Nader Elhefnawy nas a B.A. in International Relations from Florida International University, where he is currently pursuing graduate studies and teaching.
The rate of technological advance and of political change tends to outrun the speed at which major new weapons systems can be acquired and absorbed, a problem likely to grow more severe as the rate of change accelerates. At the least, advances in munitions and sensors, which are inherently more mutable than ship hulls, are likely to outstrip the rate at which improvements can be packed into submarines, suggesting that submarine forces may face a future shock at some point in the foreseeable future, to use Alvin Toffler’s term: a point at which the rate of change becomes so overwhelming that one can no longer cope with it.
Such a shock is not likely to come about as a result of dramatically expanded or improved submarine fleets. Weapons like jet fighters, tanks, planes and even missile systems, incorrectly characterized as state-of-the-art by an adjective-happy press, tend to end up as showpieces in Third World arsenals. Owned by states without the resources to operate them properly, let alone in a manner that will enable them to get the most out of their dearly bought systems, matters are even worse in the case of countries like Iraq where civil-military relations are such that the ability of officers to do their jobs is crippled by politics. Naval warfare, which involves the largest, most expensive, most complex weapons systems, is also the sphere of conflict where such inadequacies are both most obvious and can least be afforded. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, and the inherent stealth of the submarine makes it difficult to rule out in any case, so that it would be unwarranted to dismiss these forces out of hand. Nonetheless, navies of the poorer countries are unlikely to drastically increase their anti-submarine capability in the foreseeable future.
The principal danger lies in the rogue nation equivalent of what we have termed the Revolution in Military Affairs: the bringing together of precision-guided munitions with unprecedented ability to surveil the battlespace and coordinate strikes, which it has been argued, are making major aircraft, armored vehicles and warships senile. Submarines, however, have been immune to such threats, because of the relatively short range of submarine sensors and weapons, the slower pace of underwater warfare (sonar travels at the speed of sound, where radar and lasers travel at the speed of light), and because it involves small numbers of inherently stealthy units. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that submarines will permanently escape such fundamental changes in warfare.
This article will emphasize technologies which need not be the purview of large, wealthy or technologically advanced states, and which could be used by states without submarine fleets of their own, though it goes without saying that they could make those submarine fleets that do exist more effective. Dramatic improvements in torpedoes, sensors and communications could drastically increase the anti-submarine capability of even small powers, and the vulnerability of submarines in the littorals where most future naval conflicts are likely to be fought.
Supercavitating weapons have the potential to revolutionize undersea warfare by greatly accelerating its speed. The Russian Shkval, a rocket-powered torpedo, can achieve a speed of two hundred knots, three times as high as any other torpedo currently in service.
The existing torpedoes do not by themselves change the face of undersea warfare. The Shkval has no homing or maneuvering capability, which limits its usefulness. 1 Nonetheless, the problems of control and intelligence are not insurmountable, with control surfaces like fins and thrust-vectoring systems already being studied. 2 Moreover, much higher speeds are possible. In experiments, supercavitating rounds have reached speeds of over three thousand miles per hour, markedly higher than that of a bullet from a rifle like the M-16. An intelligent, supercavitating torpedo could prove to be as deadly to today’s submarines as smart bombs and missiles have become to tanks and surface ships, especially if they are designed to be launched from a wide variety of platforms, not only submarines but also surface ships, aircraft and even land-based ASROC-type launchers for long-range missiles.
It has been suggested already that supercavitating torpedoes may make concrete submarines a serious threat to surface fleets. 3 Unlike the typical submarine, the concrete sub plants itself on the bottom and waits for ships to come to it instead of itself going on the prowl, essentially an aggrandized, manned mine. The concept has been around for decades without attracting much interest, but it is thought by some experts that the rocket-powered Shkval torpedo in even its current form has the potential to make it a system very much capable of being used by little navies to check big fleets. (Supercavitating weapons can also be followed up by supercavitating vehicles-sub-fighters, for instance-but these pose far greater technical challenges than mere torpedoes, and so are likely to be outside the scope of this article.)
Even though the speed of supercavitatng weapons makes them something to watch, even the fastest torpedo can not hit what it can not see, and submarine warfare remains a cat-and-mouse game. Consequently, for supercavitating weapons to truly revolutionize undersea warfare, there would have to be corresponding progress in the development of anti-submarine sensors.
While unlikely to make the oceans transparent anytime soon, improvements in sonar or non-acoustic sensors (like laser, radar, infra-red or magnetic sensors) could still offer a measure of capability, especially in the shallow waters of the littorals where the effects of submarines are most pronounced. (The closer a submarine is to the surface, the stronger its wake, for instance.) Systems of sensors which bring together data from various types of acoustic and non-acoustic sensors into a single composite picture could also dramatically increase the effectiveness of sensors vis-a-vis submarines. That would especially be the case if these could be built into cheap, little units with which a small navy could inundate a particular patch of water (whether they are placed by vessels or aircraft, or the sensors themselves are drones). The trend toward miniaturization, and the ever-plunging price of computer processing power, could make this more likely than may initially seem to be the case. Compact, improved sensors would also translate into smarter and deadlier mines and torpedoes, as well as a greater threat from cheaper and more widely available submarine-hunting units like patrol aircraft or coastal vessels.
Improvements in underwater communications, in the ability to combine data from multiple, widely dispersed sensors would be key to bringing together improved sensors and smart, supercavitating weapons in a Revolution in Undersea Military Affairs. The integration of data from widely distributed sensors may extend the range at which submarine engagements occur, especially with munitions capable of traveling longer distances at higher speeds.
A low-budget navy which saturates the battlespace with a large number and wide variety of anti-submarine sensors and mates those sensors to supercavitating weapon launchers in the air, on the surface, on land and even underwater would possess a barrier against attack from the sea. (The underwater launchers need not be limited to submarines, but could also include remotely-controlled mines, or torpedo-firing drones or mini-subs, all of which would become increasingly capable as fields like artificial intelligence and robotics develop.)
These undersea fortresses could be seen as a component of, or a complement to, the naval firebases some writers have envisioned, the nets and mines surrounding which would off er further protection. The creative deployment of these systems also offers a cheap way of establishing or extending a picket line, making it possible to conduct patrols or blockades with fewer assets, or to establish a defense-in-depth, with a reserve of other assets ready and waiting behind a screen of fortifications. While patrol submarines would be best, small, short-range submarines based at nearby coastal facilities or floating facilities like the Mobile Offshore Bases, or even surface assets, could also make up such a reserve.
Such fortification of the seas could become more commonplace as the seas themselves are territorialized, with not only the sea lanes but the use of patches of sea, like fishing grounds, and waters over oil deposits becoming objects of contention. s Indeed, such underwater fortresses could be the model for fundamentally different future submarines-skeletal reconnaissance-strike complexes built around command and control cores for numerous and widely dispersed sensors and weapons launchers. It also goes without saying that these fortifications can also threaten surface craft and that, if situated inside narrow waterways, like the Strait of Hormuz or the Strait of Malacca, may be able to block them, allowing them to substitute for some of the submarine’s offensive functions.
The redundancy allowed by a multiplicity of sensors and launchers make it difficult to destroy, though it has the disadvantage of being static and defensive, despite the fact that its small, mobile components should make it relatively easy to dismantle and set up. Its physical dispersion of its elements may also make it more vulnerable to electronic attacks. Those elements, moreover, are no substitute for the greater mobility and offensive power of a submarine fleet. Still, given limited resources, they are a wiser investment than an obsolescent submarine force that will rust at the pier for lack of funds.
That all of this will happen is by no means a foregone conclusion, and even if such a situation does come about, it will more likely be decades than years before it develops. Moreover, the threat posed by these technologies is not necessarily the sounding of a death knell for the submarine. Despite having faced such threats earlier on, tanks, aircraft and surface warships are still around. However, they survive only through adaptation, the increased investment to achieve which has led to arguments that they are providing ever-diminishing returns.
Adaptability also has limits. While American air power may appear able to go anywhere and strike anything that can be seen, the precision of air power is due to its exploitation of these technologies, and the survivability of manned aircraft is the result of a vast investment in stealth technology, Herculean efforts to suppress enemy air defenses, and the relative unsophistication of the opponents that the United States has faced in recent years. 6 Satellites, missiles and drones, Martin Van Creveld has observed, are likely to replace manned fighters and bombers entirely in the coming decades.7 Tanks have already reached the point where any real further advance will require fundamental changes in armament, protection and power source, running the gamut from particle beams to electromagnetic cannon and armor. (At the same time, the infantry of the future, wearing armored exoskeletons and carrying elaborate sensors, communications equipment and greatly increased firepower, including missiles, will increasingly resemble one-man tanks.)
Compared with battle tanks and aircraft, submarines in their present form have not yet had to begin adapting to these new realities, and so are likely to have much longer lives ahead of them, but the attention being given to all-electric, platform-modular submarines with sophisticated anti-torpedo armament and large storage capacity for unmanned underwater vehicles represents the direction in which thought on the subject is moving.
Nonetheless, irrespective of how today’s large submarines adapt, it is not too early to start fundamentally rethinking basic submarine concepts, especially given the evolving mission of the American military, and the rapidly rising cost of submarines. More thought should be given to how the development and proliferation of better anti-submarine sensors, underwater communications and supercavitating munitions apart from submarines will impact undersea warfare. For all of the attention accorded submarine purchases in the Middle East and southeast Asia in recent years, this could be the true driver of change in the maritime security picture in the years to come.