Sub Hunters Take a Dive Pt 2
Continuing our study this week of the demise of anti-submarine warfare in Western navies, today we examine closely the threat, and problems faced by the modern sub hunter.
Columbian DIY Subs
Within the tropical swampland of Columbia’s Pacific Coast, a naval patrol comes across a strange craft mostly prepared for launching in a make-shift shipyard. Cocaine smugglers have been constructing primitive semi-submersibles for the transport of their illegal cargo to the American market. It was a good thing the Columbian Navy discovered the vessel before it was put to sea, for once launched these home-made boats with their diesel engines can be very difficult to track even with sophisticated surveillance gear and aircraft.
“Once the semi-subs are out at sea it’s 98% impossible to detect them,” says Major Raúl Donado of Colombia’s marines.
This illustration might give a sense of the still ominous threat posed by submarines in all parts of the world. If an off-the-shelf, primitive craft constructed by smugglers, which doesn’t completely submerge is the cause of so much frustration to naval officials, imagine the use of more capable boats constructed by naval powers in a future war at sea. Such craft need not be the modern and ultra fast nuclear subs which many consider modern day capital ships themselves, but advanced diesel boats much improved from their World War 2 era predecessors.
Building a Better Shipkiller
Modern conventional subs owe their lineage to the German Type XXI U-boats built late in the war. Such craft were built in answer to the huge Allied anti-submarine armadas which by 1943 had basically driven Hitler’s submarine from the Atlantic, hence their name the “Elecktroboote”. Primarily they were built to be faster, quieter, and stay submerged longer than ever before, as Wikipedia describes here:
The key improvement in the Type XXI was greatly increased battery capacity, roughly three times that of the Type VIIC. This gave these boats enormous underwater range, and dramatically reduced the time spent near the surface. They could travel submerged at about five knots (9 km/h) for two or three days before recharging the batteries, which took less than five hours using the snorkel. The Type XXI was also much quieter than the VIIC, making it more difficult to detect when submerged.
Following the war, the victorious powers all seized versions of these advanced and unique craft for their own experiments. Out of this, the US Navy devised the GUPPY program which stood for “Greater Underwater Propulsion Power Program”. Decks were made smooth with the main gun removed, snorkels were added to allow it to remain submerged while recharging the batteries. Most dramatically, the battery power was greatly increased allowing the old war-built boats to approach underwater speeds of nearly 20knots, and more for new-built vessels like USS Albacore (AGSS-569) which surpassed thirty knots in trials.
Let’s pause for a moment to take in the new picture we have just revealed. The tiny, slow, noisy submarines which spent so much time attacking on the surface during both World Wars, while still managing to become the most successful sinker of naval and merchant vessels in all history, suddenly got better. In two world wars Germany alone sank a combined total of 27.4 million gross tons of shipping (see here and here), managing to bring Britain to the brink of surrender twice, and forcing the entire industrialized world to come together in order to defeat these primitive boats. Now with some superficial alterations and more power, the scourge of the ocean could perform its mission better, and faster, being harder to detect, not even counting the enhanced capability of nuclear power!
Best Case Scenario
For the sake of argument, to those still not convinced of the threat, let us give a best case scenario and discount all the imporvements mentioned such as snorkels, smooth decks, increased power, and new Air Independent Propulsion allowing subs to sail underwater for weeks without surfacing. Just providing the most favorable image of future antisubmarine operations, let us say that the only advantage the conventional sub has is because of its ability to dive it is a little more stealthy than a surface warship. According to these figures which we posted earlier, every weapon currently carried by submarines outmatches it’s contemporary on the surface ship:
- surface launched anti-sub missiles: RPK-9 Medvedka (Russia): 12 miles
RUM-139B VL-ASROC (USA): 14 miles
- sub-launched anti-ship torpedoes:YU-6 (Chinese): 28 miles
Mk.48 ADCAP (USA): 31 miles
Torpedo 2000 / Tp62 (Sweden): 31 miles
Black Shark (France/Italy): 31 miles
Seehecht M2A4/Seahake Mod.4 (German): 31 miles
Spearfish (British): 34 miles
- sub-launched anti-ship cruise missiles: SM39 Exocet (France): 31 miles
UGM-84D Harpoon (USA): 87 miles
P-800 Oniks (Russia): 93 miles
3M-54 Klub versions (Russia): up to 186 miles
Remember also that submarines, just by diving, are impervious to anti-ship cruise missiles which has forced surface navies to vast expenditure to counter, with expensive anti-missile systems like PAAMS and Aegis. The submarines just dives. Also, there is no anti-submarine version of the cruise missile.
So, discounting all the enhanced qualities of the platform itself, we see the that the armament alone is almost certainly superior to the weapons currently carried by the dwindling number of surface ASW escorts. In some cases, as with the American Tomahawk and the Russian Granit, the weapon matches or out-ranges the only long-range weapon carried by the sub-hunters, their ASW helicopter.
With the Columbian smuggler sub, we get a glimpse of non-state rogue groups now having the ability to construct primitive yet effective undersea craft which often defy the best efforts of surface ships to catch it. It doesn’t need a stretch of the imagination to see rogue terrorists groups such as Al Qaeda or Hezbollah seizing ahold this idea to use against better equipped industrialized navies such as those deployed by the West, for smuggling but also as suicide craft. In fact, such a scenario become reality recently with the Sri Lankan Army actually discovering such craft (photos here) under construction by the recently defeated terrorist group the LTTE Tamil Tigers. The Sri Lankan Sunday Times provides the details:
The largest underwater craft discovered by troops was about 35 feet in length and fitted with armour plates while the other three appeared to have been in the process of being built.
A senior Sri Lanka Navy officer told The Sunday Times that these submarines were in the experimental stage with no evidence of them being used by the LTTE for any operations. He said that if the submarines were fully developed the LTTE would have used them against the Sri Lanka Navy…A few years ago Thai authorities discovered a specially made semi-submersible submarine which was used by LTTE operatives to smuggle arms and ammunition. The submarine which was discovered in a coastal village located south of Thailand is said to be able to carry 10 tons of equipment.
Tomorrow-The Navy’s Kobayashi Maru test.
Thursday-The Aerial Sub Hunters