SSK’s Versus Midget Subs
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.
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?