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Submarine Missions

The transitions in the submarine force follow directly from the transitions in the world order and the evolving nature of the US Navy. The world order has shifted from a bi-polar superpower alignment to a multi-polar collection of interests. During the Cold War the Soviets, concernedfor the safety of their ballistic missile submarines in light of US submarine capability, decided to use a significant percentage of their attack submarines as escorts. While the likelihood of global conflict is greatly reduced, there is an increasing chance of regional conflict. The composition and operational posture of the US Navy reflects this, having changed from a blue water emphasis to a littoral emphasis. For the submarine force this has meant several changes in roles. Prior to the end of the Cold War, Anti-Submarine Warfare was the major role for US Attack Submarines. Now US submarines are more multi-mission oriented. Intelligence gathering has shifted from strategic to tactical reconnaissance.

The primary roles and missions for the U.S. submarine force are:

  • Peacetime Engagement
  • Surveillance and Intelligence
  • Special Operations
  • Precision Strike
  • Battlegroup Operations
  • Sea Denial


In peacetime the deployment of submarines in forward areas can demonstrate US interest in the region. Alternatively, submarines are valuable if the President decides that interest should not be visible until a specific time. The long endurance and high transit speeds of nuclear submarines make them particularly attractive for rapid deployments to forward areas in such circumstances. Once on station the attack submarine can be highly visible - in 1991 U.S. submarines conducted more than 200 port visits to 50 cities around the world - or invisible. The submarine can also be used to land small groups of special operations forces, or to conduct surveillance of an area, or carry out electronic surveillance to gain valuable intelligence. These submarines can also operate independently or in direct support of carrier battle groups, surface task forces, or with other submarines.


Submarines have been employed in various forms of surveillance and intelligence collection throughout the Cold War. Although the SSN force has been cut by nearly 40 percent since 1994, the volume of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance [ISR] mission tasking directed to the Submarine Force has more than doubled. The the attack submarine has been a valuable platform for surveillance, intelligence, and warning. This capability comes from the submarine's ability to enter an area to watch, to listen, to collect information without being seen. While satellites and aircraft are used to garner various types of information, their operations are inhibited by weather, cloud cover, and the locations of collection targets. In some situations it is difficult to keep a satellite or aircraft in a position to conduct sustained surveillance of a specific area. And satellites and aircraft are severely limited in their ability to observe or detect underwater activity. Space-based signals interception is critically and uniquely complemented by submarine intercepts. Because submarines are close to the action, they can capture signals that are too elusive or enveloped in background noise for our satellites to detect. Submarines can position themselves to capture line-of-sight transmissions or observe over water tests that would otherwise elude national systems. Submarines also provide sole source "tip-off" information, which enables the intelligence community to optimally allocate other intelligence collection assets. In the future, submarines may also use Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV) or drones to collect intelligence or conduct sustained surveillance of critical regions of the world. These vehicles will be sent out from a submarine to carry sensors into areas where it may not be safe or prudent for the submarine to venture. After fulfilling its mission, the AUV could return to the launching submarine, or transmit the data underwater or to a satellite.


Submarines have long been used for special operations - carrying commandos, reconnaissance teams, and agents on high-risk missions. Most special operations by US submarines are carried out by SEALs, the Sea-Air-Land teams trained for missions behind enemy lines. These special forces can be inserted by fixed-wing aircraft, helicopter, parachute, or surface craft, but in most scenarios only submarines guarantee covert delivery. Once in the objective area, SEALs can carry out combat search-and-rescue operations, reconnaissance, sabotage, diversionary attacks, monitoring of enemy movements or communications, and a host of other clandestine and often high-risk missions. US nuclear powered submarines have repeatedly demonstrated the ability to carry out special operations involving many swimmers. During exercises, which include Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps special operations personnel as well as SEALs, submarines recover personnel who parachute from fixed-wing aircraft and rappel down from helicopters into the sea, take them aboard, and subsequently launch them on missions. These Special Warfare Team Missions include combat swimmer attacks, reconnaissance and surveillance, infiltration and exfiltration across the beach, beach feasibility studies, hydrographic survey, and Surf Observation Teams in support of amphibious landing operations.


U.S. attack submarines carry Tomahawk Land-Attack Missiles (TLAM), which provide the capability for long-range, precision strike with conventional warheads against shore targets. First used in combat in the 1991 Gulf War, US Navy surface ships and submarines fired 288 land-attack variants of the Tomahawk during the Gulf War. Battleships, cruisers, and destroyers launched 276 of the missiles and 12 were launched from submarines - the USS LOUISVILLE (SSN 724), operating in the Red Sea launched eight missiles and the USS PITTSBURGH (SSN 720), operating in the eastern Mediterranean, launched four missiles. These launches demonstrated the ability of the submarine to operate as part of an integrated strike force, with targets and related strike data being communicated to them at sea.


Attack submarines are integrated into Navy battle group operations. Typically, 2 attack submarines are assigned to each battle group. These submarines particpate with the battle group in all pre-deployment operational training and exercises. While operating with the battle group, tactical control or command of the submarines is routinely shifted to amphibious group commanders, battle group commanders, destroyer squadron commanders, or even NATO commanders. Likewise, tactical control of NATO submarines is routinely shifted to U.S. commanders.


Stopping enemy surface ships and submarines from using the seas is an important mission for submarines. Attack submarines can perform sea denial missions in a variety of scenarios, from general war against a major maritime power, to blockages of enemy ports. Attacks against enemy surface ships or submarines can be part of a war of attrition, where the object is to destroy as much of the opposing naval fleet or merchant shipping as possible, or such attacks can be directed against specific targets. An example of the attrition campaign was the U.S. submarine operations against the Imperial Japanese merchant marine in World War II, with US undersea craft sinking more than half of Japan's merchant vessels, as well as a large number of warships. During the Falklands War in 1982, the sinking of the Argentine cruiser GENERAL BELGRANO by the British nuclear-powered submarine CONQUEROR caused the remainder of the Argentine surface fleet, including its aircraft carrier, to return to port. There were no further sorties by Argentine surface warships during the conflict because of the demonstrated threat from British nuclear-powered submarines.

The principal US submarine weapon for attacking enemy surface ships or submarines is the MK 48 torpedo, with the improved ADCAP (Advanced Capability) variant now entering service. This is a heavy-weight torpedo, with a long range and a large warhead. Advanced guidance allows it to be used against both surface ships and submarines, with the ability to engage high-speed, maneuvering targets. Attack submarines also carry anti-ship missiles that can engage enemy surface ships at ranges beyond those of torpedoes.

The Tomahawk Anti-Ship Missile (TASM), has a range of more than 250 nautical miles and is launched while the submarine is completely submerged. The Tomahawk can be carried in place of torpedoes and can be launched from torpedo tubes. Half of the submarines in the LOS ANGELES (SSN 688) class are also fitted with 12 vertical tubes that can launch TLAMs and TASMs. Submarines also carry mines to deny sea areas to enemy surface ships or submarines. Two types of mines are used by submarines, the enCAPsulated TORpedo (CAPTOR) and the Submarine-Launched Mobile Mine (SLMM). The CAPTOR can be used against submarines in deep water, while the SLMM is a torpedo-like weapon that, after being launched by the submarine, can travel several miles to a specific point, where it sinks to the sea floor and activates its mine sensors. It is particularly useful for blockading a harbor or a narrow sea passage.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 12:55:51 ZULU