Shaping a Way Ahead for ASW: Key Questions and Dynamics


Last week, 2nd Fleet held a couple of media events revolving around the Black Widow exercise which highlighted the evolving approach to anti-submarine warfare.

And those two media events and comments made associated with regard to the Black Widow exercise highlight a number of key questions and dynamics associated with the reshaping of ASW leveraging 21st technologies, skill sets and warfighting approaches up against 21st century threats.

The point can be put simply: even though ASW is about tracking, finding and potentially destroying underwater threats, what is being practices is not yesterday’s ASW skill sets against the Soviet Navy.

Let us start first with the opening statement by Vice Admiral Andrew Lewis, Commander, U.S. 2nd Fleet.

One must remember that 2nd Fleet was re-established in 2018.

In his opening remarks to the media roundtable on September 16, 2020, Vice Admiral Lewis highlighted the importance of the Black Widow ASW exercise.

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, thanks for being here to discuss Black Widow. As all of you are aware, U.S. 2nd Fleet was established to focus on high end operations in the North Atlantic and Arctic. That is precisely what we are doing in exercise Black Widow, and I could not be more pleased with the event thus far.

We are building the fleet of the future through Exercise Black Widow—for today’s fight requires a constant emphasis to develop grey matter as much as grey hulls. Competition in today’s environment demands we think differently, and that we attack old problem sets with new solutions.

Not only have our competitors changed, but the rules of the game have also changed. Multi-domain threats span the spectrum of conflict, and we need our warfighters to be ready with tactics and procedures sharp in their minds.

During Exercise Black Widow our forces will rehearse tactics, techniques and procedures to ensure our Navy maintains our undersea dominance.  Units participating include P8s, submarines, helicopters, and surface ships.

Each and every US Navy platform is anti-submarine warfare capable, including our amphibious ships like the participating USS Wasp (LHD 1).

This exercise will enhance the lethality of the fleet as one cohesive fighting force.  Advanced undersea warfare training opportunities like Black Widow improve multi-domain cooperation, maintain superior lethality in defense of the homeland, and ensure continued freedom of navigation throughout the Atlantic.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to talk about the recently re- established submarine group two, which is leading Black Widow. Alongside JFC Norfolk and U.S. 2nd Fleet, SUBGRUTWO adds a command element in the Atlantic, allowing the Navy and our Allies to finely tune out efforts in this resurgent battlespace and reinforce the critical trans-Atlantic link.

In today’s security environment it is imperative that our best warfighters be available at a moment’s notice to support operational commanders. Exercise Black Widow is an exercise for our warfighters to practice, develop, and evaluate new tactics and procedures to improve readiness for real world operations.  

The next day’s media event highlighted, the other hat worn by Vice Admiral Lewis, namely, Commander of Joint Force Command (JFCNF).

According to a story published by SHAPE Public Affairs:

MONS, Belgium – NATO’s newest operational command, Joint Force Command (JFC) Norfolk, officially reached initial operating capability (IOC) on Thursday, Sept 17, 2020 with an official ribbon cutting ceremony.

In reaching IOC, the JFC Norfolk commander determined that the command is ready to take on an initial set of tasks in accordance with the direction and guidance of NATO’s 30 member states.

“This ceremony marks a significant milestone in providing a new, crucial location and link to the Alliance, ultimately ensuring a 360-degree approach for our collective NATO defence and security,” said Vice Admiral Andrew Lewis, Commander of Joint Force Command Norfolk. He also serves as the Commander of U.S. Second Fleet.

Amongst the distinguished guests at the in-person ceremony were Admiral Chris Grady, commander, United States Fleet Forces, Vice Admiral P M Bennett, Chief of Staff, Supreme Allied Command Transformation and General Tod D. Wolters, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, who attended online and offered congratulations and support on this achievement.

“JFC Norfolk’s efforts are already delivering great coherence in our vigilance activities and the insightful work on DDA (Defence and Deterrence of the Atlantic area) alignment, and contributions to Allied Command Transformation’s war-fighting capstone concept, serve to maintain NATO’s advantage in competition, crisis and conflict,” said General Wolters.  

This new command is part of the Allied Command Operations structure and is headquartered in Norfolk, Virginia, U.S. It will provide a U.S.-led, joint multi-national operational command, supported by component, Allied and partner commands, responsible for the North Atlantic, the High North, and adjacent littorals. It is the first NATO headquarters dedicated to the Atlantic since 2003. 

The North Atlantic Council (NAC), NATO’s highest decision making body, announced the activation of JFC Norfolk as a NATO military body on July 26, 2019 in order to increase NATO’s readiness across the Atlantic, strengthen the trans-Atlantic bonds with Allies and Partners, increase readiness to defend NATO’s Allies and Partners in the North Atlantic and High North, and ultimately, deter aggression from any potential adversaries. 

These two statements highlight a number of the changes underway, changes which we have focused on over the past few years, and will bring that work to bear on the key questions and dynamics.

We will address each of these questions in later articles in this series.

First, the shift from the role of the U.S. Navy in the land wars to high end conflict was highlighted.

In fighting the land wars, ASW skill sets were not the priority for the maritime force.

For example, the legacy air ASW asset, the P-3, which executed a concept of operations of “fighting alone and unafraid” was used in the land wars by the U.S .and its allies as an overland ISR asset.

A new kill web approach has been put in its place.

Second, “we are building the fleet of the future.”

Put bluntly, it is not simply recovering old skill sets; it is about shaping new ones.

Our time in Norfolk and at Jax Navy and Mayport have highlighted what that actually means.

The Vice Admiral highlighted that “we attack old problem sets with new solutions.”

Certainly, the discussions and interviews at NAWDC this Spring and Summer provide a significant understanding of what this simple phrase means.

Third, “Each and every US Navy platform is anti-submarine warfare capable, including our amphibious ships like the participating USS Wasp (LHD 1).”

This comment is direct but the shift underway in terms of reshaping how the fleet works and will work to provide for sea control and sea denial is under significant change.  

Fourth, the Vice Admiral referred to the defense of the homeland.

Because the exercise is in the North Atlantic, what is clearly being highlighted is the new Russian as opposed to Soviet threats from the sea.

How that threat is changing and is different from the Soviet period is a key dynamic which explains why the response being shaped must be “multi-domain” as highlighted by the Vice Admiral.

Finally, the Vice Admiral highlights the C2 piece and that “it is imperative that our best warfighters be available at a moment’s notice to support operational commanders.”

How to do this is really about how the functional nature of ASW warfare has been expanded to tap into the wider air-maritime community to deliver the desired lethal effect.

If we now turn to the NATO side of this, we are discussing what has been referred to as the “fourth battle of the Atlantic”.

Here the question is about how the U.S. and allied forces can deliver the kind of kill web combat effect which can leverage the coalition force to provide for escalation dominance.

Our visits to Canada, the UK, Norway, Finland, Denmark, France, and Germany provide significant insights into how this approach to shaping an integratable force able to work cohesively together is being worked.

And the key role in working the High North was highlighted as part of the tasking as well.

As mentioned earlier, we will deal with all of these key points in later articles in this series, but when it comes to the Black Widow point, we would like to go back to an interview which we did with the then head of N-98, Rear Admiral Moran, which focused on the coming of the new carrier class, the USS Ford.

In that 2013 interview, we noted: You are describing a carrier which can operate much more flexibly than a traditional carrier, and one which can become a central piece in a combat spider web, rather than operating at the center of a concentrated force.  Could you talk to the con-ops piece of this?

“Rear Admiral Moran:  The Ford will be very flexible and can support force concentration or distribution. And it can operate as a flagship for a distributed force as well and tailored to the mission set.

“When combined with the potential of the F35, FORD will be able to handle information and communications at a level much greater than the Nimitz class carriers.   People will be able to share information across nations, and this is crucial.  We call it maritime domain awareness, but now you’ve included the air space that’s part of that maritime domain.”

This discussion devolved later into the kill web concept of operations, but this concept is clearly at the heart of the new approach and skill sets for 21st century ASW.

That shift was highlighted in a recent interview which we conducted at Jax Navy, and the title of the article, really gets at the change: “O.K. I am a P-8 Operator: But How do I train to work in a kill web?”

The Black Widow exercise provides a venue where that question can be answered and worked.

Featured Photo: U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis, Commander, Joint Force Command Norfolk (JFCNF), and Royal Navy Rear Adm. Andrew Betton, Deputy Commander, JFCNF, host a virtual ceremony to announce JFCNF’s Initial Operational Capability on Naval Support Activity Hampton Roads, Virginia, Sept. 17, 2020.

JFCNF will deliver multinational and NATO joint effects, maintain readiness, protect the North Atlantic strategic lines of communication, deter aggression, contribute to NATO responsiveness, secure reinforcements and resupply, and if necessary project power to defend its Allies and Partners. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joshua M. Tolbert

We have interviewed Rear Admiral Betton earlier during a UK visit:

Shaping the UK Carrier Strike Group: The Perspective of Commodore Andrew Betton and Col. Phil Kelly

Also, see the following:

Black Widow Exercise: Shaping a Way Ahead in Anti-Submarine Warfare