The Navy Now Has A Submarine Aggressor Squadron
The unit is intended to provide Navy submariners and anti-submarine forces with an opponent that fights just like a wide range of potential foes.
The U.S. Navy has stood up an aggressor squadron to train its submariners, as well as anti-submarine forces, about what to expect from their potential opposing counterparts, especially those in Russia and China, and help explore new tactics, techniques, and procedures to counter those threats. One of its focus areas is already on how electronic warfare impacts submarine warfare operations.
The unit, abbreviated AGGRON, is part of the Navy's Undersea Warfighting Development Center (UWDC). It has elements at both the UWDC's headquarters at Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton, Connecticut and at the Point Loma Annex in San Diego, California. The Navy formally established the squadron between the Spring and Summer of 2019, according to issues of Undersea Warfare magazine, the official publication of the Submarine Force. The service had first publicly announced its plans to create AGGRON in 2018 as we reported on at the time.
"Its goal is to employ an effective cadre of experts (red team) versed in opposition warfighting philosophy, strategy, and tactics to stress submarine crews in warfighting scenarios. Red team expertise will be available locally or virtually to support training and certification," Navy Vice Admiral Charles Richard, then Commander, Submarine Forces, wrote in the Spring 2019 issue of Undersea Warfare. "Additionally, we are working on connectivity between attack center locations to allow remote red team engagement, and we are exploring the possibility of employing select SSN(s) [nuclear attack submarines] as a standing red opposition force for live at-sea play."
"All school houses are in receipt of an updated 'red' playbook and are working with the Aggressor Squadron to ensure that crews receive the best blue vs. red (vice blue vs. blue) training scenarios," Richard wrote in the following Summer 2019 edition of the magazine.
Aggressor units, also sometimes known as the "Opposing Force," or OPFOR, are typically well-versed in the doctrine and tactics of possible adversaries, or the "red" force. The idea is that these elements provide added realism to training exercises, giving friendly "blue" forces an opportunity to get a feel for how potential opponents might operate and explore how existing and improved concepts of operation might work against them.
"Functions as Submarine Force (SUBFOR) lead trainer for opposing force (OPFOR) capabilities and simulation," reads one Navy job listing for a Supervisor Training Instructor (Intelligence) who would serve as the deputy commander of AGGRON. "Serves as leading authority in DON [Department of the Navy] and DoD [Department of Defense] on adversary submarine warfare and ASW [anti-submarine warfare] tactics."
AGGRON also looks set to serve as tool for evaluating future threats, as well as friendly capabilities. Another internal job listing the Navy issued on Aug. 13, 2020, says that the squadron wants an individual with "cryptologic experience in submarine operations to assist with various Electronic Warfare (EW) projects and act as the UWDC AGGRON EW SME [subject matter expert]."
While we don't know exactly what these projects are, electronic warfare, broadly, is a rapidly growing area of interest across the U.S. military, as a whole, as well as among possible adversaries, especially Russia. Earlier this year, the Russian Navy also announced that it was working to field submarine-launched expendable jammers to defeat enemy sonobuoy arrays.
Submarine capabilities are one component of the Navy's shadowy Netted Emulation of Multi-Element Signature against Integrated Sensors (NEMESIS) networked electronic warfare ecosystem, well. You can read more about that potentially game-change networked electronic warfare ecosystem in this past War Zone feature. Submarine-launched drones are a growing capability set and equipping them with electronic warfare payloads is undoubtedly highly attractive.
Of course, beyond just electronic warfare, undersea warfare, or submarines fighting submarines, is a particularly complex affair, in general, as the War Zone has explored in detail in the past. Being able to effectively defeat, or at least evade, the threat posed by hostile anti-submarine units on the surface or in the air can be a similarly complicated task.
Force-on-force training with other U.S. or allied units is certainly valuable in these contexts, but is not necessarily designed to truly mimic how a real adversary would operate. But while the U.S. military is replete with other aggressor and OPFOR units, especially in the military aviation and ground combat communities, the Navy has lacked a dedicated aggressor unit for its submarine and anti-submarine communities despite the obvious benefits it could provide.
AGGRON is not the first time the Navy has explored developing this kind of capability, either. In the mid-2000s, it actually leased Sweden’s first-in-class HSwMS Gotland, an advanced and very quiet diesel-electric submarine equipped with an air-independent propulsion (AIP) system as a dedicated aggressor. Gotland gave U.S. Navy nuclear boats and other anti-submarine warfare platforms a real run for their money. The service notably no longer operates any diesel-electric submarines, increasingly advanced types of which remain in widespread use around the world, of any kind.
The Navy's new aggressor squadron will go a long way to filling this glaring gap. In 2018, Vice Admiral Richard had described the still notional unit as a version of the Navy's famed Topgun fighter pilot training program, but for submariners. It's worth noting that Topgun also trains individuals to be able to return to their primary units, including both operational and training squadrons, and act as instructors and pass on what they have learned, a concept that could also be very advantageous for the submarine community.
As Richard noted in Undersea Warfare last year, AGGRON is already working to share lessons learned and more with other operational and training elements. The new unit will be able to provide similarly important benefits for U.S. anti-submarine warfare elements – a much broader community that includes surface warships, fixed-wing aircraft, and helicopters – looking to hone their skills against more representative threats, as well.
Unfortunately, a major pitfall remained for AGGRON, at least as of late 2019, in that it did not have any submarines of its own to form a dedicated aggressor force to take part in exercises. Even if, as Richard indicated might happen, the squadron received some number of SSNs, these would not necessarily best reflect the capabilities of an actual adversary.
In addition to advanced nuclear-powered types, Russia and China, among other countries around the world, are both developing advanced AIP-equipped diesel-electric submarines. As noted, the Navy does not operate submarines of this type itself, which have notably different signatures from the nuclear-powered counterparts. It would be hard for AGGRON, or any other elements it might work with, to truly mimic those boats during training using existing SSNs.
Beyond that, there's no guarantee that, given the Navy's struggles in recent years to meet operational demands for submarines, as well as persistent maintenance backlogs, together with growing concerns about expanding Russian, as well as Chinese, submarine activities, that there will be boats to spare any time soon. The War Zone has highlighted in the past how all this might bolster an argument for acquiring a fleet of new, lower-cost diesel-electric submarines to help support the aggressor mission, among others. AGGRON's work could certainly inform its planned development of a new class of nuclear attack submarines.
The Navy also regularly trains with allied submarines, included AIP-equipped types. As such, another lease agreement, similar to one the Navy had with regards to the Gotland, or simply scheduling more exercises where AGGRON's personnel can work together with those boats, may be another, more near-term possibility.
Regardless, the Navy now has its first dedicated submarine aggressor unit, which can only help improve the service's ability to respond to existing and emerging underwater and anti-submarine challenges and make sure its submariners are as prepared as they can be to tackle those threats.
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