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Watching the Submarine Trends

June 14, 2010
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The South Korean submarine Lee Sunsin (SSK 068) arrives at Naval Station Pearl Harbor.

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 Australian Collins-class submarine, HMAS Rankin (SSK 78).

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?

The Swedish diesel-powered attack submarine HMS Gotland.

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.

*****

USS Florida (SSGN 728)

52 Comments leave one →
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  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    June 18, 2010 4:52 pm

    Smitty wrote “I did a very rough analysis of how many of each type of ship we would have if we stopped building everything now. ”

    Those CVN numbers are interesting!

  3. B.Smitty permalink
    June 17, 2010 9:08 am

    Mike,

    What I meant was unless you find additional money, if you want SSKs, you have to buy fewer SSNs.

    A while back, I did a very rough analysis of how many of each type of ship we would have if we stopped building everything now.

    http://spreadsheets.google.com/ccc?key=0AiVQu4lA4SjvdDVJR1NrTTFJaEhhZEFQbmFYTWVVWlE&hl=en

    My my count, we would have 12 SSNs in 2020 and 3 in 2030.

  4. Mike Burleson permalink*
    June 17, 2010 7:35 am

    Smitty wrote “It is an either/or situation.”

    I completely get that as it is also the current military leadership position, I just happen to disagree with it. I also suspect that even if we stopped building nuke boats right now, we’d still have some for a very long time, 20 years perhaps longer. So I see the SSN/SSK mix as viable and also essential if we are to avoid the extinction of Western seapower, as it is now apporaching the world’s most expensive and powerful coastal defense force, too costly to sustain, and too few to be effective.

  5. B.Smitty permalink
    June 17, 2010 6:59 am

    Graham,

    It is an either/or situation. There is one pot of money for subs. You either spend it on SSNs or you spend it on SSKs.

  6. Graham Strouse permalink
    June 17, 2010 12:36 am

    I got weigh in. First of all, people, this isn’t an either/or situation.Maintaing SSNs, SSBNs & SSGNs DOES not preclude the use of SSKs. They’re weapons delivery platforms with different capabilities in different scenarios. SSKs do need to surface now & then but not nearly as often as they used to, particularly with AIP. They’re easier to build & operate & pretty much use the same weapons systems as the nuke boats. Advances in propulsion technology give diesel-electric & AIP subs pretty good range & decent speed–not as good as a nuke boat, but good enough. And when they’re submerged, they’re a lot quieter then nuke boats & they can operate far more easily in the littorals. Nuke boats are really more strategic weapons. SSKs are more tactical. I’d like to have some of each.

  7. Scott B. permalink
    June 16, 2010 7:13 pm

    Ellen Ripley said : “6. As I’ve stated before, I have serious reservations about the tactical feasability of a diesel sub keeping pace with a surface combatant for the 33 hrs it took to get the decision to shoot.”

    There’s NO WAY an Oberon-class diesel sub could shadow a surface group making a leisurely 10-knot for 30+ hours.

    NO WAY.

  8. Scott B. permalink
    June 16, 2010 7:07 pm

    Ellen Ripley said : “Other data I saw was that she left Plymouth on April 26 and arrived in-theatre on May 28. That’s a 33 day transit.”

    Below is a first-person narrative of HMS Onyx during the Falklands War :
    http://upperiscope.com.au/miscellaneous/falklands.pdf

    Paragraph I like particularly is this one (near the bottom of page 3) :

    “We were overflown by what I believe was an Argentinean 707 reconesance plane and this caused us to dive as fast as we could.”

  9. Ellen Ripley permalink
    June 16, 2010 5:45 pm

    Data I subsequently found says that HMS Onyx could in fact make a maximum of 12 knots surfaced. That’s maximum speed — throttle to the stops.

    Other data I saw was that she left Plymouth on April 26 and arrived in-theatre on May 28. That’s a 33 day transit.

    Thus — even if Onyx had left UK on April 2, she wouldn’t have gotten there until May 4. Two days after the Conqueror launched her torpedoes. And based on this, Onyx’s effective speed over the transit was (7,000 nm / 33 days / 24 hrs) = 9 kts.

    Compare this to Conqueror which left Plymouth on April 3 and arrived in-theatre on April 16. Based on this, Conqueror’s speed over the transit was (7,000 nm / 13 days / 24 hrs) = 22 kts

    I realize that these are rough distances, since Onyx actually left from Plymouth while Conqueror came from Clyde. However, I think it demonstrates that the speed of an SSN has a quality all its own in a crisis.

    Not being able to attack the Argentines on May 2 because a sub wasn’t in theatre might’ve had pretty signifcant consequences on the outcome of the war.

    http://www.britains-smallwars.com/Falklands/sub.html

  10. Ellen Ripley permalink
    June 16, 2010 3:22 pm

    Heretic wrote:

    “HMS Conqueror tailed Belgrano for 33 hours (iirc) before taking the shot. Conqueror took the shot because it was the boat in position to do so. It was one opportunity taken. If Onyx had been in position to take the shot, I have no doubt that they would have done so.”

    ******

    Heretic:

    1. Belgrano was sunk by torpedoes fired by HMS Conqueror on May 2, 1982.

    2. It’s roughly 7,000 nm from London to the Falkland Islands.

    3. Let’s assume Onyx transits at a speed of 8 kts — which is pretty generous considering the South Atlantic weather.

    4. At this speed, it would take Onyx over 36 days to cover that 7,000 nm to be anywhere near the exclusion zone (8×24= 192. 7000/192 = 36.4)

    5. In order for Onyx to theoretically be in position to launch torpedoes on May 2, she would’ve had to leave London for the Falklands on/about March 28, 1982 (36 days prior).

    This would’ve been a neat trick, considering the war didn’t start until April 2, 1982.

    6. As I’ve stated before, I have serious reservations about the tactical feasability of a diesel sub keeping pace with a surface combatant for the 33 hrs it took to get the decision to shoot.

  11. Scott B. permalink
    June 16, 2010 2:27 pm

    Heretic said : “1 boat on patrol, 1 boat in transit”

    This kind of superficial analysis (that comes very often with the *Bang-for-the-Buck* label doesn’t make much sense when you look at the real world.

    E.g. :

    1) 1 SSN on patrol is NOT equal to 1 SSK on patrol, on the contrary to what you’re trying to suggest. HMS Conqueror, as others have explained, is the perfect illustration, no matter how hard you try to disqualify this real-life example as not being statistically significant…

    2) 1 SSK in transit is a submarine that will have to do quite a lot of snorkeling, which will translate into a fairly high indiscretion rate (typically real life suggests somewhere between 20% and 30% for an SSK in transit at about 8 knots).

    And no, telling an enemy that you have a sub somewhere in the area is not the same as giving your opponent an opportunity to triangulate your sub…

  12. Scott B. permalink
    June 16, 2010 1:52 pm

    Heretic said : “And the weapons and sensors you can put in them are also just about on par with what the SSNs use.”

    Totally untrue.

    For instance, the sonar(s) fitted to the SSKs doesn’t come anywhere close in terms of performance to those installed on the SSNs.

    One implication of the above is this : if you cannot detect an SSK with the sonar suite fitted on an SSN, than you won’t detect it with the sonar suite fitted on another SSK.

    From there, suggesting that the best defense against an AIP SSK is another AIP SSK is just rhetoric.

  13. B.Smitty permalink
    June 16, 2010 11:15 am

    I could see value in having a modest number of SSKs in the US Navy inventory. They could operate in the tight confines of the Persian Gulf and provide more frequent ASW training and system testing opportunities.

    Probably a total of twenty or less. Home port 4-6 at Diego (if the Brits allow it), a similar number at Guam or Japan, maybe a few in the Med, and the rest at home.

    We could partner with the Aussies on their Collins class replacement, and possibly sell them on the open market to our allies.

  14. hokie_1997 permalink
    June 16, 2010 10:21 am

    Heretic,

    Actually my comment was in relation to all the “oh noes” and “what a load of hooey.” I’m not disputing the facts you’ve presented – which are actually pretty interesting.

    Getting back to the issue at hand.

    Operationally, how could a diesel boat like HMS Onyx have even tailed Belgrano for 33 hrs as the Conqueror did?

    Even taking into account that a diesel force is cheaper and allows a nation to field more subs, the RN would have had to cover an awful lot of lines of approach to ensure you’re in proper position to take a shot at the time and place of your choosing. That means many of your so-called relay rotations to do what one British SSN did.

    But if you want a bigger sample size, let’s look at WW2 in the Atlantic. Obviously no nuke boats, but plenty of diesels. Faster convoys and warships were a lot less vulnerable then their slower bretheren to encounters with diesel submarines. Even in the so-called “Happy Times”, there were an awful lot of Nazi boats that came home with no kills — because they simply couldn’t catch their prey.

    I’m not a blackshoe by trade, but it seems to me that if you’re facing diesels the best defense is to keep moving as often and as fast as possible. A diesel can’t reposition rapidly, and it can’t keep up in a tail chase against any target going above about 5-10 kts. In contrast, it’s a pretty challenging task to outrun an SSN. Run all you want, you’ll just die tired.

    I’m not arguing against the capabilities of the SSK. I’m an ex-P-3 guy and know from experience that they can be pretty challenging opponents. If I was a small nation trying to secure my coastline against another navy, would I buy SSKs? Absolutely. They are a cheap and effective defensive weapon.

    But that’s not the question as I see it. The question is: are SSKs something the USN needs in its submarine force? I tend to believe the answer is no. I just don’t think them as a good fit for what we want and need our submarine force to do.

  15. B.Smitty permalink
    June 16, 2010 10:08 am

    Heretic said, “ If Onyx had been in position to take the shot, I have no doubt that they would have done so.

    Onyx wouldn’t have been in position to take the shot because it could only tail the Belgrano group for a very short period (if at all). In fact, it probably would’ve had trouble even intercepting the Belgrano group in the first place.

  16. Heretic permalink
    June 16, 2010 9:50 am

    re: hokie_1997

    Heretic: thanks for lowering the discourse down to the base level we’ve all come to expect. I mean, why try to make your point based on facts and analysis when you can use sarcasm?

    I mentioned that 1 day after Argentina declared hostilities, England said publicly there was a submarine in the area. Are you saying that’s not a fact? I also said that based on that information, the Argentine Navy had to immediately configure for ASW protection whether or not a submarine was actually present. Are you saying that’s also not a fact?

    Speaking of which: what kind of submarine type was that the UK first deployed to the Falklands in the only real naval conflict the RN has seen since WW2? It was an SSN: HMS Conqueror. And it got into theater over a month before the diesel-powered HMS Onyx. It also begs the question if a diesel submarine have even effectively stalked and attacked the Belgrano, which if I recall correctly was steaming at 15+ kts.

    HMS Conqueror tailed Belgrano for 33 hours (iirc) before taking the shot. Conqueror took the shot because it was the boat in position to do so. It was one opportunity taken. If Onyx had been in position to take the shot, I have no doubt that they would have done so.

    Extrapolating a sample size of ONE data point is … problematic. I’d point out that on the flipside, HMS Conqueror is the *ONLY* SSN to have ever sunk another vessel, in all of human history. And it sank only one ship. SSKs have sunk a lot more tonnage than HMS Conqueror, both merchant and military, and the SSKs with AIP are a lot better today than they were in the 1980s or the 1960s or the 1940s. And the weapons and sensors you can put in them are also just about on par with what the SSNs use.

    A lot of people get hung up on the idea of comparing SSN to SSK on a 1-for-1 basis, which of course makes the SSN look really really good. The thing is, that comparison doesn’t look at matters on a Bang-for-Buck basis. If you can buy (and maintain and operate) 4 SSK for the price of 1 SSN … then you can operate those 4 SSK in relay rotations so as to maintain a constant forward presence of having 1 boat on station, on AIP patrol, at all times.

    1 boat on patrol
    1 boat in transit
    1 boat in workup/training preparing to deploy
    1 boat in dock recovering from deployment

    Sure, any 1 boat might not be in immediate position … but that 1 boat is not alone and it doesn’t need to be EVERYWHERE at once.

    Quantity has a Quality all of its own.

    SSNs offer Quality.
    SSK with AIP offer Quantity.

  17. Anonymous permalink
    June 15, 2010 10:28 pm

    Another observation. The sinking was a sucker punch, not some big asymetrical advantage per se. I dont think we should make this as a big upset in terms of sea power.

    The difficultly of detecting and localizing a deisel submarine in shallow water is as difficult as difficult gets. nothing new there either

    No, this was really the issue of chinese weapons finding their way to North Korea. The rest was rather predictable.

    tom desrosier
    http://www.dare2believe.com

  18. Mike Burleson permalink*
    June 15, 2010 5:39 pm

    Hokie wrote “I am not calling submarines the New Battleships!)”

    Darn, thought I had a convert! LOL

    But I am of the opinion that the nuclear attack submarine will wreck havoc on surface warships unless the latter is used with kid gloves, like we did with the old battleships in WW 2. Meanwhile, the SSKs will go after our merchant fleet (or theirs?) plus any large warship that dare venture into their primary habitat of the Green Water environment.

    Both will be a problem and we may even run into stalemate with a war of attrition on the high seas, much like the armies on the Western Front did in the Great War against technology they were not ready to face, until new tactics (or old ones relearned) assert themselves as it always does.

  19. Hudson permalink
    June 15, 2010 5:16 pm

    “IMHO – modern SSKs are inherently defensive weapons. They are great for coastal defense and sea denial missions, but not so great for a nation that wants to project naval power far from its own shores. Kind of similar to the whole battleships vs. coastal defense monitors debate of the post-Civil War era. These ships had great niche capabilities in their own right, but in the end didn’t match the geo-political situation the US faced.”

    Very good historical summary statement. SSKs are defensive weapons compated with nuclear technology, which advanced navies like the U.S., Russia and China continue to pursue for its obvious advantages.

    However, the U.S. now finds itself in the position where its battleships–to use the post-Civil War analogy–steam into the home waters of nations with increasingly powerful coastal defense monitors. These don’t go so fast as the BBs and their secondary armament is non-existenent, but they have enormous guns, thick armor, and there are lots of these inexpensive warships.

    Strategically, the question for us isn’t Gotland vs. Virginia in a sprint to Taiwan from Guam. It’s more like Virginia attacking a bevy of wildly economical and deadly Gotlands blockading Taiwan. How well does your strategic doctrine of nuke-only boats serve your interests in this scenario?

  20. Hudson permalink
    June 15, 2010 4:48 pm

    “Now, here we are again, though currently in a grace period, with the door swiftly closing as we see with the Cheonan sinking. The SSKs keep spoiling our wargames, “sinking” our best ships, proving the old David versus Goliath theory still holds, but now they are armed with advanced standoff weapons too.”

    Mike, good writing!

  21. Chuck Hill permalink
    June 15, 2010 11:31 am

    I also don’t have a problem with SSKs transiting most of the way on the surface which they should be able to do at 15 knots. The situation is not that different from what was done in WWII. And if you think we have a problem with ASW, look at it from the Chinese prospective.

  22. hokie_1997 permalink
    June 15, 2010 11:16 am

    Heretic wrot: “In 1982, England *publicly* mentioned that there was at least 1 submarine operating in the Falklands region ONE DAY after Argentina declared hostilities. The Argentine Navy immediately had to protect itself from submarine threats even if there wasn’t one there simply because the possibility that there might be one was a serious and credible threat.”

    ***

    Heretic: thanks for lowering the discourse down to the base level we’ve all come to expect. I mean, why try to make your point based on facts and analysis when you can use sarcasm? :>

    Speaking of which: what kind of submarine type was that the UK first deployed to the Falklands in the only real naval conflict the RN has seen since WW2?

    It was an SSN: HMS Conqueror. And it got into theater over a month before the diesel-powered HMS Onyx.

    It also begs the question if a diesel submarine have even effectively stalked and attacked the Belgrano, which if I recall correctly was steaming at 15+ kts.

  23. Heretic permalink
    June 15, 2010 10:54 am

    Wow … so much selective self-deception.

    Oh noes! An SSK needs to snort! There goes the whole ball game! GAME OVER!
    Oh noes! An SSK can’t transit while on AIP! There goes the whole ball game! GAME OVER!

    What a load of hooey.

    Guam to Taiwan = 1700 nautical miles

    Why would anyone want to do this on AIP the whole way? As a sub skipper, wouldn’t you want to drive … say … 1500 nautical miles while snorting … AND THEN DIVE? Wouldn’t it make sense to save your AIP endurance for time on station? So what if the PLAN *knows* you’re coming? The important thing is that they don’t *know* where you are while you’re deep and on patrol (on AIP).

    In a great many ways, “telling” the enemy(?) that you’ve got a sub or few {wide hand wave at big swath of ocean} “somewhere in this region over here” does an awful lot to put every naval asset in that region on ASW alert … which then modifies their behavior.

    We’ve seen this before. In real world conflict.

    In 1982, England *publicly* mentioned that there was at least 1 submarine operating in the Falklands region ONE DAY after Argentina declared hostilities. The Argentine Navy immediately had to protect itself from submarine threats even if there wasn’t one there simply because the possibility that there might be one was a serious and credible threat.

    And England wasn’t lying.

    There’s a difference between Plausible Deniability … for missions that you don’t want to acknowledge ever happened … and the Routine Patrol where it serves your interests to let your competitors know that you have asset(s) PRESENT in an area without specifying exactly WHERE in that (large) region they are.

    As pointed out already … that’s exactly the same thing we do with surface ships. The difference is that an AIP SSK can slip beneath the waves (deliberately) in order to “vanish” into the ocean … unlike a surface ship.

  24. hokie_1997 permalink
    June 15, 2010 9:50 am

    Sorry – didn’t mean to post twice!

  25. hokie_1997 permalink
    June 15, 2010 8:55 am

    June 15, 2010 8:39 am
    Anon wrote in part: “If an SSK headed from Hawaii to North Korea on the surface – even accompanied by a tender – how would the North Koreans, say, fix and destroy it a few thousand nautical miles away? How would any nation without a large, powerful, persistent blue water navy? Even maritime patrol aircraft rarely have an effective patrolling range of more than a few thousand miles. People are always defending aircraft carriers by saying that it’s hard to find a moving target. How much more so for a vessel that’s 9/10 underwater, and can submerge at any time?”

    ***

    Most of what SSNs are doing in PACOM today is covert ISR and presence. However, I can only speculate on this because we don’t know precisely where they are or what they are doing! All we know is that an SSN has left Guam, Pearl Harbor, or San Diego on a routine deployment. In my mind that really sums up the key capabilities of nuclear powered submarines: range + self-sufficiency = unpredictability.

    Because SSNs don’t have to surface and can be just about anywhere in a very short of time, a potential enemy such as the DPRK or PRC likely has little to no idea of where are subs are or what they’re doing – unless they are sophisticated or lucky enough to catch them in the act. This can have a pretty significant impact in terms of deterrence.

    Compare that to an SSK, which when if it left say Guam would have to transit at a stately 5 knots to conserve fuel and/or LOX – probably with a tender in tow. That’s a real drawback – the bad guys know generally where you can go, where you’re going to operate, and how long you’ll be there.

    IMHO – modern SSKs are inherently defensive weapons. They are great for coastal defense and sea denial missions, but not so great for a nation that wants to project naval power far from its own shores. Kind of similar to the whole battleships vs. coastal defense monitors debate of the post-Civil War era. These ships had great niche capabilities in their own right, but in the end didn’t match the geo-political situation the US faced.

    And no Mike, I am not calling submarines the New Battleships!)

  26. hokie_1997 permalink
    June 15, 2010 8:39 am

    Anon wrote in part: “If an SSK headed from Hawaii to North Korea on the surface – even accompanied by a tender – how would the North Koreans, say, fix and destroy it a few thousand nautical miles away? How would any nation without a large, powerful, persistent blue water navy? Even maritime patrol aircraft rarely have an effective patrolling range of more than a few thousand miles. People are always defending aircraft carriers by saying that it’s hard to find a moving target. How much more so for a vessel that’s 9/10 underwater, and can submerge at any time?”
    ***
    Most of what SSNs are doing in PACOM today is covert ISR and presence. However, I can only speculate on this because we don’t know precisely where they are or what they are doing! All we know is that an SSN has left Guam, Pearl Harbor, or San Diego on a routine deployment. In my mind that really sums up the key capabilities of nuclear powered submarines: range + self-sufficiency = unpredictability.
    Because SSNs don’t have to surface and can be just about anywhere in a very short of time, a potential enemy such as the DPRK or PRC likely has little to no idea of where are subs are or what they’re doing – unless they are sophisticated or lucky enough to catch them in the act. This can have a pretty significant impact in terms of deterrence.
    Compare that to an SSK, which when if it left say Guam would have to transit at a stately 5 knots to conserve fuel and/or LOX – probably with a tender in tow. That’s a real drawback – the bad guys know generally where you can go, where you’re going to operate, and how long you’ll be there.
    IMHO – modern SSKs are inherently defensive weapons. They are great for coastal defense and sea denial missions, but not so great for a nation that wants to project naval power far from its own shores. Kind of similar to the whole battleships vs. coastal defense monitors debate of the post-Civil War era. These ships had great niche capabilities in their own right, but in the end didn’t match the geo-political situation the US faced.
    (And no Mike, I am not calling submarines the New Battleships!)

  27. Scott B. permalink
    June 15, 2010 5:29 am

    anon said : “why do we turn into vacillating sissies about a submarine getting within range, too, *before* it submerges and starts to hunt, gather intelligence or lay mines?”

    I take it you consider Milan Vego to be a *vacillating sissy* when he admits that :

    “One of the greatest disadvantages of the SSKs is their inability to deploy covertly and quickly from homeports many thousands of miles away from their prospective operating areas.”

    ;-))

    Besides, I’m not the owner of this blog, but I don’t think using the kind of language you’ve just used is likely to bring anything positive on the table.

    IOW, vulgarity is totally out of place on New Wars. IMHO…

  28. Scott B. permalink
    June 15, 2010 5:16 am

    Mike Burleson said : “Personally I think this a manageable threat, only we don’t have nearly the mindset needed to defeat them.”

    Nice rhetoric aside, what tangible solutions do you propose to manage the threat, e.g. : what is the mythical SSK supposed to look like ? how much does it cost to acquire and operate ? what sort of supporting infrastructure / assets does it require ?

    Let’s try to be specific please…

  29. Mike Burleson permalink*
    June 15, 2010 4:59 am

    I am mostly concerned that we think we have already handled the submarine problem with our technology. We have been told this before every new war in the last century, and we have been consistently taken by surprise.

    Now, here we are again, though currently in a grace period, with the door swiftly closing as we see with the Cheonan sinking. The SSKs keep spoiling our wargames, “sinking” our best ships, proving the old David versus Goliath theory still holds, but now they are armed with advanced standoff weapons too.

    Personally I think this a manageable threat, only we don’t have nearly the mindset needed to defeat them. We are still thinking in terms of ramming our big ships up against and enemy coastline, blasting them with our big guns. Good luck with that.

    You can’t do ASW as an afterthought.

  30. Scott B. permalink
    June 15, 2010 4:49 am

    anon said : “Actually, Gotland can do exactly that. 1700nm is its stated underwater range at 5 knots, non-snorting, for two weeks duration.”

    You’ve obviously missed the point completely, so I’ll do it again quickly for you ;-)).

    1) Gotland may (or may not) be able to remain submerged @ 5 knots for a continuous 360 hours. I’ve yet to see evidence that they’ve ever done it, but, in the meantime, let’s assume real life is going to be consistent with paper specs…

    2) At the end of this 1,800 NM, the mythical Gotland reaches the patrol area, i.e. Taiwan is the example taken in this discussion. Problems :

    a) you’ve run out of batteries, so you’ll have to snort to recharge. Exactly when you’d like to remain as discreet as possible.

    b) you’ve run out of LOX, and once the cryogenic tanks are empty, you won’t be able to operate under AIP. Exactly when you’d like to remain as discreet as possible.

    I’m leaving aside such niceties as a small crew being in a *not-so-fresh* condition after this 2-week transit, which isn’t exactly the best way to start a patrol. I’ve gradually come to the conclusion that human- and platform-centric considerations are supposed to be made obsolete by the missile age…

    Anyway, I can now rephrase the point I made earlier :

    a) the Gotlands were designed to allow extended poise in the Baltic Sea operating area where transit times to the patrol areas are small.

    b) inflicting a 1,700 NM transit on these subs before they can reach their intended patrol area is therefore going to require quite a lot of snorting.

    Capice ???

  31. B.Smitty permalink
    June 14, 2010 11:32 pm

    I am less worried about SSKs being detected in transit than I am about their lack of tactical and strategic speed. I mean an SSK can’t even tail a modern container ship for more than a few hundred miles, if at all.

  32. Anonymous permalink
    June 14, 2010 9:52 pm

    This is all hooey! People just don’t want to change, and will think of any reason not to.

    How many nations can monitor an entire ocean for a 2000 ton sub heading their way, that only snorts at night? Or even one that travels most of the way on the surface. Who has the global assets to do that, bar the USA?

    If an SSK headed from Hawaii to North Korea on the surface – even accompanied by a tender – how would the North Koreans, say, fix and destroy it a few thousand nautical miles away? How would any nation without a large, powerful, persistent blue water navy? Even maritime patrol aircraft rarely have an effective patrolling range of more than a few thousand miles. People are always defending aircraft carriers by saying that it’s hard to find a moving target. How much more so for a vessel that’s 9/10 underwater, and can submerge at any time?

    And anyhow, if a corvette, frigate, destroyer or aircraft carrier is expected to get within range of a hostile nation on the surface, why do we turn into vacillating sissies about a submarine getting within range, too, *before* it submerges and starts to hunt, gather intelligence or lay mines? Do you know how few nations employ competent, in-depth maritime patrol assets? How hard it is to search a wide area for snorkels? When an AIP sub reaches a hostile coast, at least it can then promptly dive 200m and vanish from prying eyes, seasat radar and MAD booms. That’s better than any Arleigh Burke, and in my book *way* more survivable.

    We should collectively grow a pair and realise that AIP subs are no more limited than surface vessels.

  33. Anonymous permalink
    June 14, 2010 9:26 pm

    Actually, Gotland can do exactly that. 1700nm is its stated underwater range at 5 knots, non-snorting, for two weeks duration.

    5 knots covers 5 nautical miles, x 24 hours x 14 days = 1680 nautical miles.

  34. Scott B. permalink
    June 14, 2010 6:05 pm

    hokie said : “Consider that it’s about 1,700 natical miles from Guam to Taiwan. At a submerged transit speed of 5 kts (Gotland AIP), it’d take an SSK two weeks just to get into position. An awful lot can happen in two weeks.”

    I very much doubt a Gotland can make 1,700 NM @ 5 knots submerged in the first place, meaning there will be quite a lot of snorting involved.

  35. Hudson permalink
    June 14, 2010 5:52 pm

    Actually, in any real test of strength with a cyberpower like China, or even N. Korea, the first “shots” fired might be various malware bombs going off in the power grids and infrastructure of the opposing nations, along with attacks on satellites. Our official hackers are held to be top rank and we can certainly shoot down satellites, but as a nation we are more plugged-in than China and thus have more to lose. Their spies are pretty good.

    Would our subs, ships and planes work? Don’t know. The more sophisticated the device, I would guess, the more vulnerable it would be to cyber attack. And what would a handful or dozen SSNs accomplish once they got from Guam to Taiwan? Would they readily dispose of the Chinese fleet, operating in home waters? Maybe, though China’s subs become quiter and more advanced with each new generation.

    Our SSNs were designed, in the first place, to duel with their Russian counterparts. Now, it seems, they would be charging into foreign waters to duel with ultra quiet AIP boats, which might have the technical advantage.

  36. hokie_1997 permalink
    June 14, 2010 4:21 pm

    Mike wrote: “Hokie brings up a good point. We have our own naval bases along the east and west coasts, easily accessible, plus scattered throughout the Carribean.”

    ****

    Mike, not my point at all.

    Exactly what good would it do to station subs at those bases? There’s not much of a demand for US submarines in the Caribbean or along the East and West coasts of the US!

    The main demand for US submarines is in the Pacific – vis a vis the PRC and North Korea. And here the so-called “tyranny of distance” works hard against US diesel subs.

    Consider that it’s about 1,700 natical miles from Guam to Taiwan. At a submerged transit speed of 5 kts (Gotland AIP), it’d take an SSK two weeks just to get into position. An awful lot can happen in two weeks.

    Compare that to an SSN, which in a pinch can conduct a submered transit at 30(+) knots and be on-station from the same distance in under 3 days.

    Granted, SSKs are a lot cheaper than SSNs – and so you can afford more of them. But it’s not a one for one comparison. Nuke power is defintitely a force multipler. I’d have to do the math, but my gut instinct is that you’re going to need a very large pool of SSKs coming and going to keep one on-station.

  37. MatR permalink
    June 14, 2010 4:12 pm

    Regarding supply and refueling, it’s something that the Germans did pretty successfully in WW2, given the resources they had and the sheer weight of numbers stacked against them.

    Today, in a much less threat-dense environment, there’s no absolute reason that AIP subs can’t be resupplied from innocuous transports or converted fishing vessels. Maybe from airlifted supplies or airdrops from the back of a C17. Containerised supplies would seperate the refueling from any particular platform, and make it harded for an adversary to pre-emptively attack refueling assets. A smallish transport ship flagged to a neutral nation costs just a few million second hand, and the seas are too full of them ever to interdict them all.

    We consider replenishment to be natural for naval aircraft. Why not see it as natural for AIP subs? It’s not like the sub has to be tied to one huge, 70,000 ton platform to refuel, as the plane does.

  38. Scott B. permalink
    June 14, 2010 3:37 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “Where are we hurting for forward bases that these relatively short range boats could operate from, that we might lose them overnight, forced back to our coastline?”

    Someone recently mentioned Operation El Dorado Canyon in another discussion.

    Guess what happened at the time :

    For the Libyan raid, the United States was denied overflight rights by France, Spain and Italy as well as the use of European continental bases, forcing the Air Force portion of the operation to be flown around France, Spain and through the Straits of Gibraltar, adding 1,300 miles (2,100 km) each way and requiring multiple aerial refuelings.”

    And it’s not like recent history doesn’t offer plenty more instances for people to ponder…

  39. Scott B. permalink
    June 14, 2010 3:33 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “But we’ve always had ships of some type forward based, as are the excellent Cyclones now.”

    Suggesting that forward-basing submarines won’t be much of a challenge since we already do that with patrol crafts is really like comparing apples and oranges !!!!

    And some AIP technologies (e.g. fuel cells) only make matters worse !!! Simply consider something like this and you’ll find out why…

  40. Heretic permalink
    June 14, 2010 1:09 pm

    Brisbane? Try Perth. Or better yet, if there’s the facilities for it … Darwin in the Northern Territory. Heck, someone make the case for me why building up facilities in Darwin to homeport USN conventional SSPs would *not* be a Win-Win-Win-Win for the USN and the RAN?

    Homeport SSNs in foreign ports? No way … to much security risk.

    Homeport SSPs in foreign ports? No problem … either from the USN or the host nation (see, non-nuclear reasoning).

  41. hokie_1997 permalink
    June 14, 2010 12:58 pm

    Mike,

    1. If you believe the CSBA report, fixed ports are extremely vulnereable in a modern hot war. I’d say in flare-up with China you can essentialy write off anything left docked at Guam or Sasebo on the first day. And if the (diesel) sub happens to be at sea when the balloon goes up, where exactly is it going to go to refuel?

    2. Even in a benign environment, we can’t count on our allies for ports and basing access. And there actually aren’t a lot of places to securely dock subs in the Gulf. If Iran starts flexing its muscles, whose to say that Bahrain will side against its Islamic brother and allow us to keep attack subs there? There were riots in Bahrain on the first day of OIF.

    Matt

  42. Chuck Hill permalink
    June 14, 2010 12:22 pm

    Perhaps the Australians would let us come back to Brisbane.

  43. Mike Burleson permalink*
    June 14, 2010 12:08 pm

    Hokie brings up a good point. We have our own naval bases along the east and west coasts, easily accessible, plus scattered throughout the Carribean. Guam, Pearl Harbor, further out. Diego Garcia renting from the Brits, plus bases in within the Persian Gulf and Djibouti, around the Med and across Europe.

    Where are we hurting for forward bases that these relatively short range boats could operate from, that we might lose them overnight, forced back to our coastline?

  44. Mike Burleson permalink*
    June 14, 2010 11:59 am

    Scott wrote “How many of our submarines are currently homeported overseas ?”

    The point being, universally powered ships are nice to have, but are shrinking in number very quickly. As Hudson pointed out, the bulk of our sub fleet is Cold War era LA class subs. Will the Virginia class be purchased in the 50 number in time for these aging boats to retire? I wonder.

    But forward basing of ships is not a novel approach. I understand we have many enemies, and friends who could turn into enemies, but I don’t think it likely, not enough to panic over and limit our procurement choices.

    But we’ve always had ships of some type forward based, as are the excellent Cyclones now. From the small beginnings of our Navy, to its superpower status today.

  45. Hudson permalink
    June 14, 2010 11:21 am

    There are currently 45 L.A. class SSGNs in service, the last of which were built in 1996. The replacement Vircinia class has a projected 30 boats, with six built to date, starting in 2000. So by the Navy’s own projections, it is building down its attack fleet by some 13 boats when all the L.A. boats are retired: 30 Virginias + two Seawolfs, assuming they are still in operation.

    The Navy might be satisfied with that number, assuming that all the Virginias are built at ever rising costs–app.2.5 bil per boat today–or it might place confidence in the Tango Bravo plan to build future SSNs more cheaply and efficiently.

    Two things are fairly certain: foreign navies will continue to build relatively inexpensive SSKs, which pose a mortal threat to our capital ships; and the increasing costs of our capital ships will force the Navy to produce fewer nuclear subs or carriers–take your pick–to defend the sea lanes and project seapower.

  46. Chuck Hill permalink
    June 14, 2010 11:13 am

    I suspect that what happened in the case of the Korean Corvette was that the North Koreans saw a repeating patrol pattern. They placed the midget sub on the bottom where they knew the Corvette would pass and it lay on the bottom until the Corvette had passed. Then the sub fired a homing torpedo up the baffles of the Corvette.

    With the bottom conditions, they had no chance of seeing the small sum on the bottom and firing up the baffles, they would have no indication a torpedo was on the way.

  47. MatR permalink
    June 14, 2010 10:32 am

    Defensively, in home waters, SSK subs can be good value. Hence Germany’s history of excellent postwar diesel-electric subs in the Baltic Sea. Hence Japan’s modern SSKs.

    Seeing as the Obama Administration’s State Department seems happy to ‘green light’ Argentina’s claims to the Falklands every chance it gets, and now that Germany is canning its competent 206As to save money, the UK could do worse than buy them up to provide incredibly cheap, very cost-effective deterrence around the Falklands for 10 years. It would give us some breathing space whilst we planned longer term measures.

    I bet that for a $USD hundred mil purchase you could get half a dozen. The cost of one Eurofighter. It would bankrupt the Argentine Navy to have to buy the ASW assets to find them in case of invasion.

  48. hokie_1997 permalink
    June 14, 2010 8:46 am

    Mike,

    Very little of the submarine force is actually stationed overseas.

    If you count Guam as overseas – which is debatable since it is a US territory – 3 x SSN. It should be note that there has been a lot of talk of using Diego Garcia as a deployment site.

    The critical advantage of nuclear power is range. We don’t have to rely on militarily vulnerable forward bases, nor the whims of other nations to provide us ports.

  49. Scott B. permalink
    June 14, 2010 8:20 am

    Mike Burleson said : “Even many of our largest warships are homeported overseas.”

    How many of our submarines are currently homeported overseas ?

  50. Mike Burleson permalink*
    June 14, 2010 8:04 am

    Scott-is that a deal breaking then? Even many of our largest warships are homeported overseas.

  51. Scott B. permalink
    June 14, 2010 8:01 am

    Mike Burleson said : “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“”

    The most important paragraph in Vego’s lastest pro-SSK piece is this one : (emphasis added)

    One of the greatest disadvantages of the SSKs is their inability to deploy covertly and quickly from homeports many thousands of miles away from their prospective operating areas. Hence, host-nation support is critical.

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