Just after the start of World War II, I reported on board “a rusty old sewerpipe.” That’s what we called our S-boat of WW I vintage. But, she’d sunk a Japanese destroyer in the Java Sea a month earlier, and on my first patrol we sank a small Japanese seaplane tender just off the entrance to Rabaul — an important and welldefended Japanese forward base.
Yet, the old s-boats were supposed to be “obsolete” and of little practical use in a modern war. Despite that, they were mustered for frontline war duties, to spread out the U.S. submarine effort in the far Pacific. In a sense, they were there to dilute the Japanese ASW effort against u.s. first-line “fleet” boats — which were far larger, more long-legged and all less than six years old.
Today, a similar situation seems to exist. The Soviets great students of history seem well aware of the war contribution made by “obsolete” old submarines, like our S-boats. The Soviets maintain a large force of conventional, diesel/battery powered submarines most of which are of considerable age, but they’re expected to supplement the large force of Soviet nuclear submarines. Though diesel boats have considerable limitations, the Soviets continue to build improved types of conventional boats. They also keep the old ones modernized and operational and indicate an expected use of all their boats in a wide variety of roles and missions. A latest count shows approximately 180 Soviet diesel submarines in commission, with another 60 to 75 in some sort of semi-active but reserve status. With about 200 Soviet nuclear submarines in an opera tional status — about 50% more than U.S. nuclears — there is seemingly little large additional number of submarines, the diesels.
But, Admiral Gorshkov, the past Head of the Soviet Navy, has stressed that “modern technology” has forced naval power underseas, and that “the transfer of the main efforts of naval warfare (is) to the subsurface medium.” Also, that “submarines have become the main arm of the forces of modern navies.” And Admiral Chernavin, the new Head of the Soviet Navy, has indicated an equally strong support of his submarines for today’s naval wars.
Thus, all sorts of submarines — conventional diesel-powered ones as well as nuclears — have important roles to play in Soviet naval planning for wars which “embrace the expanse of the World Ocean.” Particularly, because of the global nature of the big wars envisioned, having large numbers of submarines — far more than their some 200 nuclear-powered operational units — the Soviets feel that by operating submarines in ocean areas worldwide, they can overwhelm an enemy’s ASW efforts. Recalling history: “For every German submariner at sea (in World War II) there were 100 British and American anti-submariners.” The Soviets apparently believe that many more Soviet submariners at sea can thus “break the camel’s back.”
This Soviet emphasis on submarines, dieselelectrics as well as nuclears, stems from their stated belief that “modern technology” electronic warfare, good worldwide communications, very long range broad ocean surveillance, computerized data collation and computer generated decision making — have put a particularly high and critical premium on the achievement of surprise in today’s naval battles. And even conventional submarines, the Soviets apparently feel, can be so operated as to achieve a high element of surprise in their employment.
Why do the Soviets seemingly disregard our pessimism about the utility of diesel boats versus modern ASW forces?
Salient characteristics of Soviet conventional submarines, which are presently in commission — as indicated by Jane’s Fighting Ships and, for the most part confirmed by Norman Polmar’s Guide to the Soviet Navy — to a great extent explain the Soviet’s continuing involvement with conventional submarines.
In general, Soviet conventionals are regarded as being quieter when operating on their batteries than enemy nuclear submarines — their primary enemy. They are relatively small as compared to today’s nuclears. They are double-hulled and apparently have degaussing coils between the hulls. They are well designed for shallow water operations — i.e. for mining, shore surveillance, landing of commandos, penetration of port areas, etc •• They are for the most part old submarines-25 years or more — but they have not been extensively used within their lifetimes. And t~ey are recognizably considered to be expendable. Their underwater mobility is still relatively limited. But the conventional submarine is understood to have a greatly improved “maneuver” characteristic due to the weapons it now has available. Missiles and long range torpedoes “have made it possible for maneuver by weapon trajectories to replace maneuver by the platform, to a considerable degree.” Thus, along with greatly improved organic sensors, including linear arrays for passive acoustic sensing, and with external means for providing targeting information (mainly airborne i.e. satellites, recce aircraft, and a manned space station with a good visual surveillance capability of the oceans — rarely equated) the diesel boats’ radius of effective action has been greatly increased. Also, with an indicated use of an external coordinating command for directing conventional submarine operations, the numbers of enemy targets susceptible to surprise submarine attacks are multiplied. Despite an irresponsible labeling of many Soviet diesel boats as being “coastal,” virtually all of their conventionals are long-legged — even the ROHEOs and WHISKEYs which have about a 9000-mile range on the surface. Evidently the so-called “coastal” boats are, for the most part, to be operated in the Baltic, Black, Mediterranean and Okhotsk Seas. Still they need not be restricted to inland sea operations.
The most significant difference between Soviet diesel-battery boats and World War II counterparts is their submerged endurance — their time between snorkeling or surface batteryrecharges. The old FOXTROTs have demonstrated more than seven days of submerged endurance while the newer TANGOs are credited with “significantly more battery capacity than the FOXTROTs” and hence greater submerged endurance. The JULIETTa with reportedly silver-zinc batteries may have even greater submerged endurance.
Perhaps the most significant proof of the believed utility of conventionals in modern warfare is the Soviets’ continued building program of new types of conventional submarines. The KILOs are understood to have a present building rate “equal to the FOXTROT program at its peak.” This would equate to about 7 a year.
One area of conventional-boat capability and probably the most important — is the kind of weapons they carry and the efficiency of those weapons relative to their firing platform characteristics. Also, all of the Soviet boats carry a large load of heavy torpedoes, and seemingly all are likely to have nuclear torpedoes aboard during at-sea operations, as evidenced by the WHISKEY-on-the- rocks incident in Swedish coastal waters. The Soviet conventionals are covert. Are their weapons equally so? The Soviets have developed torpedo-tube-launched cruise missiles. How proliferated are they to the diesel boats? Anti-air weapons housed in the sail are ascribed to the KILOs and possibly the TANGOs . Is an anti-air capability to be expected in many of their diesels? And, with the Soviet emphasis on “destroying or diverting enemy weapons in their trajectories,” how difficult will it be to obtain a hit in a Soviet conventional boat with ASW weapons of the West? Are these unknown factors part of the reason why the Soviets have retained such a large number of conventional submarines?
Briefly, the Soviet diesel-electric boats in commission comprise:
- thirteen KILOs of 3200 tons, with a shape like the ALBACORE but with a lesser submerged speed of about 25 knots, and a depth capability of an estimated 300 meters. The first KILO was launched in 1983 and has so few limber holes that it appears designed for continuous submerged operations — requiring only occasional snorkeling charges of the batteries of short duration due to the use of high capacity diesels. Its bow planes are low-down near the bow. It has what is thought to be an “anechoic” tile-coating but which may be primarily designed for drag reduction. Its hull is believed to be amagnetic, and it has 6 standard torpedo tubes up forward.
- twenty TANGOs of 3900 tons and considered to be the successor to the FOXTROT class. The TANGOs have an estimated surface range of 17,000 miles, were constructed between 1972 and 1982, have 6 torpedo tubes forward and 4 aft, fire the SS-N-15 missile with nuclear warhead, and have a submerged speed of about 15 knots.
- sixty FOXTROTS of 2400 tons, built between1958 and 1967 and credited with a snorkeling range of 11,000 miles at 8 knots– but of far greater range on the surface. With 10 torpedo tubes, they are considered to be an anti-shipping threat on the high seas.
- fifteen JULIETTa of 3700 tons. built between 1961 and 1969, they carry four Shaddock 400mile cruise missiles with a 2200-pound warhead — launched from two pairs of topside deck-tubes. They can run 9000 miles at 7 knots on the snorkel, 16 knots on the surface and 14 knots submerged.
- built between widely used, The WHISKEYs about 9,000 fifty WHISKEYs of 1350 tons, 1951 and 1957 and still being “but rarely seen out of area.” have a range on the surface of miles.
- fourteen GOLFs of 2700 tons and built between 1958 and 1962. They carry three SS-N-5 ballistic missiles.
- and an assorted bag of diesel boats for specialized uses including transport of minisubs, communications, oceanographic research, rescue and salvage, trainingtargets. etc, — as well as a considerable number of midget submarines for “Spetznaz” operations. (The many intrusions into Swedish waters by “unknown” small submarines would indicate a strong emphasis on this type of conventional submarine, battery-powered. )
It is probably unwise to postulate that the Soviet conventionals will be operated from a few “homeland” bases in time of war. Increasingly, the Soviets have developed overseas bases from which Soviet conventionals may possibly be operated — to spread out the Soviet threat worldwide. (Seemingly, much of the Soviet submarine threat is like that of the old “Shoats.”) Cuba, Guinea, Syria, Aden, the Seychelles, Camranh Bay — all appear to be usable forward basing areas already partially developed to support submarine operations. Moreover, if supplemented by submarine tenders and other types of auxiliary ships, the Soviet problems of logistic support appear solvable. The Soviet Navy, today, has far more auxiliary ships (about 775) than the u.s. Navy. They have 6 UGRA-class 9,600ton submarine support ships with a SAM-2 battery for anti-air protection; 6 DON-class submarine support ships of 9,000 tons; and 6 ATREK and 5 DNEPR class sub tenders of about 5,500 tons. None of these ships are specified as “nuclear” submarine support ships and are ostensibly, for the most part, for probable use at overseas bases. With long. submerged-endurance the quiet batterypowered boats. used in defense of such bases. can make their elimination a thorny problem.
In summary: although much of the threat that may be posed by the great numbers of Soviet conventional submarines might supposedly be neutralized by ASW forces of u.s. allies in time of war, the Soviets’ global deployment pattern -threatening critical wartime shipping — might overextend u.s. ASW resources needed for areas not covered by U.S. allies. And, this is seemingly a major Soviet reason for keeping their old. S-boatlike conventional submarines in commission.