The Hollywood blockbuster “Top Gun” starring Tom Cruise was a potent recruiting advertisement for aviators. One of its most memorable scenes was of a chorus of pilots at the bar of an Officer’s Club singing “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling” to a bemused Kelly McGillis. Back during the Vietnam War, the U.S. Navy activated a training school, the Fighter Weapons School, to regain the lost art of air-to-air combat and to ensure that its pilots remained among the elites of their profession. In the movie, the cocky egos of the student pilots stand out as they prepare for war in a demanding training program that honed their combat skills in a competitive setting. Known more commonly as the “Top Gun” course, it is considered a singular success in upping the performance of naval aviation. It is time to extend that “loving feeling” to submarine warfare — including, and perhaps especially, to the submarine forces of U.S. allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region.
Why Undersea Warfare
To succeed in the Pacific, the United States should expand on the initial move and establish a maritime center of excellence for undersea warfare where U.S. submariners can train in advanced undersea tactics alongside submariners from allies and partners. Submarine warfare is an area of naval competition where the United States presently holds an edge and where it should devote considerable effort to retain its comparative advantage. It is also an area that is capital intensive and where quality professional education and training can pay off.
This point is made by Bruce Jones from the Brookings Institution in his book To Rule the Waves. There he says, “America’s enduring advantage in undersea warfare will become increasingly important in the regional balance of power.” That enduring advantage, however, is perilous without sustained development and operating funding. Washington think tanks have stressed the special challenges posed by Russian submarine competition in Northern Europe but the United States and its allies should now also consider China’s undersea programs. Since the centenary military parade in 2019, U.S. naval analysts have noted the People Liberation Army’s increased capacity for undersea situational awareness and its interest in challenging the dominance of U.S. submarines.
China has now gained a quantitative advantage. As of May 2018, the U.S. Navy consisted of 283 battle-force ships, including 211 surface ships, and 56 attack submarines. Roughly 26 to 30 of these submarines will be allocated to the Indo-Pacific region. As of 2018, the People’s Liberation Army Navy already deployed 66 submarines, albeit of lesser capability. According to a Naval War College estimate, by 2030 China’s naval battle force will consist of roughly 550 ships, including 450 surface ships and as many as 99 submarines.
Back in 2015, a RAND Corporation study suggested that the effectiveness of the Chinese navy’s submarine fleet has risen by “roughly an order of magnitude” since 1996. Undoubtedly, Chinese admirals continue to improve the fleet’s relative capabilities. As noted by the Pentagon’s 2020 China Military Power Report, China will likely build the Type 093B guided-missile nuclear attack submarine in the middle of this decade. This Shang-class sub will measurably improve China’s capability for anti-surface warfare. Chinese submarines may be quieter than the past and could present a credible threat to U.S. and ally ships in a conflict over Taiwan or the South China Sea. The People’s Liberation Army Navy is also improving its anti-submarine warfare skills, but China still lacks comprehensive anti-submarine warfare capability.
As noted by Rep. Elaine Luria in her War on the Rocks contribution, the U.S. Navy needs to be able to impose costs by targeting critical infrastructure and closing maritime chokepoints to strangle the Chinese economy. The problem is exacerbated by an underfunded U.S. Navy ship construction budget, which in Fiscal Year 2022 funds just four warships (including two submarines) and four support ships. This falls short of the robust submarine force defined by defense analysts offering alternative fleet designs for the U.S. Navy. Naval analyst Bryan Clark argues persuasively that the U.S. Navy needs at least 60 attack boats, plus 40 more unmanned undersea systems in its fleet design. However, it is unlikely to be able to afford them. Hence, increasing the size and professionalism of the evolving coalition for a free and open Indo-Pacific region is also needed.
At present, the Indian Navy has 17 submarines, but a block of them are past their 25-year service life. When those are retired, a fleet of just 12 submarines will be operational to protect India’s coasts and interests. Japan has now launched its second Taigei-class submarine, a diesel-electric boat, which will complete the planned expansion of the country’s submarine fleet to 22 boats when it enters service. When teamed with Australia’s small force of six Collins-class boats and the U.S. Pacific Fleet, the total submarine force of Quad (the United States, Japan, Australia, and India) and AUKUS partners (the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia) should be able to contribute towards balancing against China’s expanding fleet.
This is the background to the recent trilateral defense pact, referred to as AUKUS, which will provide the nuclear technology and wherewithal for Canberra to field nuclear-powered submarines.
The AUKUS pact should not have been a surprise, as it was consistent with published strategic objectives from Washington. The 2018 National Defense Strategy stressed the importance of strengthening the U.S. alliance system and gaining greater collaboration and interoperability. The new AUKUS partnership reflects that strategic effort and could be expanded to include more regional allies and partners. Moreover, the new pact operationalizes a key imperative of the U.S. tri-service maritime strategy, to “expand collaboration and interoperability with allies and partners, and reinforce favorable balances of maritime power.” It is anticipated that this initiative would satisfy U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s call for greater interoperability and building partner capacity.
Completely overlooked in this discussion is the value added provided by the United Kingdom’s role. The United Kingdom is now putting more than words behind its global ambitions and underwriting its “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific. As expressed in its 2021 defense command paper, the United Kingdom aims to achieve “a more proactive, persistent presence” in the region. So in addition to the initial deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth, London intends to deploy offshore patrol vessels to the region starting this year and a Littoral Response Group hopefully in 2023. “Global Britain” is more than a slogan at this point and the new pact underscores this.
As Ashley Townsend has noted, the initiative is also consistent with Australia’s 2020 defense strategy. Canberra’s 2020 Defense Strategic Update concluded that Australia needed to “take greater responsibility for [its] own security” by growing a “self-reliant ability to deliver deterrence effects” and “enhance the lethality of the ADF [Australian Defence Force] for … high-intensity operations” to position it to “support the United States and other partners” if deterrence fails. Former Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull is undoubtedly right that “trust is at the heart of Australia’s influence,” but trust is not at the center of its capacity to deter aggression against a large-scale adversary. Credible combat power is.
Yet the deal to develop and operate nuclear submarines poses challenges for Australia. The conventionally powered boats that France was building would have been built and delivered well ahead of the likely delivery of nuclear submarines, as Turnbull noted. In the near term, they would have been manned, deployed, and more easily maintained. Operationally, they would excel in quiet operations in shallow waters, ideal for defensive operations in Australia’s near abroad. Strategically, however, they would give little cause for pause against aggressors in the Indo-Pacific. The sophistication, endurance, and range of submarines produced in the AUKUS deal are another matter entirely, signaling a serious shift in thinking about the naval balance of power. Naval analyst Sidarth Kaushal from the Royal United Services Institute appropriately notes that Australian attack boats would be ideal for interdicting maritime choke points and menacing high-value surface targets from outside the first island chain.
Thus, Australia’s decision to go big and long appears to be a smart military move with some serious geostrategic advantages. The merits of the deal are strategic and long-range for all participants. But it is not enough to buy technology. It has to be harnessed to a strategy and be operationalized with qualified crews and daring leaders who have mastered their profession.
“Top Tubes” Program
That is where the Top Tubes program fits — though it has a unique program design dissimilar to the Top Gun program — most particularly because it would focus heavily on training allies and partners rather than just developing U.S. capabilities. It should include schools and a state-of-the-art combat simulation system to drill and devise new tactics and operating procedures. It would also have an instrumented undersea training area to facilitate learning from training and exercises. This complex could be like the air and ground maneuver spaces at the U.S. Army’s National Training Center or Top Gun at the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center at Naval Air Station, Fallon. The two-week unit rotations at the National Training Center is too short a period to provide rigorous training and meaningful assessment. To optimize the value of this program, which is not going to be cheap, a modular program design of at least four weeks is probably needed. The modules could include classroom and simulation time, as well as blocks for offensive and defensive tactics with the adversary force or simulated aggressor boats. The center would tailor the program content depending upon the needs of the attending country. Courses for operating with and against unmanned undersea vehicles could also be additive modules. The center of excellence could also be a site for the collaborative development of and training for autonomous systems capabilities for undersea warfare, as suggested by Bryan Clark at the Hudson Institute. The principal goal of the center would be to strengthen the capabilities and interoperability of the regional navies in one of the toughest and most complex competitions at sea.
Potential participants in this program could include India, Japan, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Certainly, as a critical but overlooked Indo-Pacific power, France would be invited. Other regional navies could also be invited, including Singapore, Taiwan, or Malaysia. Consideration could be given to inviting Vietnam to send students, or even contract with the Vietnamese navy to provide the opposition force with their Russian-built Kilo-class attack boats. An alternative option might include buying boats from the French to both serve as a dedicated adversary force and assuage Paris’ regional and industrial base concerns.
Ideally, the program could be situated in the region, and the Philippines might be a central location for basing, training facilities, maintenance, and support. The likelihood of the Duterte government being amenable to this initiative is low. However, the president’s influence may be waning at the end of the single six-year term allowed by the Philippine constitution and Duterte recently announced his retirement. But if not feasible there, perhaps Perth could be an alternative site.
One potential hurdle to the full exploitation of this initiative is the security/classification challenges that shroud undersea warfare. The submarine force is not called the “silent service” solely for its quiet domain. Some potential participants may not have had access to the U.S. Navy’s most technological systems. However, most of the proposed participants are capable of being granted access and the major players are now sharing closely guarded nuclear technology. A two-tier program may be needed for security purposes, however, it is anticipated that the doctrine, tactics, techniques, and procedures taught in this program could be collaboratively shared with allies and partners. This may pose some risk, but the operational risk is greater for an outnumbered U.S. submarine force that has not appreciably shared its best practices, gained substantial interoperability with combat partners, or benefited from the creative contributions of other regional undersea powers.
The maritime “Mavericks” of the 21st century will need to up their game if they want to both stay ahead and send a strategic signal to China. An Indo-Pacific Center of Excellence for Undersea Warfare would make a smart investment towards those two goals and could be created in the short term. NATO has a number of centers of excellence to assist in doctrine development, identify lessons learned, test concepts and conduct experiments, and improve interoperability and capabilities. This could be a model for the Indo-Pacific regional community as well. This program would extend the extant professionalism and competitive edge of the U.S. Navy to a wider array of partners in the Pacific. Instead of the Maverick’s “need for speed,” the need for silent stealth awaits.
Frank Hoffman is a contributing editor at War on the Rocks and works at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University. This article reflects his own views and not necessarily those of the U.S. government or Defense Department.