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Sub Hunters Take a Dive Pt 1

June 29, 2009

Distractions From the Submarine Threat

If you wonder where the US Navy is headed in the next decade or two if she doesn’t change the way she builds ships, you need look no further that the British Royal Navy today. The first of two new supercarriers will be launched without planes for its spacious decks, while existing carrier HMS Invincible is cannibalized for spare parts. A new destroyer class meant to defend the carriers is so expensive the first Type 45 went to sea recently barely operational, receiving a stern rebuke from the British Parliament. From Marine News:

Although the Type 45 will enter service in 2009, it is a disgrace that it will do so without a PAAMS [Principal Anti Air Missile System] missile having been fired from the ship, and will not achieve full operational capability until 2011. Other equipments and capabilities which will enhance the ship’s ability to conduct anti-air warfare operations will not be fitted until after the ship enters service in some cases.

America’s Arleigh Burke class destroyer is another such technological wonder. The class now at 60 vessels and counting are probably the most effective antisubmarine escort in any navy, but this may not necessarily be good news, as we will explain.

The Destroyer We Have

The DDG-51 class was the last USN destroyer of the Cold War and were entering service just as the Fall of the Soviet Union became apparent. These were sizable ships which might have been called a cruiser in a different era. From the Navy Fact File, here are her specifications of the latter Flight IIA series:

  • Length-509 ft.
  • Beam-59 ft
  • Weight-9,496 tons full load
  • Armament-96 missiles including Standard Missile, Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM), ASROC (VLA) missiles; Tomahawk; six MK-46 torpedoes (from two triple tube mounts); Phalanx CIWS), 5” MK 45 Gun
  • Aircraft-Two MH-60 B/R helicopters with Penguin/Hellfire missiles and MK 46/MK 50 torpedoes.
A Burke class destroyer leads an exercise with Peruvian submarines.

A Burke class destroyer leads an exercise with Peruvian submarines.

Though a multi-mission ship, specifically the Burkes were designed to combat the deep diving and fast Russian nuclear submarines of the 1970s. The enormous weapons’ load of the giant destroyer is clear evidence of the threat the advanced Soviet boats posed to shipping. So much weaponry was loaded in the initial Flight I, there was no room left for the obligatory helicopter hangar, now considered essential equipment as a surface ship’s only long-range anti-sub weapon. The oversight was corrected in later ships as we see above, by an increase in length, adding to a jump in price for the already costly Burkes.

The enormous size and enhanced capabilities of the DDG-51 design is evidence of the Navy’s recognition that nuclear submarines have increased dramatically in effectiveness, with the traditional ASW frigate no longer adequate. There was some acknowledgment that the Perry and Knox class ships were obsolete even as they entered service, the reason for their procurement being mainly to keep ship numbers high. The idea seemed suicidal that a vessel of about 3000 tons, which barely made 30 knots, with a single screw, and only a helicopter as its main ASW armament, was meant to contend with the latest Soviet stealth boats that could sustain and often surpass speeds over 30 knots for long periods, and fire long range supersonic cruise missiles while submerged.

The Arleigh Burke Frigate

Yet even the Arleigh Burke which her impressive size and advanced weapons failed to adequately address the problem of anti-submarine warfare in many ways. The increase in size and capability while adding enormous defensive equipment such as advanced radar, some stealth features, anti-missile missiles, and even Kevlar armor in vulnerable space, her anti-sub weapons were little better than the smaller, less capable and drastically cheaper Knox class frigate! And in the initial production, as we have seen, her ASW were actually decreased by all the defensive missiles due to the lack of a helicopter.

While the abilities of the submarine have evolved dramatically over the decades, antisubmarine warfare had advanced much slower. In her ASW armament, the very costly Burkes are little better armed than an outdated frigate. With the 10 mile range of the 1960s era ASROC  (developed in the 1950s,  deployed in the 1960s, updated in the 1990s) such a weapon might be considered a point defense. Given the range of the average cruise missile at 50-200 miles ranges, obviously the submarine doesn’t have to get this close to strike at a surface fleet.

ASW Raises the White Flag

Burke class destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) with Australian destroyer HMAS Brisbane (DDG 41)

Burke class destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) with Australian destroyer HMAS Brisbane (DDG 41)

Giving the Navy the benefit of the doubt that the Burkes are adequate to combat submarines, then you would certainly need lots of them to convoy merchant shipping, amphibious fleets, and guard coastal ports in time of war. The problem with this scenario is the handful of destroyers will be desperately needed to defend the carrier battle fleets, much like the Royal Navy greyhounds protecting the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow in 1914-1918, while the First Battle of the Atlantic raged. The sixty or so large destroyers we have might seem like a lot, except in wartime with numerous threats around the world to defend against, it would likely be nowhere near enough. With the lessons of the last great anti-submarine campaign from 65 years ago in mind, 200-400 escort ships would be a minimum.

Since in no way can even a superpower afford several hundred $2 billion warships, we can only conclude that the West has conceded defeat in the century-long competition with submarines. Since the 1950s, the USN has declared its carrier battle groups and submarines could deal with the threat, without there being a precedent that this would actually work, by sailing boldly into the enemy submarine -infested waters and destroying their ports of supply. Despite this “Charge of the Light Brigade” mentality of sailing Big Ships where no warship would dare sail during the world wars, this has been a convenient excuse to mostly ignore the undersea menace, while spending the bulk of precious shipbuilding funds on very large and ever fewer exquisite warships, mainly geared for peacekeeping operations or air strikes. Though a nod had often been made toward traditional ASW warfare, with the Knox and Perry class frigates, the reluctance to find an adequate replacement for these obsolete warships clearly proves the Navy’s disinterest, or their denial of the problem.

Tomorrow, Pt 2-Return of the Ship Killer

22 Comments leave one →
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  3. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 30, 2009 9:59 am

    I’ve never considered the missile corvette for carrier escort, except maybe a small carrier.

    Likewise I am thinking the SSK’s would dominate the littorals, but also don’t discount their Blue Water abilities. Australia builds very large subs for this purpose. Remember that before USS Nautilus and the second HMS Dreadnought, there was nothing but SSK’s!

  4. June 30, 2009 8:11 am

    distiller, but we are not just talking about carriers…what about the amphibious task group…for the RN that is 8000nm at 15kts, or max speed of 18kts…you can build corvettes with better performance than that and still they can carry a decent amount of fire power.

    its also a point that countering these SSKs which mike is concentrating on will mainly be a littoral battle, of burst and drift, burst and drift; the corvette may well not even need to keep up with the CBG…whose escort will have to be provided by destroyers…on the idea that its to big to hide, so therefore it has to have escorts to powerful to easily overcome. The corvettes are pickets, they are to small to really bother with, but are potent enough that you need to treat them with respect.

    yours sincerly


  5. Distiller permalink
    June 30, 2009 7:01 am


    there is a version of the Russian “Klub” missile that delivers a lightweight torpedo over 50km – an ASROC-SUBROC hybrid on steroids.

    On ASW UAVs: MQ-8 would have to have 60% higher payload capacity to carry the mission systems that will be carried by MH-60 for the LCS.

    I’m not too optimistic about the ASW escort corvette. Can’t keep up with the carrier. I would more think along the lines of a single-tasked Horizon/Horizonte sized design. Before Burke people didn’t try to stuff a destroyer with dual-task capability AAW/ASW, and it might well have been a mistake.

  6. June 30, 2009 5:18 am


    my source for information on the Gotland Exercise, is an RN Commander who was on liason with the USN this summer…so not really referencable…he did say something interesting though, that he thought if it had been and Upholder class down there they would really have been in trouble, as apparently those are quieter when moving than the gotlands…again he has served on HMS Upholder, so it may be proffessional pride, or it may well be true.

    I agree with Distiller that supersonic reaction speed is better than supsonic range, but what I wonder is why no one has done this yet?

    to elaborate on my point about helicopters; well destroyers (or cruisers, which are basically nuclear powered destroyers in todays world) and most auxilaries could easily be fitted to carry 2-3 helos and 4-6ASW UAVs, the corvetes could probably only carry 1 Helo and 2-3ASW UAVs, but they would have the advantage when vs subs, that if the sub blows its cover and fires at the corvette it looses out on its chance to hit the carrier…and for what, but if doesn’t fire at the corvette it could be discovered; and anway just to add to its troubles the helicopters and UAVs from the destroyers and auxilaries on the inside of the corvette perimeter will be coming out too patrol on that as well.

    the final advantage with all this is that enough ASW helicopters could be carried by the other ships, that the carrier could concentrate on carrying strike/air defence aircraft; allowing it to provide a better defence against those swarms of cruise missiles that mike is always predicting.

    yours sincerly


  7. Distiller permalink
    June 30, 2009 4:40 am


    VL-ASROC should have some kinematic reserves, as the Mk.114/Mod0 booster is well short 2 meters long, and the Mk.54 is somewhat shy of 3 meters. Max length for the Mk.41 VLS is roughly 6.5 meters, meaning a Mk114/Mod1 could be lengthened by almost 100%, which should give VL-ASROC close to 50nm range. Putting a torpedo on a Tomahawk might be possible, but I think ASW is a time critical task and supersonic ballistic delivery is simply faster than a subsonic cruise missile.

    And I’m all for 3 instead of 2 MH-60 on a dedicated ASW escort. Dual-role escorts are full of operational problems. And the traditional close escort concept should be replaced by a more pro-active concept, while freeing them from nanny jobs. Which means all ships have to be able to defend their own 10nm bubble instead of relying on other units.

  8. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 29, 2009 6:25 pm

    Heretic, thanks!

    Alex, thats a good point, when you could swarm the offending sub before he takes out the helos’ mothership.

  9. Heretic permalink
    June 29, 2009 5:42 pm

    HMS Gotland (Gtd)

    Look at some of the reference articles linked at the end. Doesn’t take a whole lot of Search Fu with article titles like these …

  10. June 29, 2009 5:06 pm

    I know mike, if a ship carried two helicopters, and about 4-6 ASW UAV’s that would be a different matter; then you really would be capable, but you do need something better range – I am still rooting for the Mk46 Torp attached to the tomahawk body, or even the harpoon would be better than the current one.

    yours sincerly


  11. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 29, 2009 4:34 pm

    Heretic said “Which explains why in exercises with the USN, the Swedish Navy Gotland essentially could not be found by the CBG(s) ”

    Do you have a source link for this? Not doubting you but I would love to see this for future reference.

    Alex, I am concerned about the helicopter as a primary ASW weapon on most warships. It is very slow, and must lurk in a dangerous hover while seeking its prey with sonobouys. In this position it can be vulnerable to countermeasures like sub-launched SAMs.

  12. June 29, 2009 3:01 pm

    the gotland is brilliant, but I would point out those exercises are littoral exercises; and it often does not move around much or ‘kill’ the enemy, so all it does is sit their quietly – so of course it was impossible to find; if it had to move distances, or was taking the battle to the CBG in the deeper more open waters of the atlantic ocean, rather than the atlantic shoreline I doubt it would be such a one way battle.

    this is what everyone forgets with the SSKs even AIP’s, where they are is dangerous, but they are rather like mines, once you know where they are you do have the option of avoiding them – you do not have to go in and get them; but if they do move then more often than not they will be pounced by the ‘local friendly neighbourhood SSN’ or ASW helicopter; or in the case of the russian’s that nasty little corvette which is sitting silently on the surface not moving – and it never really needs to, afterall its not running out of oxygen.

    yours sincerly


  13. Heretic permalink
    June 29, 2009 2:46 pm

    I don’t think anyone here has a clear understanding of the complexity involved in prosecuting an attack against a carrier battle group with an AIP powered sub. If the CBG is on the ball, not only will it have the carriers helicopters out pinging but also the escorts, its escorting subs (I believe a Los Angeles class or similar sub is assigned to each Group) and you’ll have P-3’s flying low having that MAD singing for days.

    Which explains why in exercises with the USN, the Swedish Navy Gotland essentially could not be found by the CBG(s) that were training to find the Gotland … a single “hostile” sub. The USN was so shocked by this performance that they leased the Gotland for an extra year to keep running the exercises … and still couldn’t find the Gotland.

    And MAD can sing all it wants … and not get much of anything if the hull is made of non-ferrous metals.

    And just think, the Kockums is already working on the next generation of boat after the Gotland … the A26.

  14. June 29, 2009 1:41 pm

    I think (personally) that asw is becoming a collective exercise; I also think that it is an area which has not had enough funding

    there has been this idea; we have the helicopters…therefore we have cracked it

    it does need more development; you need destroyer and corvette sized escorts…the former because they can be made big enough and powerful enough to defend those things that can’t hide, the later because they can be produced in enough numbers and armed well enough to be able to make a significant contribution to future conflicts.

    yours sincerly


  15. June 29, 2009 12:41 pm

    helicopters pinging (ditched sonar):
    countermeasures: acoustic tiles (they work fine at more frequencies), decoy torpedo for deception

    escorting sub (SSN):
    much noisier than a SSK in AIP mode

    MAD (magnetic anomaly detector):
    MAD is quite outdated equipment because of amagnetic steel hulls (since 60’s).
    Carrier group has no Viking ASW aircraft any more and MAD is neither that effective nor that common/important on slow ASW helicopters.
    P-3’s have it, but P-8 will fly too high for MAD use.
    Effective range is only few hundred meter width at best anyway.
    Shallow water: Lots of false MAD alarms on wrecks and natural iron concentrations.

    Most important: Even SSK without AIP have often defeated CVBGs in exercises.

    SSK are slow, but deadly ambushers against fast-moving ships and able to sneak up on slow-moving ships.

  16. solomon permalink
    June 29, 2009 12:30 pm

    I don’t think anyone here has a clear understanding of the complexity involved in prosecuting an attack against a carrier battle group with an AIP powered sub. If the CBG is on the ball, not only will it have the carriers helicopters out pinging but also the escorts, its escorting subs (I believe a Los Angeles class or similar sub is assigned to each Group) and you’ll have P-3’s flying low having that MAD singing for days. Just like the Marine Corps is having to reset itself to a maritime environment so must the Navy get back into the sub-hunting business. We’ve seen times like this before. I remind everyone of the concern right after Vietnam, when Army officers were concerned that too much time had been spent in the jungle and traditional warfighting skills had been lost, Marine officers felt the same but wanted to get back into the expeditionary business. In the Navy traditional surface action had been neglected with the emphasis on riverine warfare and air strikes. We’ve been here before and we’ll pull through it.

  17. Heretic permalink
    June 29, 2009 11:05 am

    It’s enough to make you wonder if the best ASW platform might not be an SSP with AIP prowling around … rather than a “noisy” sub-hunter/destroyer that can only surprise a sub by trailing a towed sonar array the “enemy” sub can’t “see” on sonar.

  18. June 29, 2009 9:30 am

    “The idea seemed suicidal that a vessel of about 3000 tons, which barely made 30 knots, with a single screw, and only a helicopter as its main ASW armament, was meant to contend with the latest Soviet stealth boats…”

    I didn’t expect this from a corvette fan.

    Size and speed are actually not that important in ASW. The Russians used many even smaller ASW corvettes in coastal waters.
    Noise level, sonar equipment, helicopter capabilities, some ASW weapons, torpedo countermeasures and cooperation with other ASW units count much more.

    The basic failure of ASW ships is probably that they weren’t built with as much emphasis on acoustic stealth as submarines. It’s difficult to use acoustic tiles on them (because of the mechanical stress due to waves), but the screw designs are obviously not as much stealth-oriented as in subs.
    There’s also no ‘slow&silent’ drive available, like two stirling engines with maybe 1,000 kW in an acoustically insulated cell (combined diesel and stirling – electric drive). The reason is probably that most ASW frigates were meant for convoy escort – at about 15 kts cruise speed.

  19. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 29, 2009 8:24 am

    Solomon. Note this was Part 1. Bear with me…

  20. solomon permalink
    June 29, 2009 8:00 am

    What about Naval Aviation? The SH-60, P-3, upcoming P-8 and Global Hawk crowd might be offended that you didn’t include them in your scenario. You also left out of your calculation the Virginia, Sea Wolf and Los Angeles class subs that would hunt down and destroy some of these enemy subs as well as provide escorts to the Carrier Battle Groups and Amphibious Ready Groups sailing in harms way. With the help of our allies in the anti-sub community (I hear the Australians are very good) this might not be as big a problem as portrayed.


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