Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Up Periscopes? The growth in global SSK aspirations

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.
Soryu Class SSK (Copyright

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.
President Ahmaninejad boarding a midget submarine (Copyright Fars)
Other countries have previously demonstrated an ability to produce licence designs – often from Kit form, or mildly upgraded models, but compared to 20-30 years ago, there are far fewer nations doing this. In this latter category, one could include India, Pakistan, North Korea and a few other countries. At a push one could include Iran for its midget submarine programme, although it has yet to produce a genuine indigenous ‘proper’ submarine design.
So, while it may be fashionable to worry about fleets of Iranian SSNs cutting about the gulf, the reality is that Iran has yet to demonstrate it possesses a submarine design, let alone submarine construction capability. It is worth considering that Brazil has been trying to build a nuclear submarine for over 30 years, and thus far has not progressed beyond some fairly basic work. This is despite the Brazilian navy being a competent force, and not being subject to international sanctions.
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.
New Iranian mini submarines (Copyright Mehr via pkdefence forums)

The final nation which has hit the news as a potential future submarine operator is a little closer to home. The SNP has announced that its defence policy will see a future independent Scotland rely on a self-defence force of some 15,000 regular personnel and 5,000 reserves. Within this force mix will be frigates, Maritime Patrol Aircraft and a conventional submarine fleet.
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.
What the SNP appears to be advocating is the acquisition of an SSK capability from scratch, to meet an undefined threat. There are no submarine construction yards in Scotland, and it would take years, and a significant amount of funding to set one up. Therefore, any SSK acquisition would need to be funded through overseas purchases. This would mean Scottish funds being spent in French, German or Spanish yards to procure a small fleet of SSKs.
The cost of establishing this programme would be significant. Although an independent Faslane would provide a nuclear submarine berthing capability, it would not come with the various training schools and escape tanks required to qualify a crew. This would need to be built, or alternatively the SDF would need to pay the Royal Navy a lot of money for access to their facilities. At the same time there would be a need to grow a small cadre of SSK operators, as the RN hasn’t run diesel boats for roughly 20 years. Although some skills are similar, it would require the SDF to set up and run a specialist recruitment programme to get a tiny number of very trained personnel into service. Look at the South African Navy to see how they have struggled to maintain more than one working submarine, while the Australian Navy is struggling to keep its existing six hulls in full use.
The more interesting question is what would a Scottish SSK actually do? Fishery protection (as practised by Canadian Oberon class hulls) is one option, although it would seem cheaper to just build some OPVs. Otherwise it leaves Scotland with a small number of hulls which excel at going to places they shouldn’t be, and collecting intelligence, laying mines or threatening to sink ships. Great if you practise a fundamentally expeditionary type of warfare, or plan to participate in coalition operations. In the European context, it is hard to see where these vessels would be used. One possible use is as the ‘clockwork mouse’ trainer for the RN down at FOST, but this is a role that many nations seek to fill in return for access to training.
Ultimately the choice of equipment for an SDF relies on both political, military and industrial decisions. However, it is genuinely hard to see what a small budget pressed SDF would gain from possessing SSKs. They would eat into scarce resources, take a lot of personnel to operate and maintain, and would require vast investment in Scottish yards which don’t currently build submarines, or sending that money overseas.
 Implications for the Royal Navy
So, three separate stories, but all of which have a common strand. Namely that nations continue to see submarines as the means by which naval power and prestige is acquired. They are seen as an effective means of projecting power, and despite an era of budget cuts, continue to be at the top of many nations acquisition lists.
The RN spent the Cold War becoming one of the best practitioners of ASW in the world. It is clear that the next few years will not provide a respite from the need to procure and operate world class ASW capabilities as if our friends and allies are seeking to procure this material, then it’s a certainty that nations less amicable to our interests are as well.


  1. God! Wait until the DT gets hold of this bit about the Iranians. They will be able to quote a Senior source within the MoD.
    There'll be an Inquiry. Judge led, no doubt.

  2. Interesting bit about the choices available for Oz (I think it is right to discount nuclear)
    - re-engineering Collins Class would be like building your castle on sand
    - BMT's ocean-going AIP is just a paper design (probably "ordered" by those interests that try to get a domestic design&build order)
    - the German design has been discounted as too small
    - leaves the Spanish one that was stretched from a Scorpene-based design (with AIP, but never built, because budgets started to dry up)
    - and Soryu. Design support would be a bit more concrete than getting BMT to draw one up, but the programme would still be a massive undertaking, building on a not very massive existing infrastucture and skills base

    How much are the Pakistani and Indian programmes behind when they are just building to an existing Scorpene design?

    Cheers, ACC

  3. Fishery Protection in Scotland is already carried out by the Compliance part of Maritime Scotland, which has three FPVs and its own aircraft. So apart from perhaps being 'cloclwork mice' I fail to see exactly what Scottish SSKs would do. Indeed Scotland wouldn't need naval OPVs for the job of FP because the ships are already there.
    All we would need OPVs for would presumably be for sovereignty patrols. I guess it might well be possible to merge Maritime Scotland Compliance into the naval section of the SDF?

    1. Slight typo above I should have said 'Marine Scotland', not 'Maritime Scotland', oops!

  4. One suspects that Wee Eck is trying to distinguish his party policy further from that of the UK, by having SSK (=good) vs the Evil sassenachs (SSN=bad). As you rightly point out, it's simply McHoop.

    The far more important point is the last paragraph. We did spend the Cold War becoming expert ASW practitioners. Then when Ivan went away / became our new Bezza, it became fashioable in town to suggest that the submarine threat had gone away. I wonder how capable we are now compared to what we were then. 2087+Merlin is all well and good as glitzy kit, question is whether the operators are as experienced in detecting, classifying and tracking as they were then.....

    1. Absolutely, plus any Scottish SSKs would be a solution in search of a problem.

    2. Dangerous dave26 July 2012 at 22:31

      Or training targets for the RN!

  5. "How much are the Pakistani and Indian programmes behind when they are just building to an existing Scorpene design?"

    Not sure is the honest answer - they are effectively kit building, but I dont know how much they're adding to the design, or just building from blueprints. We wont really be able to judge until an indigenous design emerges.

  6. The Iranian effort more likely aims first and foremost at building a naval reactor, not so much a functional, let alone combat-worthy vessel, which really would be a waste of time for Iran, given their geostrategic circumstances, even if they could do it. This is due to the fact, that certain technology meant for building said type of reactor is not included under NPT-regulations and therefore legal to purchase or develop, obviously opening up ways to use it otherwise.

    @Anon above: the German design is hardly to small, as it has been specifically drawn up for Australian requirements. You might confuse it with the existing Type 214 it is based on.
    The Soryu makes sense in lots of ways, as it represents pretty much what Australia is looking for: sea-control/denial in a blue water context. The Japanese limits regarding export however have not been lifted generally. Many legal pitfalls, excemptions etc. So cooperation might still be impossible without more drastic legal changes, even if government-to-government consensus exists.

  7. Dear Sir
    I think you are missing out on Sweden being a very potent submarine nation both operating and building (including designing) subs.
    There is a rumor that the HDW 216 is actually a rippoff of the Kockums design for the A26...

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