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NUWC's Role in the Undersea Domain Operating Concept:

Photo of Donald McCormack and headline

Donald McCormack, Technical Director of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) and Acting Technical Director of the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC), sat down to discuss some of the challenges and opportunities in the undersea domain.


From your perspective as a Warfare Center Technical Director, how would you briefly explain the Undersea Domain Operating Concept (UDOC)?

CNO and maritime strategists have long advocated that the nation push more combat power under the sea to further exploit the concealment offered by the ocean depths as the threats on the surface and above become more challenging. As a technical community, we agree and always believed the undersea domain “promise” has been under-utilized and under exploited. The UDOC, as an operational concept, provides a list of mission areas that should be emphasized further by forces that work in and into the undersea domain. It explores how undersea forces (submarines as well as surface and air platforms and unmanned systems and vehicles) could work synergistically across domains to achieve national security needs. The UDOC seeks to maintain the U.S. asymmetric advantage of operating in the undersea domain. It includes an action plan that assigns responsibilities that will move the concept toward reality.

What is the Warfare Center’s role in supporting the UDOC?

NUWC was identified as a supporting organization in eight of the 11 actions in the UDOC action plan. Consistent with the role of the Warfare Centers, we are excited to contribute in the RDT&E, analysis, conceptual development, and experimentation efforts that will result in the future capabilities outlined in the UDOC, and we also can assist in identifying and planning these efforts. Together with a strong connection to the fleet and in conjunction with our industry, academia, and other Warfare Center partners, we will pursue more creative and timely solutions that ensure we are maintaining our undersea edge.

What specific technologies will NUWC work on?

NUWC and its partners have been engaged for years in the development of new technologies and new ways of using existing technologies to better support the concepts contained in the UDOC. We acknowledge that technology alone does not provide an operational capability. As a Warfare Center we must look at the wholeness of a technical capability and work to ensure the technologies are employable and sustainable by operational forces. These operational factors must be considered in the trade space of technology options. One of the things the UDOC stresses is the need to think beyond individual platforms, vehicles, and sensors to the collective operation of these devices across the domain. I expect the Warfare Centers will pursue more creative solutions to ensure undersea dominance, look for new technical ways to exploit the attributes of the domain (covertness, dwell, proximity), and keep pace with our friends, allies, and potential competitors. That said, we continue to pursue technologies from a broader context in a number of areas:

What do you see as the biggest undersea domain technological challenges?

Operating within a domain and in the cross-domain context of the Joint Operational Access Concept is different than operating a single platform, vehicle, or sensor. While there are certainly technological challenges for these individual assets, scaling to the cross-domain level brings even more operational, and thus technological, complexity. As an example, communications with a submarine at depth is a platform issue that needs a solution. From the broader domain perspective, reliable and redundant communications must exist between the assets under the sea, the cross-domain surface, air, and space assets, and Command and Control authorities. Future undersea domain concepts also rely heavily on the use of unmanned fixed and mobile devices. Finding technology that provides the right tradeoff of energy density and power control to meet conceptual mission profiles is a major technology hurdle, not to mention timely data exfiltration. Additionally, the physical challenges of the undersea domain necessitate various levels of autonomy that are more complex and technologically challenging than those associated with surface and air assets. In addition, there is the challenge to develop technologies that will allow these new assets to be affordable in numbers. One, two, or even tens of devices will not be sufficient to operate across the domain. Capability and capacity are required to achieve an operational capability. Lastly we must consider the second-order effects that cross-domain implies and consider how our surface, air, and space domain “partners” can be leveraged to technically achieve our end goals and help us get our job done.

From a Warfare Center perspective, what are the UDOC’s implications for the fleet?

The UDOC highlights the untapped potential of further exploiting the undersea domain and its relationship to Joint Force operations. The UDOC concept goes beyond the notion of the Silent Service and includes the synergistic effect of assets that work in, from, and into the undersea. As a concept, it provides an awareness of how exploitation of an underutilized domain can increase Joint Force success with reduced risk. The fleet needs to conduct experiments based on these concepts and validate the gains to be had.

What are the next big steps for NUWC in turning the UDOC concept into reality?

As the CNO-designated leader of the Undersea Warfare community, Vice Adm. Connor is responsible for overseeing the execution of the UDOC actions. He has developed an Undersea Dominance Campaign Plan that outlines actions and activities toward maintaining undersea dominance. From a technical perspective, this entails a mix of Programs of Record, S&T/R&D efforts, and Rapid Fielded Initiatives. NUWC is aligned with and supporting the admiral’s plans for moving forward.

Keeping up with the world in undersea technology
While the U.S. Navy develops the Undersea Dominance Campaign Plan, a similar competition for the use of the undersea domain is occurring. Both China and Russia, for example, are heavily investing in undersea technology which is diminishing the asymmetric advantage the U.S. has enjoyed for several decades. If the U.S. loses this advantage, a potential adversary will be able to:

  • Deter the flow of U.S. assets to a theater of interest by surfacing an out-of-area submarine off a U.S. forward base, an allied coast, or continental U.S.1

  • Deter U.S. force involvement by an out-of-area submarine launch of a pre-emptive strike on a U.S. forward base.

  • Weaken U.S. forces and protract the conflict by disruption of U.S. sustainment and dilution of anti-submarine warfare (ASW) resources by an undersea attack on U.S. logistic ships via an undersea rear flank.

  • Prevent U.S. armed force escalation through the use of non-lethal weapons from under the sea.

  • Dissuade U.S. ally cooperation by out-of-area submarine missile launch over or into allied sovereign territory.

  • Weaken U.S. or its allies by undersea-initiated disruption of international commerce.

  • Weaken U.S. or coalition allies by undersea-initiated attack on critical undersea international information infrastructure.

  • Weaken U.S. or coalition will by undersea-initiated attack on critical energy ports or terminals.

1 In 2004 a PLA Navy HAN-class nuclear attack submarine entered the waters off Guam before intruding into Japan’s territorial water (Shirley A. Kan, Guam: U.S. Defense Deployments, CRS RS22570, Mar. 29, 2012). PLAN submarines have also been seen close to Japanese and South Korean waters. (The Chinese Threat Below, Strategy Page http://www.strategypage.com/htmw/htsub/20100205.aspx accessed June 12, 2012)