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Sub Hunters Take a Dive Pt 4

July 2, 2009

The “Best” Sub Hunter

Australian navy submarine HMAS Waller (SSG 75).

Australian navy submarine HMAS Waller (SSG 75).

The Navy will insist the most effective way to sink a submarine is with another submarine. This may be a true statement but not necessarily how the admirals would have you believe. Historically the most successful killer of submarines have been aircraft and surface ships, with about 250 U-boats sinkings apiece during the Second Battle of the Atlantic. Only 22 German submarines were lost due to other subs, and in the Pacific just 1 US boat was sunk by its Japanese equivalent. In all recorded history only a single  sub has been sunk by another boat while both were submerged, the U-864 by HMS Venturer in February 1945.

During wargames with US nuclear boats Allied conventional craft such as the Swedish Gotland have bested US warships including submarines. Apparently, the Australians are especially adept at “killing” our advanced boats, specifically the Collins class HMAS Waller, according to Wikipedia:

HMAS Waller participated in RIMPAC 2000. During the exercise, Waller successfully “sank” two Los Angeles submarines, and moved into torpedo range of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln without being detected.
During Exercise Tandem Thrust in 2001, HMAS Waller “sank” two USN amphibious assault ships in waters between 75 and 105 metres (250 and 340 ft) in depth, barely more than the length of the submarine itself.

We think the above is a history-making incident, as profound as the aircraft carrier exercises conducted by the US Fleet in the 1930s. Conventional boats are much quieter, smaller, and naturally more maneuverable than the very large craft now deployed by the USN. It could be that in a future war at sea, the nuclear submarine which is the scourge of the surface fleet, may be at risk as well from the miniature, apparently underpowered, and presumed less able versions of themselves.

The Aerial Threat

The problems of aircraft in modern anti-submarine warfare are obvious. Each operate in two different environments, one below the sea, the other well above it. Neither can effectively operate in the other’s natural habitat, so neither are a major threat to the other unless one invades the other’s territory.

When submarines sailed exclusively on the surface, before the advent of snorkels, nuclear power, and Air Independent Propulsion, the patrol bomber equipped with ASV (Air to Surface Vessel) radar had the advantage. Today as we have seen, the new diving boats are true submersibles, a major threat to all two venture in or near her dimension. With this theory in mind, the slow, hovering ASW helicopter may be at greatest risk. Here is DK Brown on the risks aircraft take, from his book, “The Future British Surface Fleet“:

In many ASW operations, a helicopter or patrol aircraft will be required to fly low and slow, which makes either vulnerable to even the simplest submarine-launched anti-aircraft missiles…It is surprising that more attention has not been given to such weapons as, even if they had a low success rate, their use would serious disrupt ASW as currently conducted.

In wartime, sub-launched SAMs would certainly be deployed. In the 1970s Britain experimented with a version of their Blowpipe missile titled SLAM (Submarine Launched Airflight Missile). The Soviets designed the SA-19 Iglas missile for use on its Kilo class conventional boat.

The Patrol Bomber still in frontline US service since the 1960s is the P-3 Orion. It is still a good platform despite its age with plans to replace it with the jet-powered P-8 Poseidon. Similar aging ASW workhorses are flown by allied nations include the British Nimrod and the French Atlantique 2. Listen to the following commentary on US patrol planes from

Of the more than 10,000 hours flown by Navy P-3Cs in the Persian Gulf, none of this time involved ASW. Rather, the missions involved supporting ground troops in Iraq and performing maritime interception operations as part of the coalition’s stopping illegal smuggling of oil. While meeting the current needs of the service after essentially abandoning ASW after the collapse of the USSR, the world’s navies – the US Navy in the forefront — find themselves ill-equipped to counter the explosive growth in the Third World fleet of stealthy, fourth generation diesel-electric subs like the U-212/214-class and the Scorpene-class…The critical shortage of P-3Cs has resulted in an almost total cessation of training when a squadron returns home from deployment as most of its aircraft are quickly cycled back to the fleet for overseas operations. In 1991 the Navy had 25 active and 13 reserve VP squadrons, each with nine airplanes. Today it has 12 active operational and six reserve squadrons, with all reserve squadrons to have been decommissioned by 2007. There are simply no aircraft to spare for the reserves any longer. Today, the Navy is down to just three deployment sites with each squadron having just eight airplanes each, a total of 24 planes.

The Sound of Silence
For detecting submerged submarines, the Navy places great faith in sounding equipment, such as Sonar. Much was made before World War 2 of the miracle of Asdic/Sonar, but this failed to take into account various factors which can disrupt the effects of the equipment, especailly explosions caused by depth charges.  Lack of training, the environment, too few detection platforms, all can contribute to the problems of depending on sound detection. Still, modern Sonar is very good, but there is no perfect solution for detecting a stealthy silent submarine when it is submerged.

Here are some facts on Sonar and the US Navy’s SOSUS from DK Brown and his book “The Future British Surface Fleet“:

  • Because (SOSUS) installations are fixed, they are vulnerable to countermeasures and they cannot be redeployed to meet threats in other parts of the world.
  • Shortage of sonobouys could soon become a problem in a prolonged war, as would numbers of patrol aircraft.
  • The range at which passive sonars of all sorts can detect these new, quiet submarines is much reduced, though many older, clanking boats will remain in service for years,’
  • Since active sonar has to detect an echo, inherently weak, from the target,  its range is limited and may be further reduced if the target submarine is given anechoic coating.

The Sum of Our Fears

A P-3C Orion patrols above USS Seawolf (SSN 21).

A P-3C Orion patrols above USS Seawolf (SSN 21).

Some may consider the bleak picture we have painted concerning the state of anti-submarine warfare leaves no room for hope. They may see the proud surface combatants conceding defeat, lowering their flags, and dropping anchor for the final time while the new U-boats range the Blue Ocean at their will. This need not be the case, if a concerted effort is made by Western navies to recall the basics of war at sea, rejecting the special circumstances of the Cold War when they had no peer rival  for much of the period.

The number of patrol plane squadrons should be boosted dramatically, perhaps giving the Air Force a greater role by steering it from hot jet fighters. The use of unmanned aerials vehicles on all warships should proceed immediately. New hulls forms, smaller ships, a greater number of combatants at sea might restore at least a parity with the astonishingly capable stealthy attack submarine. Then when all is said and done, it will be up to the sailors themselves, as it always with in naval combat, to tilt the balance back in our favor, securing Freedom of the Seas for a new generation.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Heretic permalink
    July 5, 2009 8:22 am

    Joe Buff elucidates the downsides of diesels better than i can

    He’s also … obviously … someone who believes that the 99% exquisite solution will always, under every operational circumstance he cares to examine, always always always be better than the 75% “good enough” solution that allows a nation to purchase far greater numbers. He even admits that it is (easily?) possible to buy 4 or 5 SSKs for the price of 1 SSN. While each boat is (granted), individually “weaker” than an SSN, they are collectively stronger … ie. more Bang for Buck in aggregate.

    Shermans vs Tigers.
    A Tiger can easily kill 10 Shermans.
    But there always seems to be an 11th Sherman …

    Joe Buff complains that an SSK only carries 20 torpedoes, while a Virginia carries 38. But if you can buy five SSKs for every Virginia, then the SSK “fleet” can patrol the sea with 100 torpedoes loaded, cover a MUCH larger area of battlespace (since you’ve got multiple boats, instead of just one) and present a far greater threat to an opposing force than just one SSN.

    And besides … under what (thrilling?) wartime scenario is a single sub going to get to shoot more than 20 “fish” before returning to base? Even against an underway USN CBG, the largest collection of warships that assemble together in the entire world short of wargaming exercises for fleet on fleet actions … how many “fish” are you going to need in order to sink the entire CBG? According to the Walrus in exercises against the USS Theodore Roosevelt … and her escorts(!) … having less than 38 was quite sufficient … thank you very much … and not only did the surface ships get sunk, but so did the USS Boise an SSN!

    Joe Buff is an advocate of the “perfect” and an enemy to anything that’s “good enough” to get the job done. He also completely falls for the line of thinking (hook, line, sinker, rod, reel, fisherman and part of the dock, apparently) that no SSN could EVER “lose” to an SSK (or anything else) because each SSN is so “strong” individually on every parameter he cares to analyze that it ought to be “Game Over” by default for everything else in the water. Thus, he has absolutely no problem embracing the “Too Big To Fail” fallacy of thinking that has so many naval analysts in its grip. If you lose one of four (or five) SSKs to enemy action/mishap during a shooting war, you’ve still got a viable fighting force. If you lose one of your one SSNs … you’re done … and you aren’t getting that boat back for years and years and years.

    Joe Buff is advocating for a Navy that doesn’t have to fight (for real) … it only has to train to fight.

    And I really liked how he went out of his way to minimize the signature differences between an SSK and an SSN. Nice bit of sleight of hand there Joe.

  2. Mike Burleson permalink
    July 4, 2009 8:38 pm

    Scott, thats correct about the Type VII. My bad.

  3. Scott B. permalink
    July 4, 2009 5:06 pm

    Scott B. said : “4) Spending most of your time submerged (or even schnorkelled) doesn’t sound like a winning strategy nowadays…”

    That should read :

    4) Spending most of your time surfaced (or even schnorkelled) doesn’t sound like a winning strategy nowadays…

  4. Scott B. permalink
    July 4, 2009 2:40 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “In the Battle of the Atlantic, the backbone of the German Navy was a 700 ton type IV.”

    Quick comments :

    1) Type IV was a planned resupply/repair U-Boat which was never built.

    2) Type VII U-Boats, which were the workhorses of the Germany Navy in the Battle of the Atlantic, indeed displaced about 800 tons surfaced and 900 tons submerged.

    3) Type VII U-Boats, however, spent most of the time surfaced, which was the only way they could operate over any meaningful distances (their range submerged was less than 100nm @ 4 knots).

    4) Spending most of your time submerged (or even schnorkelled) doesn’t sound like a winning strategy nowadays…

  5. Mike Burleson permalink
    July 4, 2009 7:20 am

    Smitty, the link you posted is the greatest excuse for a smaller, less capable fleet on a death spiral I have ever read! It makes much book sense, but very little common sense. I admire the writer’s audacity to hide behind his figures!

    In the real world though, SSK’s have been quite useful, especially since they are still being bought and built by most of the world’s navies, and outnumber the nuclear boats with some 400 built or building in fleets small and large. Since the World Wars, they have wracked up a record of ship sinkings unparalleled in world history, to this day well into the Atomic Age.

    I think it also interesting that the size the author insists “more is better” has no real factual reference. In the Battle of the Atlantic, the backbone of the German Navy was a 700 ton type VII. The size of American boats that spanned the wide Pacific often for months and brought Japan to its needs, sinking more enemy warships than any other weapon including aircraft, were 2000 tons or less.

    That said, I am not “anti-nuclear”. The nuke boats are supreme long-distance runners and have an ominous record against surface ships, at least in wargames. If you are can build them, i say more power to you. But I also think we should not discount the abilities of a very quiet and small conventional boats, which can do many things the higher-performing boat can do. And you don’t need nuke power to fire supersonic cruise missiles or torpedoes. Modern warfare as we have seen in the various Gulf Wars is more about the weapons you carry, not the platform that carry them.

  6. B.Smitty permalink
    July 3, 2009 11:43 pm

    Joe Buff elucidates the downsides of diesels better than i can,,,Buff_071305-P1,00.html

  7. Heretic permalink
    July 3, 2009 10:09 am

    B.Smitty said: Hmm, SSKs don’t typically carry the “same detection equipment and armament” as an SSN. They may carry the same types of equipment, but SSN versions are usually larger and more capable.

    Shenannigans again, especially on the ASW/ASuW weapons. The heavyweight torpedo is exactly the same, whether it’s launched by a SSN, a SSK or an SSP. The lightweight torpedo is exactly the same, whether it’s launched by a SSN, a SSK or an SSP. If you build it with cruise missiles, they’ll all use the exact same kind of cruise missiles. There is no meaningful difference in the *types* of weapons you can deploy from a SSN, or SSK, or SSP, for the ASW/ASuW mission.

    The only meaningful difference between conventional and nuclear boats would be for the Land Attack role, where you’d *want* to have SLCMs and SLBMs on board. But at that point, the submarine stops being (primarily) a tactical asset for engaging opposing navies, and becomes more of a strategic asset as part of the deterrence force.

    Mike said: I wonder how much of this was in the Blue Water, where supposedly the traditional warships reigns supreme. We are told that the conventional subs are mainly a threat within the littorals

    Everyone here (and elsewhere that this discussion occurs) seems to rather conveniently forget that shallow water is the “enemy” of ALL submarines. When there’s less water between air and mud, it becomes easier to find submarines … simply because there’s a much smaller volume of water to search in order to find them. If the analogy helps, shallow waters make the haystack smaller.

    The reason why conventional subs are “better” in shallow waters is because the vessels themselves are smaller and thus more maneuverable … and thus, able to go (more) “safely” into areas where the bigger nuclear subs would have their movements (more) constricted. Nothing gives away your presence/position better than scraping the outer hull on terrain.

    To extend the analogy above even further, the conventional subs are smaller needles. It therefore logically follows that it’s “easier” to hide a smaller needle in a smaller haystack.

    And Mike, since multiple war games in the article you cited (and I quoted above) have the conventional subs “sinking” ships in CBGs on mock deployment (ie. not in green waters), the strong implication, reading between the lines, is that these engagements took place out in the big blue, since you don’t bring ships like the USS Theodore Roosevelt (a CVN) *and her escorts* within 25nmi of any coastline that isn’t both friendly and secured during a wargame exercise … unless you’re doing something like a straits transit as part of the wargame script perhaps.

    Indeed, the article you cite is at pains to point out that only one of the engagements was in (relatively) shallow water … of 200-350 ft deep. That strongly implies that the shallow water/littoral engagement was NOT the norm for these sorts of actions, rather than being the “only to be expected” environment that all of these wargames took place in. Note that one of the locations for wargames specifically mentioned is Hawaii … which last I checked has a rather substantial amount of deep blue water surrounding it (although, to be fair, it also has some shallows near the islands themselves, but they’re not that large of an area).

    If anything, the evidence staring us in the face is that conventional subs are a threat EVERYWHERE … not *just* in shallow waters, as some here on your blog (and elsewhere) would prefer to believe.

  8. Distiller permalink
    July 3, 2009 12:18 am

    I’m not so optimistic about sub launched SAMs. Gives away the presence of the sub. Think staying low and playing dead would usually be preferable.

    Back during the last war being really fast and steering an erratic course seemed the best bet against subs. Has that changed? The lack of escorts able to keep up with the CVNs in higher sea states and over longer distances might be a problem here.

    I also think that the dual-role Burkes have made the situation actually worse, since they have to play nanny against AShM for the big units, which means they are restricted in their movements, but should also provide ASW screen, which requires a completly different movement pattern.

    You are right here about numbers. I think this really stems from underestimating the torpedo as a weapon, since the main threat was perceived as being AShM. But still at the end of the Cold War a carrier group had four AAW escorts, and six ASW escorts (of which too many were Perrys), plus two SSN. Today it’s much more AAW heavy, some Burkes are only second rate in ASW, and the Vikings are gone.

    What I can’t figure in is if there is technology to detect subs from space. If something like that exists we might all be talking bull here.

  9. Mike Burleson permalink
    July 2, 2009 4:39 pm

    Its that “larger” that may be their one drawback, Smitty. Other than the noise.

    Interesting stuff Heretic! I wonder how much of this was in the Blue Water, where supposedly the traditional warships reigns supreme. We are told that the conventional subs are mainly a threat within the littorals, forgetting that before the 1950s, there were nothing but SSKs which racked up a considerable record of ship sinkings, including warships.

  10. B.Smitty permalink
    July 2, 2009 2:07 pm

    Hmm, SSKs don’t typically carry the “same detection equipment and armament” as an SSN. They may carry the same types of equipment, but SSN versions are usually larger and more capable.

  11. Heretic permalink
    July 2, 2009 10:15 am

    From the Allied conventional craft link that Mike cites above, some really eye opening information for those people on this blog, and elsewhere, who think that SSN means automatic “Game Over” for anything else (also known as counting chickens before they’re hatched):

    Twenty-three years ago during the 1981 NATO exercise Ocean Venture, an unnamed 1960s vintage Canadian diesel submarine “sank” the carrier USS America without once being itself detected, and a second unidentified vintage sub “sank” the carrier USS Forrestal.

    What did we learn from this?

    Eight years later, during NATO exercise Northern Star, the Dutch diesel submarine Zwaardvis stalked and “sank” the USS America again. Did the America just have problems? Well, in RIMPAC 1996, the Chilean diesel submarine Simpson “sank” the carrier USS Independence, and in 1999 during NATO exercise JTFEX/TMDI99, Dutch diesel submarine Walrus not only “sank” the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, but also “took out” the American exercise command ship USS Mount Whitney, plus a cruiser, several destroyers and frigates, and the nuke fast attack USS Boise – all without herself receiving a scratch.

    Then, during RIMPAC 2000, the Australian Collins Class diesel sub HMAS Waller “sank” two American nuke fast attacks and got dangerously close to the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. During Operation Tandem Thrust in 2001, HMAS Waller “sank” two American amphibious assault ships in waters between 200 to 350 feet deep, barely more than the length of the submarine itself, and an unnamed Chilean diesel sub “took out” nuclear fast attack sub USS Montpelier twice during successive exercise runs. A year later in October 2002, HMAS Sheehan successfully hunted down and “killed” the U.S. fast attack USS Olympia during exercises near Hawaii, and just a year ago in September 2003, in an unnamed (read “classified”) exercise, several Collins Class subs “sank” two U.S. fast attack subs and a carrier – all unnamed, of course. And a month later another Collins Class sub surprised and “sank” an American fast attack during another exercise.


    What’s going on here? How is it possible for “ancient,” diesel powered “surface-bound” submarines to take on and defeat the best-trained, best-equipped sailors driving the most advanced ships and submarines in the world?

    Diesel submarines operating on batteries are quiet. They’re small and maneuverable, and they carry the same detection equipment and armament as their nuke big brothers. Their only disadvantage is their limited submerged time. And as the above narrative reveals, even this disadvantage does not seem to matter very much. In 2001, the Waller eventually was herself “sunk,” but the trade was one “insignificant” diesel sub in exchange for two large amphibious assault ships. If you must keep score, this is how to do it.

  12. July 2, 2009 8:35 am

    I’m going to jump in right away. Since the statitistics prove out aerial threats to submarines are greater; here is why I think that airships are the next, best tool:
    (1) Helicopters must deploy from their host vessel, or from a fairly close shore distance. Airships can deploy direct from CONUS to any part of the globe, if wanted.
    (2) Both Airplanes and helicopters are limited in their ability to remain on station because of their fuel needs. Refueling helps, but is constrained by availability of assets. Airships can fly using fractions of the fuel of other aircraft; or, using no fuel whatsoever, which gives airships more ability to track/detect subs.
    (3) Since fuel costs continue to rise; Airships are a better way to overcome this constraint, both in training and in ops flights.
    (4) In light of increasing submarine to air missile threats, it is important to understand than an airship can be constructed, and operated, in a stealthy manner that can virtually negate that submarine missile threat.
    (5) Unlike (most) airplanes or helicopters, an airship can be completely amphibious; landing in the water and simply waiting to deploy when needed.
    (6) Airships are cheaper to construct than surface vessels; and, in many ways, cheaper than other types of aircraft.
    (7) Airships can carry a larger payload than any other type of aircraft. This can be configured in almost any form of sensor/defensive/offensive manner needeed.
    (8) Airships can offer crew emmenities that are far greater than other aircraft; which can result in greater crew efficiency.
    (9) Airships (propertly designed and constructed)are more “survivable” than any other type of aircraft.
    (10) The ability of an airship to fly for weeks, with no range limitations, while offering crew safety, comfort….gives it the advantages of an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle…but, keeps the pilot and crew on board. This form of MANNED craft equates to having a supercomputer on an airship, compared to to any/all other UAV’s

    We just have to get away from “blimps”.

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