The Submarine Force:
A Century of Excellence, 
and the Challenge of the Future

by RADM Malcolm Fages, USN

The Centennial year of the Submarine Force is not only a time to celebrate the momentous achievements of our first century, but also to reflect on what the future holds for our community. It is amazing to consider that over its 100 years, the American submarine has evolved from an experimental pipe dream, dismissed by critics of the day, into the capital ships of our great navy. Today, the submarine enjoys a pride of place that even its most ardent early boosters could not have foreseen. Building on the momentum of our current investments, we will improve that capability in the 21st century. But in my view, our accomplishments cannot blind us to change. We must not allow the justifiable pride in those accomplishments to unintentionally snuff out the flame of innovation that has been the foundation of the Submarine Force's remarkable record. 

In its infancy, the submarine was envisioned as a means to deliver torpedo payloads from within the denied area defined by the range of a battleship's guns. Because the array of our capabilities today is a good deal broader than that, I want to discuss the importance of innovation in maintaining the relevance of the Submarine Force in the 21st century. That relevance is a function of three factors: Combat Power, Access, and Knowledge Superiority. Combat power emphasizes payload, but even with superior payload capabilities, employing submarines for maximum benefit is critically dependent on access and knowledge superiority. Without the ability to get within range of the target - achieving access - combat power is valueless. And without knowledge superiority, combat power cannot be applied in a timely and coherent fashion for maximum effect. 

Much as the earliest submarines proved remarkably capable against that era's "area denial" threat, our submarines' ability to operate in denied areas within the littoral battlespace will give unprecedented value-added in the years to come. Simply said, "access matters," and in addressing our vision, I'll emphasize that factor, along with programs in several other areas to demonstrate how we are matching programmatic investments to our goals.

Innovation in Business and Warfare 

To motivate the discussion on innovation, however, I want to share some ideas I've come across in two recent books: George and Meredith Friedman's The Future of War and The Innovator's Dilemma, by Clayton Christensen, a professor at the Harvard Business School. Both merit our attention. Their implications for the Submarine Force, in its second century of service, are very instructive. Distilled to its essence, the argument in The Future of War is that all weapon systems have a life cycle. In the earliest phase of life, each weapon system offers almost pure offensive capability. Over time, however, as countermeasures to the weapon develop, more and more resources must be dedicated to protecting and supporting the weapon itself. Eventually, the system reaches what the Friedmans call "senility," the point where costs become so prohibitively high that the development of complementary warfighting capabilities are inhibited, and those increased costs do not provide a commensurate increase in offensive capability. The battleship is one example cited in The Future of War. When it first appeared, it provided pure offensive firepower in a mobile platform. As counters developed to the battleship's capability over time from land, sea, and sky, the ships became more heavily protected, both through heavier plating and with the addition of weapons or systems that were designed to detect or destroy threats. The logical end of this trail is at the point of senility, where the battleship became so encumbered in self-protection that is provided a substantially diminished offensive capability relative to its cost. The basic premise of The Innovator's Dilemma is that logical, competent, management decisions made to serve an organization's best customers may also create the factors that ultimately cause that organization to fail. More chilling perhaps is the contention that traditional management virtues, like better planning and focusing on customer needs, tend to make the problem even worse. Since these claims are somewhat counterintuitive, I'll use some examples from the book to illustrate, but first I'd like to define a distinction that is crucial to understanding Professor Christensen's point. 

Christensen contrasts sustaining and disruptive technologies. A sustaining technology is one that improves the performance of established products along the dimensions of performance historically valued by mainstream customers. A disruptive technology is one that appears at first to result in sub-optimum performance and thus does not appeal to traditional customers. Disruptive systems are frequently smaller and less expensive and promise a higher level of user convenience, but do not provide equivalent capability when introduced. A contemporary example of this might be the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA). PDAs are small, convenient and relatively inexpensive. But, in the mainstream, they are not envisioned as replacements for personal computers or other consumer electronics. As technology and miniaturization move forward, however, PDAs may gain capabilities that make them more directly competitive with desktops. It is not too much of a stretch to consider a PDA with broadband wireless access, speech recognition and a power-efficient color screen that can eventually supplant digital cameras, cellular phones and many of the functions that we perform today on desktops


When it appeared, the desktop computer itself was an excellent example of a disruptive technology. The makers of large database mainframes, and their customers, dismissed computers like the Commodore 64 when they appeared in the 1980s. The mainframe designers perceived no threat from the desktop, as it had less overall capability and its cost per unit capability (i.e. dollars per megabyte) was much higher than for a mainframe. But as technological progress allowed both mainframes and desktops to be improved, there came a time when desktops could do many of the functions that formerly required mainframes. Investments that made mainframes better, faster and cheaper did nothing to stop the advance of the desktop. Today, many of the mainframe industry giants no longer exist. They were blind to the possibility of the emerging technology. 

The lesson is that innovations that may seem to offer little promise upon first appearance may, in the end, develop into the means to do core capabilities more effectively and cheaper than traditional approaches. In a military context this notion has both offensive and defensive aspects. Disruptive solutions may make our systems better - consider the quantum performance improvements we are seeing through use of "off-the-shelf" computing capability in our ARCI program. (Ed. Note: See ARCI sidebar on p. 4) But disruptive approaches might also usurp our capabilities by providing a cheap counter to a capability that is very expensive to us. For example, if mine technology develops such that "smart" mines with sensitive pressure triggers can be purchased cheaply, then an adversary might be able to severely contest our access to the littoral, regardless of how substantial our investments are in stealth.

Challenges for the Submarine Force 

Having laid this foundation, let me now relate these ideas on innovation to our need for military relevance in the new century. From this perspective, the Submarine Force's first hundred years represent the beginning and maturation of the ultimate disruptive technology. The submarine was initially regarded with disdain by conventional naval thinkers - the leadership of the dominant sustaining technological apparatus - for which the ultimate embodiments of naval power were the gleaming battleships and armored cruisers of the Great White Fleet. Submariners had a particular freedom to innovate that was foreclosed to the already well-established and institutionally conservative surface navy of the early 20th century. 

When initially introduced into the inventory of the world's navies, the submarine was generally considered to be useful for coastal defense and little else. But the impact of German submarines in World War I, in both sinking enemy combatants and interdicting commerce, showed that submarines could confound even the mighty Royal Navy. 

In World War II, the American submarine force - relegated before the war to picket and screen duty - ultimately strangled Japanese maritime capability in the Pacific. The advent of nuclear propulsion, which only fringe elements might have considered viable in 1940, fomented a revolution in submarine capabilities. Unconstrained by the dogma of identifying possibilities only in terms of what already existed, the Submarine Force developed what are today the defining characteristics of the American submarine - the ability to get anywhere in the world quickly and to stay there for as long as necessary. In 1950, there were probably very few people who could have predicted that in the year 2000, every American submarine would be an extremely quiet, fast, deep-diving, nuclear-powered ship. Also worthy of note in this context is the coupling of two formerly disruptive technologies - nuclear propulsion and missiles - to provide the Submarine Force with two of our most unique capabilities today: submarine-launched ballistic missiles and no-notice land attack using Tomahawk.


After a century of evolution, our submarines have become capital ships in the greatest navy in the world. We have become unquestioned market leaders, and are working to sustain the edge that our tradition of innovation has bequeathed us. We have achieved unquestioned dominance below the sea and can deliver both credible firepower and unique intelligence for our customers Ė the Fleet CINCís, the NCA, and ultimately the American people. We are performing these missions with amazing success. But we must never be fooled into thinking that our overwhelming superiority can be maintained by making incremental improvements to existing capabilities. Just as our legacy of success was left to us by the risk-takers and innovators of the past, future progress depends on our ability to overcome the inertia of success and continue to innovate. The price of continued dominance is remaining ever more vigilant to the disruptive technologies that could render us obsolete. If anything, we must increase our sensitivity to the downmarket trends that may develop to usurp our position.

Los Angeles-class submarines are currently undergoing substantial improvements in High Frequency (HF) Acoustic capability.  The BSY I HF SONAR is being replaced through the Acoustic Rapid COTS Insertion (ARCI) program, with Phase IV of the AN/BQQ 10.  This improvement will provide 3-D profiling of the bottom terrain and under-ice canopy and will enable an effective in-water and bottom moored mine detection and classification capability.  The BQS-15 on 688 class submarines will include these same improvements with delivery of BQS-15 EC-19, currently planned for delivery in FY02.

Consider this scenario: the vast majority of our peacetime force structure requirements are based on needing hulls to do intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). But what if off-board vehicles and sensors could lay down networks of undersea sensors that could process data and transmit it to remote stations? What if we could deploy remotely controlled small mobile sensors that could move around on land and were configured with chemical, acoustic, visual, or vibration sensors? The pace of technological development suggests that these sorts of things are not science fiction. Perhaps their combination of capability and price will make them more efficient and effective than a submarine for some fraction of our ISR tasks. Will we find ourselves in a position where we are oversupplying the market for stealth, because we invested too heavily in improving the sustaining technologies of our core product, to the exclusion of investigating disruptive trends that seem in the current view to be inadequate to the customer demand? As the events of the last hundred years show us, it is a loserís game to try to predict with true accuracy what the Submarine Force of the future will look like. But even if I canít tell you what the future holds, I do think we are making significant strides in the Submarine Force to keep ourselves open to the future in non-conventional ways. Consider, for example, the work being done by DARPA in the payloads and sensors study. We are investing in ideas that are currently not part of any program, and may never be. But weíre giving some bright minds the opportunity to reshape the submarine force vision. Our Future Studies Group (FSG) is comprised of a cross-section of savvy observers tasked to consider alternate visions of the world and how our force might be employed in those scenarios. (Ed. Note.- For more on the FSG, see the article on page 7) Their call to improve our ability to use off-board sensors, upgrade connectivity, and increase payload is right on the mark. In a complementary fashion, the SSBN Security Program is specifically chartered to investigate unconventional, non-traditional threats to the force and to suggest and develop measures to counter potential vulnerabilities. Our work with DARPA, the FSG, and the SSBN Security Program are all signs that we have not become complacent - but I still believe that we can do more. We need to be prepared for a world where swarms of small craft deploying undersea weapons will challenge our access to the littoral. We need to be ready for smart, inexpensive mines that can challenge us in those same venues. And most importantly, we need to improve our payload capability by an order of magnitude.

Assuring Access 

"Access matters," and it is essential to everything we do. Access has two components: Physical access and Electronic access. Clearly, the submarine is our military's most effective means of enabling assured physical access to a denied area. A well-operated nuclear-powered submarine is invulnerable to coastal cruise missiles, tactical ballistic missiles, and the biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction that are likely to pose growing problems to non-stealthy forces. 

The "physical access" our submarines can achieve stem from our acoustic and non-acoustic stealth, and the quality of our sonar and mine reconnaissance equipment - areas of sustained investment by the Submarine Force, but also areas in which we are looking at leading-edge opportunities. And in the future, that access will likely depend increasingly on advanced sensors and payloads. For example, leave-behind sensors, submerged weapon pods that fire when signaled, or submarine launched unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are all plausible means for expanding physical access and for leveraging force structure. 

The Submarine Force is making major investments in unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) for this reason. The Long Term Mine Reconnaissance system, or LMRS, slated for introduction in 2003, will provide precise, autonomous, and long range mapping of mines and other ocean bottom features. We intend to equip LMRS with the precision underwater mapping capability that will be resident in Phase IV of ARCI. By 2004, we plan to leverage off our investment in LMRS to begin work on the Multi-Mission Reconfigurable UUV (MRUUV), a flexible, multi-purpose UUV to carry imaginative new payloads and sensors for even better intelligence gathering. 

Consider how UUV's might improve mine identification and clearance. Mine identification and clearance is a challenging and time-consuming process. Sensors are dragged through the water by either ships or helicopters. Then, a second vessel must relocate each mine and employ divers or marine mammals to neutralize it. In a benign environment this is challenging enough, but success becomes exceptionally doubtful in the face of a determined adversary. 

LMRS will give us remote mine sensing capability in its first version, already a vast improvement over what we have now. But consider some of the possibilities that may become available when the greater payload volume of the MRUUV comes on line. We may be able to deploy UUV's that carry small bomblets in the payload bay, enabling them to both detect and neutralize mines by themselves as "fire-and-forget" vehicles. This will provide greater capability at lower cost, and pose far less risk to people and valuable platforms - all hallmarks of a disruptive military technology. 

Further afield, the MRUUV's payload volume could be used to deploy data collection assets, like periscopes, antennas, or acoustic sensors that can be placed up rivers and in waters too shallow for submarine operations. UUVs could also be used in concert with the Advanced Deployable System (ADS) for submarine track and trail. An ADS trip-wire detection could be used to cue a UUV handoff, or the MRUUV might service an ADS field, downloading data and uploading search parameters. UUV's could be employed to sample for evidence of WMD precursors or relay launch orders to pre-staged weapon pods for land-attack strikes. The possibilities opened up by building covert, autonomous, vehicles with modular payload capacities are essentially unlimited. 

Electronic access depends on ACINT and SIGINT capabilities, and is more than just the ability to put submarine sensors into an area where collection is required. The leap forward in onboard submarine processing capabilities - made possible largely by new computer technologies and programs like ARCI - has enabled a paradigm shift in how we collect and process intelligence. ACINT 21 is a perfect example. Working in concert with the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), we're moving forward with ACINT 21 to bring significant software upgrades to the submarine for processing data before it leaves the ship. Currently, acoustic data is sent to the Office of Naval Intelligence when a submarine returns from deployment. At ONI, analysts reprocess the data from the tapes in order to develop nuggets of useful information. With ACINT 21, ARCI-equipped submarines will have the ability to record display data and play it back immediately, eliminating much of the requirement for post-mission processing. This will permit the ship and the ACINT rider, for example, to isolate the most relevant contact data for tactical use and analysis by the Battle Group commander or ONI specialists. We will field the initial version of ACINT 21 in FY 03 and an enhanced version in FY 05. 

We are making similar progress in our SIGINT superiority initiative - combining the enhanced wideband capability of the Type 18I periscope with the "Classic Troll" exploitation suite. Just getting a 3 dB improvement in sensitivity with the Type 18I makes an extraordinary difference in the standoff range available to the submarine in ISR missions.


Knowledge Superiority 

Since the earliest days of the Cold War, the Submarine Force has cultivated the importance of knowledge superiority. This proven successful ability to conduct ISR has resulted in a sharp rise in demand for greater submarine participation in so-called "network-centric operations," where enormous tactical synergy comes not only from developing, but also sharing, knowledge across the force. 

In this context, I'd like to briefly touch on the development of a Common Operational Picture, which will be evaluated next year as part of the Advanced Undersea Warfare Concept (AUSWC). AUSWC leverages existing investments throughout the Navy to provide a major step forward in prosecution of submerged targets, and achievement of undersea situational awareness. Sharing our knowledge throughout the Battle Group can only enhance our collective warfighting capability. AUSWC will deploy with the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) battlegroup next year, and I am looking forward to a major success. 

Another investment that may provide a foundation for incorporating new disruptive capabilities is in covert communications. We are installing a high data rate antenna that will provide data rates in the EHF spectrum up to 256 Kbps, as well as provide access to SHF and GBS communications. Contrast this with our current low-data rate EHF capability of 2.4 Kbps and imagine the possibilities for passing tactical data between elements of a Battle Group, or from sensor to shooter, over a covert, non-geolocatable datalink. High-data rate, covert communications will not only bring extraordinary advantages in warfighting, but will also enable telemedicine, or real-time consultations with technical experts to solve maintenance problems that might otherwise force a ship off station. We might even be on the threshold of having loved ones back home able to send video family-grams to our deployed sailors!

Combat Power 

Covert, precision strike from a submarine operating in denied areas in the early stages of a conflict will have a profound impact in future engagements. Whether for destroying enemy air defenses, hitting command and control complexes, or neutralizing other key nodes, our ability to strike with surprise from close in will play a disproportionate role in achieving final success. In Afghanistan, our Navy conducted its first attack on targets within a landlocked nation. Significantly, we chose a submarine attack to achieve maximum surprise against Bin Laden's terrorist camps and thus inflict greater damage. Submarine-launched missiles are particularly potent for other reasons: Tomahawk attrition is reduced, and fired close to shore, they have sufficient range to attack enemy weapon launchers from widely separated azimuths, thus boosting chances of success. 

Many of our most difficult targets, like missile batteries, are mobile. While fixed targets are now far easier to attack effectively with weapons employing GPS, hitting mobile targets remains, as Kosovo showed, a very difficult task. One of the conclusions reached by the recent MIT conference on land attack is that coupling real-time intelligence with the reduced flight time of close-in, submarine-launched missiles is a great enabler. Many target sets can be destroyed before they have time to move, and with enemy defenses neutralized at the outset, our strikers can focus on power projection without needing to devote scarce resources to defense suppression. 

Mobile targets are proliferating in littoral warfare, and engaging them effectively is crucial to future relevance. Wouldn't it be remarkable if we were able to respond to a time-critical strike order with in-flight re-targeting from below periscope depth? The key here is to be able to "see what the missile sees" and guide it accordingly. At a minimum, this would require a feedback link from the missile and a floating-wire UHF antenna with both transmit and receive capability. These capabilities are on the horizon. Of course there are technical issues to resolve, but with the assistance of disruptive thinkers in the technical community, I expect that they will become reality sooner rather than later.

Electric Drive: 
A Key to the Future 

These future capabilities will be greatly facilitated by the "all-electric" submarine. Rather than harnessing most of the nuclear reactor's output power directly to the propulsion turbines, it will be converted to electric power on a common bus. When there is a high propulsion demand, power can be allocated to the propulsion train. But when propulsion demand is low, as is frequently the case, the Commanding Officer will be able to allocate power from the common bus to a host of functions, most of which are limited only by our imagination. High endurance UUV's, UAV's and directed energy weapons systems immediately come to mind.


During the course of the "Submarine Century," our force has achieved unquestioned dominance. We enjoy the legacy of our predecessors, who took intelligent risks and embraced disruptive technologies in order to make submarines more capable warships. The cumulative wisdom is readily apparent when one reviews the astonishing pace of submarine development from the USS Holland to the Virginia class. The mandate we share today is to further embrace the entrepreneurial spirit that has been the cornerstone of our success. With continued innovations from industry, the Laboratories and the Fleets, our Force will remain the most respected and feared in the world for the foreseeable future. Let's meet this challenge together.

RADM Fages is the Director, Submarine Warfare Division (N87)