Role of Submarine in Modern Maritime Warfare

An IDC Analysis

New Delhi, 10 November 2004

Prior to the emergence of the nuclear-powered submarine –– with intermediate/long range missiles having nuclear warheads –– the underwater vessel was considered a weapon of the weak. It could cause attrition to the extent of nuisance value and gain short-term tactical advantage but could not achieve the much desired sea control. For that surface ships with aircraft carriers constituted the prime maritime force. In the strategic sense in present day warfare, SSBNs remain the best nuclear deterrent and for this purpose the submarine will continue to play a unique role. In tactical situations too a submarine has and will continue to have a significant role in any war at sea. We reproduce below an article that appeared in Straits Times (Singapore) making a point that “probably, it (the submarine) already is obsolete, more a relic of national pride and prestige than an actually effective weapon or weapons platform”. While this point of view may have some substance for Taiwan (who for the last two years has been wanting to acquire eight diesel submarines) vis-à-vis China –– but for the world at large, the submarine has and will continue to have a distinct and undisputed role –– strategic for nuclear deterrence and tactical for protection of ones own fleet, intelligence gathering, and use by special forces.

We specifically focus on this issue as Admiral Arun Prakash on taking over as the Chief of Naval Staff, alluded to the need for and importance of a nuclear submarine for the Indian Navy. Our Navy is without doubt the leader in maritime power in the Indian Ocean and can deliver the third triangle of the Triad that is inked into India’s nuclear doctrine. The foreign Media recently announced that the Indian Navy will get a Project 571 Akula class nuclear propelled submarine on lease in 2008 and it is half complete in Russia. While it will not have nuclear tipped missiles from Russia as that is not permitted, the recent spate of media reports on successful launch of the Dhanush missile from INS Subhadra and possibly underwater Brahmos firings from Rajput and our postings of K 125 missile seems to suggest that by 2007, Indian Navy will definitely have an underwater launched nuclear capable missile.

The cooperation with civil firms like Larasen and Tubro is paying off. The Indian Navy recently made public its Naval Doctrine. The ability to launch nuclear missiles from the sea is a part of its mandate and doctrine and in all likelihood it will achieve this as it is the most technologically adept of the three services. Hence this article from a Singaporean who is restricted in articulating such avant-garde views is important, as Singapore has also gone in for three small second hand Sj’oormen submarines of the Conqueror class and is on the lookout for more. Malaysia has signed for two Scorpene submarines, even ahead of India. The CNS keeps announcing that the Scorpene submarine contract will be signed soon. In fact USA has no diesel submarines and is possibly designing one for Taiwan or will have them built by a third country.


Submarines –– Obsolete Symbols of National Pride

By Eric Koo Peng Kuan*

The great naval theorists Alfred Mahan and Julian Corbett stressed that a navy serves two important functions for a state - to project naval power overseas, and to protect maritime commercial interests. And so medium- and great-power states maintain formidable fleets comprised of aircraft carriers, destroyers, cruisers, battleships, and, of course, submarines. The submarine - that vessel and its crews romanticized in the films Run Silent, Run Deep and Das Boot (The Boat) - faces the very real danger, a technological depth-charge, of becoming obsolete and totally redundant in modern navies. Probably, it already is obsolete, more a relic of national pride and prestige than an actually effective weapon or weapons platform.

No matter - China, Taiwan and other nations are still eagerly buying and building submarines, electric, diesel and nuclear. These U-boats, however, would be virtually useless in the narrow and shallow Taiwan Strait, detected by ships and aircraft with high-technology and then destroyed. And they are virtually useless elsewhere, with scant exceptions. Originally conceptualized as vessels designed to travel underwater, submarines became the naval equivalent of land-based special forces designed to raid deep into the enemy's rear territory. Submarines employ ambush tactics, hitting ships unaware by being out of sight on the sea's surface, and utilizing the element of surprise to the fullest in modern naval doctrine.

In World Wars I and II, first-generation submarines employed simple torpedoes and large-caliber anti-aircraft machine guns as their main weapons. During the Cold War, submarines could also equipped with cruise missiles or ballistic missiles that could be armed with nuclear, chemical or biological warheads in order to enhance their lethality. Submarines thus became mobile launching pads for ballistic missiles at sea. However, surface ships also have missile-launching capabilities, and in fact, have proved to be much more militarily effective and cheaper than submarines.

The invention of radar, however, and subsequently satellite surveillance technology from the United States, meant that the advantages of being submerged were negated totally. Surface ships are easily able to detect submarines if they are equipped with such technology, which is not excessively expensive and is cost-effective. The ability to travel underwater thus becomes a naval liability, as nautical design meant that submarines might not be heavily armed, nor as heavy, as surface warships. With the invention of depth charges, and then anti-submarine torpedoes, surface warships have become more than a match for submarines simply by having superior firepower, and the option of calling in air support to bomb the menacing submarine.

Submarines are sometimes used in reconnaissance roles of locating enemy ships, but aircraft and surface ships are better and more effective choices. In the case of the US Navy, with its satellite technology, US submarines have become redundant and unnecessary for this task. Thus, the only combat role left to the submarine is that of harassing defenseless civilian ships and naval support vessels. However, international maritime laws governing the conduct of naval warfare prohibits hitting certain ships, such as hospital ships, supply ships bearing humanitarian aid, as well as ships from countries neutral in a conflict. The international outrage and diplomatic repercussions of states violating this rule far outweigh the strategic advantages of attacking such surface ships.

So that leaves submarines theoretically with only insignificant targets, such as patrol boats and enemy submarines to attack. They could, of course, try to attack major combat vessels but as stated, advanced technology makes submarines far from effective. In truth, modern maritime security problems lie in the threat posed by non-state actors such as pirates and maritime terrorists, not from other conventional state navies. Early detection and pursuit capabilities are much more important than stealth and firepower in maritime patrolling work. In the case of the Malacca Strait, which is jointly patrolled by navies from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, visible and above-board naval activities and trust among the nations are the more necessary to achieve naval objectives, deterring and capturing pirates and maritime terrorists. In this respect too, submarines are not useful; their underwater operations become redundant to those of surface ships; their presence in the jointly patrolled waters may arouse the suspicion of other nations.

In practice, submarines in a naval arsenal play more of a deterrent role and are prestige symbols of national pride, signaling that a state has reached a sophisticated level of national wealth and military technology. Submarines are like the luxury goods owned by states, stylish but of little practical use. A case in point is the arms race for submarines by Taiwan and China. In a potential future conflict, the most likely battleground would be the narrow Taiwan Strait. Yet, with its shallow seabed, and with such close proximity of coastal bases, aircraft and other surface vessels, the Taiwan Strait is the last place a submarine should be. Indeed, if hostilities break out, any submarine found in the Taiwan Strait would quickly be reduced to mincemeat by the enemy's concentrated firepower. The brutal and illegal practice of the German Kriegsmarine submarines, which destroyed numerous merchant ships during the two World Wars, has not been forgotten and has served as a classic lesson of effective submarine warfare to those rogue nations undeterred by international opinion.

However, more heavily armed surface ships provide better protection for unarmed ships by providing escort. But in practice, the ratio of combat vessels to merchant or support vessels is far smaller, making the policy of naval escort not very feasible. Thus, submarines could help offset this ratio, should a need for naval escort arise. Other than as a deterrent and as an occasional naval escort, it is hard to imagine what other use there is for submarines in a world where conflicts are increasingly becoming land-based and the security landscape of nations is moving more towards unconventional, low-intensity wars and terrorism. Like cavalry or chariots, the submarine is fast joining the ranks of obsolete weapons in the history of warfare.

*Eric Koo Peng Kuan is a freelance writer who holds a master's degree in strategic studies from the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies (IDSS) in Singapore. 

(Straits Times)

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