Losing the anti-submarine warfare race

Contributor:  Richard de Silva
Posted:  01/16/2013  12:00:00 AM EST
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During the Cold War, Soviet submarines were both nuclear and noisy, detectable with passive sonar and kept at bay by a robust anti-submarine warfare capability in the West.

Time however has moved on and with the transitioning to a post-Afghanistan era, the U.S., and many of her partners and allies, are finding that their navies have neglected its skills in the underwater domain for too long.

China’s growing might and its own investment into submarines has driven some movement in the Asia-Pacific region where tensions and disputes surrounding island territories are still commonplace.

In some instances, particularly when training alongside the Australians, the U.S. Navy has been taught a hard lesson about its general lack of aptitude in this domain despite its continued heavy investment into military technology.

Elsewhere in the world, modern diesel-electric submarines have increasingly taken over from nuclear predecessors when it comes to coastal patrols, emitting a much quieter acoustic signature as they blend with commercial shipping lanes, trawlers and tourists, not to mention coral reefs, schools of fish and even varying concentrations of salt.

This means that the increased expansion of diesel subs in the East, along with an equally aggressive investment into cheap mini-submarines, has threatened to outdo superior technologies with a thought towards sheer volume.

Much like some of the anxieties aired over the approach to air superiority, where deployment of fewer but technologically dominant fighters could be overwhelmed by multiple swarms of lower-end adversaries, the situation beneath the waves is proving to be as much of a strategic calculation as it is one of budget, tactics or sensor capability.

Time for action

In March, senior military, academia and industry solution providers are set to convene in London to discuss ways in which to reverse this trend and offer more detail than previously made public about ongoing requirements.

The meeting is all the more significant as it marks the first major conference in the realm of ASW since the Obama administration announced the strategic pivot to the Pacific, the region that sees the most heavily trafficked sea-lane in the world and therefore one of the most complex regions in which to operate.

China is understood to have made a number of submarine acquisitions through 2012 and U.S. intelligence analysis believes that these could be carry and launch nuclear weapons within the next two years.

Some of these purchases have come from Russia, which outfitted China with 12 Kilo-class boats since the 19902 and has, according to the Russian press, has now signed a memorandum of understanding to sell China four Amur-class (Project 677E) diesel electric attack submarines with the possibility of further purchases given China’s troubles with its indigenous efforts.

That is not to say that China’s own programmes are not advancing quickly, with rumours of new versions of existing boats expected to be in service by 2015.

On its books already are new builds on two types of nuclear-powered submarines – the ballistic missile Jin-class (Type 094) and the attack submarine Shang-class (Type 093) – while diesel-electric attack submarine programmes include the Yuan-class (Type 041 or Type 039) the Song-class (Type 039 or Type 039G).

Of these, some speculative reports are adamant that the 041 and the 043 Qing-class are equipped with advanced air-independent propulsion (AIP), while the new Russian Amur-class may or may not come packaged with the technology.

AIP is an important factor of course, allowing as it does a near silent propulsion and longer submerged time, but this tables a number of complicated options for navies to wade through in order to find the most appropriate solution to their needs, such as hydrogen peroxide systems and closed cycle steam turbines, lengthening production timelines.

Advantages aside, China has been notorious for attempting to fake a number of military technology advances or augment platforms with cosmetic allusions to technology that it does not really possess, leading to some speculation that AIP is not a near-term concern.

Whether true or not, it would be important to remember that even technology considered obsolete can still present a credible threat if forces spend too much time focusing on the power of new age equipment.

The same principle could apply the attention being placed on other potential adversaries below the surface – both North Korea and Iran each have small but capable submarine fleets that although ageing, still present credible threats to key strategic zones.

According to StrategyPage, Iran has an estimated 3 diesel electric submarines, plus 25 mini-submarines, and North Korea owns 20 with a supplementary 50 mini-submarines, all of which can be operated reasonably well on limited skill and experience.

It is no coincidence that multinational forces with shared interests have this year been involved in the largest ever mine countermeasure (MCM) and related operations exercise in the Strait of Hormuz, a chokepoint span of water that strategists believe Iran could try to cut off if beginning hostilities in an attempt to starve oil reserves, of which it has already threatened.

Trials and tribulations

Aside to technology, training in the ASW domain is one major issue that has recently seen mixed fortune.

Despite the huge benefits witnessed by all branches of the military in the advance of virtual simulation training, the underwater environment has struggled to find software accurate enough to closely replicate the complex and unpredictable nature of modern sonar operations, thereby ill-preparing operators in a real-life environment.

However, if trends in software development continue at the rate at which it has in the past decade, analysts believe this shortfall could be surmounted soon, particularly as the existing requirement should incentivise research.

Meanwhile, for the U.S. specifically, its 40 year construction of a $100 million submarine/ASW training range in the waters off the south coast of California was in serious jeopardy as environmental activists pushed for federal legislation to ban sonar operations on the claims that marine life was being negatively impacted.

Fortunately for the Navy, a judge ruled in September that it had emplaced enough procedures to protect local species, such as slowing ships during calving season and traversing critical habitat only during times of high visibility.

No solution has yet been presented that overcomes the many shortfalls of sonar but some solutions to overcoming the noise generated by nuclear submarines are emerging.

Where traditionally water has had be pumped through the system for cooling, other commercial technologies are looking at answering the issue with non-water based cooling in the form of liquid metal, gas or molten salt and in the form of small modular reactors (SMRs) that boast cost-effective and flexible designs.

Yet, even with SMRs signalling a potential greener future, industry is still plagued with those matters of politics and public perception that threatened to derail the testing range, and so testing nuclear-based technology is a minefield in itself.

As the U.S. Navy owns none of its own diesel boats at present, it is also relying on allied forces that do – relying on one time on a leased Swedish Gotland class – to meet them in joint training exercises in order to have any real hope of understanding what the true quirks and capabilities are of such vessels.

The concern is that in its lack of a diesel fleet, the Navy may well be undercutting its ability to counter this technology in theatre, where the only other viable option to date has been to send ships into shared Eastern waters to surreptitiously track regional diesel submarines, including those of the Chinese.

Although smaller diesel submarines are cheaper to build and sound like the best way forward, the U.S. would of course be nailed to the costly prospect of also putting together a new service capability from scratch.

Beyond the sea

Perhaps the biggest problem is that the stealth-like nature of diesel submarines are reflected in the development of programmes worldwide; without knowing exactly what the nature and seriousness of the threat is, the only course of action seems to be to plough as much budget as possible into covering a maximum capability, which is of course a tremendous challenge for ASW programme managers to both balance and justify.

Likewise, it is difficult for navies to say too much about their capabilities in an open forum, being that potential adversaries will also be on the look out for new information.

As such, alongside ASW development, the intelligence war will again be in overdrive – much as it was during the Cold War – and could tip the scales of any future conflict waged in the naval battlespace.

It is arguable therefore that the East has already offered one vital point of ASW education to the world that those developing national programmes may do well to ponder:

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

Thus spoke Sun Tzu.

Richard de Silva Contributor:   Richard de Silva


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