How Submarine-Launched Systems Can Overwhelm Chinese Warships In The Taiwan Strait

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The threat of a Chinese amphibious assault against Taiwan is the central driver of U.S. defense strategy. If such an assault were to be successful, it would confirm China’s status as the dominant military power in the Western Pacific.

Washington faces severe challenges in deterring and/or defeating the threat to Taiwan because China will enjoy a growing military advantage in the region thanks to its vast industrial strength, ongoing military buildup and geographical proximity to the island nation.

At its narrowest point between Taiwan and China’s Fujian Province, the strait is barely 80 miles wide. Even for a country such as China with scant experience in amphibious operations, this is not a great distance to traverse in a surprise attack.

To make matters worse, maritime and airborne traffic in the area is continuously surveilled by Chinese sensor networks. U.S. surface warships and tactical aircraft operating anywhere near Taiwan would be subject to withering fire in a conflict, and probably unable to sustain combat operations for long.

Many military experts who have analyzed the situation point to U.S. submarines as a key player in any campaign to defend Taiwan. Despite Beijing’s efforts to seed the seabed with antisubmarine sensors, Virginia-class submarines are equipped with active and passive capabilities to foil Chinese efforts at detection and tracking.

However, even if the survivability of U.S. subs is taken as a given, the relatively small number that would be available on short notice is dwarfed by the size of local Chinese maritime forces.

The latest, Block V variant of Virginia can carry a maximum of 65 torpedo-size weapons—torpedoes or cruise missiles. That means a dozen Virginia-class boats, even if all of the latest variant, would only be able to hit about 800 aimpoints.

Major military campaigns often require servicing that number of targets every day. This has several implications, not the least of which is that submarine-launched weapons, by themselves, are unlikely to be decisive in any cross-strait conflict.

There is a potential solution to this challenge, though, in which submarines play a rather different role than currently planned. What if U.S. submarines could launch canisters equipped with low-cost, unmanned drones that, once airborne, could form an integrated mesh network for finding, fixing, tracking and targeting key Chinese assets such as warships?

If half of the launch tubes on each Virginia-class sub were capable of deploying, say, half a dozen such drones with reasonable airborne endurance, then a force of 12 subs could sustain continuous surveillance of the Taiwan Strait for the entire duration of any amphibious assault.

The manned submarine force might be supplemented with unmanned submersibles possessing similar launch capabilities.

Design concepts for such “attritable” (expendable) systems already exist, complete with high-frequency communication links that could defeat Chinese efforts at electronic jamming. Because the systems are expendable, they need not incorporate design features to maximize survivability. They would cost much less than any Chinese means for destroying them, thus providing an attractive cost-exchange ratio.

Deployed in large numbers, these affordable systems would enable any mesh network to be self-healing as systems are intercepted, so that the overall integrity of the network is not impaired. And at least some of the drones would be able to transmit the precise location and nature of high-priority targets to a variety of potential users.

Among the companies working on relevant technology is Sparton Corporation, a subsidiary of Elbit America. Elbit is a consulting client. Other companies undoubtedly have technologies applicable to the warfighting construct, although Sparton has more experience than most in launching attritable payloads from undersea locations—either subs or fixed seabed launchers.

In 2020, the RAND Corporation released a report entitled “Operating Low-Cost, Reusable Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in Contested Environments” that discussed a similar operating concept as part of its Project Air Force. It did not address how submarines might contribute to a durable mesh network, but subs are actually the ideal platform from which to operate anywhere near the Taiwan Strait in wartime.

Like all the other military preparations America’s military has made to defend Taiwan from an amphibious assault, the use of attritable payloads launched from attack subs is intended to deter conflict rather than cause it. But if war were to occur, this is one concept for which Chinese forces would have few counters.

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