Submarines provide Australia with capabilities of stealth, reach, endurance and formidable striking power. While operating undetected, they can provide a wide variety of intelligence and enhance the range of options open to the government to protect national interests. [...] they do have unique capabilities, including the capacity to operate in areas denied to other forces. And in a maritime region where submarines are already proliferating, our own submarines have a vital anti-submarine role.The inclusion of submarines in a maritime strategy is a force multiplier. Operating as part of a balanced, joint, integrated and networked force, submarines will often create the conditions necessary for sea control, allowing other components of the ADF to be effectively employed. These characteristics, coupled with the submarine’s ability to deny the use of the sea to a potential adversary are of significant deterrent value
from "Submarines and maritime strategy - part 1"
The Strategist [blog]
by Capt Justin Jones
The Strategist [blog]
by Capt Justin Jones
This kind of talk about submarines is very widespread, and I understand Mr. Jones is in service of the Royal Australian Navy and represents the typical pro-submarine position, sans the talk about the specialities of nuclear-powered subs. I'll take his take on the matter as a representative of a broader mainstream attitude; I'm not particularly interested in Australia's subs or his person. He merely did a largely fact-free summary of the establishment's usual pro submarine arguments.
For once, I'll even mostly ignore the concentrated buzzword avalanche, save for mentioning it this one time.
Here are my gripes:
(1) "formidable striking power"
Submarines have extremely little striking power against anything but ships unless they make use of nuclear warheads. Their striking power against warships and submarines is probably well short of "formidable" because reliability issues with torpedoes and other equipment as well as countermeasures by surface ships may reduce the quantity of hits very much in comparison to the relatively simple slaughtering of freighters.
NATO ASW forces were deeply concerned about their false alarm rates and that they couldn't respond to all contacts on a single North Atlantic crossing because this would deplete their ships' lightweight torpedo supply. What exactly is the submarine's approach to such a fundamental problem? They cannot even probe the contact with active sonar without giving their location away to hostiles in a huge radius. This false alarm issue puts a further question mark behind the nominal ammunition supply of a submarine (and thus its "formidable striking power", as much of it may be expended prior to the first actual contact with hostiles).
It's fair to say that subs are more likely to cause devastation among surface ship targets than surface ships themselves, for the latter typically only carry a pro forma armament of four to eight anti-ship missiles nowadays and use gun calibres ranging from 57 to 127 mm; fine for causing secondary fires and damaging electronics, not so fine for actually sinking ships [edit: by gunfire]. That's why the primary ship killer has been the combat aircraft for seven decades.
It's also noteworthy that submarines have de facto no striking power at all against boats and will in most scenarios leave small ships alone. Submarines gave their guns off board during the 40's and 50's and ever since lack an appropriate replacement. Subs simply don't blow up a dhow with a 21" guided torpedo.
(2) "they can provide a wide variety of intelligence"
I am convinced that this line of argument is a post-Cold War pseudo justification for silent service budgets. I've never seen references to this purported value for intelligence older than from the mid-1990's.
There are some references to earlier intelligence collection, of course - mostly photographs of coastlines, collection of ships' audio profiles for the silent service's own use and infiltration/exfiltration of agents.
What exactly are these great or "wide variety" intelligence things subs can provide?
They cannot operate as radar picket ship. They cannot operate as ESM picket ship. They can do a lot with their sonar, but all of it is essentially about their primary task, sinking of ships (and thus no really separate strength). Electric field sensors provide no relevant intel, simple imagery of coastlines pales in comparison to what commercial satellite service providers have on offer.
Moreover, submarines cannot report whatever findings they have reliably. To transmit radio messages is inherently dangerous due to the hostile triangulation threat.
The Cold War's submarines were very specialised (not versatile) units and their supporting bureaucracies invented a supposed versatility for them during the early 90's in order to stave off budget cuts. Suddenly, submarines were marketed as intelligence collectors, commando transport vessels and so on. I don't buy it.
(3) "unique capabilities, including the capacity to operate in areas denied to other forces"
Well, this was quite a no_content statement. Guess what? Long range recon patrols can claim the same. Tanks can do. Combat aircraft can do. Hey, artillery can even hit where no friendly one could go.
Subs can go to places where surface ships can't. So what? They cannot go to many places where combat aircraft can go, and those are not largely blind and extremely specialised during their mission.
(4) "in a maritime region where submarines are already proliferating, our own submarines have a vital anti-submarine role."
Grab a map of Australia and Southeast Asia. Measure how tiny circles with a few nautical miles radius are on such a map. Now try to explain Mr Jones' point about subs being fine against subs to me, for my problem with his assertion is that the subs are unlikely to find each other at all. See the Falklands conflict during which an Argentinian and a few British subs did not come in contact at about the same ratio of area to subs as Australia might face.
A preferable course of action in regard to a huge theatre of war with few subs is to nail all or most of them at their base(s). Subs might attempt to do so with offensive minelaying, but that's unreliable and may take effect only after weeks (conventional subs cruise slowly). It's much easier to simply call the air force.
(5) "The inclusion of submarines in a maritime strategy is a force multiplier."
Now in addition to "force multiplier" itself being quite often an illusion since the multiplication effect is usually highly specific: No, it's not.
Submarines have a very different effect than multiplying anything. More about that under (6)
(6) "Operating as part of a balanced, joint, integrated and networked force,"
Which they don't, period.
Subs ditch their stealth when they radiate much, so they need to limit their radio transmissions. They also ditch some of their stealth if they are feeling with antennas beyond the surface of the sea (and reduce their sonar performance and reduce their no-cavitation speed limit to a crawl due to the lower water pressure). There are buoy antenna solutions with a flexible mechanical/data cable connection which reduce this issue a bit, but in practice a submarine needs to give something valuable up for listening much to radio chatter. The only exception are very and extremely low frequency communications, which are known for their very and extremely low bandwidth and relevant only for receiving messages by subs, not for their transmitting messages by subs.
The submarine is the epitome of something being disconnected from any (notionally) network-centric force. It's a loner. A sub is not much joint, not much integrated and certainly not networked much.
He could have written about subs being part of a "combined arms" effort and I would have bought it, but that's probably too much like 1990's army talk and combining things does not require to buy or upgrade them anyway. The latter characteristic is probably why buzzwords like "combined arms" have become backbenchers behind buzzwords that further industrial interests well.
(7) "the submarine’s ability to deny the use of the sea to a potential adversary"
This is yet another fundamental misunderstanding, similar to the force multiplier thing. Subs don't "deny the use of the sea" unless your opposing force is meek or you flood the ocean with subs. Instead, they 'fix a tariff' for this use in form of attrition. Said hostile user of the sea may decide to not pay, which requires some suitable preparation and caution of his own and may reduce his offensive effects a lot. To smuggle something past a tariff is never as comfortable as a straight walk:
The mere presence of a submarine in the theatre of war motivates a hostile commander to be careful; his ships will probably move differently (more silently), use different formations, his helicopters will be employed differently, he may want to avoid staying in one place for long because otherwise the slow subs may approach his fleet etc..
This is a little bit similar to the role of land-based area air defence surface to air missiles, which also tend to first and foremost impose restrictions and costs on the attacker, thus at times justifying their expenses without much actual destructive effect.
Submarines are lone troublemakers. They are not networked or versatile and so on - the only fashionable buzzword that really applies to them is "stealthy".
The lethality aspect of submarines is of great interest to underdog navies, for their stealth and their ability to be somewhat effective even in small numbers benefits the weak.
The "tariff" thing about causing much trouble and provoking much caution is on the other hand of great interest to better-funded navies, as they can exploit these effects with their other forces ("combined arms").
Interestingly, Australia is in neither position. It's not an underdog due to its alliances and its naval budget isn't exactly overpowering either. Submarines can still be added to the mix, and one really interesting pro-submarine argument in such a case is that they provide essential aggressor training for the surface navy in peacetime exercises. This requires only a few subs, of course.
P.S.: OK, I mentioned the buzzword thing a few more times. Well deserved.