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How Anti-Submarine Warfare is Like COIN

July 22, 2009

030604-N-8273J-002Over at another websight, the question came up how can anti-submarine warfare (ASW) be like modern counter-insurgency or COIN warfare? We don’t regard it a stretch to compare the two and have compiled a list to back up our argument:

  1. Traditionalists loathe it. COIN is always given the lowest priority in peacetime training. So too is ASW too often marginalized. Typically sailors imagine themselves serving on or commanding aircraft carriers or battleships, the bigger the vessel the more impressive. Likewise does the soldier dream of leading or participating in the Big Land Battle leading hundreds or thousands of troops in one giant engagement after the other. The idea that an officer must think in terms of leading squads or platoons on a lonely jungle patrol or within an urban setting isn’t so attractive. Neither is herding slow moving merchant ships in dreary convoy as exciting as a Battle of Midway or Jutland. A tiny subchaser or bouncing and weaving escort frigates just doesn’t hold the same romance as serving on a battlewagon.
  2. ASW, like COIN, is hard and often takes years to master. Dealing with an insurgency force is often simple, but even the simplest COIN tactics are hard. Of necessity it takes the cooperation of the native population (civilians being a primary recruiting tool of the insurgents, and civilian morale a primary weapon of the same), and they must be defended at all costs from the wrath of the enemy. The COIN soldier must often be retrained from fighting conventional warfare to thinking and acting and fighting like his foe. In ASW, the escorts ships must interact with the “population of the sea“, the merchant navy in convoy. Like a shepherd leading his sheep, the escorts must defend their charges against insurgent submarine attacks at all cost.
  3. Both require specialized weapons and tactics. COIN experts on land will often discard their giant battle tanks for thin-skinned armored cars or even Humvees which are more maneuverable when fighting the agile insurgent. So too will Top Gun jet pilots trade their supersonic jets for slow moving A-10 Warthogs, prop planes, or even UAVs for a closer link with the battlefield. With ASW, smaller vessels are more useful than larger battleships, with small destroyer escorts, frigates, corvettes, and sub chasers built in their hundreds and even civilian vessels enlisted for short durations in wartime. Interestingly, both modern COIN forces and sub-hunters each utilize the unique abilities of helicopters in their essential roles.
  4. Both are unconventional forms of warfare. Unconventional war is often used by a weaker power against a stronger foe. A subject people might feel compelled to gradually wear down a stronger military force until the odds are more even to engage on conventional terms. The initial stratagem of the Germans in the First World War was to use lighter fleet units, especially submarines to destroy sufficient Royal Navy capital ships until the two rivals could engage in more equal numbers. When this plan failed, the unleashing of the U-boats against weaker merchant shipping was inevitable.
  5. Both test conventional forces unto the breaking point. A determined insurgent army will never let up until his goal is satisfied, forcing the conventional power to take countermeasures or come to terms. Historically the results of COIN Warfare have gone either way. On land Britain failed to win the American Revolution but was more successful against like foes in Africa and Asia. Likewise at sea Britain was brought near to defeat by early 1917, until she reluctantly turned to convoy. Later in 1942, the US suffered grievous losses off its own coast, while distracted with conventional battles in the Pacific. Only when shipping losses reached epic proportions were steps taken to reverse the drastic situation.

A more relevant example of COIN at sea might be the new littoral warfare advocated by some as the future of naval warfare and something the USN needs to devote greater resources toward. With small corvettes and patrol boats as the part of Strykers at sea, the emphasis should be toward severing the population of the sea from the terrorists who might use this route for their dark designs, and concerning piracy, defending the merchant populace from threats, kidnapping, and ransom demands.030520-N-0295M-009

17 Comments leave one →
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  2. B.Smitty permalink
    July 23, 2009 10:43 am

    Well put Hokie_1997.

    (Btw, I’m a ’91 Hokie)

  3. Hokie_1997 permalink
    July 23, 2009 9:39 am

    I agree with Hudson. Modern ASW and COIN are only valid comparions on the surface (pun intended).

    ASW does have some similarities with guerrilla warfare: use of guile/surprise by attacker, no clear battle lines, quick strike by weaker combatant against stronger, requirement of defender to guard long supply lines.

    However, guerrilla warfare is just a tactic which can be practiced by a conventional or as part of an insurgency. COIN is much broader strategy to counter an uprising by some segment of the people against a recognized gov’t. A good COIN strategy should encompass all facets of national power: miltiary, legal, development, economic, etc. I don’t really think we see all of those facets in ASW.

  4. B.Smitty permalink
    July 23, 2009 8:16 am

    Sorry Mike,

    I thought we were talking specifically about the USN here. Certainly submarine warfare can be an asymmetric response to other nation’s conflicts.

    The China scenario or a resurgent Russia is the most worrying for us, IMHO.

  5. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 23, 2009 7:29 am

    Smitty, I hope you aren’t going to use the one example to discount my entire premise. There are other nations, other potential scenarios. USA versus China for example, or how about if the Tamil Tigers had been able to finish their home-built submarines in the Sri Lankan Civil War? India versus Pakistan or what about Brazil versus Venezuela, or Brazil versus Argentina? There’s numerous possibilities, not all having to involv the US and her 50+nuke subs.

  6. B.Smitty permalink
    July 23, 2009 6:51 am

    Mike, we have such a numerical advantage that we could assign an SSN to tail each of the Iranian Kilos out of port. The British didn’t have that luxury.

  7. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 23, 2009 5:16 am

    Smitty, we’re talking strictly tactics, not effectiveness. In such a circumstance, I would expect the Iranians to go completely “to ground” in order to avoid a clash with superior US forces. Remember the difficulties the British had in finding the Argentine ‘s German-built subs in the Falklands. They never did.

  8. B.Smitty permalink
    July 22, 2009 8:55 pm

    Is a $100 million, used Kilo sold to a country with very little experience using submarines going to be an effective capability?

    Besides we have 53 modern SSNs to Iran’s 3 Kilos. I think we still have the advantage.

  9. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 22, 2009 8:23 pm

    Smitty, I agree completely that MIW might be counted as COIN. As for submarines being too expensive, what about these stealthy new d/e subs, ex-Russian models deployed by Iran, NK, ect? And if you compare a $100 million or so used Kilo to a $2 billion Burke, I’d say that is very economical!

  10. B.Smitty permalink
    July 22, 2009 3:54 pm

    As Scott said, MIW, not ASW, is more analogous to COIN. Mines are cheap and can be laid by just about any vessel.

    Subs are expensive to buy, build and operate. They are not asymmetric. They are hardly “unconventional”. We have many of them (very good ones too). Every major navy has them. Most major surface combatants have ASW subsystems. We may not be “good enough” at ASW, but our numbers and advanced systems would give us the edge against anyone.

    WE have the asymmetric advantage here.


    Helicopters are useful for most naval missions. I don’t think ASW is special in this regard.

  11. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 22, 2009 1:46 pm

    Sure their similar, but not exact. The weapon of a weaker power against the strong. I personally thought the helicopter angle was very revealing.

  12. Heretic permalink
    July 22, 2009 1:39 pm

    They’re similar in the “needles in haystack” sense where you can be dealing with false positives in a “cluttered” environment (either on land, for COIN, or at sea, for ASW) where signal-to-noise ratio can be wearing on one’s willingness/ability to maintain constant vigilance. Both COIN and ASW do not lend themselves to the straightforward battle, let alone “lines” of battle, hence why traditionalists try to marginalize both as much as possible in favor of the paradigms they’re most comfortable with.

  13. Scott B. permalink
    July 22, 2009 12:28 pm

    MCM and COIN would have been a more valid comparison.

  14. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 22, 2009 12:08 pm

    Desert Sailor, thanks for the comments and thanks most for your service!

    Hudson brings us a good point about the increasing sophistication of submarines. At some time, notice that the insurgent will come the conventional power, so will pirates eventually settle down and be respectable. We in the West don’t have to look that far back, to the middle ages when were were pirates raiding the old Roman Empire, and the British only about 500 years with their privateers versus Spain.

    So at some point the cruisers become the new battleships, and it appears likely we are very close to where the COIN becomes Conventional at sea, at least in reference to the submarine!

  15. B.Smitty permalink
    July 22, 2009 11:43 am


    I can see where you are going with this analogy, but I think COIN and ASW are fundamentally different. They may share certain aspects, but where insurgency and counter-insurgency are considered “unconventional” or “asymmetric”, submarine and anti-submarine warfare really shouldn’t be. They should be bread-and-butter for our Navy.

  16. Hudson permalink
    July 22, 2009 10:50 am

    I’m not certain that I follow the analogy here. Modern submarines are sophisticated, powerful and expensive weapons systems manufactured and fielded by nation states. They are not AK-47s and RPGs. What seems true is that little ASW information seeps into the public realm.

    Every once in awhile a story surfaces about a collision at sea–the latest I have read was a Chinese sub becoming entangled in the towed array sonar of a U.S. ship. But there were no details; did the U.S. ship know it was being followed? Was this a game of chicken at sea? Did the Chinese goof?

    What is the current state of ASW? Who has the advantage: surface ship, sub or helo? Obviously if the sub can’t reach the helo, the helo had the advantage, although one reads about sub-launched anti-air missiles in the works.

  17. Desert Sailor permalink
    July 22, 2009 10:40 am


    Good comparison. From an old Senior Chief Sonarman, ASW has always been the ugly sister at the dance. Early 90’s “training” brought out – “The target is too quiet, bump it up some so we can train better”…whine. “It takes too long to do one of your scenarios” – note REAL ASW takes days (weeks) of searching culminating in a very exciting 2-3 min finale.

    A black art practiced by twisted minds. Sagire, Classis, Destructum.

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