14 Nov 06

The Navy now confirms that the Chinese sub was sighted near Kitty Hawk battle group on 26 October. And Bill Gertz is reporting that the Song-class submarine was not detected by U.S. ASW defenses. I’m guessing that the group’s ASW director will be fired–if he hasn’t been sacked already, along with the skipper of the U.S. attack sub that was operating with the carrier. It’s the job of those individuals to keep enemy subs away from the carrier. Allowing a Chinese sub to close within five miles of a carrier–undetected–is simply unacceptable.

However, there are a couple of “back stories” that shed additional light on the sub incident. With the collapse of the old Soviet Navy in the early 1990s, the USN began to de-emphasize its ASW capabilities, figuring that the preeminent submarine threat had essentially evaporated, and it would take years–perhaps decades–for a similar challenge to emerge.

Analyst Richard Fisher noted the impact of that logic in a January 2005 assessment published by the International Assessment and Strategy Center:

Over the last decade the U.S. had decided to mothball its Spruance class destroyers, perhaps one of the best ASW ships ever built. The Navy also ended the ASW mission of the S-3 Viking in 1998 and will not even replace this platform when it is withdrawn from service in about two years. Perhaps more alarming are budget driven pressures to reduce the overall numbers of the U.S. SSN fleet. The U.S. Navy now has 55 attack submarines, but in mid-2004 the Navy considered reducing this to 37 in part to help pay for new Virginia-class SSNs”

Land-based ASW platforms experienced a similar decline, with the retirement of more than 50 P-3 Orion aircraft since 2003. The commander of the Navy’s Patrol and Reconnaissance Group, Rear Admiral Michael Holmes, outlined some of the difficulties facing the P-3 community in a 2005 interview with journalist G.H. Spaulding, published in Seapower magazine.

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When I came into this job in September 2003, there were 227 P-3Cs in the Navy inventory. Lockheed Martin conducted a service-life assessment program on a P-3, and we looked at the results. Within a year we had retired 50 P-3s. Out of the remainder, we’ve had to put those through structural modifications. Counting the airplanes going through those modifications and the ones in phased depot maintenance, we’ve got about 46 percent of our inventory in some kind of deep maintenance. Consequently, there are not a lot of airplanes left on the ramp for the nine squadrons at home [plus the fleet readiness squadron and six reserve squadrons] to train with. It’s common for a squadron coming off deployment to have only two airplanes to train with. So we’ve pooled our assets at each wing, including reserve assets. We had to, in order to meet the forward-deployment requirements. We have a lot of money invested in [structural modification programs], including omnibus contracts that combine all of the required structural work and new systems installations so that an airplane comes in only once and gets back to the fleet as soon as possible. I’m hoping that a year from now a squadron at home will have five airplanes on the ramp.

As we’ve noted before, force structure decisions have consequences far beyond the short-term budget cycle. To contend with an emerging PRC sub threat, the Navy must grapple with choices made in the late 1990s, in the name of saving money and protecting future programs. A few more destroyers, P-3s and ASW-capable S-3s might have come in handy last month, when that Song-class sub was tailing the Kitty Hawk near Okinawa.


For more than 50 years, U.S. naval power projection strategy has centered around aircraft carrier battle groups. If you want to send a signal to a potential foes, nothing sends that message quite as clearly–or effectively–as an aircraft carrier, with as many as 90 combat aircraft clustered on its decks or buzzing overhead, and a small armada of escort vessels.

Obviously, protecting a carrier is a paramount task for the U.S. Navy. That’s why its a matter of concern when an adversary manages to penetrate the protective bubble around one of our carriers, and it apparently happened twice in recent days. Over the weekend, Iran’s Arabic language TV station aired footage of a U.S. aircraft carrier that was reportedly operating in the Persian Gulf. Tehran claimed that the video was taken by an Iranian surveillance drone, flying undetected over the carrier.

And, this morning, Bill Gertz of the Washington Times reported that a Chinese diesel-powered attack sub successfully shadowed the Kitty Hawk carrier battle group last month, as it operated in the waters off Okinawa. Defense officials told Gertz that the Song-class sub eventually surfaced within 5 miles of the Kitty Hawk, more than close enough to launch torpedoes or anti-ship missiles against the carrier. The incident was revealed as the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Gary Roughead, began an official visit to China, creating a potentially embarrassing situation for him and the U.S. Navy.

But are these incidents as potentially damaging–or dangerous–as media reports would suggest? The answer to that question depends on what actually transpired during these events, and whether the Iranian drone or the Chinese sub were actually undetected. In the case of the Iranian UAV, I rather doubt that its flight was a surprise. While drones are difficult to detect visually (or with radar), they can be tracked via other means, including electronic intelligence (ELINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT). By tracking various activity associated with UAV operations, Navy spooks probably had some idea of what was going on, and that information was relayed to both the battle ground commander and the skippers of the carrier and its escort vessels, giving them the information needed to adjust readiness levels within the battle group.

Iran may claim some sort of “propaganda coup” with its carrier video–assuming it’s actually legit. There has been considerable discussion in the blogosphere about the authenticity of the footage; some have suggested the modest wake evident in the video is not consistent with a Nimitz-class carrier steaming through the Persian Gulf. However, I don’t know enough about wake patterns to provide an accurate assessment.

Propaganda claims aside, more experienced hands within Tehran’s Navy understand that if the drone was detected, the battle group had more than enough resources to knock it from the sky, and neutralize its associated command-and-control and reconnaissance assets. In fact, with the recent upswing of UAV activity among Iran’s armed forces, the seemingly “neutral” U.S. response may have been something of a ruse, giving our collectors a chance to gather more information on how Tehran uses its drones in maritime operations, and further refine our own anti-UAV tactics.

The “shadowing” of the Kitty Hawk battle group is a bit more troubling. Naval analysts note that Chinese subs have traditionally operated in coastal waters; the presence of the Song near Okinawa suggests that the PRC is expanding its patrol area for attack subs–an expected development as their Navy transitions from a brown-water to a blue-water force. Operating at greater distances from the Chinese coast would allow PRC subs to challenge allied SLOCs, target WestPac and mid-Pacific bases with cruise missiles, and of course, engage our carrier groups before their aircraft can target the PRC mainland.

A growing Chinese sub threat would also complicate the potential defense of Taiwan; PRC military plans have long called for sustained missile strikes and isolation of the island, as a prelude to an invasion. The menace from PRC subs would make it more difficult for ships carrying reinforcements and heavy equipment to reach the island, and (possibly) force our carriers to operate farther from Taiwan, reducing the number of combat sorties they could generate.

Of course, U.S. carrier battle groups have an impressive anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability, including surface ships, patrol aircraft (both carrier and land-based), helicopters, and in most cases, at least one Los Angeles-class attack sub that is assigned to the group. If the Song managed to slip through that cordon, undetected (as Bill Gertz implies), it was a serious failure, and I would expect heads to roll, beginning with the officer in charge of ASW defenses for the battle group, and possibly, the commander of U.S. attack sub operating with the Kitty Hawk. I’ve emphasized the word “if” because adversary subs have been known to surface after being harassed by ASW assets. However, the Navy has refused official comment on the matter, so (at this point) we can only assume that Gertz is correct, and the appearance of the Song was indeed a surprise for the U.S. battle group.

The incident also underscores the difficulty in detecting and tracking modern diesel subs. Selected units within the Song-class are said to be as quiet as U.S. Los Angeles attack boats, and some of the Chinese subs may have been fitted with an advanced propulsion system and improved coatings that further reduce acoustic signatures. But overall, the Song-class has been a mixed bag for the PRC Navy; early models were described as too noisy, and there were problems with integration of Russia, Chinese, French and German technology into the design. At one point, there was speculation that the Song-class might be phased out, in favor of the purchase of Russian Kilo-class subs. However, production of the Song boats has actually increased in recent years, suggesting that problems with the design may have been resolved.

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