Some gripes concerning the usual pro-submarine talk

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

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"

Against what? 
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.

S Ortmann

P.S.: OK, I mentioned the buzzword thing a few more times. Well deserved.


  1. Regarding Australia, I wouldnt comment on their defence needs, for they are confusing and many.
    But for Submarines in general, well...

    What is the purpose of war?
    Its to make doing what you want the other guy to do more cost effective for the other guy than him doing what he wants to do.

    "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:"

    How many fishing trawlers would have to be blown to splinters for an entire nations fishing fleet to confine itself to port?

    One? Ten? I'm guessing not many more.

    1. Look up the Solomons campaign, the Bismarck Sea campaign and so on. Small barges were used for supply transports where it was too dangerous to use real ships.
      Thee barges wouldn't be stopped by a sub. I even doubt torpedoes' logic would consider them as anything but decoys.
      Besides, fishing boats might be sent out as military pickets with civilian radar and some other equipment. See "Kriegsfischkutter".

    2. Not quite sure what you're replying to.
      This is all true of course.

      Submarines are avoidable, but avoiding them causes serious disruption.

      If the idea is to make peace better than war, disruption is good, its great.

    3. I was replying to the trawlers thing.

  2. Sven,

    your argument with the trwlers is weak because we have seen after WWII a dramatic reduction of ship numbers, i.e. a concentration of fuction and value on very few civilian vessels.

    In WWII or shortly after a torpedo was too valuable to be wasted on a small trawler. Today the situation is different, a few torpedoes spent for this may have a real impact.

    The value of trawler in WWI and WWII was, that they were cheap and numerous, that is not longer true today and your comparion stinks. :-)

    1. The global fleet of high seas freighters and tankers is larger than a billion tonnes capacity:
      This translates into several thousand ships - actually not that many less than during WW2. The Japanese lost less than 3,000 ships (including small wooden sailships) during '41-'45:

      Trawlers were probably more numerous back in WW2 (I doubt so), but it can be safely said that subs were certainly more numerous than today, too.

  3. Torpedoes are still cheaper than ships. WRT strike power, after its SSGN conversion, the Ohio carries 154 Tomahawks. That will ruin anyone's day.

    In Australia's case, defending the air sea gap and is the only defense that matters. Granted the Collins-class is a bit of a lemon, as is the whole idea of an ocean-going conventional sub, but what's the alternative? Fighting on the beaches?

    1. The Collins class isn't that good but neither is it that bad. While mechanically they have had their faults (matters not helped by Sweden blocking all attempts to replace their crappy equipment ie: engines) the boats still have had their successes. In the last decade in war games they have been responsible for the sinking of several large US ships including multiple Nimitz class carriers, Amphibious Assault ships and nuclear attack submarines.. For a lemon of a sub to be able to do that it is a good bloody lemon.

      On the point of an ocean-going conventional submarine.. I don't believe that was the main intention.. What Australia needed (need's) as a submarine small enough to be effective in the shallow waters of our region but large enough to have the range hence the Collins class. Nuclear boats are just too big to be the most effective in the region, As past war games have shown..

  4. The article wasn't about SSGNs, and the SSGN conversion was obscenely expensive, ensuring it's one of the most stupid warships ever.

    An alternative to subs is maritime-prepared air power, especially air power with stand-off missiles and midair-refuelling. Subs can achieve little that air power cannot do. It's mostly the imposing of carefulness that air power cannot replicate.

    Besides; Australia was not invaded by the Japanese because they couldn't afford it ground troops-wise. The tiny RN/USN/RAN/RNZN elements present in early 1942 were no hindrance, while even the few ground troops were (many ANZAC troops were in the Mediterranean area).

  5. Bottomline Submarines whether SSK, SSN, SSGN, (we will ignore SSBN for now) give you ownership of the Ocean though denial of the sea to the Enemy. This gives you freedom of Manoeuvre at sea, so you can do STOM or Offensive Raids or Amphibious Assaults.

    Submarines are the Wolves of the Sea, they kill everything, Ships and other Submarines. They are covert, able to gather intelligence (Sorry but they do, and the whole point is that they don't release it to you to look at, doesn't mean it doesn't exist) and carry Heavy Weight Torpedo's that can pretty much one Shot most ships by breaking the keel in the Gas Bubble expansion.

    The age of the guided Missile has added a further utility to strike targets well inland. As well as staging post for Maritime delivered special forces strikes.

    The issue here is not the utility of Submarines which is clear, it's whether it's actually relevant to Australia's position, it's geo-political goals or it's defensive priorities. I would suggest that with Japan re-arming, the Maritime Expansion of China, and the continuing instability between North & South Korea having some capable Submarines around is no bad thing.

    1. You realise you didn't say more than the original article quoted?

      Run a quick logic check of your initial argument; subs give you 'ownership' of the Ocean through denial of the same to the enemy.

      This assumes two in challenging scenarios unrealistic conditions:
      (1) The enemies has no such magic subs
      (2) Your subs actually know the enemy's whereabouts and succeed at intercepting him (including detection and engagement of hostile subs)

      and one assumption which is totally unrealistic:
      (3) Subs also keep hostile air power from sweeping the sea and killing your ships.

      The pro-sub claims are always grandiose (just look at your example), but I don't see much of them backed up with facts (same).

      By the way; submarine-launched cruise missiles are about twice as expensive as normal ones due to encapsulation and additional testing as well as small quantities. Still, only one or two dozen per boat are a reasonable expectation and their range is either so small that only (stationary) targets quite close to the coast can be hit or so great that it would be possible to launch them quite safely from a container ship instead.
      This land attack capability is ridiculously inefficient unless you use nuclear warheads, and then it's still pricier than necessary.

  6. The best weapon against submarines is another submarine. (We won't discuss here whether or not the pen is mightier than the submarine). If an aggressor wanted to initiate hostilities, I think it safe to assume they would use submarines in close - for preliminary reconnaisance and communications monitoring, insertion of special forces, mining, blockade and strike missions. And anything else they come up with that you will not see coming until it's far too late.

    Multiply that by the number of submarines deployed against your nation for those purposes. Personally, I'd sleep rather better at night knowing the ocean around me was filled with my subs - not theirs. I'm pretty sure if you talked nice to your sub navy, they just might allow at least a few freighters and the occasional oil tanker through - at least enough so you may put enough petrol in your tank so you can go to market and buy a new pen when you run out of ink...

    I believe it unwise in the extreme for a maritime nation to summarily dismiss the lessons learned by the Allies at the hands of the German U-boats in WWII. I would also call your attention to the plight of the Japanese and their merchant marine dealt by US subs back then as well, and the effect wrought.

    To summarize, you can be sure that subs are here to stay for the foreseeable future, whether or not you agree. You can give yours up if you like. I'm keeping mine. Cheers.


    1. Agreed. As an (American) civilian with an interest in naval affairs, I may not be up on all the details of the Aussie diesel fleet, but history does show that the diesel fleets of WW2 inflicted a greater number of sinkings on enemy fleets than were destroyed by any other means - including air power. And generally at a fraction of the cost of surface / air power assets (especially if you include the cost of all the assets needed to support air power).
      I would assume that just as North Korea uses its fleet of obsolescent diesel subs to infil/exfil commandos into South Korea (who has a greater degree of military technological sophistication, yet cannot stop them), a nation like Australia would be able to use its well trained fleets to insert/retrieve operatives involved in intelligence gathering, covert ops, sabotage, etc.
      And despite the original author's claims that enemy subs may be effectively neutralized by air or surface assets, I've never met an (honest) pilot / skimmer who would admit that their platform was as effective as countering enemy submarines.

      While the future of undersea warfare may move to be increasingly unmanned, with more remotely piloted / autonomous vehicles, there still remains a need for submarines in a modern nation's fleet.