Watching the Submarine Trends
Writing in the Providence Journal, James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara see two disturbing trends from the fallout of the South Korean ship Cheonan sinking by a North Korean submarine:
The Cheonan investigation and its fallout encapsulate two disturbing trends in maritime Asia. One, the proliferation of naval weaponry has magnified the combat punch of navies in the region. Investigators tentatively concluded that the heavy torpedo that split the Cheonan in half was a Chinese export. Enabling technologies can be deadly — even in the hands of a third-rate seafaring nation like North Korea.
This is something which New Wars has alluded to on several occasions, that the new smart weapons do not need smart platforms. Rising navies like China and rogue ones like the North can deploy such weapons, which challenge the vast technical expertise of the Space Age Western fleets. Because they are less particular about what type hulls they place in the water, where in the West only the most complicated and exquisite multimission platforms will suffice, Eastern navies compete with us on an even keel, but at drastically less cost.
And two, stealthy undersea warfare permits an offender to plausibly deny responsibility for his actions, much as Pyongyang did following the Cheonan affair. Dissembling can delay and thus complicate the aggrieved nation’s efforts to rally its populace behind tough countermeasures. Public sentiment adjusts to new realities over time. The ardor for military action — no matter how legally or morally just — cools.
In other words, the bullies get away with their 4th Generation intimidation tactics, restraining accountability for their actions by taking advantage of the West’s own liberal justice code “innocent until proven guilty”.
On a positive note, Taiwan learns different lessons from the use of midget subs. Like North Korea, the small island republic is faced with a technical and numerical superiority from its primary adversary. Here is Taipei Times:
First of all, the submarine is a weapon that gives weaker parties an asymmetric advantage. The US and South Korea have not made clear that at the time the Cheonan was sunk, they were engaged in a large-scale joint military exercise. If the evidence is correct, then the question arises how the North Korean submarine managed to slip through their monitoring system along with high-tech navy and air force anti-submarine measures. This highlights shortcomings and weaknesses in the US and South Korean high-tech navies’ submarine surveillance capabilities…
Second, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and his administration have not expressed clear support for obtaining submarines. Although the provocative actions of North Korea, are not to be imitated, the sinking of the Cheonan is significant from a strategic military perspective because it makes clear that a party that finds itself at a disadvantage can still gain an asymmetric advantage and that the submarine is one weapon to accomplish this.
The small submarine is not just for weaker powers, which we will discuss more in a second. It can also equip traditional navies to take the offensive against an enemy when its battlefleet is indisposed, such as after a surprise strike from missiles. The use of anti-access weapons in a future peer conflict might induce the US to use its submarine force, the only real stealth vessels it possesses, to lead a counterattack if its surface navy was somehow disabled early in a conflict. Not an unlikely scenario as we recall from Pearl Harbor, and afterward.
A week after New Wars posted on Dr. Milan Vego’s call for a second look at conventional submarines (SSKs) in Western service, in a Proceedings article titled “The Right Submarine for Lurking in the Littorals“, a US Congressman is calling for the same thing mainly to increase fleet numbers. Here is Rick Maze reporting from Navy Times:
“I am of the opinion that numbers make a difference,” Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., said Tuesday as he met with the Defense Writers Group.
Skelton advocates delaying ship decommissioning whenever possible. “A lot of these ships are really able to carry on for the next three, four or five years,” he said.
He also advocates expanding submarines as missile-firing platforms, including particular interest in building smaller, less costly diesel-powered submarines instead of nuclear subs.
“Missile-carrying submarines may very well become the ship of the future,” Skelton said.
On this very subject I wrote the following on June 1:
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…
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?
I also “get it” that by no means does the Navy, at least for the present, have any intention of complementing their immaculate though shrinking nuclear attack submarine fleet with conventional boats. This would be especially true since the legacy of Rickover and the obsession with the exquisite over the practical is the rule. Two things I predict which will change their minds, at least within the next decade. First there will be more proof, probably in major combat that the revolutions in war at sea are not about larger and harder to build hulls, but the type of weapon this hull carries, as we see with the Cheonan incident. In other words, the advanced new missiles, torpedoes and their guidance systems are more important than the platform launching them.
Finally, it will be the costs of such vessels, the SSK versus SSN price coupled with the decline in defense budgets that decides the issue. As navies see that these low cost, affordable boats can do most of the same things, especially influence events at sea as do their multi-billion dollar attack nuclear vessels, the arguments against the “less capable” yet surprisingly effective boats will wain.
Brazil is planning nuclear submarines. Now her poorer neighbor Argentina wants the same. Buenos Aires has been in such consistent economic straights, it occasionally has to threaten war with the peaceful Falklands Islands, just to distract its populace from the nation’s woes. Here is the story from Merco Press:
Argentina is seriously considering incorporating nuclear powered vessels to the Navy and constructing topsides for naval ships and oil rigs. However this will have to be developed with Argentine technology, said Defence minister Nilda Garré…The minister also went through the agenda of current projects which come under the umbrella of the Defence ministry: the Gradicom PCX missile which was recently successfully tested; the refurbishing of the TAM tanks (Medium Argentine Tanks) originally with French technology and developing nuclear powered vessels for the Navy.
Nuclear boats now being the new capital ships, it appears logical that everyone would want to obtain them. Such plans go back to time immemorial, when every sea-faring nation would want the latest, most powerful galley, ship of the line or Dreadnought battleship. Interesting how the trends seem to repeat themselves over the decades.