Get Ready, NATO: Russia Plans to Build Nuclear-Powered Battlecruisers

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The Russian defense industry has always had a flair for the dramatic. The Soviet military-industrial complex carried so much sway in the Politiburo that at times, it operated with little oversight from the General Secretary. It produced wonder weapons and prestige platforms with little regard for their cost and strategic value.

The past few years have seen a resurgence of this mindset. Russia has embarked on a massive recapitalization project, seeking to replace aging Soviet-era platforms that were often built to lax production standards. Their military-industrial complex takes great pride in trumpeting its achievements and ambitious projects through Russian language media and state-owned foreign language outlets, such as While it is important to listen to what an adversary is saying, it is also important to see what is behind the bluster. In fact, many of Russia’s wonder weapon projects are far too grand to come to fruition — and may even signal a revival of the same discord within the Russian defense industry that plagued the Soviet Union; a discord that acted as a key forcing-function in the destabilizing Cold War arms race that brought the world to the brink of ruin.

Consider the notional future Russian Federation Navy (RFN). Their fleet, once outnumbering the U.S. Navy 3.5:1, now spends most of its time in port. Russia’s major shipyards are now going full tilt, building frigates and nuclear powered — and armed — submarines. Evidently, the RFN has even grander designs: a squadron of what would effectively be nuclear powered battlecruisers.

Dubbed the Lider class, these warships would feature the nuclear power and armament capacity of the massive Soviet-era Kirov battlecruisers. For reference, the 28,000 ton Kirov class has thrice the displacement of and carries roughly twice the armament of its nominal U.S. Navy counterpart, the AEGIS cruiser. Cutting a distinctive silhouette, the Lider would easily outgun the largest ships in the U.S. or Chinese arsenals. Their nuclear power plants would allow them to sortie worldwide, limited only by food and ammunition supplies — the finest naval power projection to be found outside of aircraft carriers.

Given the grandiose design of the ship, it is worth examining whether the Russian military intends for it to ever exist at all or if it is nothing but a propaganda piece. Recently, the Russians have announced truly fantastic projects, such as a fleet of supersonic stealth transport aircraft capable of covertly inserting an armored division overseas. Open sources show that the RFN has desired a next-generation, medium to large surface combatant for years, and that more reasonable proposals gained traction before losing out to the current design. Additionally, a video about the Lider focuses on the wide array of Russian corporations contributing to its construction rather than the ship’s actual capabilities. Moreover, it was produced by an industry-focused media concern rather than the expected propaganda outlets, such as RT.

Russian officials announced they will build twelve of these battlecruisers. Realistically, most observers should expect to see one or two. A ship’s size tends to drive the cost of constructing it, and there’s a catch to building ships with the massive weapons capacity and power plant of the old Soviet battlewagons: they’re probably going to be about the same size. Some sources suggest they’ve even been designed by the same firm responsible for the Kirovs. This implies the Lider will be a budget breaker like its predecessor.

Russian designs on this Lider class represent a gulf between strategic direction and capabilities. Building these battlecruisers will almost certainly devour the vast majority of Russia’s shipbuilding budget and capacity. If the RFN succeeds in acquiring them, it will find itself with a handful of massive power projection tools unsuited to any of the conflicts it is most likely to fight.

The Russians are setting themselves up for a major discontinuity between ends and means. A recent statement by the CEO of Russia’s state owned shipbuilding conglomerate reveals that his view that future submarine construction should focus on defending ballistic missile submarines, a mission that would take place relatively near to Russian territorial waters. The acquisition of the Lider battlecruisers — plus recently announced plans to acquire a nuclear powered supercarrier — may suggest the forces that drive the development of the surface fleet are not in synch with the forces driving the submarine fleet. One side is building towards a strategically defensive Cold War-era doctrine, the other toward an essentially all-new doctrine based on power projection. Neither of these tracks would be of much value should Russia attempt to invade one of the Baltic states, a prospect that recently gained some overt support in the Russian government.

The Russian military is at a conventional disadvantage against NATO. As oil money begins to dry up and sanctions take their bite, the Russians do not appear to be adjusting their acquisition efforts to compensate. On one hand, they appear to be gravely concerned about the security of their nuclear deterrent. The Strategic Rocket Forces, fearing U.S. missile defense efforts, have invested heavily in new ICBMs. Similarly, the submarine force is building new ballistic missile submarines and advanced new missiles to go with them. On the other hand, the Russians are also attempting to achieve some kind of conventional parity with NATO by producing new stealth fighters, tanks, and apparently battlecruisers. A budget is by definition zero-sum, and as Russia’s economy slowly recovers from its free-fall, the money to build all their desired means simply will not exist. This could leave Russia with an arsenal of top-of-the-line nuclear weapons while intensifying its conventional disadvantage against NATO.

So, what is there to worry about here? Why not celebrate as the Russians procure themselves into the hole, spending exorbitant sums to acquire prestige platforms that do not contribute to their strategy? Because Russia may well attempt to achieve its ends through whatever means are available. The weaker and less focused its conventional forces are, the more likely it is to resort to the use of tactical nuclear weapons to win a conflict with NATO. Painted into a corner by their belligerence and poor acquisition decisions, Russia may become dangerously prone to acting upon its “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine.

Russia’s plans to build nuclear-powered battlecruisers is emblematic of a dangerously non-coherent national military strategy which haphazardly fuses Cold War paranoia with modern revanchism. It seeks to achieve ends (building a “buffer zone” of pro-Russian states by force while protecting its nuclear deterrent) through dangerous ways (“hybrid” and conventional warfighting, with the option to “escalate to de-escalate”) without the means to fully execute those ways. The end result could be disastrous for all involved.

Ben Hernandez is one of the hundreds of students under instruction at Naval Station Newport, R.I. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

This piece first appeared on The Strategy Bridge here.

TopicsSecurity RegionsEurope

A Frightening Thought: Congress’ Flip Flop on War and Diplomacy

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Little should now surprise us about politics in Washington, D.C., but we must note when it upends the historical balance of power between the President and Congress on matters of national security and foreign policy.  With its silence on authorizing the use of force against ISIS and arguments opposing a diplomatic deal with Iran, such actions would surely confound the Founding Fathers, who explicitly vested solely Congress with the power to declare war, while giving the Executive Branch wide latitude to negotiate treaties and reach international agreements. That Washington has strayed so far from such a deep-seeded historical precedent speaks volumes about not only today’s dysfunctional politics, but also the increasing primacy of the Executive Branch in matters of national security.

The flip-flop in divisions of power has been in sharp relief for the past year, as Congress continues to ignore Authorizations for the Use of Military Force against ISIS that were suggested by the Obama administration and proposed by Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) on a bipartisan basis. The delay is often ascribed to the fact that Republicans want a clearer strategy on defeating ISIS, while Democrats want a finite scope to such an authorization.  Unable to compromise on either matter, Congress achieves neither.  This deadlock results in an abdication of responsibility in weighty matters of war.

During the Constitutional Convention in 1787, when the War Powers Clause was being created, delegate Elbridge Gerry stated that he “never expected to hear in a Republic a motion to empower the Executive alone to declare war.” Such a mindset helps to explain why Congress was granted the sole power to declare war, “raise and support Armies,” and “provide and maintain a Navy.”  When advocating for the ratification of the Constitution, the authors of Federalist No. 74 only briefly discuss the Presidential role of Commander in Chief for the purposes of unity of command.  (In fact, far more time is spent discussing the importance of the Presidential ability to issue a pardon in time of civil conflict.)  From this context, it’s clear that the authorization for the President to exercise his powers as military commander is rooted in Congressional authorization for war.

Congress, for example, was outraged by the perceived overreach of Nixon’s expansion of the Vietnam War to Cambodia and Laos, and in response passed the 1973 War Powers Act strictly limiting the President’s ability to commit U.S. forces to combat in the absence of Congressional approval. Nixon’s subsequent veto of the legislation was answered by a Congressional override and, although later Presidents have espoused the unconstitutionality of the War Powers Act, all have complied with the legislation with the exception of the Kosovo War in 1999 and the 2011 bombing of Libya.  Even in the highly politicized environments before both Iraq Wars, Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush first sought Congressional approval for military action.

Historically, the President has enjoyed a fair amount of autonomy in the exercise of diplomacy; only the Senate was given a limited role in treaty ratification and Ambassadorial appointments.  Through history, Congress as a whole has rightfully gained a strong voice on foreign affairs.  However, the opprobrium during negotiations with Iran strays far from both the Founders’ intentions regarding diplomacy and the example of recent history.

Again the Nixon administration provides a case in point; simultaneous to its passage of the War Powers Resolution, Congress gave great leeway to the Nixon administration’s decision to “go to China.” That diplomatic initiative represented a momentous geopolitical shift every bit as seismic as the Iran deal now before Congress. 

Even with a strong pro-Taiwan lobby in the Congress, there was little opposition to Nixon’s shift from Nationalist Taiwan to Communist Mainland China.  Because it was seen as part of the broader Cold War balance of power, and as a potential avenue to regional peace, Congress actually supported the President’s diplomatic efforts in Southeast Asia and later legislated that the recognition of Communist China would not prevent the United States from coming to the defense of Taiwan.

No one denies that it is within the prerogative of Congress to debate the merits of the Iran deal, and to try to block it if a majority of members believe it unwise.  However, our leaders must also be careful to ensure that they do not project an image of divided government, where foreign leaders can play one faction off another.  That weakens a United States that used to at least pay lip service to the idea that politics ended at the water’s edge.

Winston Churchill once said “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” Today it seems that Congress is far more interested in debating the motives of the President’s willingness to “jaw-jaw” rather than exercise their important role in decisions of “war-war.”  Far from being just a partisan issue, that emphasis raises significant questions about Congress’ ability to uphold the oath of office to support and defend the Constitution, with its carefully enumerated separation of powers.

Putting aside the relative merits of the war against ISIS and the Iran deal, this flip flop in Congress’ traditional role in matters of war and diplomacy should signal to American leaders of all political stripes that the separation of powers dynamic in Washington—particularly on matters of national security—has undergone a major historical shift and is fundamentally askew.

Dan Mahaffee is the Vice President and Director of Policy at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress (CSPC).

Congressman Dan Maffei is a CSPC Senior Fellow, and he represented the New York 25th and 24th Congressional Districts in the 111th and 113th Congresses.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsCongress RegionsUnited States

Dreams from a Deal with Iran

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The other night we had a dream. We dreamed that the negotiations with Iran had produced a comprehensive agreement that not only credibly contained the country’s pursuit of nuclear weapons forever but also effectively checked its regional ambitions. Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu came close to endorsing the agreement, taking credit for having pressed hard for some of the limitations that the agreement enshrines. President Obama received congratulations from almost every corner of the earth and even Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei made a dramatic announcement of support, stressing that the agreement was a turning point in his country’s history. He noted that the deal represents the ultimate failure of those who have sought all along to topple Iran’s regime and that it would in no way diminish Iran's deeply held suspicions of the "Great Satan". Khamenei claimed that the agreement signed leaves his country as the acknowledged regional power and critical global power. He announced the appointment of the Head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force Genaral Qassem Suleimani as his personal envoy to promote a peaceful settlement in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, implying that even a long-term armistice with Israel could be part of this initiative, provided the "Zionist entity" would discontinue its “creeping annexation” of the West Bank and its “aggression” against Gaza.       

In the wee hours of the morning very noisy garbage trucks outside our respective homes woke us up to the realization that this was a mere fantasy – that the achievable deal yielded neither a verifiable Iranian commitment to restrict its nuclear endeavors to the parameters of a peaceful energy program nor a mechanism that reliably prevents Iran from funneling the enormous unfrozen funds provided to it to all the wrong causes. Moreover, Iran has already begun to set limits on the access rights of the IAEA to its facilities, to violate with impunity the ban on arms transfers to and from Iran, and to create “facts on the ground” ahead of the deal's entry into force. Within 10-15 years it was to become a legitimate nuclear threshold state, weeks away from nuclear weapons. And Iran’s Supreme Leader continued his virulent attacks and relentless diatribes against the U.S. and the Israel – the greater and smaller Satan respectively.

The following night we had another dream. In it the negotiations yielded a highly flawed deal, one that would expire after only seven years and that contained few real limitations on Iran's nuclear fuel cycle and weaponization activities. It also lacked any extraordinary verification arrangements. Iran was not required to convert or dispose of much of its enriched uranium stockpiles, or to mothball more than a third of the centrifuges at its disposal. It was permitted to operate a third of its spinning centrifuges in the relatively immune Fordow facility near Qom, and to sustain the Arak heavy water reactor with only symbolic (and reversible) modifications. Moreover, the measures put in place to monitor the mothballed centrifuges seemed almost amateurish. Astonishingly, no meaningful restrictions were placed on Iran’s ability to research, develop, test and eventually deploy much more advanced centrifuges, thus making the limited quantitative restrictions placed on its existing centrifuges almost meaningless.  

The President defended the flawed deal, arguing that the sanctions regime was already under duress, making this deal the only viable alternative to war. He further submitted that the deal would encourage the moderates within the Iranian leadership, and would pave the way for Iran to play a more constructive regional role, first and foremost in Syria. Finally, the President reiterated the assurance that U.S. would, if the need arose, employ all the means at its disposal to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. 

Numerous experts and Iran buffs came out in support of the agreement, hailing the diplomatic breakthrough as far superior to going to war, and arguing in favor of the timely substitution of sanctions for an agreement before the former would inevitably crumble. They noted that the concessions made were all warranted given the ability of the U.S. and the IAEA to monitor the agreement and the U.S. to act in case it would be violated. They further emphasized what they saw as new opportunities the agreement opened for mobilizing Iran to fight ISIS as well as its contribution to the strengthening of the so-called “moderates”, led by President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

Well, at least this dream had a happy end. The Obama administration's claims, that the deal was the best that could be obtained under the circumstances and that the alternative was an inevitable slide toward war, were universally rejected. Palpable public outcry erupted over the provisions of the agreement – that in exchange for measures that would only extend Iran’s nuclear “breakout out time” by a mere two to three months, the P5+1 consented to opening the doors of hell by releasing tens of billions of dollars of frozen assets that Iran could immediate funnel to murderous organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah. A very large number of high ranking retired U.S. military officers and other former defense and intelligence officials were to uniformly testify that the agreement reached was an unmitigated disaster. 

Responding to this criticism, no less than twenty-six Democratic Senators – twice the number needed – joined their Republican colleagues to over-ride President Obama’s veto of the Resolution to Disapprove tabled earlier by the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Reluctantly, the administration announced that although Iran was unlikely to agree to go back to the negotiations table, the U.S. was prepared to do so. Astonishingly America’s other five partners went along and suspended all plans to implement sanctions relief and the unfreezing of assets.

Faced with this new reality, and desperately needing sanctions relief, the Islamic Republic announced that it, too, was prepared to go back to Vienna or Geneva and reopen a number of the issues already codified in the JCPOA but which have since proved to be highly objectionable in the U.S. In these renewed talks Iran relented, and a near perfect deal emerged.

But the sigh of relief on averting the worst outcome did not last long. Utterly exhausted from the previous dream we fell asleep again, this time experiencing an only modestly less troubling dream. Twisting and turning in our beds the rest of the night, half awake and half asleep, we dreamt that President Obama has just proudly announced the successful attainment of the landmark JCPOA. While the administration has immediately launched a campaign extolling the virtues of the agreement reached, closer scrutiny revealed its various shortcomings. That said, this agreement was unquestionably far superior to the one appearing earlier in our nightmare, not nearly bad enough to make it easy to build a consensus against it. The JCPOA, supported by many former American diplomats and non-proliferation experts and rapidly endorsed by the UNSC, was nonetheless rejected by comfortable majorities in both houses of Congress, largely along partisan lines. But the Congressional majority was not large enough to over-ride President Obama’s veto of the Resolution to Disapprove. Ultimately, however, the Congressional rejection hardly mattered. All of America’s partners to the P5+1 demurred, and the deal went into effect as originally stipulated, 90 days after the passage UNSC resolution. Most sanctions on Iran were removed shortly after the IAEA stipulated that Iran responded fully to all its pending questions. And all but the U.S. rushed to Teheran to seize on the business opportunities created by the insatiable demand of Iran’s population for investment in infrastructure and new capital goods.

President Obama, sulking and true as ever to his convictions, stretched his executive power to the maximum to honor the U.S. side of the deal by easing all the sanctions on Iran he could, including the highly meaningful ones pertaining to banks transfers to and from Iran. Meanwhile the government of the Islamic Republic got away with voluntary and eclectic implementation of its obligations under the JCPOA.

The rooster's call in the neighborhood finally appeared to wake us up but only to realize that the latest scenario was hardly a dream – it might still materialize. So throughout the hot August day we continued to sweat: Was this outcome inevitable and could we have made a difference? Supposed we had been called to testify in front of Congressional foreign relations and armed services committees ahead of the vote on the deal? Where would we have come down on the balance sheet between the agreement’s advantages and apparent flaws? How would we have responded to Senator Tim Kaine’s (D-VA) poignant question, if there was a feasible alternative – a deal that Iran might accept and which would buy more than 10-15 years? And what if Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) would ask us what level of confidence would we have that a military attack on Iran’s nuclear installations would buy us more than 10-15 years? Conversely, what if the inquisitive Senator John McCain (R-AZ) would inquire whether vigorous U.S. intelligence monitoring on Iran's nuclear activity coupled with the sustained threat of a U.S. military attack and daring covert actions could not have reliably kept Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold for many years to come, just as they have done so since 2003, and without making so many concessions to Iran?

And what if Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), the straight shooter Republican Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would ask us whether we have any confidence in the estimates of how many billions of dollars the deal will place at Iran’s disposal and would we not have to admit that we have even less confidence in estimates of how much of these billions Iran would use to fund its terrorist allies rather than invest in its ailing economy?

And what if their House counterparts were to have pressed us with similarly legitimate questions? What if the eminently sensible Susan Davis (D-CA) would ask us if we have any confidence in the estimates of how China, Russia and the Europeans would react if Congress were to over-ride the President’s veto and the U.S. was accused of sabotaging a deal that its own government had negotiated? And what if Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), the level headed Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee would press us whether we would not be better off if Iran were to respond to Congressional disapproval by scaling up the level of its nuclear activities – which clearly serve no current or imminent peaceful purpose – thereby exposing its true intentions?

Agonizing all day and finally ending up thanking God that we were not the ones actually having to make the call, we finally hit the bed early that evening hoping to get a good night sleep at last. But the issue that has been haunting us all through the previous days and nights would not go away. When we finally managed to get some desperately needed rest another Iran-related dream descended upon us. This one seemed especially surreal, bordering on the incredulous. In the dream we saw President Obama actually acknowledging the weaknesses of the deal with Iran – not only extolling its virtues – and leading opposing members of Congress conceding its advantages. Both proceeded to work together to let the deal go through while offsetting its weaknesses by enacting explicit legislation that would set ground rules for its implementation. It would also lay out clear understandings on how the U.S. would tightly monitor not only Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA but also the general orientation of its nuclear program – has it truly transformed its program into a peace-oriented one? It would further spell out how the U.S. would react, unilaterally if necessary, were Iran to encroach on the deal or misuse the resources that the sanctions relief would channel its way to further foment mischief in the region.  

Wait, the dream went even further. We saw the president actually employing the congressional platform to reassure America’s allies in the Middle East, especially about U.S. responses to Iran's subversive activities, and, unbelievably, the latter even welcomed the hand extended to them.  Finally, it saw the three European partners amazingly casting aside for a moment their business interests in Iran and pledging to work with the U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia to ensure that the Islamic Republic would actually faithfully implement its side of the deal, or face severe consequences if it contemplated otherwise.

This sweet journey gave us a remarkable night sleep. It was only when we woke up that the sobering reality caught up with us. This must have been sheer fantasy – another “Dream from the Deal with Iran”? Or was it?

Shai Feldman is the Director of Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies and a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Ariel E. Levite is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

TopicsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIran

Could Underwater Drones Replace Today's Lethal Submarines?

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In my previous post, I described the changes to submarine operations driven by developments surfacing in detection technology. The conclusions were that submarines would have to be able to deliver their effects from greater distances if they wanted to be effective in hotly contested spaces, but were unlikely to be replaced by drones any time soon. This post dives a bit deeper (sorry, I’ll stop the puns now, but it could be much, much worse) and explains why unmanned underwater systems (UUVs) will be a complement rather than a replacement for manned boats.

There’s certainly a lot of research activity. The U.S. Navy released its first UUV Master Plan in 2000, updating and expanding it in 2004. The plan prescribed the development of UUVs ranging in size from 10kg to 9 tonnes, and identified an expansive set of roles for them that included ISR, mine countermeasures, anti-submarine warfare and oceanography, as well as some high-end tasks such as time critical strike.

The RAND Corporation’s 2009 comprehensive survey of UUVs pruned the list back to seven missions that appeared ‘most promising’, mostly at the more passive end of the spectrum. But despite the high interest, progress has been uneven and slower than for airborne drones. A goodly number of smallish UUVs are in service in specialized roles, but as a genus they’re still being described with caveats like ‘if technology fulfills its hype‘, despite some innovative thinking that has produced a Thunderbirds-like UUV that also flies.

There are straightforward reasons for the relatively slow development of UUVs. UAVs fly through a medium that’s compatible with high data rate transmissions ranging from line of sight signals in tactical settings to high bandwidth satellite communications that enable live video feeds and remote control from thousands of kilometers away. But seawater isn’t like that and communication choices for UUVs are limited to acoustic or low frequency electromagnetic methods, both of which result in slow data transmission and are limited in range (at least from the UUV). If higher data rates are required, then the UUV has to be tethered via fibre optics or somehow communicate with the surface, exposing itself to potential detection. As RAND notes:

The ability of UUVs to communicate while submerged … is limited by physics. The ability of UUVs to communicate while surfaced is limited by such design factors as mast height, SATCOM system throughput rates, power availability, and the need to avoid detection. Additional research and development will not significantly alleviate these limitations. Communications system technologies are considered mature.

That’s not the only drawback to operating submerged. The density of seawater compared to air has significant consequences for the range and/or speed of UUVs. Pushing through water imposes a cost in fuel that grows as the cube of the speed—going twice as fast requires eight times the fuel burn. (The same physics drives the relative speeds and endurance of submarines—long range and high speed requires either a large conventional submarine with lots of diesel or the energy density of enriched uranium.)

Those facts allow us to estimate the performance we can expect from UUVs. The communications bottleneck means that they won’t be able to carry out complex tasks requiring real-time decision-making unless they have a high degree of autonomy—something still very much a ‘work in progress’. And the size/range/speed problem means that they’ll be limited in the areas to which they can deploy under their own steam.

But there are still some useful and growing niche roles for a relatively slow and relatively dumb UUV when deployed forward from a manned submarine. A Mk 48 torpedo can travel 50 km at 40 kts (74 kph). The cube law tells us that a UUV the same size (so able to be deployed from a torpedo tube) can travel 400 km at a respectable 20 kts. If it’s mapping a minefield or collecting acoustic or oceanographic data to help the parent submarine negotiate a tricky passage, it’ll need loiter time as well, but an operating range of well over 100 km from the parent submarine is practical.

For example, the USN’s near-term mine reconnaissance system is connected to the submarine via a fiber optic cable, allowing for high rate real-time data transfer. For mapping mines up to 200 km ahead, an impractical distance for a cable, the long-term mine reconnaissance system communicates via radio frequency and acoustics (and presumably also brings data back). Another potential application is the collection of high-value adversary ship and submarine acoustic signature data near their operating bases, where a manned submarine would be at high likelihood of detection.

That’s certainly enough to ensure that UUVs have a future. But the fundamentals of the underwater environment aren’t going to change, and UUVs are likely to continue to be a complement to manned submarines, helping them circumvent new detection techniques. That means that Australia’s future submarine still makes good sense—but it’ll have to have a UUV capability.

This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Death Down Below: Are Submarines Set to Become Obsolete?

The Buzz

As a member of the Australian Defense Minister’s White Paper panel, I’ve had many discussions about issues that paper will wrestle with (and a few that it certainly won’t, but that’s a post for another time). With the obvious disclaimer that I’m not about to divulge any white paper content, I thought it was worth addressing some of the questions that have come up repeatedly.

Naturally, questions about Australia’s future submarine plans are near the top of the list. Many topics are predictable enough. Where will they be built? How many do we need?

I’m surprised at how often I’ve been asked whether we’re wasting our money because submarines are about to become passé. That question is based on one of two premises: that the oceans are about to become ‘transparent’ due to new detection technologies, or that submarines will be replaced by unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs).

Both propositions have a reasonable pedigree, and neither can be dismissed out of hand. And both technologies will have a significant impact on the future conduct of submarine operations. But when examined closely, they actually point towards an increased relevance for submarines.

Let’s start with the detection issue. The attribute that most contributes to the effectiveness of submarines is their stealth. An adversary faces significant uncertainty even with just the possibility of a submarine being present. A great deal of effort has to be put into anti-submarine warfare to have even a reasonable chance of nullifying their effect. Having a capable submarine somewhere in a theatre of maritime operations complicates planning everywhere—or at least within a large circle of possible locations that grows steadily with time.

The ability to quickly and reliably find submarines would certainly change their cost benefit calculus, and the notion of making the ocean ‘transparent’ isn’t a new one. The Cold War U.S. Navy (USN) put a great deal of effort into being able to track Soviet nuclear missile-carrying boats, building an array of networked underwater sensors under the Long Range Acoustic Propagation Project. Their effort met with considerable success and the USN often had a pretty good hold on Soviet submarine movements.

But there are two important caveats. First, those were earlier generation nuclear submarines, which were noisier than their current counterparts. Second, even when Soviet submarines were detected, precise localization wasn’t always possible. The arrays were heavily supplemented by other techniques, not least of which was the ‘tailing’ of Soviet boats by American submarines. (See the ‘ripping yarn’ bestseller Blind Man’s Bluff for a popular account). In fact, when the arrays picked up the sounds of the destruction of its own USS Scorpion, the USN still took four months to locate the wreckage. The simple fact is that reliable localization of sound sources in large ocean basins is a formidably difficult task that gets progressively harder as the difference between the source and background noise gets smaller—as is the case with modern submarines.

Of course, detection technologies and the ability to analyze collected data have also improved. I wrote about the effect of Moore’s Law on submarine detectability here, and it’s true that future submarines will face challenges in remaining hidden. They’ll also have to worry about techniques other than acoustics, such as wake detection, thermal signatures or even the light given off by sea creatures disturbed by their passage. Given enough data and enough signal processing power, even very subtle signs could be giveaways—potentially even from orbit.

Nonetheless, the real world is a noisy and untidy place. Covering very wide areas with sufficiently sensitive sensors with high bandwidth to link them together and having the ability to respond quickly and effectively to a detection—especially given a likely high ‘false positive’ rate—will be beyond even the best resourced forces. Much more likely is that high performance ASW capabilities will be concentrated on key focal areas, such as around task groups, near naval bases, and chokepoints such as critical sea lanes through straits and narrows. The old model of submarines getting ‘up close and personal’ in their adversary’s strongholds probably doesn’t have much future.

But in terms of avoiding detection, being under the water will always be preferable to being on top of it. And if the submarine can carry out its mission from a reasonable distance, there’ll still be ocean enough to hide in. To remain viable, future submarines will have to be even stealthier. They will need be able to stand off and deploy medium to long-range sensors and weapons—in a sense perhaps becoming ‘underwater motherships’ for sensor and weapon packages. In fact, as life gets harder on the surface, that ability will become more relevant, not less.

And that’s a neat segue to UUVs. In the next post I’ll discuss their strengths and weaknesses and explain how the complementary package of manned submarine and unmanned subsystems could come together to help defeat improved sensors.

This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia