It sounds like the premise of a Tom Clancy novel: A cyberbattle is fought to a draw, leaving U.S. submarines to continue fighting with limited contact to headquarters. But the three-star admiral in charge of the Navy's submarine force says the scenario is all too possible, and he is calling for a renewed emphasis on the independence ingrained in skippers during days of more primitive technology.
Vice Adm. Michael Connor said in a recent interview that he is reaffirming that autonomy as he cultivates commanding officers who can operate with little direct guidance from above.
"It goes far back in our history, but my concern is that if you look at the capabilities that various countries have, there's one path where the future could look very much like the past," he told The Associated Press. "I've been making sure that we're ready to fight that way if it comes to it."
Cybersecurity is one of the few areas where the Pentagon has either increased funding or held it steady in the past two years, despite massive budget cuts in other areas. Army Gen. Keith Alexander, the top officer at the National Security Agency and the U.S. Cyber Command, told a Senate committee this spring that the capabilities of potential adversaries to launch cyberattacks are growing rapidly.
The threat is leading the Navy and other branches of the armed forces to look more closely at how they might handle attacks that affect their ability to communicate.
In the case of submarine force, known as the "silent service," officers have more experience than most in making their own decisions based on training and broad guidance. Since the Navy began powering subs with nuclear reactors, beginning with Groton-based Nautilus in 1954, subs have been able to remain submerged longer at depths where communication is more difficult.
Connor, who oversees the American fleet of 72 nuclear-powered submarines from Norfolk, Va., said there is an ease of communication between subs and operational leaders that is relatively new.
"In World War II, we didn't communicate a whole lot because we couldn't. In the Cold War, we didn't communicate a whole lot because we needed to hide our location from a fairly sophisticated adversary," he said. "The last 10 or 15 years have marked a trend in all forces where we did very, very precise things on a small scale and we had the ability to do very precise command control because our communications were not challenged in any way."
He said he wants to make sure submarines, if called upon, can operate differently, but he said he could not detail how he is doing that.
"It's partly how you plan, and it's partly how you train and it's partly in the character of the sailors on your ship," he said.
U.S. Army Col. Gregory Conti, director of the Army Cyber Center at West Point, said the threat of cyberattack highlights a need for backups to communication systems. He said the Army has its own ethos of letting junior officers lead, but he supports more training so soldiers know how to carry out tasks manually in case networks are compromised.
"We need to be able to train to fight in degraded conditions," he said.
One former submarine officer, retired Navy Capt. James Patton of North Stonington, Conn., said the unknown compels today's sub commanders to know how to operate with few outside communications.
As commander of the attack submarine USS Pargo in the 1970s, he would go to sea with orders that answered most of his questions and he typically received only a couple messages a day. He said learning to lead independently depends on practice — and developing a common culture with onshore commanders, a relationship he compared to a marriage.
"If you're married, you can be 1,000 miles away from your wife, and you still know she would or would not want you to do something based on those ground rules that have been firmly established," he said.