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Submarine Threat Worse Than You Think

May 27, 2010
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I am out this week caring for my father who is in the hospital. Please enjoy this golden oldie post, related to the recent Cheonan sinking apparently by a North Korean minisub, and the sudden rebirth of interest in anti-submarine warfare. The problem may be a bit more complicated than just brushing up on some neglected skills. From 2007 here are5 Signs the Modern Submarine Rules the Waves“:

In a recent posting I listed the 5 Reasons the Aircraft Carrier is Obsolete. Today I point out the true capital ship in modern war at sea, an old but new weapon called the submarine.

1). The West has fallen seriously behind in anti-submarine warfare. After the collapse of the Soviet Empire, and the subsequent downgrading of the Red submarine fleet, America and Britain discarded the bulk of their anti-sub forces. In the last World War it took thousands of warships and aircraft to defeat the U-boat menace, but America and Britain are currently gutting their fleets to pay for ever larger and more expensive carriers.

2). Today’s modern submarines are vastly more capable than during the World Wars. During those previous conflicts, submarines spent most of the time on the surface and often used their deck guns as much as torpedoes to sink their prey. Today’s nuclear submarines regularly spend months underwater, and cheaper AIP submarine can stay submerged for weeks.

3). Since World War 2 anti-submarine defenses have failed to match the attack boat’s advancements in weaponry. An antisubmarine vessel must get within a few miles of an enemy sub to fire its rockets or torpedoes. Its only long-range defense, the helicopter, is slow and must linger in a vulnerable hover while its sonar buoys seek out their prey. In contrast, a modern submarine can launch its missiles from 75 miles away and farther. Even when the defenses are good, they aren’t full-proof, as proven last year when a Chinese submarine stalked and got within torpedo range of the carrier USS Kitty Hawk.

4). The Submarine is as fast as, and some times betters the speed of antisub ships. Since 1945 the average speed of destroyers have remained at 30 knots, with only nuclear vessels able to maintain this rate for any period. In contrast, the velocity of nuclear attack submarines has tripled and quadrupled from around 10 knots submerged to 30-40 knots since then.

5). Submarines are increasingly duplicating the missions of more vulnerable surface ships. These tasks already include launching unmanned aircraft, long-range surface attack with cruise missiles, and even small landing parties in the form of US Navy SEALs. They are also far harder to detect than giant new Stealth destroyers the Navy plans to build. Finally, if America were to suddenly lose her preeminent surface fleet of carrier groups in such a future conflict, she would still have an excellent and capable submarine force to carry the fight to the enemy.

More-If the above wasn’t enough evidence, this story from last week reveals Lone U-Boat Defeats NATO.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink*
    May 30, 2010 7:05 am

    Thanks guys for all your best wishes!

  2. Graham Strouse permalink
    May 29, 2010 7:44 pm

    Just wanted to wish you and your dad the best, Mike.

  3. Chuck Hill permalink
    May 28, 2010 3:35 pm

    Best wishes Mike. Hope your dad is better soon. We miss the banter.

    The surface/air team potentially has great advantage over the sub in the ability to coordinate many sensors and weapons, but it takes a major commitment to exploit it. Unmanned surface vessels w/towed arrays networked to a mother ship, are potentially a cheap force multiplier with greater endurance and detection range than helicopters.

  4. May 28, 2010 8:38 am

    I wish you and your dad the best. Taking care of an ill parent is very tiring (I took care of my father for 7 years after he suffered a paralyzing strike), and I know from personal experience that it is good thing that you are there, regardless of what is your father’s illness.

  5. MCP permalink
    May 28, 2010 5:59 am

    In response to Jed’s comment:
    “Sure, IF it can get a firing solution. How does the stealthy SSK (AIP or diesel) get the information to fire its missiles ? Passive sonar ? I think that would be tenuous to say the least, but I suppose you might just “throw” your missile down a bearing and hope for the best (which depends on your missile, can it climb to higher altitude to give its radar more range ? Can its radar discriminate between targets or do target recognition ? Does it have have the capability to do a search pattern, then descend to attack the required target, ? Etc etc……”

    With modern ASCMs, the answer is yes to most of these questions. This turns an SSK into a missile truck, not requiring a “firing solution” to engage at long ranges. As mentioned, the advance in submarine weapons over the years has far outpaced the advance in ASW weapons. This has made the submarine more lethal and further tipped the equation away from surface ships.

    One of the basic problems of the surface ASW dilemma, as compared to submarine ASW, sub ASuW and air ASW, is that of operating media. While subs and aircraft can take full advantage of the media (ocean or the air) they operate in and compensate for the inherent disadvantages of that media, surface ships cannot take advantage of either and are constrained by the limitations of both.

  6. elgatoso permalink
    May 28, 2010 2:56 am

    I wish your father a recovery

  7. Greg permalink
    May 27, 2010 6:54 pm

    Mike, a bit late but I just wanted to wish you and your father well. It’s excellent that you are able to be there for him. Best wishes.

  8. D. E. Reddick permalink
    May 27, 2010 2:46 pm

    Mike,

    I would simply repeat the kind statements of other contributors in regards to your father. Further, be sure to take care of yourself. The possibility of emotional burnout and depression can have a great impact upon you in such times of stress and difficulty. And watch out for the others in your family who might start suffering from such problems.

    Back to the needs of ASW. It’s a simple fact that it doesn’t require a SSN or AIP SSK for some nation to successfully attack a more or less modern surface warship. The mini-submarines such as are deployed by North Korea and Iran appear to be capable of sinking a warship such as the South Korean corvette ROKS Cheonan. Here are a couple of recent descriptions of such NorK designs from PlaneMan.

    http://www.militaryphotos.net/forums/showthread.php?176651-South-korea-looking-into-possible-torpedo-attack-by-north/page42

    Posting #629

    http://www.militaryphotos.net/forums/showthread.php?176651-South-korea-looking-into-possible-torpedo-attack-by-north/page43

    Posting #645

  9. Marcase permalink
    May 27, 2010 1:39 pm

    Best wishes and a speedy recovery for your father Mike, hope all goes well.

  10. Joe permalink
    May 27, 2010 11:41 am

    Mike,

    I hope your father gets better soon. We’ll see you when you get back.

  11. Chris Stefan permalink
    May 27, 2010 11:01 am

    One thought for improving carrier based ASW and MPA capability would be something based around the C-2 airframe. Perhaps packing in as much of the P-8 mission package as will fit on the smaller aircraft.

    The C-2 could also be the basis for a carrier based tanker. Use removable fuel bladders and hose reel pods and the tankers could also serve as cargo aircraft.

  12. B.Smitty permalink
    May 27, 2010 10:09 am

    hokie_1997,

    I agree that aviation is key to cracking the ASW nut.

    Can we rely on SOSUS/SURTASS nowadays given the improvements to SSK and SSN stealth? (Especially in the littorals.) We cancelled ADS, so there is no deployable, expeditionary equivalent to SOSUS.

    I think unmanned systems are another asymmetric response to the ASW problem. My issue with the current crop is that they are trying to force the USV into a package that fits on existing ships, rather than starting from a clean sheet. 7m and 11m RHIBs are going to be range, payload and endurance limited. Motherships will still have to close to within a potentially dangerous range to operate them. Also the number of USVs motherships will carry seems rather low. 1 or 2 USVs per LCS? Why aren’t we building ships that can carry a dozen or more?

  13. Hudson permalink
    May 27, 2010 10:06 am

    Best wishes for you and your Dad, that he can leave the hospital in ship shape soon.

  14. Mrs. Davis permalink
    May 27, 2010 9:37 am

    Best wishes for your father’s swift recovery.

    We all hope you can surface soon.

  15. Jed permalink
    May 27, 2010 9:31 am

    Mike, I too would like to add my best wishes for a speedy recovery for your father, I hope all is as well as can be.

    Ref: “Its only long-range defense, the helicopter, is slow and must linger in a vulnerable hover while its sonar buoys seek out their prey”

    What a load of rubbish…… come on ! How is a helicopter slow ? Even if it transits to its patrol zone at a stately 100 Kts that’s 3 times the speed of the surface unit which deployed it. Also a good ASW helo can deploy active and passive sonar buoys, so that it does not have to be constantly “dipping” – until it needs to. It can work in “bi-static” mode using both dipper and buoys as well.

    Ref: “In contrast, a modern submarine can launch its missiles from 75 miles away and farther.”

    Sure, IF it can get a firing solution. How does the stealthy SSK (AIP or diesel) get the information to fire its missiles ? Passive sonar ? I think that would be tenuous to say the least, but I suppose you might just “throw” your missile down a bearing and hope for the best (which depends on your missile, can it climb to higher altitude to give its radar more range ? Can its radar discriminate between targets or do target recognition ? Does it have have the capability to do a search pattern, then descend to attack the required target, ? Etc etc……

    I would be more worried about modern, fast homing torpedo than the missile threat, as shown by what the RN did to the General Belgrano (with WWII ‘straight running’ torpedoes) and the Cheonan incident. So what is the range of a VL ASROC fired from a MK41 ?

  16. hokie_1997 permalink
    May 27, 2010 9:29 am

    Mike,

    First off – I wish your father a speedy recovery.

    I generally agree ASW has been a low priority since the end of the Cold War. The top-end subs have gotten more lethal – but if you look at the more likely threat (low end diesels) they aren’t much worse than what we faced in WW2.

    I’ve expressed my thoughts before that surface vessels are the wrong paradigm for tackling the sub threat.

    Subs are designed to sink surface ships. So why go after them in the very medium from which they are dominant, using the very thing they are designed to kill? In short — why fight fair?

    I think a more logical long-term solution is increased reliance on long-range ASW aircraft (both manned and unmanned) integrated with sophisticated intelligence and cueing (SOSUS, SURTASS). We shouldn’t be fighting fair. We need to get at the sub threat before they can get close enough to engage.

    There is historical precedent. We used to track the heck out of Soviet Bloc subs in the Cold War from the air. And even in WW2, the majority of sub kills were from the air.

  17. B.Smitty permalink
    May 27, 2010 8:54 am

    Hey Mike,

    My thoughts are with you. Hope your father gets better soon!

    Now back to your post,

    1) Yes the West has slacked off ASW, but what is the solution? I don’t see how buying large numbers of small, helicopterless corvettes and/or OPVs will help matters. They don’t have the sensors to find quit submarines, especially nuclear boats. The LCS ASW module was supposed to be part of the solution, at least in the littorals.

    2) No argument.

    3) I would say the helicopter certainly is as important an advancement for surface ships as the AShM is for submarines. The problem is, the sub still holds the advantage. Weapons aren’t the problem. The problem is detecting and localizing a submarine before it can use its weapons.

    4) This only applies to SSNs. SSKs still poke along at little better than WWII sumbarine speeds.

    5) Subs are NOT “increasingly duplicating the missions of more vulnerable surface ships”. They are gaining bit parts. Sub-launched UAVs are range, payload and number-limited, compared to surface aviation. SSNs can carry cruise missiles, but will never have enough to be more than a silver bullet capability. I don’t see this ever changing.

    Going back to 1), what is the response to the ASW deficit? Unmanned systems hold a lot of promise, at least in the littorals. But I don’t think anyone here believes the LCS is the right ship to carry them.

    Advancements in ASW aviation will play a part, but they will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. I think my podded ASW concept for tactical aircraft, if feasible, could greatly expand the number of potential ASW aircraft (to include USAF fighters and bombers).

    SSNs will continue to be the preeminent ASW platform, but they are very expensive.

    Anyone else want to take a stab at it?

  18. Scott B. permalink
    May 27, 2010 8:04 am

    Mike,

    I wish your father a very prompt recovery. Meanwhile, my thoughts are with you and your family.

  19. MatR permalink
    May 27, 2010 7:57 am

    Hope everything goes well with your dad. You can leave the blog in your loyal readers’ capable (‘ahem’) hands :o)

    Surprising info about the South African 209, given the generally poor state of their seamanship due to budget restrictions dramatically limiting training time (no reflection on the crews’ aptitudes). If that report is accurate, the weapon system itself has to take a lot of the credit, which makes modern AIP subs seem all the more deadly, perhaps. I know AIP subs are slow-ish, but most ships or warships don’t steam everywhere at 30 knots in a straight line.

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