to venture. After fulfilling its mission, the AUV could return to the launching submarine, or transmit the data underwater or to a satellite. Information is vital to American political and military leaders if they are to make proper judgements, decisions, and plans. As Winston Churchill wrote: “The great thing is to get the true picture, whatever it is”: Submarines are important in the array of methods by which the true picture can be obtained.

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Submarines have long been used for special operations – carrying commandos, reconnaissance teams, and agents on high-risk missions. Most special operations by U.S. submarines are carried out by SEALs, the Sea-Air-Land teams trained for missions behind enemy lines. These special forces can be inserted by fixed-wing aircraft, helicopter, parachute, or surface craft, but in most scenarios only submarines guarantee covert delivery. Once in the objective area, SEALs can carry out combat search-and-rescue operations, reconnaissance, sabotage, diversionary attacks, monitoring of enemy movements or communications, and a host of other clandestine and often high-risk missions. Nuclear-powered submarines are especially well-suited for this role because of their high speed, endurance and stealth. U.S. nuclear powered submarines have repeatedly demonstrated the ability to carry out special operations involving many swimmers. During exercises, which include Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps special operations personnel as well as SEALs, submarines recover personnel who parachute from fixed-wing aircraft and rappel down from helicopters into the sea, take them aboard, and subsequently launch them on missions. These Special Warfare Team Missions include:

+ Combat Swimmer Attacks

+ Reconnaissance and Surveillance

+ Infiltration/Exfiltration Across the Beach

+ Beach Feasibility Studies, Hydrographic Survey, and Surf Observation Teams in support of amphibious landing operations.

Any U.S. submarine can be employed to carry SEALs, however, the Navy has several submarines that have been specially modified to carry swimmers and their equipment more effectively, including the installation of chambers called Dry Deck Shelters (DDSs) to house Swimmer Delivery Vehicles (SDVs). These submarines retain their full suite of weapons and sensors for operations as attack submarines. But they have special fittings, modifications to their air systems and other features to enable them to carry Dry Deck Shelters. The DDS can be used to transport and launch an SDV or to “lock out” combat swimmers. A DDS can be installed in about 12 hours and is air-transportable, further increasing special operations flexibility. Several units of the STURGEON (SSN 637) class can carry one chamber each, while two former ballistic missile submarines can accommodate two shelters each. The DDS, fitted aft of the submarine’s sail structure, is connected to the submarine’s after hatch to permit free passage between the submarine and the DDS while the submarine is underwater and approaching the objective area. Then, with the submarine still submerged, the SEALs can exit the DDS and ascend to the surface, bringing with them equipment and rubber rafts, or they can mount an SDV and travel underwater several miles to their objective area. The number of SEALs carried in a submarine for a special operation varies with the mission, duration, target and other factors. One or more SEAL platoons of two officers and 14 enlisted men are normally embarked, plus additional SEALs to help with mission planning in the submarine and to handle equipment. Former SSBNs employed to operate with SEALs have special berthing spaces for about 50 SEALs.

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U.S. attack submarines carry Tomahawk Land-Attack Missiles (TLAM), which provide the capability for long-range, precision strike with conventional warheads against shore targets. This combination of stealthy attack submarine and precise, long-range cruise missile has many advantages for national decision makers:

+ Clandestine, non-provocative presence

+ Air superiority is not required

+ Timely flexibility

+ No chance of lost aircraft or airmen

First used in combat in the 1991 Gulf War, the TLAM has proven to be a highly effective weapon. The official Department of Defense report “Conduct of the Persian Gulf War” (1992) states: “The observed accuracy of TLAM, for which unambiguous target imagery is available, met or exceeded the accuracy mission planners predicted.” When the war began on the night of 16 January 1991, the opening shots were Tomahawk cruise missiles lunched from U.S. Navy surface ships in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. The missiles arrived over the heavily defended Iraqi capital of Baghdad at about the same time as U.S. Air Force F-117 “Stealth” attack planes carrying guided bombs. During the six week air war, F-117 attack planes were the only strike aircraft to operate over Baghdad at night, and TLAMs were the only U.S. weapons to strike the city in day-light during the entire campaign. Conventional aircraft were not used in strikes against Baghdad and certain other Iraqi targets because of the heavy anti-aircraft defenses. U.S. Navy surface ships and submarines fired 288 land-attack variants of the Tomahawk during the Gulf War. Battleships, cruisers, and destroyers launched 276 of the missiles and 12 were launched from submarines – the USS LOUISVILLE (SSN 724), operating in the Red Sea launched eight missiles and the USS PITTSBURGH (SSN 720), operating in the eastern Mediterranean, launched four missiles. These launches demonstrated the ability of the submarine to operate as part of an integrated strike force, with targets and related strike data being communicated to them at sea. In future military operations submarines will not replace traditional carrier attack aircraft. Rather, submarine and surface ship-launched TLAM strikes will be the vanguard of such attacks, destroying early-warning, air-defense, and communications facilities to reduce the threats against manned aircraft. Submarines in particular can reach attack positions without alerting or provoking the intended adversary.


Attack submarines are fully integrated into Navy battle group operations. Typically, 2 attack submarines are assigned to each battle group. These submarines particpate with the battle group in all pre-deployment operational training and exercises. While operating with the battle group, tactical control or command of the submarines is routinely shifted to amphibious group commanders, battle group commanders, destroyer squadron commanders, or even NATO commanders. Likewise, tactical control of NATO submarines is routinely shifted to U.S. commanders.


Stopping enemy surface ships and submarines from using the seas is an important mission for submarines. Attack submarines can perform sea denial missions in a variety of scenarios, from general war against a major maritime power, to blockages of enemy ports. Attacks against enemy surface ships or submarines can be part of a war of attrition, where the object is to destroy as much of the opposing naval fleet or merchant shipping as possible, or such attacks can be directed against specific targets. An example of the attrition campaign was the U.S. submarine operations against the Imperial Japanese merchant marine in World War II, with U.S. undersea craft sinking more than half of Japan’s merchant vessels, as well as a large number of warships. During the Falklands War in 1982, the sinking of the Argentine cruiser GENERAL BELGRANO by the British nuclear-powered submarine CONQUEROR caused the remainder of the Argentine surface fleet, including its aircraft carrier, to return to port. There were no further sorties by Argentine surface warships during the conflict because of the demonstrated threat from British nuclear-powered submarines. The principal U.S. submarine weapon for attacking enemy surface ships or submarines is the MK 48 torpedo , with the improved ADCAP (Advanced Capability) variant now entering service. This is a heavy-weight torpedo, with a long range and a large warhead. Advanced guidance allows it to be used against both surface ships and submarines, with the ability to engage high-speed, maneuvering targets. Attack submarines also carry anti-ship missiles that can engage enemy surface ships at ranges beyond those of torpedoes. The Tomahawk Anti-Ship Missile (TASM), has a range of more than 250 nautical miles and is launched while the submarine is completely submerged. After launch, the missile travels to the surface where the jet engine starts and the missile streaks toward its target. Once launched, the missile has autonomous guidance, making it a “fire and forget” weapon. The Tomahawk can be carried in place of torpedoes and can be launched from torpedo tubes. Half of the submarines in the LOS ANGELES (SSN 688) class are also fitted with 12 vertical tubes that can launch TLAMs and TASMs. Submarines also carry mines to deny sea areas to enemy surface ships or submarines. Two types of mines are used by submarines, the enCAPsulated TORpedo (CAPTOR) and the Submarine-Launched Mobile Mine (SLMM). The CAPTOR can be used against submarines in deep water, while the SLMM is a torpedo-like weapon that, after being launched by the submarine, can travel several miles to a specific point, where it sinks to the sea floor and activates its mine sensors. It is particularly useful for blockading a harbor or a narrow sea passage.


Just prior to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991, the U.S. Navy’s 34 ballistic missile submarines carried some 45% of the almost 12,000 nuclear warheads in the nation’s strategic offensive forces. The other components of the U.S. Triad of strategic forces, the land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and land-based bombers, carried some 20% and 35% of the warheads, respectively. The significance of the Navy’s SSBN force was cited by General Colin Powell, U.S. Army, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a ceremony in April 1992 marking the completion of the 3,000th deterrent patrol. General Powell told the submariners: “But no one – no one – has done more to prevent conflict, no one has made a greater sacrifice for the cause of Peace, than you. America’s proud missile submarine family. You stand tall among all our heroes of the Cold War.” Strategic deterrence remains a fundamental element of U.S. defense strategy, just as conventional deterrence has become increasingly important since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Nuclear-powered submarines will be the principal component of the future U.S. strategic posture. Land-based bombers and intercontinental missiles are being reduced; the SSBN force will be the only Triad element still deploying missiles armed with Multiple Independently Targeted Reentry vehicles (MIRVs). The future submarine component of the Triad will consist of 18 modern OHIO (SSBN 726) class SSBNs, each capable of carrying 24 long-range TRIDENT missiles with up to eight warheads per missile. A review of SSBN warheads is being made by the United States as part of the reduction of strategic weapons directed by the President. Still, the submarine force will provide the overwhelming majority of U.S. strategic weapons – the burden of future strategic nuclear deterrence will be squarely on the submarine force.


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