The sinking of a South Korean warship by a covertly operated boat belonging to North Korea highlights the enduring role of the submarine in naval operations. Submarines can be used across the full spectrum of operations, as strategic weapon carriers, tactical missile firers, anti-surface ship and anti-submarine platforms, intelligence gatherers and to deliver Special Forces.
They can also be used by drug smugglers, a particular threat that it was claimed the Royal Navy is to act against it by deploying ASW-capable warships to the Caribbean. To that end the Type 42 (Batch 3) destroyer HMS Manchester is allegedly being assigned to the West Indies, to utilise her sonar and an ASW helicopter, although it is the Type 23 frigates combined with Merlins that are supposed to represent the real cutting edge. The fact that not all Type 23s these days have the most up-to-date sonars, or even towed arrays, due to a relative decline in ASW capabilities in the RN is the reality behind the HMS Manchester deployment.
Developments elsewhere show the lack of wisdom in allowing this to happen. No less than 43 countries own submarines, though not all of them may be operational. They can range in size downwards from the nearly 20,000 tons American giant Ohio Class to one-man submarines and even small autonomous underwater vehicles. And not all of them are friendly to the West, to NATO or its global partners.
The North Koreans, whatever their specific motive in the sinking of the corvette Cheonan, have shown what can be done with limited submarine assets. Besides stealth, one of the principal characteristics of the submarine, whether it is conventionally powered or nuclear-powered, is its long range and the ability to loiter on station, and no sea, not just the coastal waters off the Korean Peninsula, is safe from the threat of the submarine. Until now it was unfashionable, to say the least, to suggest that a rogue nation could use a submarine in such a fashion: No longer. Cheonan, as we point out elsewhere, has shown conclusively what can be done.
There are plenty of potential submarine threats. In the Mediterranean, for example, besides Spain, France, Italy and Greece, five other countries with ready access to the busy waters of southern Europe and the Near East own submarines. Not all of them are known for their stability, and the Israelis, who operate five of the most modern submarines, have shown in the present crisis over the blockade of Gaza their readiness to resort to force. Might they use their submarines in an escalation of violence, or might another country, frustrated by Israel’s military preponderance, use a submarine to attempt its own blockade of Israeli ports? But think also what a submarine, operated by a hostile power, could do on the trade routes of the Indian Ocean.
Today the United Kingdom’s liquid natural gas storage is carried at sea and only a few days of gas consumption is stored under the hills of Wales. The threat of submarine, or the suspicion of a submarine attack, would not only cause panic but also it would physically disrupt British gas supplies and therefore plunge a shaky economy even further into crisis.
India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan, the two Chinas and the two Koreas all own submarines and are involved in a new naval arms race.
Folk memory retains an idea of the Battle of the Atlantic, a name coined by Churchill who knew that it was a contest that Britain and her Allies could not afford to lose in WW2 - a battle that was vital not only to Britain but also to Russia. A new Battle of the Atlantic was what NATO navies were prepared to fight during the Cold War, but now the capacity for Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) has been downgraded by Britain and other Western nations as part of the post-Cold War peace dividend. Fortunately the best anti-submarine platform is another submarine and though the Royal Navy has only six Trafalgar Class nuclear-powered submarines (now that Sceptre is about to be decommissioned) there is the new Astute Class of hunter-killers to replace them. The officers and men of the RN’s submarine service still form a remarkable elite, as this magazine saw when it met the Ship’s Company of Sceptre on her return to the UK last month. They continue to pursue a lifestyle beneath the waves that most of us could not endure, but they do it, and do it well, to safeguard their country. The expertise of the Royal Navy’s submarine crews is second to none, and may yet be called upon, particularly as not all of the 13 surviving Type 23 frigates are fully equipped with the awesome Sonar 2087/Merlin helicopter combination.
As the North Koreans and Caribbean drug lords are demonstrating, the submarine is the weapon/platform of choice if you want to exploit a weakness and the relative neglect of ASW capabilities in most nations’ warships. It might well offer a wide open avenue of attack. Create a weakness and someone will exploit it. Think in terms of submarine threats being history and somebody will show you how wrong you are.
The warning is clear, and anyone who doubts the unhappy predilection of Man for violence in all its forms should read Colin Gray’s superb book ‘Another Bloody Century’. He believes that those who think the 21st Century will see an end to war will be disappointed and predicts that war will endure, including the terrorist pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and the military exploitation of cyberspace. War is a political act and though it might take place in new social and cultural context and will feature new technology, nevertheless war in the 21st Century will still be organised violence in pursuit of political objectives. And, says Gray, it will come from new sources. Submarine warfare is no less likely than any other threat, but one, which the West should prepare against rather than ignore at its peril.