How Anti-Submarine Warfare is Like COIN
Over 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.