[Reprinted with permission from Foreign Systems Research Center Analytical Note by SAIC, Denver, CO.]
[Ed. Note: Mr. Kraus is a member of the Naval Submarine League and is a retired Naval Intelligence officer. He is a frequent contributor to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW.]
High Technology — High Leverage
The recent sale of three Russian KILO-class diesel-powered submarines to Iran (with negotiations reportedly underway for the purchase of two more) highlights the expanding Third· World submarine threat. Such submarines offer many countries potential leverage against larger or more sophisticated forces — even the United States. As the number of countries with submarines grows, and with the added potential offered by nuclear-powered submarines, consideration of the impact these units may have on contingency operations seems an urgent planning priority. This is particularly true in view of the declining numbers of U.S. forward bases, the declining U.S. submarine inventory, and the sm<lller number of available U.S. surface and air anti-submarine warfare (ASW) assets.
This paper addresses the prms posed by Third-World submarine proliferation and some of the associated issues for United States contingency forces. With the decline of the Soviet (now Russian) Navy, more subm<lrines may become available for sale to Third-World statc.o;. For example, Red Star on 16 October carried an “advertisement” for a TANGO-class diesel boat. The marketing of TANGOs signals that even submarines originally designed for internal Russian usc ·- rather than just the previous “export versions” -· arc now ave~ih1ble for sale. Of course, even more capable German, British, Swedish, and other designs (some involving air-dependent propulsion) arc availuble to those with the wherewithal to buy. The threat is thereby increasing in capability und scope, while U.S. ability to respond is constrained by declining hudgels, bases, and assets. Will the next U.S. Third- World crisis response face a signilicant. submarine threat?
A Stealthy Threat
With Very Potent Weapons
U.S. forces responding to future contingency operations face a potential “stealthylt challenge represented by submarines in Third-World inventories. The inherent stealth of submarines makes them ideal platforms to be used in areas where the operating country is unable to achieve and maintain sea control — as is the case with almost any country in a dispute with the U.S., whether the U.S. acts alone or under UN auspices. Moreover, the torpedoes and mines (notwithstanding the potential anti-ship and land-attack missiles) which submarines carry are particularly effective anti-ship weapons. As U.S. basing and sustainment are reduced in forward areas, the problem of dealing with a submarine threat becomes more acute, especially as the threat is expanding in size and into more and more countries. With current Russian economic troubles causing a fire sale mentality and the rapid reduction of their submarine force making boats available for sale, countries that previously could not begin to entertain the thought of subma-rine ownership may now be able to. Currently 44 countries operate submarine forces of various sizes. The vast majority of these are composed ofconventionally-powered vessels, but India has operated one obsolete Russian CHARLIE-class SSG N under a leasing arrangement, and at least India, Brazil, and Argentina have nuclear submarine programs underway.
Moreover, many nations (e.g., Germany, Sweden, Russia, Italy) are working on air-independent propulsion schemes aimed at making conventional submarines even tougher targets than they are now. Such propulsion systems allow greatly extended submerged operations without the necessity for recharging batteries by snorkeling or surfacing, and higher sustained submerged speeds, overcoming one inherent weakness of traditional diesel boats.
The problem that these disparate forces may represent is graphically illustrated by the British experience in the Falklands War. The Argentine Navy had available two German-designed Type 209 SSs (of four diesel boats); one operated for some time in the British closure area. This extremely small numerical threat forced extended ASW operations by the British that continued for the duration of their campaign and resulted in the expenditure of almost 150 ASW weapons in pursuit of (mostly) false targets. In view of the normal loads of ASW torpedoes and the lack of alternative U.S. ASW weapons, this may give some idea of the extraordinary expenditure of ASW ordnance that bas often characterized these operations. Historically, the ratio of ordnance used to submarines kUled is similarly high. Anti-submarine warfare is also a costly enterprise in terms of platforms required and the time necessary to “sanitize an area,” i.e., assuring (to some probability) that no submarines are present.
In view of the fact that the British units involved in the Falklands were also the main elements of ASGRUTWO, NATO’s North Atlantic ASW group and the ASW subordinate staff for COMSECONDaT in his NATO role as Commander, Striking Fleet Atlantic, the competence of the ASW units was not a question. The complicated ASW conditions, the difficult logistics of operating so far afield, and the quiet diesel threat in an area where maintaining air ASW coverage was impossible are probably sufficient explanations. These are exactly the sorts of problems that the U.S. may face in Third-World operations in a future contingency, although the threat may greatly exceed that posed by the Argentines.
Several scenarios can be envisioned with more dire subma-rine threats. A PRC-Taiwan scenario, for example, could involve a potential PRC blockade of Taiwan enforced with submarines (among other forces). The PRC has about a half-dozen marginally capable SSNs, but has almost 100 diesel-electric boats of various designs. Were the U.S. involved, dealing with a threat in which the operating area is about 100 miles from the PRC while it is almost 6,000 miles from the U.S. islikely to be a challenge. In addition, the ability to maintain air superiority might also be a problem, particularly with U.S. forces withdrawn from Philippine bases.
It is likely that in most Third-World cases, effective ASW against a diesel threat will depend to an extent on air superiori-ty. With friendly forces controlling the air, maritime patrol aircraft can provide “area flooding” radar coverage of the operating area, facilitating the detection of diesels when they must snorkel, or forcing them to remain submerged for extend-ed periods, precluding their ability to rapidly change operating areas or respond to U.S. movements with maximum flexibility. Clearly, the locus for many such contingencies may be distant from the remaining U.S. forward bases as well as from CONUS, thereby complicating the attainment of air superiority.
Counter With Alr ASW – or SSNs
A Planning Dilemma in Either Case
In order to assure that ASW aircraft can be employed in support of contingency forces, they must be protected from air threats. This is why air superiority is likely to be an essential requirement of a U.S. response (even in the absence of other requirements for air support). Air ASW platforms are generally inwlnerable to submarine weapons and offer rapid response and large area coverage. However, in forward areas where there are no bases, the U.S. is likely to provide air forces primarily from carriers. Carriers are wlnerable to submarines and must be operated with organic and other ASW forces to prevent successful submarine attacks. Therefore, the movement forward by carriers is likely to be delayed until ASW forces can deal with the submarine threat.
A Catch-22 situation prevails: carriers arc needed to assure effective ASW, but they cannot move forward until effective ASW has been executed. Land-based air might be able to provide long-range ASW support, but air superiority is required to allow such aircraft to operate; carriers are needed to provide that air superiority in the absence of proximate U.S. bases. The use of SSNs eliminated the need for initial air superiority, but SSNs must be operated very prudently against quiet diesels in shallow water, and quiet diesel targets mean a slower search rate for the SSNs. Thus, such an operation will take time, possibly days or weeks depending on the threat, but certainly more than hours.
The U.S. has used its carriers and other naval platforms since World War II with relative impunity in operations from Korea to Libya. Now the proliferation of submarines means that in many such contingencies there will be a tangible, stealthy, anti-ship threat. A solution to the dilemma sketched above will require careful planning and execution, and the prospect for, and nature of, the risks associated with the operation will have to be explicitly evaluated. The clement of time necessary for effective ASW prosecution to take place will have to be taken into account. In any case, the conscious recognition that a problem exists is a prerequisite for planning.
The PRC scenario noted above is by far one of the most stressing, but does not necessarily represent the most technical-ly-capable force. There arc a number of countries that have bought or arc buying Western-designed submarines that are far more capable, including India, Pakistan, and a number of Asian and South American countries. There are other contingencies where large, Third-World submarine forces might be involved; the North Koreans, for example, have over 20 such boats in their inventory. The nature of these forces also means that the U.S. may encounter either its own or other Western weapons. The U.S. has sold Mark 46 ASW torpedoes to the PRC and to others. The Germans and French have sold both submarines and submarine weapons (including heavyweight submarine torpedoes) widely in the third world, as have the Italians. Thus, the threat is not just from Russian systems, although as noted above, with the economic circumstances in Russia, “bargain” submarines may be available to a new set of clients that previously was unable to afford such systems.
These aspects of adversary submarine operations in Third-World contingencies are only the tip of the iceberg in evaluat-ing the threat. The U.S. has order of battle data on most of the submarines, but has spent little collection effort on characteriz-ing the doctrine, tactics, weapons employment conventions, training levels, maintenance practices and state of repair of the fleet, deployment patterns, reconnaissance and targeting capabilities, etc. In short, most of the data necessary to characterize the actual threat versus the “threat on paper” (Ciausewitz’s differentiation), and to plan U.S. contingency operations, has not received the level of attention that the current threat warrants.
A Proliferation and Contingency Issue
Ballistic Missiles Not the Only High-Tech Threat
The trends discussed above boil down to the following: the number of potential adversaries is increasing; the proliferation of submarines is increasing, and may accelerate with Russian sales; most contingencies will be distant from the United States; there are fewer (and the numbers are continuing to decline) deployable ASW assets in the U.S. inventory; and, finally, most contingencies require U.S. forces to approach foreign coasts, potentially making those forces more vulnerable to hostile submarines (the new U.S. Navy White Paper, From the Sea, indicates renewed emphasis on such littoral operations). In view of the potential impact of submarine proliferation on the success of operations across a range of contingencies, it seems important that this problem be thought through systematically. The inherent stealth of the platform coupled with the lethality of the weapons it carries makes this a tangible threat, one that could mean the loss of a carrier or an SSN in the worst case. Moreover, U.S. and other Western weapons are clearly a part of the problem.
Several initial steps seem advisable. First, some form of proliferation regime that addresses the weapons and high-technologies that make submarines more threatening is as necessary as the regime currently in place to control the proliferation of ballistic missile systems and technologies. Second, expanding the U.S. data collection strategy seems warranted in order to increase the available intelligence on the many intangibles of operations and logistics in Third-World submarines forces — in addition to the hard data on numbers, types, and weapons. New sources and methods should be examined, for much information is openly available (although often untranslated) in technical literature, trade publications, indigenous newspapers, and the like. Third, contingency planning should explicitly address the impacts of this threat on potential operations, to include the impact of the timing of operations.
Just as the U.S. “learned” a number of lessons in the recent Gulf War, it is likely that others did as well. One of the potential lessons for those who may face an American interven-tion is that allowing a large U.S. force to be deployed with impunity is a guarantee of failure. Means to interfere with the large-scale logistics associated with such a buildup have existed and been exercised since the First World War – unrestricted submarine warfare (to include submarine. mining). The loss of logistics ships or major combatants may affect the ability and will of the U.S. to pursue contingency operations. In the past, the capture of a small number of aviators or a large, single loss as at the marine barracks in Lebanon have had major poJitical impacts on contingency operations. Ship losses – especially if they are large, modem ships – represent potentially substantial losses of personnel and equipment. As submarines and submarine weapons proliferate in the third world, perhaps it is time for an “ounce of prevention.”
[Mr. Kraus is a Senior Analyst at tire FSRC specializing iJr nava~ space and strategic issues, as well as U.S. national security policy. He iJlVites comments and questions concemiJrg this ongoing research at (303) 773-6900.]