Skip to content

SSK’s Versus Midget Subs

June 1, 2010

Wakashio (SS 587), a Japanese Harushio class diesel electric submarine docked at Yokosuka naval base.

A favorite author, Dr. Milan Vego has published another timely proposal in the US Naval Institute Proceedings Magazine titled “The Right Submarine for Lurking in the Littorals“. The deadliness of modern non-nuclear, conventional submarines (SSK’s) was proved in dramatic fashion with the recent sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan by a North Korean Midget submarine. New Wars will be using Dr. Vego’s article as a reference throughout.


Nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs) are far more capable than SSKs in most respects, nevertheless the smaller vessels remain highly capable. A couple advantages over the SSNs make the SSK very desirable, including lower cost, meaning they can be bought in adequate numbers, plus their greater adaptability to the littorals.

That the conventional sub is less capable in terms of endurance, speed, and armament should not be a deal-breaker. The larger, more capable submarine also prices 2-3 times as more, and though the need for submarines have not reduced, arguably they have increased, the numbers of boats available have declined dramatically. Today the USN and the UK Royal Navy deploy half the fleet of subs from the Cold War, about 50 and 8 respectively, and even these modest numbers are projected to decline.

So, instead of lauding the fantastic abilities of today’s SSN’s which is a given, the purpose here is to point what the modern SSK can bring to a navy:

  • As we mentioned, numbers, which is vital for proper sea control.
  • Lower cost SSKs could potentially return the USN to a 100 boat fleet and also double the current UK numbers.
  • Littoral operation. The larger size of SSNs gives them poor maneuverability in shallow waters. The high speed of nuclear boats in such waters is also irrelevant.
  • Silent operation. Possible the greatest asset the SSK has over the SSN is its stealthiness. This is a major advantage in reconnaissance and detection.
  • They are better suited for sinking enemy warships in the littorals.
  • They also carry mines, still the surface combatant’s arch enemy:

Type 212As…and the 214s can carry mines in lieu of torpedoes.

The Gotlands…can carry 12 mines in lieu of 21-inch torpedoes, and another 48 mines with an external girdle.

  • Conventional subs are also less sensitive politically when homeporting in foreign countries than the nuclear boats.


Chinese Type 039A AIP submarine.

The following are arguments often used for not buying conventional subs, which Dr. Milan’s article successfully counters:

  • SSKs have a limited range. It is still significant, however, with 8000 miles for a German Type 212 and 12,000 miles for a Type 214. This is much greater than the average surface combatant.
  • They have a small weapons load. Not so much a problem considering their basic scouting mission. Nevertheless they are extremely potent, carrying most weapons of the larger SSNs, including torpedoes and Sub Harpoon anti-ship cruise missiles. Also they are excellent minelayers as noted.
  • Require frequent surfacing for oxygen replenishment. Much less a problem with modern AIP (air-independent propulsion) which lets them stay submerged underwater for up to 4 weeks.
  • Slower speeds than nuclear subs. Also true, though modern vessels can cruise extended periods 20 knots submerged, which is comparable to the speeds of surface vessels.
  • Diving depth is much less. More than adequate for littoral operations, however, which involves shallow coastlines. In most seas the minimum is 650 feet. The depth limit for a Type 214 is 1400 feet and 1000 feet for a French Scorpene.
  • SSKs cannot carry an extensive sensor suite like SSNs. Modern vessels are extremely advanced however:

Type 214 submarines have five different sonars: medium-frequency passive sonar, flank array, the very low-frequency towed array, and passive/active sonar for fire control. They also have advanced modular periscopes, an electro-optic mast, torpedo countermeasures, and a fiber-optic communications network. And they have high-bandwidth satellite-communications connectivity using the Callisto towed communications buoy…

The Gotlands are fitted with the Sesub 940A combat system, a CSU-90 integrated system composed of a medium-frequency hullborne passive search/attack sonar, active search Reson Subac sonar, a low-frequency passive search flank array, and an advanced periscope.

Small size is also a must for maneuverability. Though the SSN is quite capable in this regard in its natural environment, the deep sea, it is handicapped in shallow waters because of its great bulk. In contrast, an SSK, often 1/8 the weight of an SSN has a very small turning radius.


In conclusion, I’d like to point to both America and the UK predicting impending doom for their respective navies if they are forced to buy Trident submarine replacements, expected to cost up to a hundred billions dollars total. Such is the price paid for placing high tech weapons on high tech platforms. Then I read about the Israeli Navy, who solved their problem with few funds and resources available to them. Here is the Sunday Times with the story “Israel stations nuclear missile subs off Iran“:

Three German-built Israeli submarines equipped with nuclear cruise missiles are to be deployed in the Gulf near the Iranian coastline.
The first has been sent in response to Israeli fears that ballistic missiles developed by Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, a political and military organization in Lebanon, could hit sites in Israel, including air bases and missile launchers…
Each of the submarines has a crew of 35 to 50, commanded by a colonel capable of launching a nuclear cruise missile.
The vessels can remain at sea for about 50 days and stay submerged up to 1,150ft below the surface for at least a week. Some of the cruise missiles are equipped with the most advanced nuclear warheads in the Israeli arsenal.

Not to say the US and Britain need to transfer their nuclear deterrent to SSKs, but it goes to show you what a little ingenuity can do, for not breaking your budget or placing unreasonable demands on your operating forces. SSKs for small navies like Israel can be seen as capital vessels. How much more would the same low cost but high value craft in service with the major fleets bring much needed relief to the stretched thin and shrinking-in-number SSNs, allowing the latter to perform focused missions more suited to their enhanced abilities?


HMS Södermanland at sea. Photo author Peter Nilsson

26 Comments leave one →
  1. alanbstardmp permalink
    March 7, 2017 12:08 pm

    the Israelis were given their subs, gratis. No wonder they solve a financial problem

  2. June 29, 2012 2:37 pm

    The range issue is a red herring WRT SSKs. Gotland and Amur 950 class SSKs of ~1000tons displacement, have combat ranges in excess of 5,000 nm. Today’s SSKs
    have oxygen replenishment systems as standard equipment, and the current state of the
    art is AIP for submerged operations (lurking) lasting up to 4 weeks in these classes.

    Coming are AIP systems with more power to completely replace the diesel for all operations. These SSKs will not run noisy diesels at snorkeling depth, but they will run Air replenishment systems using power from the AIP.

    Of critical importance is cost per hull. SSKs of these classes cost 1/10 as much as an SSN. This permits increasing the force to sufficient numbers to ensure area control, and ensure reconnaisance coverage.

    The SSN has it’s place, and that is long range operations and / blue water operations, particularly as part of a carrier task force.


  3. Mike Burleson permalink*
    June 2, 2010 4:23 am

    Moose said “we can offset problems created by hull shortfalls”

    It’s against the laws of sea control. You cannot replace availability with capability. Sometimes you have to rearm, refuel. Nuclear boats might have near-universal propulsion, but their crews wear out. Hulls also tire and you have breakdowns, collisions. In wartime there is attrition.

    Basically, you don’t need the great expense for all contingencies which is another drawback to nuclear hulls. Sure, the SSKs probably will never hold the technological wizardry of a space age nuke boat, but that is to their benefit. You can actually afford enough of them to maintain proper control.

    Concerning a second Falklands War, if it is fought it will be much different, probably with the Argies sailing their own “peace fleet” and lots of press nearby. Fought at the UN floor and in public opinion. Thats 4th Gen and as effective as a fleet of destroyers.

  4. Hudson permalink
    June 2, 2010 1:43 am

    Guess who?,

    You’re right, the Falklands War is not likely to be re-fought for its original intent of re-taking the islands. It was not only a sound military defeat for the Argentine forces, but a disaster for the government. As you note, Argentina has not re-armed in a manner that would allow it to challenge Britain anytime soon. The war is occasionally re-fought on this board–what if the Argentines had more Exocets, and so forth? The record shows that your pilots in their Harriers achieved a superior kill ratio to the Spits over the Bf-109 in the BoB. One can hear Churchill’s voice wafting across the waves. “Never in the field of human conflict…”

    However, a new issue has arisen in the South Atlantic–oil. Both sides are claiming newly discovered rich oil fields down there. I think both sides realize the possibility of sabotage of oil platforms. Whatever the issues are, they will likely be hammered out in court years before drilling begins. Likely…

  5. Moose permalink
    June 1, 2010 10:43 pm

    “Honestly, I don’t know, but enough details have spilled into the press to be of concern. At least we should consider the possibility that our most powerful warships have an Achilles Heel?”

    Gotland “killing” the Houston gets play way out of proportion with its real impact. My hat’s off to the Swedes, but one of the best SSKs in the world (at the time) beating a Flight 1 688 in a wargame is not the end of the world. We learned, and in loaning the Gotland we learned more, and I’d like to see how a 688i, Seawolf, or Virginia would do today. Particularly with the last two, there would likely be a different outcome.

    Remember that even up into the early 2000s our training concentrated on hunting nukes, especially boomers, nearly to the exclusion of modern SSKs. With today’s better training, and the better capabilities of the newer boats, I have faith in the Dolphins. And if we can concentrate our resources towards acquires new technologies to further enhance the lethality of the SSNs, we can offset problems created by hull shortfalls. Surface ASW is another matter.

  6. Retired Now permalink
    June 1, 2010 9:45 pm

    Airships might actually be able to survive in a hostile environment if they are very careful. Give them especially good Electronic Surveillance Measures (ESM) and some kind of passive radar to detect and track both surface and air tracks. It’s very possible. See an example in this article, and also go Google: Passive Radar to see all the entries.

    I’m sure CAMPBELL knows how to properly fit out an airship for DoD.

  7. Mike Burleson permalink*
    June 1, 2010 7:48 pm

    Campbell-You’ve certainly been getting the word out, posting on the blogs. Always welcome!

    D.E. wrote “Don’t you think it deserves mention here in regards to small, atypical submarines and their respective operational goals.”

    I think you just did! I saw that after writing my own post, and also more tomorrow on a subject dear to my heart.

    Guess Who? wrote “in wargames of late how many SSNs get pinged?”

    Honestly, I don’t know, but enough details have spilled into the press to be of concern. At least we should consider the possibility that our most powerful warships have an Achilles Heel?

  8. Guess who? permalink
    June 1, 2010 7:34 pm


    There won’t be another Falklands war and If Argentina started to build up forces it would raise eyebrows and you’d see the force at MPA raised to a full Squadron of Tiffies and perhaps a Nimrod or two, and unsurprisingly there would be articles in the press of nuclear submarines on ‘routine’ operations in the South Atlantic etc..

    Argentina lost over 100 aircraft during the conflict in ’82, the Fuerza Aérea Argentina doesn’t even have 100 serviceable aircraft anymore, the Argentine forces are in dire straits, the ARA have 2 conventional submarines (fast ones at that!) however they are 25 years old and I’d seriously doubt they’d be good at hiding from Astutes and T2087 TAS on T23s (CODLAG) or T26s (IFEP) (remember, the acoustic profile of the surface vessel determines sonar aptitude just as much as the capability of said sensor does; there were stories in the 80s of TAS Leanders out-performing T22 despite the ‘better’ sonar because the 22 is quite loud and proud)

    I appreciate your point but whatever the situation it wouldn’t happen in a month of Fridays, if instead of scrapping her the ARA re-built 25DM and went about trying to source low-life SuEs from France or set about spending many billions on defence refurbishment do you think that we’d even be having this discussion? The British MoD are those that would love to see a strong Argentine military force even more than the Argie Generals, Admirals and Air Marshals!, if the ARA had a carrier, the FAA has a sizable fleet of F/A-18c, etc. Then Cameron or whoever else is in at no.10 would be press ganged into handing over blank cheques to the MoD, in said scenario not even the sky is the limit… This is why using ’82 force levels and scenarios as a yard stick to measure current strength will always only ever be a very hypothetical situation…

    I think I should keep this message on my clipboard, it would come in useful on about 90% of the blogs and forums I visit on a daily basis!

    Mike… in wargames of late how many SSNs get pinged? It’s not just the SSKs that get through (although it’s only ever the SSKs you hear about) and something to remember is that there are only a handful of formidable ASW vessels in the world, it’s very much a dying art and has been neglected since 1988-1990 (rough dates of cancellation of Sea Lance and Super Ikara)

  9. D. E. Reddick permalink
    June 1, 2010 6:58 pm


    I noticed that you’ve already made a comment about Phil Ewing’s latest story over at Scoop Deck. Don’t you think it deserves mention here in regards to small, atypical submarines and their respective operational goals.

    Stopping the trans-Atlantic drug-sub trade

    June 1st, 2010 | Royal Navy | Posted by Phil Ewing

    We’ve all grown familiar with stories about self-propelled semi-submersibles, the homemade underwater or surface-skimming craft that cocaine smugglers use to try to get drugs out of Colombia. These fiberglass narco-subs are usually built by hand in the jungle, carry a few tons of dope, and sound like they provide a really hot, cramped, unpleasant ride for their crews.

    This story in the U.K.’s Telegraph newspaper describes what sounds like an altogether new kind of narco-sub, however — actual submarines, which can actually run underwater for actual distances:

    The boats are thought to have been mostly former tourist underwater viewing submarines that have been adapted for smuggling able to carry up to five tonnes of cocaine worth £60 million on the streets of Britain. [Royal Navy] Rear Admiral Mark Anderson, commander of Fleet operations, said: “There’s clear evidence, not just intelligence, that they are trying to use submarines and have successfully used certain submersibles and we suspect submarines to transport drugs.” He added: “This is a hugely profitable business so they can buy some hugely expensive assets. What they are buying is extraordinary.”

    Many of the drugs these bigger narco-subs are carrying end up in Great Britain, so the Royal Navy has dispatched the destroyer Manchester to run interference. Manchester has big shoes to fill, as one of its predecessors, the frigate Iron Duke, became well known for its counter-drug exploits. Royal Navy launches anti-sub war against drug cartels

    The Royal Navy is preparing to conduct anti-submarine warfare against drug cartels smuggling cocaine under the sea.

    By Thomas Harding, Defence Correspondent
    Published: 8:00AM BST 29 May 2010

    HMS Manchester, a Type 42 destroyer equipped with powerful sonar and an anti-submarine helicopter, has left this week for the Caribbean to carry out counter narcotics patrol as well as hurricane relief.

    Drug runners have resorted to using small submarines, roughly the size of a large minibus, as a heavier military presence has led to increased drug seizures.

  10. June 1, 2010 6:47 pm

    Hello Mike! I come ’round to your place every day, without fail. Just tend to keep my “out-of-the-water” comments to a minimum; considering the rest of your audience. Got a blog, but don’t know how to use it!; so, I make few entries there. Been thinking to change that; since there is a world of error and outright silliness out there in “airship” land……..

    In all dead seriousness; I’m hoping that Navy will make dramatic changes towards use of airships. They are indeed slowly moving towards the fad of “unmanned” airships; but manned offer huge advantages which other airframes cannot match. Money is a HUGE issue (airframes, maintenance, fuel, support, etc) Airships offer immense savings

    @ Hudson: Airships avoid SAM’s? First, don’t be there. Second, have an extremely low/or no radar signature, no infra-red, no accoustic. Third, dont radiate. Fourth, move somewhat more quickly than current blimps,( bah!) archaic technology, up to 175kts, and move as readily up/down/to the sides, etc as a helicopter, and use nap-of-earth flying techniques including outright landings, Fifth employ the same aids as other airframes (chaff,flares,decoys), Sixth, carry active counter meaures such as (laser?) eventually, Seventh, have some offensive weaponry capability and/or companion aircraft along…….and finally, be able to shake off any potential hits with far, far greater ability than airplanes or helicopters. There, that should just about cover it.

  11. Mike Burleson permalink*
    June 1, 2010 6:35 pm

    I am not sure about this, but there is much evidence from wargames of late that the quietness of SSKs could be the great equalizer with nuke boats. But I still think the SSNs will be ship killers without peer.

  12. Hudson permalink
    June 1, 2010 5:18 pm

    So the French boats will shoot up in cost like all the rest. Maybe the Chinese will build an affordable SSN, though they seem to lag a step or two behind our technology–but they have good spies.

    It could be that the UK (and U.S.) don’t need more subs than the nuclear boats they can afford. Maybe, maybe not. I believe we live in an age in which sheer numbers will determine events rather more than sheer technology, starting with immigration, which threatens to overwhelm Western values in European countries, also here at home.

    Seriously, if you had to refight the Falklands, and faced an Argentine force with two or three quiet SSKs for every one of your SSNs or SSBNs, and they pressed home their attacks with the same verve as their pilots in the ’82 war, coordinating underwater attacks with air strikes, you’d face quite a sticky wicket, wouldn’t you? It might well come down to nuclear blackmail, and somebody just might push the button rather than lose.


  13. Guess who? permalink
    June 1, 2010 4:04 pm

    Barracuda are already at ~$1.7bn each and are still more than 5 years away from service, that figure will probably end up to closer to $2bn by the time the first in the class is expected to enter service. in contrast the first 3 Astute class cost £3.8bn(2008) so around $2.5bn per unit in then year exchange rates (although Astute is one in a long line of major post cold war cock-ups [alongside Typhoon, Nimrod 2000, MARS, FRES, Chinook mk.3, FSTA, etc.] and the first 3 were expected to cost £2.5bn as approved at main gate and expected to enter service about 4 years ago)…

  14. Mike Burleson permalink*
    June 1, 2010 4:04 pm

    Campbell, where have you been? You really need your own blog dedicated to airships, which literally are making waves these days!

  15. Mike Burleson permalink*
    June 1, 2010 4:03 pm

    Byron wrote “Do I think we need to beach all the SSNs”

    I don’t think I said that. Lets complement the astounding but few SSNs we can afford with SSKs for the vital presence and sea control missions.

    The Navy thinks it must be “either, or” so they get very capable ships but a less capable fleet. I say we can have both and disperse capability where it is needed. Not, too much here and not enough there, but enough everywhere.

  16. Hudson permalink
    June 1, 2010 3:27 pm


    Well then, the SSK cannot run with the fleet. However, it could be dispatched ahead to rendezvous with the fleet or shadow behind the fleet.

    One thing the more modern SSK can do that earlier diesel/electric boats could not is independently target its torpedoes. The Gotland has four 21″ tubes and two smaller tubes for smaller ASW torps.

    Like I say, I’m not in favor of ditching all SSNs for SSKs. I do think the USN needs to rethink it all-nuke sub fleet in the face of the vast disparity in cost between the two propulsion systems.

    And how is it that the French, whose weapons systems are normally quite expensive, produce what I take to be quality SSNs and SSBNs at roughly half the cost of our equivalents? Are our boats that much better?

  17. B.Smitty permalink
    June 1, 2010 2:34 pm


    SSKs can only run at 20kts for a few hours.

  18. Hudson permalink
    June 1, 2010 2:26 pm


    How does your airship defend itself against SAMs? Obviously speed and maneuverability are not its strengths.

  19. Hudson permalink
    June 1, 2010 2:14 pm

    But as Mike points out, the range of the typical SSK is greater than that of the average surface ship. The SSK can keep up with your fleet auxiliaries at 20 knts.

    As for being located, it’s the SSK that, time and time again, pops up in or near the battle fleet and says: “Surprise, you’re dead.”

  20. Guess who? permalink
    June 1, 2010 1:59 pm

    The Royal Navy and USN have no need for SSKs; in the cold war the UK used a fleet of SSKs for patrol taskings not too far from home, which is about all they are useful for in a modern navy… getting rid of the SSNs for 3 or even 4 times as many SSKs isn’t a very clever idea given the roles of said forces, SSKs can not keep up with an expeditionary fleet and therefore would leave any forward task force vulnerable, it doesn’t matter how many you have.

    There’s a reason that the Upholders were reduced from 12 to eventually 4 and then withdrawn from service; they were surplus to requirements. RN is expecting 7 Astutes, it could afford 5 Astutes and say 5-6 Upholders and Auxiliaries to support them but there’s no need for them…

    If the RN had been an all SSK force in 1982 It wouldn’t have been able to regain the Falkland Islands… without Conqueror and Spartan on the search for 25DM and the Belgrano forcing 25DM back to port throughout the conflict and sinking Belgrano I wouldn’t have fancied Invincible’s or Hermes’ chances.

    The biggest disadvantage for an attacking SSK is that once the enemy know it’s there the crew wont live to tell the tale…

  21. June 1, 2010 11:43 am

    Hey Mike
    Going to jump in now. Army is spending $80 Million to create “LEMV” airship; to carry 2,000 lbs at 20K’ altitude for 21 days straight, optionally manned or not.

    Naval-ized version, even at that same per unit cost, but made amphibious, solar powered, and operated at no greater than, say, 3K’ altitude….could conceivably mean a fleet of (30) such craft for $2.5 Billion.

    They would/could: Self deploy from stateside, have a crew of dozen, carry mines/torpedoes/missiles, be stealthy, unlimited range and linger capabiliy, have ASW abilities of helicopters without the mothership problems, be able to operate in ANY waters, including inland waters, leave no wake, have no sonar signature.

    Seems a nice way to get (30) very capable new craft into the fleet at little comparative cost. The technology is readily available, and well proven already; just needs a modern update.

    Now, I know it’s awful hard for everyone to think of Navy ships with hulls that are meant to be operated outside of the water…but these would be excellent to both counter submarinesk, and supplant them in several ways.

    Gotta start thinking out of the (water) box folks!

  22. Byron permalink
    June 1, 2010 11:31 am

    “Endurance” with regards to an SSK means two things: range on fuel aboard for the diesels (which you used) and endurance on battery. Even an AIP will only get you a week submerged and that at low speeds. And refilling the tanks for the AIP can take up to two days (I’ve seen that with my own eyes, they were at the pier for three and a half days). Once the fuel cells run out of Lox and hydrogen, they have to be re-filled.

    With respect to the littorals, the ONLY advantage the SSK has is that it draws only a few feet less than the SSN. The crappy sonar conditions affect both types equally.

    Do I think the USN could use a dozen or so SSKs? Sure. Do I think we need to beach all the SSNs just so we can go back to the fourth decade of the past century? Not likely.

  23. Joe permalink
    June 1, 2010 11:18 am

    While I don’t always agree with all of your on-going proposals, a rejiggering of naval procurement funds which would allow (among other things) sub numbers to be increased via the SSK/AIP route makes a heck of a lot of sense.

    You have the gold standard in the modern SSN, but since our money is seemingly more tied to the red (ink) standard, it’s an affordable way to augment the sub force that bends, not breaks, the bank.

  24. Hudson permalink
    June 1, 2010 11:12 am

    Mike makes his case on all points. Heretic’s scenario has already played out in mock combat, when the Gotland “sank” a Los Angeles Class boat in war games. The USN was so impressed with the Gotland, that it leased the vessel with its crew for a year to study its properties.

    Using NW’s figures, one Virginia class SSN costs $2.4B, whereas one Gotland class SSK costs 1/24th that–ergo, you could buy 24 Gotlands for one Virginia. Of course, total operating costs plus crews would be much more for the 24 Gotlands than the one Virginia, but you get the point. And the Gotland is listed at only 5ks slower than the Virginia as far as fleet speed goes.

    If I were building a fictional fleet, I would have modest numbers of Virginias or the cheaper French SSN Barracuda, and would rule the waves with lots and lots of Gotlands.

  25. Heretic permalink
    June 1, 2010 10:56 am

    It’s going to require an SSN being sunk at sea by an SSK with AIP for the USN to “admit” just how advanced the modern conventional SSK+AIP combination is.


  1. An SSK Trident Solution « New Wars

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: