Refighting the Falklands War (2012): Submarine warfare

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In 2009 I identified a serious risk of the Royal Navy losing a useful mass of numbers when it comes to submarines.

As in 1982, one would imagine that the Submarine service would be expected to shadow the Argentine fleet, and try to take out some of its inventory – in particular the Exocet equipped ships that might cause our surface vessels trouble. They would also be expect to loiter off the Argentine mainland watching for aircraft and shipping, to provide land strike capability, and also to slip ashore special forces.

The Astute Class are regarded as the best submarines in the world, perhaps on a par with the US Navy’s equivalent Virginia Class. According to one website, she is as quiet as a baby dolphin, which probably makes her as good as undetectable in skilled hands. And a submarine that cannot be detected can act with impunity. And knowing that British submarines can roam around the South Atlantic at will is bound to put the fear of god into Argentine naval officers.

The Astutes carry advanced sonar and weapons systems, more weapons than any other British submarine previously – Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles and Spearfish torpedoes. With a range of 1,240 miles, this means that Astute could accurately target sites in North Africa sitting off the South Coast of England. Such a range and sophistication really would cause severe problems to the Argentine forces. The only problem might be replenishment of Tomahawk stocks, both in terms of the US allowing us to purchase more, and then getting them to the South Atlantic. But as I identified in 2009, Tomahawk would provide a more accurate and less risky alternative to the Black Buck Vulcan raids.

In terms of slipping ashore Special Forces, I must confess I had always laboured under the impression that bigger SSN’s were not as ideal for the task of inshore work as the smaller, old diesel electrics where. After all, in 1982 HMS Onyx was sent south reputedly to work close inshore with special forces. Yet it seems that the new Astute Class boats will be able to use a piece of American technology, the Dry Dock Shelter (DDS). The DDS enables special forces teams to enter and exit the submarine much easier. As with much special forces and submarine technology specifications are hazy, but I can imagine the DDS being pretty useful.

The big problem – and this is the same as with Destroyers and Frigates – is that we simply do not have enough Submarines. By the time the Astute class are finished in 2024 – yes 2024, in 12 years time! – the RN will have seven SSN Submarines – critically short. Of course, as with any vessels a number of these will be in refit at any time. As the Astute class boats are commissioned – at a rate of one every two or three years – the Trafalgar Class will decommission, with the Navy maintaining a level of seven SSN’s in service. Of course, there is a strong possibility that the Trafalgars might start falling apart long before then.

The problem with Submarine procurement, is that with the political desire to ‘buy British’, there is only really one option – BAE Systems yard at Barrow. In order to maintain a healthy programme of orders and ensure that a skilled workforce and facilities can be maintained, submarine procurement and constructions works on a ‘drumbeat’ policy – stretching out orders to ensure that there are no quiet periods when workers would have to be laid off. With the MOD looking at renewing the nuclear deterrent SSBN’s by the mid 2020′s, the building programme for the Astutes has been stretched to cover until when work is due to begin on the SSBN replacements. All very well, but according to the National Audit Office this delay will cost more, to the point at which if the boats had been built faster an eighth Astute could have been built. The MOD decided against this, however, no doubt fearful of the running costs of operating another boat.

Obviously, due to their nature it is very difficult to find out too much about submarine deployments, or submarine technological specifications. But if it is true, that an Astute can watch shipping from off the North American coast, then even one Astute in the South Atlantic could provide a wealth of intelligence without actually firing its weapons. And that is actually the beauty of submarines – you don’t know where they are, so you have to assume that they could be anywhere and could strike at any time - a real hinderance on your freedom of operations if you are an Admiral looking to take and defend the Falkland Islands.

In 1982 the Task Force deployed 5 SSN’s of the Churchill, Valiant and Swiftsure Classes, and one diesel electric Oberon class Boat. In 1982 the RN was geared up for submarine warfare in the North Atlantic, and hence had a considerable submarine arm, in terms of numbers and experience. In 1982 the Royal Navy had 11 SSN’s to chose from, and no less than 13 Oberon Class conventional boats. 24 boats, whilst in 2012, we would be able to choose from 7 at the most.

A theme is emerging – a Royal Navy with first class assets, but with not nearly enough of them.

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12 Comments

Filed under debate, Falklands War, Navy

12 responses to “Refighting the Falklands War (2012): Submarine warfare

  1. x

    I think the S/T boats should have been replaced like for like with A-boats. Submarines being extremely complex are best bought and operated in groups of 4. (One working up, one deployed, one returning / self-refit, one in deep refit.) So how 7 Astutes will work I don’t know. 12 A boats would mean we could have in theory one in the Atlantic, one in the Med, and one in the Indian Ocean at all times and would give us the ability to reinforce in times of crisis. Being a bit bonkers I do think that it would be sensible to have one SSN in the northern sea to protect the SSBN. (That would be 16 boats then. One SSBN guard and three on the roving commissions as described.) I am going out on a limb and I would suggest that 12 SSNs and 12 T45s (suitably armed and configured) are a better deal than 2 CVF. (If a set of say 3 helicopter carriers could be procured like Hyūga class helicopter destroyer dare I say with SeaViper too?)

    Reading does suggest that modern SSNs have “systems” to allow them to cope with working in the littorals. How often this is needed I suppose we will never know. Or will have to wait over 30 years to find out. But I do agree that it doesn’t sensible risking 7,5000t vessel so close to shore. However the men that drive these things are exceptional so perhaps I should have more faith.

    The only thing I wish the Astutes had was a dozen VLS tubes like the USN Los Angeles class.

    As for SSKs well I think the T212 is a good match for the Oberons. And I suppose in my submarine centirc fantasy RN I could justify 8; one permanently for Perisher and general crew training. And one for messing about in shallow water. :) Apparently the Germans have a large T216 variant on the drawing board/CAD screen which looks interesting. Another option and going back to a theme from the other article that RN seems to being lacking options with ship killing would be a class of larger SSK fitted with 10/12 VLS for a modern ASM. Working in pairs separated by say 10 to 20nm (but just within SeaViper Aster 30 50nm bubble with T45 and accompanying ships below the horizon) using their towed array sensors to to triangulate (identify) targets.

    • James Daly

      One thing I hadn’t realised was just how long submarine refits take – up to 3 years for SSN’s and something like 4 years for SSBN’s. Obviously a nuclear submarine isn’t something that you can just pull out of mothballs in an emergency like you would a surface ship.

      7 really is a strange number, and like I intimated in the article, its more about the bean counters than strategy. The SSN’s are more in demmand now than when the S and T’s were first constructed, due to their use of TLAM.

      The Astutes sound great, but 7 is – pun intended – a drop in the ocean if ever there was one. 12 would be a more sensible number.

  2. x

    I would prefer 8 SSK to a specialist ASW T26 if there were more ASW helicopters of a similar quality to Merlin.

  3. Brian Iddon

    I can’t understand us not having SSK’s either.Don’t know the cost difference between SSN’S and SSK’s but i wouldn’t be supprised if we could get 2 SSK’S for the price of 1 SSN.
    We even have a home designed SSK with the BMT VIDAR-36 so the cost of producing a few should be reasonable.

    I don’t know if there will be much of a gap between the end of the Astute class production and the start of the new SSBN’s but producing some VIDAR’s to keep Barrow in work would seem a good idea.We don’t won’t to lose vital skills again but we never seem to learn from past mistakes in this country.

  4. x

    I suppose the U-boats were done away with purely because of the peace dividend. The SSN can do everything an SSK can but the reserve isn’t true. NATO partners have been able to fill the gap. I wonder if the Canadians’ problem with the U-boats has been down to bad luck, bad platform, or a combination of both.

    As for nuclear submarine production in Barrow I think there will be a gap between Astute 7 and the new SSBN. But not a large one. If we were French we would probably have ordered Astute 8 to fill the gap and off set crewing considerations against T26. I don’t believe in spending to get out of debt theory as expounded by many on the left. But at times a little capital investment now does save money later. I believe I am right in saying that long lead time “materials” have been ordered for next gen SSBN.

    • James Daly

      I can kind of understand the logic of retiring SSKs for SSNs. As you say, they can do everything an SSK can do and more besides. Longer range and better endurance, less problems with refuelling, makes them more ideal to carrying out long patrols. The SSK’s I suppose are great for coastal waters, hence I guess why the Germans, Dutch and Scandianvians have them. SSK’s would be OK if we had naval bases overseas that we could run them out of – Singapore, Malta, etc- but we simply don’t have that now.

      SSBN replacement have been through ‘initial gate’ with MOD procurement, which makes it likely that some criticial equipment will have been sourced already I should imagine. ie, there is some stuff you are always going to need in a sub regardless of how the design turns out.

      • x

        Yes and no. Look at the vast distances the RAN expect their Collins class to reach. Look at where HMAS Stirling is and then look at the India Ocean and the various archipelagos to the north of Australia. Huge distances. Actually trace a similar radius out from Faslane or better still Plymouth and you will see that the UK expects here SSNs to travel much shorter distances. And seeing this is a Falklands themed article we shouldn’t forget the distances Onyx had to traverse in 82.

    • Brian Iddon

      I agree with you in not spending ourselves out of debt but it’s not like we don’t need extra subs.They would free up the SSN’s for longer range missions and a couple down the Falklands would do no harm at all.We should also think of the export market which we’re missing out on as well.

  5. x

    Another consideration is that it isn’t simply a matter of saying you can buy two SSK for the price one of SSN. And it isn’t a simple question of splitting a crew down the middle either. You have to have a sufficient manpower base to produce captains of sufficient quality. Just because an SSK doesn’t have a nuclear kettle back in aft doesn’t mean it easier to drive. If you read submarine literature it becomes abundantly clear that though a submarine crew is a tightly knit and focus team (has to be) it is the captain who is by far the most important team member. In some ways I see an analogy with a fast jet pilot’s in a squadron.

    (Saying that the first submarine CO I met was at my unit’s award evening and he had forgot his cap. Remember his sword but forgot his hat. I wasn’t too impress with the RN’s finest that evening…….)

  6. One thing missing is that the Tomahawks will never be used as a first-strike weapon. Argentinian mainland was not targeted back in 1982 for fear of escalating the conflict–stupid, since bombing air bases would have destroyed the A4s and Mirages. Now, i don’t think any British government would use Tomahawks on the mainland.

    Besides, as you pointed out, they are US-made.

    • James Daly

      I don’t think TLAM against the mainland is a viable option straight off, unless the Args did something to warrant escalation diplomatically we wouldn’t want to look like the agressors. Having the option is still useful though, in the absence of Vulcan as per the Black Buck raids.

      My worry is that the US could shut off the supply chain, and as Libya proved, we don’t hold particularly vast stocks of munitions.

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