There have been a few recent snippets relating to naval developments recently that tie together nicely. At its heart are a number of rumours, announcements and policy developments relating to Submarine acquisition, and the wider strategic situation.
A new Pan-Asian Alliance?
First up are growing rumours that Australia may be seeking to buy into the Japanese SSK programme (known as the Soryu class). It seems that the Australian government has dispatched observers to look at the programme, although its not clear what the result of this would be.
Japan has long been constrained by its post-war constitution from exporting military hardware, and it was only relatively recently that the ban on exports was lifted. There have been no sales of Japanese SSKs overseas, and their design capability is optimised for supporting indigenous requirements.
The Australian replacement SSK programme is due to identify possible hull types in the near future – well informed sources in the Sidney Morning Herald claim that the design is likely to be either an enhanced German design (known as the Type 216), or an enlargement of the Collins class. In either case, Australia is in the market for up to 12 4000 tonne SSKs capable of conducting deep ocean patrols far from the home base. The Soryu class weighs in at over 4000 tonnes submerged displacement, making it a similar size to Australian requirements.
It seems unlikely that the Soryu class would be chosen as an intentional design – while the Japanese may be willing to share details and construction tips, it is hard to imagine that there would be series production of the design. Such a move would probably be politically contentious in both nations, and there may be deep seated reluctance in the Japanese military to expose some of their most highly capable technology to outside powers. Similarly, it’s hard to envisage there being significant Australian political support to outsource their submarine design or construction capability to Japan. It may well be that this story has leaked in order to apply some pressure to the two competitors to deliver the best value for money solution.
What this does mean though is that two of the major maritime powers in the region are now talking to each other about SSK operations using larger vessels. With both nations looking increasingly to take on a blue-water role, and operate far from home, it means that these exchanges could be the start of shared discussions on the challenges of operating a deployed submarine fleet.
Whatever decision is taken, as has been discussed previously, it remains highly unlikely that Australia would go down the road of operating a nuclear submarine fleet, although other nations are now thinking of this road.
Iran – Going nuclear?
There have been growing reports recently that the Iranian Government is seeking to acquire its own nuclear submarine capability. This naturally has led to some concerns that somehow, from a starting base of zero experience in the design and manufacture of anything more complicated than a midget submarine, Iran will suddenly have something akin to the ASTUTE prowling beneath the waves of the Gulf.
Let’s be clear here, for all the talk and bluster of the Iranian regime, their ability to build a nuclear submarine remains close to nil. Submarine manufacture remains one of the single most complicated military capabilities that any nation state can possess. As the UK found to its cost in the 1990s, even a short delay in building submarines can lead to a critical loss of skills and experience, which places the entire capability in jeopardy.
A submarine is not just a boat that sinks, and pops back up again, in the manner of a Kellogg cornflake packet toy. It’s an incredibly complex system designed to operate in the harshest possible conditions, where a single failure can kill everyone on board in seconds. It has to have the ability to sink, to operate undetected for the duration of its patrol and come back up again on its terms and at a place of its choosing. Nuclear submarines are even more complex, adding the joy of running a nuclear reactor to the mix as well.
It is worth considering how few navies can operate submarines well, as opposed to possessing submarines that can occasionally submerge. Although on paper there has been something of a boon in recent years, with new operators like Iran, Malaysia, Singapore and the like getting into Submarine operations, there has not been a growth in national builders.
At present, genuine submarine design, and building (as opposed to kit production) remains concentrated in just 8 countries – China, France, Russia, UK, USA, along with Spain, Germany and Japan.
To reach the stage where Iran has got a functional SSN capability (as opposed to a hull), they would need to be able to design a working hull, and propulsion system. This needs to be integrated with an almost certainly indigenously designed combat system and weapon systems (very few countries will export equipment at that level of capability to any nation, let alone one with Iran’s track record). It then needs to build this design flawlessly, and put the boat to sea. HMS ASTUTE has taken the RN the best part of 15 years to build from scratch, and even now she is not a fully operational taskable hull. This is from a navy which has previously built 26 other nuclear powered submarines.
When the Iranian SSN eventually puts to sea, it needs to be able to do so in a manner where it is quietened enough to operate while avoiding detection, and do so in a hugely constrained waterspace where both RN and USN SSNs operate regularly. The SSN needs to be able to operate in these waters with accurate charts (thus necessitating an expensive hydrography programme) and the ability to disappear at will. It is hard to see how an Iranian SSN putting to sea could do so without firstly deafening nearby submarine sonar operators, and also avoiding detection. In all this, there has not been any consideration of the issues of nuclear safety and ensuring that the reactor is properly maintained, repaired and run. As Humphrey has noted before, its not the cost of building an SSN that is so prohibitive, it’s the cost of acquiring the huge associated support infrastructure that breaks the wallet.
In reality then, any Iranian SSN project would be looking at the best part of decades before it was capable of putting to sea as a credible, working and realistic capability. It would need to do so against the backdrop of an inherently dysfunctional military, where the two branches (both regular armed forces and the IRGC) seem to fight each other as often as they fight their opponents. So, although the aspiration may be there, the likelihood of there being a home-grown SSN in the water before 2030 remains remote.
Humphrey has written before about the challenges facing an independent Scotland. While any future SDF will inherit some equipment, it would not come equipped with diesel submarines, or trained crews at the start.
Implications for the Royal Navy