Sunday, June 4, 2017
The Silent Service is Getting Pretty Noisy
Think of all those great submarine movies, dozens and dozens of them, including famous titles like these: We Dive at Dawn (1943), Operation Pacific (1951), The Enemy Below (1957), Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), Torpedo Run (1958), Up Periscope (1959), Das Boot (1981), Submarine Command (1951), Gray Lady Down (1978), The Hunt for Red October (1990), Crimson Tide (1995), K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), etc., etc. Stories of submariners, facing depth charges, other submarines, death and destruction at a primal level. Man against an unseen sea, crushing all around him. Mano a mano… almost.
But today, aside from monitoring activity on the surface and transporting spies to destinations unknown, policing waterways with auto-targeting torpedoes and able to lay literally carpets of mines, submarines today are becoming missile platforms with terrifying frequency. ICMBs are part of that land, air and sea “triad” of nuclear options, able to decimate whole cities with just one of the warheads on a single missile. Cruise missiles are able to take out narrow-based targets with exceptionally sophisticated guidance software.
There are more than a few diesel-fueled boats out there and a rather large fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, able to stay deep under the sea for months at a time. The missiles from a single Russian nuclear Typhoon class boat are sufficient to wipe out most of the United States. Depth and design mixed with really quiet power systems are bring lots of “stealth” to this growing community of undersea warriors.
As nasty as major-power submarines can be, from Russia, Western Europe and China (India too), smaller countries are increasingly joining the underwater missile brigade with exceptionally scary consequences. Asia is the new hotbed of underwater launching platforms. Russia is famous for selling its older submarine fleets to nations that want their own silent service. Lots of buyers in Asia. “A submarine’s ability to remain hidden is its greatest asset, and Asian countries are increasingly willing to pay for that capability. Avascent Analytics estimates that Asian countries will spend nearly $40 billion on submarines over the next 10 years.
“This purchase trend is not a new one, and coincides with the recovery of Asian economies from the 1997 and 2008 financial crises and the rise of China as a world power. While many experts point to China’s growing military ambitions as the primary cause for submarine proliferation in Asia, there are several other factors in play, including rivalry among neighbors and national prestige.
“In looking at Asian countries acquiring submarines, it is easier to list the nations that are not pursuing submarine purchases. From Pakistan to Japan, and omitting small island nations and countries without a coastline, the only countries not seeking submarines are Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Brunei, Myanmar, and the Philippines – although the latter two have considered purchases.
“While there are numerous submarine types from several different countries of origin, most nations are pursuing a relatively similar capability – diesel-electric submarines with between 1,500 and 3,000 tons displacement having advanced sonar, radar, and reconnaissance technology; air-independent propulsion systems to remain underwater for longer periods; sound dampening and anechoic coatings; and torpedoes, mines, and, increasingly, submarine-launched cruise missiles.
“These advanced capabilities come at great cost. Depending on the model and terms of each country’s deal, the price of a new submarine can be between $200 million and $550 million. Vietnam spent the equivalent of its 2009 defense budget on a deal to procure six Russian Kilo-class subs.” The Cipher Brief, May 31st.
Cheaper than large aircraft carriers, which require a supporting fleet to protect them, submarines create more threat-bang for the buck. And when your neighbor starts building a submarine fleet, you are almost forced to create a power balance by joining in the local arms race. “Koh Swee Lean Collin, a research fellow at the Institute of Strategic and Defence Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies concurs, saying many countries have ‘a sense of geopolitical uncertainty that drives them to acquire submarines as a force multiplier to bolster their small navies’ overall deterrent and combat power.’
“Koh highlights another factor driving new submarine purchases and the entry of more nations such as Bangladesh and Thailand, which previously never operated submarines. Another factor, Koh says, is a ‘technologically driven ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ phenomenon that influences procurement decisions.’ This desire to maintain national prestige among neighbors may be most prominent in Thailand’s case. The nation’s shallow territorial seas are thought to be too difficult to effectively operate the Yuan-class sub it bought from China for $390 million.
“Taken as a whole, these factors have created a situation in which Asian navies are the most capable they have ever been, at a time when regional security tensions remain high. In a situation like the territorial dispute in the South China Sea, the presence of many claimants and new technical capabilities presents new risks for escalating conflict. Koh notes that the use of submarines ‘for close-in surveillance and reconnaissance missions, especially in waters controlled by the other claimant, could be a recipe for diplomatic disasters.’
“The possibility of diplomatic conflict could become especially thorny if Beijing passes a proposed revision to one of its maritime laws. The amendment would require submarines travel only on the surface when passing through Chinese waters. Enactment of this law and Chinese enforcement in all the waters it claims – nearly all of the South and East China Seas – would raise the odds of maritime altercations and tensions.
“While the trend in submarine proliferation has lasted more than a decade, Yoon, Lin, and Lee-Paulson believe that ‘peak demand’ has passed, and submarine sales will decline in coming years. However, the increase in submarines has already begun a trend in purchases of anti-submarine warfare capabilities that include specialized surface vessels, airplanes, and unmanned systems.
“The capability of submarines and counter-capability of anti-submarine technologies will likely change the regional status quo. However, it will do nothing to alleviate security tensions brewing under the surface.” The Cipher Brief.
China, the growing replacement as the most relevant global superpower as the United States continues to withdraw from international alliances, is taking this underwater weapons platform concept to an entirely new level. There are several designed being discussed. One, more like a submarine with only its conning towers running above the surface, is able to submerge totally when necessary (reflected by the sketch, above right). The other is simply a large vessel with most of its mass underwater but, unlike most subs, able to keep up, side-by-side, with a normal battle fleet.
“Stories circulating on Chinese websites—including the Wuhan city government site—mention that Chinese institutions are conducting studies on gigantic submersible arsenal ships… What's the big deal about an underwater arsenal vessel? Well submerging all or even most of a large warship would reduce its radar and visual signature, as well as protect it against most missile threats.” AOLNews. June 2nd.
But as bad as this is, there is always North Korea that seems hell-bent on deploying undersea launched missiles against the United States and/or its allies. And that does include the possibility of nuclear warheads.
Koh Swee Lean Collin in a companion piece in The Cipher Brief: “The classic threat perceptions-based geopolitical dynamics feature perhaps most prominently in the Northeast Asian subregion, where sub acquisitions are driven really by what erstwhile rivals in the neighborhood are acquiring. The North Korean submarine program is aimed at the U.S. and its Japanese and South Korean allied navies, though the acquisition of submarine-launched ballistic missiles is clearly an extension into the strategic realm in this same regard. China’s acquisitions are driven by the U.S. Navy and also primarily Japan’s, and vice versa. South Korea’s subs are targeted at the North, for sure, though some competitive element is observed with the Chinese and Japanese – more from the technological perspective. Taiwan’s submarine acquisition is self-explanatory – targeted at blunting nothing other than a Chinese military invasion.” Fun, huh?
The chart above illustrates North Korea’s current capabilities. Their larger subs have limited undersea missile launch capacity already, but they are designing bigger ballistic boats able to carry a nation-killing array of nuclear missiles, a project-completion date that is more than a few years away. In parallel, they are developing and testing longer-range missiles, focused on reducing the size of nuclear weapons payloads that can fit into missile warheads and developing more efficient and easier to deploy solid fuel rocketry.
The UN, this time with China’s blessing, has ramped up economic sanctions against the North. Pyongyang’s official response (June 4th): “"It is a fatal miscalculation if the countries [singling out China and the United States] ... would even think that they can delay or hold in check the eye-opening development of the (North's) nuclear forces even for a moment." Prepare for the worst.
As I watch the United States withdraw from and limit its responsibility towards mutual defense treaties, becoming increasingly isolated in its foreign policy vectors, I wonder how a vacillating Donald Trump – unable to read an digest the volumes of complex military and diplomatic journals he needs to know to make crucial decisions – is going to be able manage these terrifying military challenges… if in fact he does. They just might manage him instead. Do I seem concerned?
I’m Peter Dekom, and it should be deeply troubling that an entertainment attorney in Beverly Hills is more aware of these military variables than is the President of the United States of America.