By Nader Elhefnawy
Reproduced with permission from the January 2004 issue of The Submarine Review, a quarterly publication of the Naval Submarine League, P.O. Box 1146, Annandale, VA, 22003.
With every major conflict fought in recent years, American forces have demonstrated new capabilities, and much of that has been related to the development of space power, particularly in areas like reconnaissance, navigation and communication. There is one realm, however, where these enhanced capabilities have comparatively little effect and that is beneath the sea.1 Submarines are broadly immune to space-based surveillance, at least in the absence of truly effective non-acoustic sensors. This gives them the potential to slip past aerospace surveillance in performing missions like attacking shipping with torpedoes, laying mines, gathering intelligence, launching cruise missiles and landing special forces teams.
In other words, they would afford a power which has lost aerospace and surface superiority to an opponent to continue fighting. However, it is conceivable that their stealth may allow them to play an even more active role in conflicts increasingly geared toward space activity in the future. The move generally is toward more versatile submarines, capable of carrying a broad assortment of payloads, and also toward their tighter integration with other fires in military operations.2 The conversion of four Trident missile submarines into platforms dedicated to launching cruise missiles and landing special forces teams is a major step in this direction. It is also possible that submarines could also play a more active role in space warfare than has generally been thought possible to date.
Exercising Space Control "Earthside"
Of course, space conflict remains highly hypothetical. Nonetheless, the American military is moving toward a doctrine of space control.3 In the event of a conflict with a high-tech opponent, shutting down their space launch capabilities may therefore be a primary task for U.S. military forces. While this conjures up images of killer satellites, in the shorter term space is principally significant as a conduit of information, making space forces a tool of "force enhancement" rather than "force application," as Barry Watts recently put it.4 Moreover, the reality is that while satellites may be built to function in space, they are built, launched from and controlled from Earth. This has led some observers to suggest that attacks on space systems may be a less efficient way of pursuing space control than targeting the information flows from the space systems to the air, sea and land units using them, perhaps through attacks on the "Earth-side" infrastructures facilitating those flows.
Accordingly the ability of submarines to deploy cruise missiles or special forces teams against land targets like ground stations would let them play a significant role in weakening an opponent's space capabilities. Particularly given the preference for coastal facilities for space launches, and the capability of submarines to approach a hostile coastline undetected and loiter there for long periods, they could also target space launch sites, destroying space vehicles (or for that matter, ballistic missiles) in boost-phase.
Submarines can also be discretely deployed to "space choke points," points which satellites being launched must pass over on the opposite side of the planet on the way to orbit. For instance, one writer has observed that a single naval vessel in the South Pacific could have shut down the Soviet space program in a conflict, provided it mounted the appropriate missiles. It has since been suggested that the idea's usefulness has declined with the growth of the commercial space industry and alternative types of floating or aerial launch platforms, widening the options of the countries using them. However, political and security concerns might narrow those options where the launch of explicitly military systems by a belligerent state in wartime is concerned, so that the idea can not totally be discounted.5
Submarines as Space Launch Platforms
Of course, one possible way of making a launch capability more survivable in the face of an increased threat from submarines or other systems may be to rely on relatively compact, mobile launchers, which can now include floating platforms such as the Sea Launch system. Such a system has obvious advantages. Seventy percent of the world's surface is water, greatly widening the range of possible launch points-and in the event of a conflict, the amount of territory that an opponent would have to cover, a key issue when such launches are threatened by hypersonic air-to-surface missiles. This also simplifies the problem of getting a satellite launcher into an equatorial position, since access to a suitable launch site on land is not required, something the Sea Launch system-a joint American-Ukrainian-Russian-Norwegian venture-is expressly designed to do.6 First demonstrating its system in 1999, the company has launched several satellites since October of that year.
Nevertheless, surface-going ships would be relatively easy for a sophisticated military to track, which would not be the case with submarines. Systems based on submarines can hide from aerospace power and enjoy lengthy loiter times even in hostile waters. They would also expose their location only at the moment that they go into action, making them highly suited to "shoot-and-scoot" tactics. Indeed, even that may cease to be necessary, given the prospects for systems like supercavitating ballistic missiles (or as the case may be, space rockets).7 While this idea may seem radical, in actuality submarines have been taken for granted in this role-as launchers of long-range ballistic missiles which are capable of putting a satellite in space. This potential became a reality when in 1998 the Technical University of Berlin successfully launched a satellite from a Russian Delta IV-class submarine, using a converted submarine-launched ballistic missile.
The question, of course, arises as to what use such capabilities might be put. The most obvious is the launch of anti-satellite weapons, and this possibility also has not entirely escaped notice, even if it has received relatively little discussion in recent years.8 In the 1970s and early 1980s, the Navy explored the use of a sub-launched Poseidon ballistic missile to put an anti-satellite missile into orbit.9 Nevertheless, such an approach poses some significant problems. A space launch from a submarine may be easily taken for a ballistic missile launch and the opening shot in a nuclear attack, so that such an approach carries with it some risk of escalating a conflict.
Additionally, while submarines have widely proliferated, the vast majority of these are small, conventionally-powered boats like the German Type 209 or the Russian Kilo suited principally to attack operations in coastal waters. Such submarines are poorly suited for space launch operations, in contrast with the nuclear-powered or ballistic missile submarines presently operated by only a handful of nations, namely the members of the United Nations Security Council. The list is not expected to get much longer in the near future, though India has announced interest in such systems. Admittedly, this leaves a few states with systems of this kind, and certainly more could acquire them if they proved sufficiently advantageous. Besides, the miniaturization of satellites and launch vehicles, and a willingness to deploy smaller loads of them, would let smaller subs perform this function; after all, not every ballistic missile submarine must be an Ohio or a Typhoon.
Submarines and Directed-Energy Weapons
Moreover, the capacity of submarines to attack space systems already in orbit is not limited to their space-launch capability. While missiles are the most obvious way submarines have of performing these missions, they could also be performed by a sub mounting a directed-energy weapon comparable to the Mid-Infra-Red Chemical Laser (MIRACL). Aside from the economy such systems may afford in destroying thin-skinned launch vehicles, the MIRACL possesses a demonstrated anti-satellite capability.
Laser weapons, certainly, are not without their problems. Smoke, bad weather, fog and dust can significantly reduce their range, which not only means that their effectiveness will frequently be reduced, but suggests some obvious countermeasures against laser weapons. It also means that submarines would have to be surfaced to get much use from their weapons, whereas they can fire their missiles while submerged. Nevertheless, such exposure would be much briefer than is the case for a surface ship, and work could be done to further reduce the comparatively small signature of a surfaced submarine.
The size and weight of today's directed-energy systems is also a problem, the MIRACL system weighing around two hundred tons. Reductions in the size of laser weapons, however, are widely anticipated, and there are presently plans to pack the MIRACL's power into something a tenth that size, a twenty-ton system that could be airlifted in two cargo containers inside of a C-130 transport. There is also a great deal of optimism about solid-state laser technology, who foresee it creating an effective battlefield laser small enough to mount on a fighter aircraft or even a jeep, and proponents of such systems are arguing that a revolution in this area is imminent.10 The move toward electric drive in naval vessels, including submarines, makes them well-suited to mounting solid-state lasers, which could derive their power from such a drive rather than cumbersome stocks of chemicals. A real breakthrough in this area would enable laser weapons to be built into smaller submarines, widening the number of potential users. Additionally, unlike the case with missile systems, gravity would not be a factor, so that the users of Earth-based laser systems need not worry about being on the "wrong end of the gravity well." On the contrary, Earth-based systems are more physically accessible to their users than their counterparts in space where supply, maintenance and communications are concerned, and their design less constrained by factors like size and weight, giving them a possible edge.11
Consequently, while it may be difficult to imagine any opponent the United States is likely to face turning its submarines into space launchers (save perhaps for a large peer competitor); it is much easier to picture a future adversary mounting a compact laser weapon, at least a couple of decades down the road. So armed, even a relatively small number of such submarines-a force potentially within the reach of a 2020s equivalent of a rogue state-could try and wreak havoc by fighting a submarine-based guerrilla war against American satellite networks.
Arguably, if equipped with the requisite missiles (and perhaps even more promising, directed-energy weapons), submarines can perform in the anti-space role. Aside from impacting how the United States or other nations may use their submarines in the future, this underscores a larger issue, namely the likelihood of low-cost counterspace approaches and systems, here exemplified in a sub outfitted for the anti-satellite mission.
Such a possibility raises two important points. First of all, traditional land, sea and air forces, including submarine forces, should not be neglected in the pursuit of space-based systems-or the capabilities of other states in these areas overlooked. Second, the United States, while likely to win any conceivable confrontation in space, is not invulnerable in this area. Critical military space systems may prove quite vulnerable down the road even to minor opponents, should armed satellites and attacks on space objects become a routine, accepted practice in warfare (to say nothing of the civil and commercial space systems of increasing import to the world economy). Consequently, the most effective way to use America's lead in space may be as part of a broader strategy to at least slow down this more fundamental kind of militarization. While a subtler tack than space control or space dominance, it may provide the greater level of security in the long run.
1 Nader Elhefnawy, "Submarines and Space Power," Submarine Review, October 2001, pp. 71-76.
2 Floyd D. Kennedy, Jr., "Transforming the Submarine Force: Integrating Undersea Platforms into the Global Joint Strike Force," Air and Space Power Journal 16.3, (Fall 2002).
3 Karl P. Mueller, "Totem and Taboo: Depolarizing the Space Weaponization Debate" (8 May 2002), pp. 15-16. Accessed at http://www.gwu.edu/~spi/spaceforum/TotemandTabooGWUpaperRevised.pdf. This article also appeared in Astropolitics, Spring 2003.
4 Barry Watts, The Military Use of Space: A Diagnostic Assessment (Washington D.C.: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2001).
5 Lieutenant Commander J. Todd Black, "Commercial Satellites: Future Threats or Allies?" Naval War College Review 52.4 (Fall 1999).
6 The Sea Launch company web site is accessible at http://www.sea-launch.com/.
7 Steven Ashley, "Warp Drive Underwater," Scientific American, April 2001.
8 More ambitiously, submarines may be used for "rapid space force reconstitution," replacing satellites destroyed in the course of fighting, deployed submarines perhaps carrying a cargo of spare satellites and the launch vehicles for them, though this would be a much longer-term concern.
9 Gary Federici, From the Sea to the Stars (June 1997). Accessed at http://www.history.navy.mil/books/space/index.htm. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency also developed a manned anti-satellite space cruiser, also to be launched by a Poseidon. For descriptions of this and other early ASAT concepts, see Norman Friedman, Seapower and Space (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000).
10 Ian Hoffman, "Warfare at the Speed of Light," Oakland Tribune, October 19, 2003. Accessed at http://www.oaklandtribune.com/Stories/0,1413,82~1865~1709759,00.html.
11 Nader Elhefnawy, "Four Myths About Space Power," Parameters 33.1 (Spring 2003), p. 126.