The Pacific Submarine Fleet: A Key Part of the Kill Web Con-ops for Pacific Deterrence

By Robbin Laird

I have just returned from a five week visit to Australia and to Hawaii. During that visit, I had the chance to talk with U.S. and Australian officers about the challenge of deterring the Chinese in the Pacific —not forgetting the other two nations threatening Western interests, namely the Russians and the North Koreans.

The salience of submarines to Australian deterrence and their contribution to allied deterrence was evident with the AUKUS announcement of the Australian government’s decision to acquire nuclear submarines to replace their aging diesel Collins-Class submarines.

In a presentation to the Williams Foundation, Vice Admiral Mead, the key ADF officer involved in working the submarine program with the United States and the United Kingdom, emphasized that his Navy had not done as good of a job explaining the impact of the submarine decision on Australia’s deterrence capabilities as they needed to do.

When I got to Hawaii, I had a chance to meet with Rear Adm. Jeffrey Jablon, the Submarine Force, US Pacific Fleet (SUBPAC) commander who provided a robust discussion of the role of submarines in the evolving deterrent approach of the United States and its allies in the Pacific.

As he put it: “I would no longer characterize ourselves as a silent service. Deterrence is a major mission for the submarine force. You can’t have a credible deterrent without communicating your capabilities; if the adversary doesn’t know anything about that specific deterrent, it’s not a deterrent.”

To illustrate the importance of communicating these capabilities, Jablon told me that as we spoke, there were 18 submarines underway in the Pacific Ocean. Of these, seven were operating west of the international dateline.

It’s not hard to see ways in which the service is trying to create deterrence through signaling.

In recent years the Navy has begun demonstrating visibly its presence in various ways, such as SSBN port visits. At the same time as my visit to Pearl Harbor, the Navy had released photos of the ballistic missile submarine USS Maine (SSBN 741) visiting Guam, and a joint meeting of the leaders of the US and South Korea came with the announcement of future submarine port visits to the ROK Port visits and pursuing diverse locations from which to resupply the force are increasingly important, especially in times of conflict.

In addition, the Navy is stepping up its cooperation with allied and partner submarine forces, as illustrated by Jablon recently hosting the Submarine Warfare Commanders Conference. This was a core meeting with other submarine commanders from Japan, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, Australia, Canada, France, and the United Kingdom. As he underscored: “During the conference, the submarine force commanders discussed the coalition approach to interoperability, which is a key part of deterrence.”

Jablon underscored that they were stepping up exercises with allies in common ASW and USW operations. For example, he mentioned a recent exercise with South Korea and Japan in working joint capabilities. It’s another example of how Chinese actions in the region are driving countries together in the Pacific and providing new opportunities for the U.S> Navy to work with those allies.

Of course, there is the less-public — and more pointy — end of the deterrent stick. There are a number of ongoing developments that need to be highlighted to understand exactly how the U.S. views its submarine force and its evolution.

It must be understood that the submarine force can operate separately or work with the joint force to provide joint force solutions. As the joint force works enhanced kill web capabilities, what Ed Timperlake and I have previously defined as ”combat clusters” can operate together to deliver joint fires or, in other words, very different types of platforms can come together to create a joint effect.

In addition, the submarine force is adding autonomous systems capabilities. Jablon specifically mentioned two. The first is the ability to operate a UUV out of a torpedo tube, with the UUV coming back after its mission to offload data specifically onboard the submarine. The second is the ability to launch a UAV from a submerged submarine to enable joint fires. He said that the submarine force has specifically worked with the USMC in their development of the Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) solution set.

Finally, the joint force, including the submarine force, are developing new ways to do expeditionary logistics to enable resupply of the force when operating in a contested environment. For food or critical parts, an Osprey has been tested to provide vertical replenishment. For weapons, the submarine tenders have been working to resupply submarines who operate from various bases in the region to conduct the rearm mission. Obviously, the command element would work submarine operations in such a way that a cascading approach to weapons resupply would be worked in times of conflict.

As Jablon concluded, “The submarine force is now becoming part of the ‘combat clusters’ that you’re talking about instead of an independent operator. In the Cold War, we operated independently, alone, and unafraid. During the land wars, we started becoming part of the joint force as we provided land fires via the TLAM. Now, we are fully integrated with the joint force in terms of targeting and communications. But, of course, we can also conduct independent operations as the ‘silent service’ when directed.”

So, a less silent service — but one that still recalls its core function.

Featured Photo: Rear Adm. Jeff Jablon, commander, Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, meets with Capt. Jason Weed, commodore of Unmanned Undersea Vehicles Squadron One to discuss the latest developments in unmanned undersea technology during a visit to the command on Feb. 16, 2023. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Corey T. Jones).

A version of this article was published on Breaking Defense on May 12, 2023.

Shaping a Nuclear Submarine Enterprise in Australia: The Perspective of Vice-Admiral Jonathan Mead

In our book on the evolving maritime kill web, we interviewed another sub commander with regard to the evolution of the ASW or USW mission and the role of submarines in the next phase of evolving this key area of maritime warfare.

And the kill web template allows for significant innovation as well, across the allied, joint forces and fleet operations chessboard. For example, the USAF operating their F-35s from Lakenheath can work fleet integration up to and including integration with the Nordic air and sea forces, for Nordics have F-35s and are working air-sea integration. The B-1 bombers which showed up in Norway for an exercise, can be part of fleet operations as well by providing significantly expanded payloads to be leveraged by the fleet in kill web enabled operations.

We have seen in the Black Widow exercise the use of the USS Wasp in an anti-submarine role, which certainly fits into our notion of “re-imagining the amphibious fleet” and its potential roles. Indeed, the Undersea Warfare (USW) mission set as exercised by C2F in Black Widow highlights the inherent kill web approach to its operations. In our discussion with Rear Adm. Jim Waters, Commander Submarine Group Two (SUBGRU2), he emphasized that ASW has become a team sport.

The Rear Adm. underscored that for Vice. Adm. Lewis, many Navy platforms maybe considered an USW platform since they all have the ability to see, to communicate, and as necessary provide weapons as contributors to what is now known as the USW Team Sport. Clearly, the submarine remains the number one sub killer with weapons deployed for this purpose. But with the expanded capability of surface and air-borne assets to find, track and kill submarines, the role of the underwater U.S. Navy force changes as well. It can be the cutting-edge stalker or killer or work through the kill web force to get the desired result.

In fact, having a wider range of options for prosecution and destruction of adversary submarines than in the past is a key element for 21st century maritime operations and warfare. Rethinking how to use platforms is an essential part of the process because the U.S. Navy can practice like Black Widow demonstrated, employing amphibious platforms as part of sea control and sea denial. In Black Widow 2020, they did so in the form of the USS WASP. The WASP was used as an USW helo platform, and the Rear Adm. underscored that the seaworthiness of the WASP and its deck space allowed for the team to use the Romeos operating off the WASP to provide a key capability for the integrated fight.

Laird, Robbin F.; Timperlake, Edward. A Maritime Kill Web Force in the Making: Deterrence and Warfighting in the 21st Century (pp. 293-294). Kindle Edition.