- Editorial Staff
- Ship design and development, Naval technology
- RAN Ships
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- December 2016 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The following article is taken from a feature first broadcast on ABC National Radio on 25 June 2016. It is reproduced with the kind permission of the author Keri Phillips and the ABC. A download is available on the following website: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/rearvision/
‘The sea remains very opaque. It is really, really hard to hunt a submarine.’ James Holmes, US Naval War College
Last month the Australian Government signed a $50 billion contract with the French company DCNS to build 12 new submarines. Keri Phillips takes a look at the history and future of war beneath the waves.
Designs for military submarines go back to the 18th century, and by the turn of the 20th, several technological advances came together to give shape to the modern submarine.
Developments in batteries and the internal combustion engine—powered first by petrol and then by diesel—made submarines much more reliable. The invention of the periscope allowed submariners to look out at what was going on from very close to the surface, while the gyroscopic compass allowed them to know where they were.
James Goldrick, a former senior naval officer, now an adjunct professor at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU, says that these developments allowed submarines to play a significant role in World War I. ‘Before 1914, the battleship dictated control of the sea, and battle fleets were made up just of battle ships with some scouting cruisers.’
‘Once you had the submarine being able to go to sea and operate well offshore for long periods, those ships had to move much faster, and they had to be protected by light craft, by destroyers … it really changed the whole nature of warfare,’ he says. ‘But also submarines, particularly in their use by the Germans, became a key weapon for economic warfare, for blockade, for preventing supplies getting to the adversary.’
Submarines disrupt all kinds of shipping during World War II
‘The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest campaign of the Second World War,’ says Goldrick, ‘and Winston Churchill said the prospect of losing it was the only thing that ever frightened him’. But the Germans didn’t win the Battle of the Atlantic, the Allies did. What was really important however was that it did profoundly affect the way the war would be fought, because the war was very much a war of resources, moving materials and weapons and people around the world.
‘Submarines in the Pacific played a fundamental role in the defeat of Japan. The Japanese were extremely ill–prepared to have an unrestricted campaign waged against them, and did not handle it at all well.’
‘The American submarine force, which had some problems at the start with defective torpedoes, by the beginning of 1945 was the major factor in reducing the merchant fleet of Japan, a country which is totally dependent on imports for many things, to almost nothing.’
From diesel-electric to nuclear
After the Second World War, submarines went nuclear, and during the Cold War gained a new strategic role. The US and the Soviet Union developed nuclear propulsion, which allowed submarines to stay submerged for much longer periods of time.
Nuclear submarines were also larger and much more comfortable for those onboard. ‘The older diesel–electric submarines were cramped and uncomfortable and these conditions were alleviated to a great extent by the advent of nuclear power,’ says James Holmes, professor of strategy at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. ‘The associated systems that go along with that unlimited supply of power meant that ventilation is good and the ship can essentially cruise almost forever. In fact, our modern submarines only have to be refuelled once in their entire service life. This has been a major game changer in undersea warfare’.
In addition to nuclear engines, submarines of the Cold War era could carry nuclear weapons, and became a pivotal part of the system of nuclear deterrence. ‘Basically you are putting your opponent on notice that if he strikes first, he is going to have a volley of nuclear ballistic missiles coming back in reply,’ explains Holmes.
‘It’s important to note that the sea remains very opaque. It is really, really hard to hunt a submarine, particularly a ballistic missile submarine, because these ships are not only built to be very quiet, they emit very little sound that enemy sonar operators can detect. They essentially go out and lose themselves at sea.’
The US submarine fleet in crisis
Submarines are expensive and, as we’ve seen with the recent selection of a French company to build Australia’s next fleet of subs, involve both international and domestic political sensitivities. Throw in nuclear weapons, and submarines will, it seems, always be controversial. ‘Here in the United States, the controversy is not so much the submarine itself but the fact that the financing for them is really, really difficult,’ says Holmes.
‘The United States Navy only operates nuclear powered submarines and we are trying to replace all of our ballistic missile submarines, 18 of them. This program is so expensive that the Navy leadership has declared that it will consume the entire ship-building budget of the United States in the 2020s unless we figure out some way to finance it more creatively.’
‘It’s really a time of crisis for the US Navy submarine fleet just because of all the dollars and cents concerns. The Navy says it needs 48 attack submarines. Right now it has 52 or 53, depending on the given day. But the Navy also projects that because of all these financial pressures the fleet is going to drop down to as low as 41 boats at a time when the threat is really growing quite quickly as Russia goes back to the sea in submarines and as China becomes an effective power at operating submarines as well.’
Russia and China’s submarine programs
Russia and China figure to be the United States’ major rivals on the high seas. And because Russia was America’s main adversary for so long, much more is known about its submarine program. ‘They went through a very painful interlude after the fall of the Soviet Union,’ says Holmes. ‘There were horror stories about the Russian Navy—basically the entire fleet was moored to the pier. In the late 1990s the big concern was how Russia could actually afford to dispose of its old Soviet-era submarines rather than build new ones, which is what they are doing now. In recent years they put out a series of new classes of submarine that are very, very quiet and very, very effective.’
China is becoming an increasingly important naval power and is also bulking up its submarine fleet, but nuclear subs are not a major part of the equation, says Holmes. ‘It has made the diesel-electric submarine fleet the core of what we call its access denial strategy. Basically, this is a strategy that envisions using various assets—submarines, surface ships, shore based aircraft and missiles—to make things very tough on the US Pacific Fleet if it comes to the rescue of Japan or Taiwan in a crisis.’
‘China has taken a little bit different vector as it develops its submarine fleet by continuing to rely on these diesel submarines, which are relatively cheap, can be built in bulk, can be armed with missiles and torpedoes, and can perhaps not defeat the United States Navy but at least give us a serious bloody nose and think twice about coming to the rescue of our allies in Asia.
Future challenges for submarine warfare
Despite the current challenges, modern technology may yet find a way to remove the submarine’s cloak of invisibility. ‘There’s a lot of speculation in the submarine expert community right now about new technologies that may make it a lot easier to find submarines when they are submerged’ says Holmes. ‘If that happens, this is going to be one of those circumstances that could really change the face of submarine warfare.’
‘If you can’t dive underwater and hide your nuclear deterrent that becomes a very big deal in thinking about nuclear strategy. The core of nuclear deterrence is an invulnerable second strike capability, and if you take the invulnerability out of that, then you’ve got a real problem. At that point all three aspects of nuclear deterrence—manned aircraft, intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarines—all three of those things are vulnerable. At that point, nuclear deterrence becomes a much more complicated equation.’