Back to the Future

By Commander Michele Cosentino, Italian Navy

Many countries worldwide consider submarines an attractive and cost-effective contribution to their naval—and national—security. The number of submarines is not significant in itself, but their constantly improving quality and capabilities are of great concern.

The Soviet/Russian Navy

By the end of World War II, Soviet military leaders were impressed by the effectiveness of U.S. naval power. The war had highlighted the importance of naval aviation and submarines in modern warfare. Thus, in 1948 the Soviet Navy began a massive modernization of its naval forces, including the construction of four aircraft carriers, 40 cruisers, 200 destroyers, and 1,200 submarines. This plan was driven by a global strategy that envisioned an attack en masse against the Soviet Union carried out by Western powers, led by the United States and Great Britain. But the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, limitations in the shipbuilding industry, and radical changes in foreign and defense policy brought about a reorientation of the naval procurement strategy. Submarine construction continued at a slower pace; construction of carriers and battleships never materialized.

The Soviet submarine strategy had evolved in response to a perceived external threat, along with national shipbuilding capabilities. In the early 1950s, the Soviet military assumed that Western aircraft carriers had been given the prominent role of nuclear strike against the Soviet mainland. Submarine construction from 1955 to 1965 therefore was oriented toward nuclear-powered and conventional boats with antiship cruise-missile capability.

Between 1965 and 1975, the U.S. Navy began to deploy a potent nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) fleet, and this forced the Soviet Navy to improve antisubmarine capabilities, in both their new and already existing boats. From 1975 on, Soviet submarine strategy focused on the establishment of a powerful strategic deterrent force, comprised of many classes of SSBNs equipped with a variety of sea-launched, nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. To enhance the capabilities of this force, a support component of modern air, surface, and subsurface assets was created. Furthermore, understanding how important the control of the sea lines of communication was to the NATO maritime strategy, the Soviet submarine fleet emphasized attack operations against Western maritime and naval assets needed to reinforce and resupply NATO troops in Europe.

At the end of the 1980s, the Soviet submarine fleet was deployed worldwide and consisted of more than 450 nuclear-powered and non-nuclear boats. There were at least 18 classes of submarines; each one had a precise role and function. The Soviet submarine-building industry could rely on several facilities spread throughout the country, capable of building an average of ten submarines per year. To counter a global strategy clearly focused against Western maritime supremacy, NATO navies developed a number of antisubmarine capabilities. This huge effort led to the development of numerous classes of ASW warships and systems, whose constant improvement and modernization lasted until recently.

The demise of the Soviet Union has caused a general crisis in Russia that has had a negative effect on the entire military structure. Because of massive financial problems, many components of the military-industrial complex have completely lost their capabilities or have been converted (unsuccessfully) to civilian enterprises. The Russian Navy has lost many of its naval and air bases in the Baltic and Black seas. Shortages of manpower, fuel, spares, and maintenance have caused dramatic reductions in both surface and submarine forces and naval operations. But the new Russian submarine force has not lost its importance. Despite the uncertain future of the entire fleet, the Russian political and naval leadership understands the potential of submarines in the new world order. The submarine force still has an operational plan and good building facilities. Furthermore, the scarce resources provided to the Navy are being used to design and build new generations of high-quality submarines.

Assuming that Russia continues to provide stable funding for submarine warfare, it is foreseeable that in the longer term (e.g., 2005-2010) the Russian Navy could deploy a 120-boat submarine force. These calculations take into account a delay of START II and estimated global requirements for Russia. Its navy likely will account for roughly 55% of Russia's nuclear strategic deterrent, compared to just 30% today. Russian officials have stated that over the next decade they want to retain the following capabilities:

  • 20-26 strategic missile submarines (equipped with 436456 ballistic missiles)
  • 12 Oscar I/II-class antiship missile submarines
  • Several Yankee-class boats armed with SS-N-21 land-attack missiles
  • 40 of the Akula I/II, Sierra I/II and Victor III classes
  • 40 diesel submarines of various classes 1

A progressive modernization of the current attack force will satisfy a requirement for a general-purpose nuclear submarine component. At the same time, the lead unit of a new SSBN class should be laid down. A new SSN project—the Severodvinsk -class—probably will be built. According to U.S. Navy sources, the Severodvinsk is projected to outperform today's most advanced Western submarines. These new submarines will incorporate fifth-generation sound quieting and powerful strike capabilities, and thus will be as capable as the Seawolf (SSN-21)-class boats. 2

These concerns are exacerbated by an aggressive operational policy. There have been reports of successful multiple-missile launches by Northern and Pacific Fleet SSBNs, of Akulas operating off U.S. homeports of both coasts, and of Oscars operating in the vicinity of U.S. carrier battle groups. In some cases, these activities have caused tracking problems for the U.S. Navy. The presence of Russian submarines in international waters off the United States has been confirmed by top U.S. officials, who are concerned about Russia's reasserting its open-ocean capabilities. These facts and signals represent a success story for the Russian submarine fleet, a story that is likely to continue.

Three Potential Flash-Points

Iran's introduction of Kilo-class submarines into the Persian Gulf has changed dramatically the global military balance and the operating environment there. The Iranian Navy received its third Kilo in January and could acquire one or two more over the next ten years. The impact of such a procurement is significant, because none of the other countries in the region has submarines. 3 Therefore, the most immediate reaction for pro-Western navies in the Gulf has been the improvement of their ASW capabilities, especially by procuring suitable second-hand warships leased from U.S. and European navies. However, a major problem reportedly is the lack of appropriate skills to counter this new submarine threat. Assuming even modest competence of the Iranian submarine crews, these newly acquired Kilos probably would be able to threaten or inhibit freedom of movement at vital choke points such as the Strait of Hormuz and adjacent waters. 4 Should the need for another naval campaign in the Persian Gulf arise, the presence of hostile submarines cannot be ignored by anyone involved in maritime operations there.

Another potential crisis area is in India and Pakistan; these countries have fought in the past and could fight again. India's concept of operation is to exercise sea control in the Indian Ocean, while Pakistan hopes to enforce sea denial in waters adjacent to its coastline. Despite Pakistan's ordering of three new Agosta 90B-class diesel-electric boats, India will remain the dominant naval power in the region. Pakistan's policy, therefore, is to inflict significant damage upon an attacking or blockading force. It is conceivable that India would consider such damage to be unacceptable and be deterred from aggression. If India decides to build and deploy a nuclear-powered submarine in the area, however, that would have a decided impact on the balance of power in the region.

The most extensive submarine proliferation problem in the next decade probably will occur in the Far East. The decline of the Russian Pacific Fleet and a general reduction of U.S. naval presence has caused a realignment of the strategic naval balance in a region that is widely considered to be of primary importance for future worldwide developments. A major role in this realignment certainly is played by China, because in recent years its political and military strategy has become more maritime-oriented. China's attitude toward this new strategy stems from two key factors: its own awareness of being the region's most important power; and its steady industrial growth. This has led to a new concept of operations calling for the establishment of a defense zone well out to sea which in turn will require a blue-water navy and more-capable submarines. Actually, the People's Liberation Army Navy has operated submarines for many years, but its neighbors have not been unduly concerned because these boats were obsolescent—even when they were new—and were part of a coastal force. The situation has changed, however, because of a major modernization program that includes indigenous construction of the Song-class, cruise-missile capable boats, and procurement—possibly followed by indigenous construction—of the more modern Kilo-class submarines.

Owing to the aggressive stance of North Korea, the principal crisis area in the Far East seems to be the Korean Peninsula. North Korea operates the world's fourth-largest diesel submarine fleet, and it still is building. However, block obsolescence and lack of spare parts probably will hamper real operations. North Korea submarine production is therefore focused on Sang-o-class coastal boats (15 in service, more in production), whose primary role is to land special-operations forces covertly. (See "It Only Takes One," December 1996 Proceedings ). Their small size makes them difficult to detect and—given their potentially large numbers—they will pose a serious threat to any ships approaching North Korean coastal waters.

Another area of concern is potential submarine proliferation in Southeast Asia. In addition to Indonesia—the only nation in the region now operating submarines—Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore have plans to acquire submarines. There are several reasons for all these nations to feel a need to operate submarines, including concern about China's growing naval strength—matched by a concern that the United States might withdraw from the region. Thailand desires a two-ocean navy and eventually would like to counter both Chinese and Indian influence in its adjacent sea areas. Indonesia is concerned about maintaining control of its vast archipelagic waters, while Singapore and Malaysia are focused on control and surveillance of the sensitive Strait of Malacca. Moreover, each of these countries is involved in some sort of maritime border dispute with one or more of its neighbors; the most serious of these disputes relates to the Spratly Islands. Only China seems inclined to use force to resolve such claims, however, and if conflict erupts in this region, submarines will play a major role in its resolution.

Reasons for Change

In past decades, NATO naval planners defined a requirement for a strong and capable ASW force composed of numerous submarines, ships, and aircraft to counter the Soviet threat. Many naval forces had implemented a policy designed to seek, detect, hunt, and destroy Soviet submarines. In turn, this policy led to the development of a clear concept of operations that relied upon dedicated naval and air assets. 5 Accordingly, naval architects designed and built powerful ASW units. Some of these warships are still in service today, but their roles and missions have been modified profoundly. Furthermore, many efforts have been devoted to the establishment of long chains of acoustic sensors based in the ocean beds.

This concern with ASW seems to be out of fashion now, and many nations are content to abandon it. The submarine threat is thought to be gone, and emphasis has shifted to other threats, such as antiship missiles and mines. Moreover, the use of Western submarines in an ASW "hunterkiller" role is no longer regarded as a priority, and other missions have been identified. Budget constraints are changing priorities to other requirements, and Western naval forces are being tailored accordingly.

Therefore, the current naval designs must respond to these changes, and new warships are equipped mainly with antiair and antimissile systems, electronic warning devices, provisions for embarked special-operations forces, combat systems devoted to operations in littoral and confined waters, etc. Conversely, dedicated ASW systems (such as towed-array sonars and antisubmarine weapons) and related tactics are gradually losing their importance. A valuable example is the newest class of U.S. destroyers—the Arleigh Burke (DDG-51)-class. Even though it was conceived in the last decade, the Arleigh Burke -class does not have a full aviation capability for helicopter operations.

In light of world submarine proliferation, it is time for Western navies to change their current attitudes. This does not mean to abandon areas of concern with regard to AAW, antimissile, and amphibious requirements. It means instead to modify our thinking, consider the growing submarine threat, and resume our ASW tactics, adapting them to the new worldwide military and technological challenges. We do not need to invent something new; we must instead devote much effort to meet the emerging ASW situation. We should modify our naval design strategy, to build once again warships with greater operational flexibility, and above all, realign our concepts and principles to this new reality.

Today, it is taken for granted that warships in a crisis area will face a mine threat. Within the next ten years, Western naval forces probably will be forced to consider both a mine and a real submarine threat.

1 By the year 2000, the U.S. Navy will have 14 Trident SSBNs with 336 missiles, and about 50 SSNs.

2 "Worldwide Submarine Challenges," Office of Naval Intelligence, 1996.

3 Although Saudi Arabia planned to procure Western submarines, its naval leadership has made no substantial acquisition progress.

4 During the 1987-88 Tanker War, and the 1990-91 Gulf War, Western naval forces encountered dramatic problems with mines laid by Iraq and Iran.

5 The U.S. Navy established ASW task forces centered on antisubmarine aircraft carriers.

Commander Cosentino graduated from the Italian Naval Academy in 1978. He has served in submarines and surface ships, and recently completed a three-year assignment at NATO headquarters, Brussels, Belgium. He is currently assigned to the Directorate of Naval Procurement of the Ministry of Defense in Rome.


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