Navy sub adm: We need new weapons

A top Navy admiral calls for new missiles and new torpedos to ensure tomorrow's submarines keep their edge.

Rear Adm. Barry Bruner remembers learning about the Navy submarine force’s workhorse weapons — the Mark 48 advanced capability torpedo and the Tomahawk cruise missile — on his first day aboard almost 30 years ago.

Earlier this fall, when he took over as the Navy Staff’s top planner for undersea warfare, he got another brief on the very same weapons.

It is what it is, Bruner told attendees at the Naval Submarine League’s annual convention outside Washington — both weapons are still the best in the world. But as the submarine force tries to remake itself for a new era of operations, it will need new weapons and tools to keep its edge, he said. The trick, of course, will be funding them.

“We need a ‘missile of the future,'” Bruner said, one that will help Navy submarines outpace the anti-access and area-denial strategies that DoD believes will be the stock in trade of future U.S. enemies. Bruner said he and his staff have looked at some 17 different missiles, at various stages of development or maturity, but still haven’t found one that could complement or replace the Tomahawk.

That goes both for land attack and anti-ship missiles, but there may be a special urgency for a new anti-ship missile. Although everyone involved likes to tiptoe politely when this subject comes up, there may be a need someday for the Navy to attack large numbers of well-defended surface targets … somewhere … in the event of any unpleasantness.

But the service has a checkered history with anti-ship missiles: Submarines and new-model destroyers do not carry its Cold War-era Harpoon, and the anti-ship variant of the Tomahawk that young Ensign Bruner’s first boat once carried is gone from the arsenal. Today, the pendulum is slowly swinging in the other direction. The surface Navy is interested in a potential new anti-ship missile under development by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, but it’s a long way off — and for Bruner’s purposes, it might not be of any use to the Silent Service.

Bruner answered a question about DARPA’s missile by acknowledging that he’s been briefed on it, but said he does not have much detail. He did say that, in an ideal world, the Navy Staff directorates for surface, undersea and air warfare — known in the blue world as N86, N87 and N88 respectively — could collaborate and theoretically create something the entire fleet could use. But well before it got there, the brass would have to answer some big questions:

“That’s an area I’m still trying to figure out what I think the right answer is,” he said. “As we had off to the future, the right answer will be dependent on many things. If we can leverage with N86 and N88, save money and get the perect missile that meets all three war-fighting requirements, that is where we’d want togo. Next, you have to ask, though, ‘How much is it going cost, when’s it going to get here, how many can we build…” — and so forth.

The Tomahawk is fine for now, Bruner said, but he asked rhetorically whether it would still be the best strike weapon for the Navy of 2025.

Same goes for torpedoes, Bruner said. The latest-model Mk 48 heavyweight weapons are perfect for today’s submarines, but the Navy needs to begin pushing their basic technology forward as much as possible. He showed a PowerPoint slide that depicted future “modular” Mk 48 variants with different components, including different weapons payloads — or no weapons payloads — different motors and other components.

A future variant of the torpedo might prowl at slow speed waiting on its own for a target, or function as a disposable sensor for its parent submarine: Using the existing wire guidance system that ships now use to steer their fish toward their target, a sub could send out a sensor torpedo to investigate a box of ocean where it didn’t want to stick its own nose in — then, if necessary, quickly prosecute any targets.

This notion, along with standalone unmanned underwater vehicles, will be a big part of tomorrow’s undersea battles, Bruner said.

“This is where we need to go. Right now, this has my full attention. We can get into this pretty quickly but it costs money — but that’s in short demand right now.”