A Brief History of the Austro-Hungarian Navy

By Jason Lancaster

Most people would not think of modern land-locked, mountainous Austria as a maritime power, and many of those that have heard of the Austrian Navy wonder why the Nazis wanted an Austrian U-boat captain in the Sound of Music. From 1797 until 1918, the Kaiserlich und Königlich (K.u.K.) Austro-Hungarian Navy fought naval battles against the Danes, French, Italians, and British on European seas, and deployed as far as the South China Sea.

Geographically, Austria was a land power, with little maritime trade and many continental enemies. Following Napoleon’s victories in Italy, the Austrian Empire and France signed the Treaty of Campoformio in 1797. France received Belgium, Lombardy, and territory along the Rhine, while Austria received the Venetian Republic and their navy, a solid base to create a deterrent force.

However, caught in the maelstrom of the Napoleonic Wars, Austria did not have the finances to both fight Napoleon and build a powerful navy. Thus the navy played a minor role in the Napoleonic Wars, and in those early days Austria had little idea of naval strategy. The Austrian Navy’s fortunes ebbed and flowed as Napoleon’s forces marched too and fro across the European continent.

Following Napoleon’s abdication in 1814, Austria inherited the former fleet of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy, comprised of several newly built ships of the line and frigates, as well as the officers and crews of the vessels.1 It took Austria a long time to learn the advantages of sea power, and by the time she did, she had already lost Venice and its attendant dockyards to the newly unified Italy.

Austria’s ignorance of sea power’s benefits prevented her from expanding foreign trade, and caused her great diplomatic embarrassment during the early 19th century. In 1817, Austria sent a merchant ship to Canton, China, flying the new red and white ensign (the present Austrian National flag). However, the ship was refused entrance because the flag was not recognized by the Chinese.

“Distribution of Races in Austria-Hungary” from the Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1911

During the Franco-Austrian War of 1859, the French fleet sailed into the Adriatic and dominated the sea. The Austrian fleet withdrew into their fortified harbors. The Adriatic Sea should have been an Austrian lake, but she lacked the strength to defend it in the face of the larger and more powerful French Navy. A notable incident from this humiliating affair was the return of the Austrian frigate Novarra, from a research-motivated circumnavigation of the globe. Napoleon III declared her a neutral vessel, “Because she was carrying the scientific treasures of value to the whole world.”2

In 1860, the Sardinian Prime Minister, Prince Cavour, sent the Sardinian fleet to blockade Ancona and support Garibaldi’s attacks on the Italian Marches. This caused a terrible fright along the Dalmatian coast, because of irredentist Italian claims to the region. The fears only ceased when Britain declared she would not recognize Italian claims to Dalmatia and Istria.3  This humiliation, in conjunction with Italian naval construction, drove the Austrians to rebuild their navy.

In 1854, a railroad from Vienna to Trieste was completed, which spurred regional commercial activity and rejuvenated foreign trade. Maritime activity fueled the creation of jobs and economic well-being, while naval construction spurred the economies of Istria and Trieste and gave rise to popularity in the Parliament. Advances in technology had rendered the previous generation of Nelsonian ships of the line obsolete; steam, armor, and the screw propeller, among other technologies, gave smaller ships a fighting chance against great ships of the line and allowed lesser powers to catch up and rapidly achieve a sort of parity with great naval powers.

Even without an indigenous shipbuilding industry, Italy had become the third largest naval power in the world. All of her ships came from British and American yards.4 Ferdinand Max, brother of Franz Josef, and Commander in Chief of the Austrian Navy, argued for increased construction and capabilities because, “a well-ordered propeller squadron only a few hours from Corfu or the Italian coast would make Austria a more attractive ally to Britain or France.”  Throughout this period, Ferdinand Max fought for every florin possible in the budget for construction of a capable, modern Austrian Navy. At the end of 1860, he ordered two screw-propeller frigates constructed at Trieste. 5

Archduke Ferdinand’s new navy fought the last fleet action with wooden ships in the Second Schleswig War against Denmark in 1864. Simply getting to the North Sea was a victory in itself. Captain Wilhelm von Tegetthoff sailed his squadron for Lisbon, Brest, and the Downs. The British were not fond of having foreign navies so close to home, and they looked unfavorably on the Austro-German attack on Denmark. “British public opinion was aroused to the point that talk of war with Austria was common. The British Channel Fleet was ordered to the Downs, and a training squadron recalled from Portugal.”6 When Lord John Russell learned of the Austrian deployment, he threatened to send a British squadron to the Adriatic. The government in Vienna called his bluff, but the British attitude to the war would cause Habsburg headaches.

Tegetthoff’s squadron was supposed to break the Danish blockade of Hamburg. On May 4, 1864, Tegetthoff’s squadron encountered a superior Danish squadron off Helgoland. They fought until the Schwarzenburg, Tegetthoff’s flagship, was on fire and compelled to withdraw. Once the flames were extinguished, Tegetthoff returned to find the Danish (who had also suffered heavy damage) gone. Although, tactically a draw, the Danish did not renew their blockade of Hamburg, allowing Austria to claim victory. After the war with Denmark ended, Austrian Foreign Minister Mennsdorf-Pouilly signed an agreement with General von Roon which agreed to let the armaments factory Krupp sell naval artillery to the Austrians, although Prussia declined to purchase any Austrian built ships.7

Danish painer Christian Mølsted’s (1862-1930) imagination of the gunners of the frigate “Niels Juel” celebrating their success against the “Schwarzenberg” called “Ombord på frigatten “Niels Juel” under slaget ved Helgoland 9. maj 1864” (1898)

Despite agreements to purchase Prussian naval artillery, Austro-Prussian military cooperation was short lived; Austria’s next war would pit her against Italy and Prussia, her erstwhile ally. On July 3, 1866, Prussia utterly defeated the Austrians in the north at Königgrätz, but in the south Austria was victorious on land and sea.

One week earlier, the Austrian army had routed the Italian army at Custoza. At sea, the Austrian Navy defeated an Italian invasion fleet at the battle of Lissa on July 20, 1866. Lissa was the first major armored fleet action in history. A superior Italian fleet was beaten and forced to withdrawal from the Dalmatian coast. According to estimates by John Hale, in Famous Sea Fights, “taking into account the number and weight of rifled artillery on ironclads, the Austrians had 1,776 pounds of shell to the Italians 20,392 pounds.” The victory over the Italian fleet was telling; the Italians lost 612 officers and men, along with two ironclads, while the Austrians lost 38 officers and men, two of whom were captains. In his book The Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Navy, Dr. Sokol argues that, “in their excitement, the Italians often failed to load their guns before firing them,” which might account for the slight number of casualties suffered by the Austrians.

Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, formerly Ferdinand Max, Commander in Chief of the Austrian Navy, sent his congratulations to now Admiral Tegetthoff. “The glorious victory which you have gained over a brave enemy, vastly superior in numbers and nurtured in grand old naval traditions, has filled my heart with unmixed joy. With the victory of Lissa your fleet becomes enrolled amongst those whose flag is the symbol of glory, and your name is added to the list of naval heroes of all time.”

Lissa was not only the first major ironclad fleet action, but the sinking of the Re D’Italia by Tegetthoff’s flagship the Erzherzog Ferdinand Max by ramming brought that weapon back into vogue among naval architects and tacticians. It was not until the Spanish-American War almost thirty years later, that the ram would again lose favor. Despite the Austro-Prussian-Italian War having the first ironclad fleet battle, there was a lack of naval warfare through most of the conflict. Theorists studied Lissa, but the rest of the naval war neglected commerce raiding and blockades. Dr. Sokol asserts that is because both navies “thought of naval warfare chiefly as guarding their own coasts.” 8

Admiral Tegetthoff threw a party aboard his flagship for his captains after the battle of Lissa and charged the expenses to the navy budget. Later, the Ministry of Finance “deducted a sum from his salary each month, until he had paid off the cost.” Heroes and celebrities the iron men might have been, but bureaucratic infighting was not going to be easier, simply because they had defeated the Italians in a war that was already lost.9

Over time, the Austrian government learned to wield their increasingly effective navy. By the time of the Great War, Austria managed to hold her own against a combined Franco-Italian fleet. Between August 1914 and February 1917, Austria sank three Italian battleships, two Italian cruisers and a French cruiser, at the cost of one cruiser, an exchange of 85,000 tons for 2,300.10

Austro-Hungarian dreadnought battleships (Tegetthoff class) at the roadstead in Pula, Croatia, which was then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. (Wikimedia Commons)

While the bulk of the Mediterranean submarine patrols were performed by the German Navy (because their submarines were bigger and had more endurance), the Germans had loaned three of their larger submarines to the Austrian Navy.11 The Austrian submarine force was so effective in the Adriatic that the British Royal Navy was forced to support the rest of the Entente powers in their anti-submarine barrier patrols and mine fields across the mouth of the Adriatic Sea called the “Otranto Barrage.” Unlike the Royal Navy that had minimized their planning for submarines during war, Austria had integrated submarines into her naval war plans from the start; these submarines preyed on Entente shipping in the Adriatic and Mediterranean.

Austria was also a pioneer of naval aviation. Austria was the first nation to develop naval aviation in 1913. Early adoption of this capability allowed Austria to control the skies over the Adriatic for the bulk of the war. At the start of the war Austria had 22 seaplanes, and by the time Italy entered the war, Austria had 47 seaplanes. These planes were used for scouting enemy fleet movements as well as attacks on naval bases and vessels at sea.12

Despite the early success of the Austrian Navy, Austria and her allies ultimately lost that war. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was dismembered and new nations based on nationality arose. In Hungary, Admiral Horthy rose to prominent political office during the post-war years, becoming a right wing dictator who was later assassinated by the Nazis. After the fall of the empire, Austria retained the naval ensign as her own national flag, a subtle reminder of a glorious past. Today, the old red and white Austrian ensign flies over Schönbrunn and the Hofburg.

LT Jason Lancaster is a US. Navy Surface Warfare Officer.  He has a Masters degree in History from the University of Tulsa.  His views are his alone and do not represent the stance of any U.S. government department or agency.


1. Lawrence Sondhaus, pg 35.

2. Anthony Sokol, pg 27.

3. Sondhaus, 209.

4. Sokol, pg 28.

5. Sondhaus, pg 208-09.

6. Sokol, pg 31.

7. Sondhaus, pg 240-243.

8. Sokol, pg 49-53.

9. Sokol, pg 52.

10. Sokol, pg 128.

11. Koburger, pg 89.

12. Koburger, pg 18.


Bridge, F.R, The Hapsburg Monarchy Among the Great Powers, 1815-1918, St Martins Press, New York, 1990.

Bush, John W. Venetia Redeemed: Franco-Italian Relation 1864 1866, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, NY, 1967.

Jenks, William Alexander, Francis Joseph and the Italians, 1849-1859, University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, 1978.

Rauchensteiner, Manfred, Heeresgeschichtliches Museum Vienna, Verlag Styria, 2000.

Koburger, Charles W. The Central Powers in the Adriatic, 1914-1918, War in a Narrow Sea,  Praeger Books, Westport, CT, 2001.

Smith, Dennis Mack, Victorio Emanuel, Cavour, and the Risorgimento, Oxford University Press, London, 1971.

Sokol, Anthony Eugene, The Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Navy, United States Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1968.

Sondhaus, Lawrence, The Hapsburg Empire and the Sea: Austrian Naval Policy, 1797-1866, Purdue University Press, West Lafayette, Indianna, 1989.

Wawro, Geoffrey, The Austro-Prussian War: Austria’s War with Prussia and Italy in 1866, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996.

Wawro, Geoffrey, Warfare and Society in Europe: 1792-1914, Routledge Press, New York, 2000.

Featured Image: Josef Carl Püttner; Seegefecht bei Helgoland 1864 (The Battle of Heligoland)

Crash Dive: America’s Pending Submarine Crisis

By Austin Hale

The future of naval warfare is increasingly shifting to undersea competition, in both manned and unmanned systems. American seapower has excelled in this domain and holds a competitive edge today beneath the waves. But the U.S. Navy, by a combination of compressed funding and potentially crippling procurement cost increases, may not be well positioned to sustain its mastery of undersea warfare.             

Today’s Eroding Competitive Advantage

Near-peer competitors, such as Russia and China, are both committed to improving their undersea capabilities. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) now possesses one of the largest fleets in the world, with more than 300 ships, including five SSNs, four SSBNs, and 53 diesel-powered attack submarines (SS/SSPs).1 Russia has engaged in increasingly hostile naval activity, including targeted provocations and intimidation of NATO partners and allies, and continues procurement of the fast, heavily armed, and deep diving Severodvinsk-class SSN/SSGN.2 Additionally, China’s and Russia’s development of Anti-access/Area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities pose a major threat to the United States’ ability to secure sea control in their respective regions and, in the case of China, threaten critical United States naval facilities in the Western Pacific.3

Furthermore, these challenges come at a time when dwindling numbers and the need to replace aging ships have placed the submarine force under a tremendous amount of pressure to meet its existing obligations to Combatant Commanders (CCDR). In a March 2016 hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Admiral John Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations, admitted that the Navy is only ‘‘able to meet about 50 to 60 percent of combatant commander demands right now’’ for attack submarines.4 Admiral Harry Harris Jr. affirmed this fact when he told lawmakers “we have a shortage in submarines. My submarine requirement is not met in PACOM, and I’m just one of many [combatant commanders] that will tell you that.”5

Submarine Force of the Future

In 2014, the Navy updated its 2012 Force Structure Assessment (FSA), concluding that a total battle force structure of 308 ships, including 48 SSNs, 0 SSGNs and 12 SSBNs, would be required to meet the anticipated needs of the Navy in the 2020s. While the projected 2017 submarine force—51 SSNs, 4 SSGNs and 14 SSBNs—currently exceeds the requirements as laid out in the March 2015 308-ship plan, the Navy anticipates a shortfall as Los Angeles-class SSNs are retired at a faster rate than Virginia-class SSNs are procured (See Table 1).6

Table 1. Projected SSN Shortfall

(As Shown in the Navy’s FY2017 30-Year Shipbuilding Plan)



Fiscal Year

Annual Procurement Quantity  

Projected Number of SSNs

SSN Shortfall relative to 48-ship goal
FY2017 2 52
FY2018 2 53
FY2019 2 52
FY2020 2 52
FY2021 1 51
FY2022 2 48
FY2023 2 49
FY2024 1 48
FY2025 2 47 1
FY2026 1 45 3
FY2027 1 44 4
FY2028 1 42 6
FY2029 1 41 7
FY2030 1 42 6
FY2031 1 43 5
FY2032 1 43 5
FY2033 1 44 4
FY2034 1 45 3
FY2035 1 46 2
FY2036 2 47 1
FY2037 2 48
FY2038 2 47 1
FY2039 2 47 1
FY2040 1 47 1
FY2041 2 47 1
FY2042 1 49
FY2043 2 49
FY2044 1 50
FY2045 2 50
FY2046 1 51

Source: Table adapted from information presented in Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class Attack Submarine Procurement, Ronald O’Rourke, CRS. May 27, 2016.

As depicted in Table 1, the Navy’s FY2017 30-year SSN procurement plan calls for the procurement of 44 Virginia-class SSNs by FY2046, with production varying from one to two SSNs per fiscal year, at a cost of $2.4 billion each.7 If implemented, the SSN force would drop below the 48-ship requirement beginning in FY2025, reach a minimum of 41 ships in FY2036 and would not meet the 48-ship requirement until FY2041.8

Beginning FY2027, the Navy’s 14 Ohio-class SSBNs are scheduled for retirement at a pace of one ship per year until the class is retired in FY2040. Table 2 shows the Navy’s schedule for the retirement of the Ohio-class SSBNs and the procurement of 12 Columbia-class SSBNs set to begin replacing the Ohio-class in FY2030.9

Table 2. FY2017 Navy Schedule for Replacing Ohio-class SSBNs



Fiscal Year

Number of Columbia-class SSBNs procured each year Cumulative number of Columbia-class SSBNs in service Ohio-class SSBNs in service Combined  Ohio– and Columbia-class SSBNs in service
FY2019 14 14
FY2020 14 14
FY2021 1 14 14
FY2022 14 14
FY2023 14 14
FY2024 1 14 14
FY2025 14 14
FY2026 1 14 14
FY2027 1 13 13
FY2028 1 12 12
FY2029 1 11 11
FY2030 1 1 10 11
FY2031 1 2 9 11
FY2032 1 2 8 10
FY2033 1 3 7 10
FY2034 1 4 6 10
FY2035 1 5 5 10
FY2036 6 4 10
FY2037 7 3 10
FY2038 8 2 10
FY2039 9 1 10
FY2040 10 10
FY2041 11 11
FY2042 12 12

Source: Table adapted from Navy Columbia Class (Ohio Replacement) Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN[X]) Program: Background and Issues for Congress, Ronald O’Rourke, CRS, October 3, 2016.

As can be seen in Table 2, the proposed Columbia-class program schedule calls for the procurement of the new SSBNs to begin in FY2021, with the last ship being procured in FY2035 with all 12 boats entering into service by FY2042. Under this proposed procurement plan, the Navy’s “boomer” force will drop below the stipulated 12-ship requirement by one or two ships between FY2029 – FY2041.10   

Submarines in the 350-Ship Navy

The Navy has recently updated its assessment of the fleet and has proposed a larger 355-ship force.11 The resource implications of building and manning almost 70 more ships beyond today’s fleet is daunting. The underlying strategic rationale for this force and its resource implications have not well-articulated by the new Pentagon leadership or the administration. Of particular note, the force structure assessment calls for 66 SSNs.

The Navy’s new plan is supported by other analysts who have advocated for alternative force structures. According to the Heritage Foundation, the Navy should be composed of 346 ships, with 55 SSNs.12 Another alternative structure, developed by Bryan Clark at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, proposes a fleet architecture “to provide the United States an advantage in great power competition with China and Russia or against capable and strategically located regional powers such as Iran.”13 This proposed architecture calls for a fleet composed of 343 ships, with 66 SSNs. In another proposed alternative, analysts at the Center for a New American Security conclude that a 350-ship navy is “the bare minimum that is actually requires to maintain presence in the 18 maritime regions where the United States has critical national interest” and calls for the enlargement of the Navy’s SSN force to “more than 70” ships.14

It is clear from these studies that conventional wisdom from the naval cognoscenti shows a strong consensus for not only sustaining our submarine force but actually increasing it. It is equally clear that the U.S. Navy’s shipbuilding plan is unlikely to achieve the desired fleet totals and that the plan, in its current state—that is largely based on optimistic cost assessment factors—is unfeasible. The administration may resolve that with an infusion of funding but sustainable support may not be forthcoming from either OMB or the Congress. Moreover, there are plausible factors that could exacerbate the shipbuilding crisis for the Navy that could cripple even today’s nearly anemic plan. This paper explores that scenario.

Potential Problems

In pursuing its proposed SSN and SSBN procurement plan, the Navy faces a number of potential problems. One major concern is the anticipated cost of the Columbia-class program and its potential impact on other Navy shipbuilding and procurement programs. According to the Navy’s 2014 estimate, the cost of the lead ship is approximately $14.5 billion in constant TY dollars, with the average cost of ships 2-12 at $9.8 billion in constant TY dollars.15  Measured in constant FY17 dollars, the total cost for the program will be over $100B.16 Given the Navy’s FY2017 budget, Navy officials have been consistently concerned that procurement of the Columbia-class will adversely affect other Navy programs. As Admiral Jon Greenert, then Chief of Naval Operations, testified to a House subcommittee on February 26, 2015:

“In the long term beyond 2020, I am increasingly concerned about our ability to fund the Ohio Replacement ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) program—our highest priority program—within our current and projected resources. The Navy cannot procure the Ohio Replacement in the 2020s within historical shipbuilding funding levels without severely impacting other Navy programs.”17

However, given the current budget constraints under the Budget Control Act of 2011, as amended, and the Navy’s current share of the overall Department of Defense budget—nearly 28 percent in FY2017— it is unlikely that the Navy will receive the robust funding it needs from both its Shipbuilding and Conversion, Navy (SCN) account and the National Sea-Based Deterrent Fund (NSBDF).18

As a critical program for the nation due to its status within the strategic deterrence force and the Navy’s designated top priority, the Columbia-class program will be fully funded and any resulting pressures on SCN account will be borne by other Navy programs.19 In testimony delivered to the House Armed Service Committee on February 25, 2015, Navy officials testified that:

“Absent a significant increase to the SCN [Shipbuilding and Conversion, Navy] appropriation [i.e., the Navy’s shipbuilding account], OR SSBN construction will seriously impair construction of virtually all other ships in the battle force: attack submarines, destroyers, and amphibious warfare ships.”20

Any negative impact on the construction of other ships will commensurately impact the shipbuilding industrial base, reducing economies of scale, causing shipbuilding cost to “spiral unfavorably.”21 Thus, the Navy clearly recognizes that its current shipbuilding plan is highly risky and cannot be reasonably executed without additional funding.

Even with additional funding, it is entirely possible that the funds would be used to properly fund the shipbuilding account or meet unplanned cost growth. Historically, the Navy has systematically underestimated the cost of procuring new ships and the accuracy of the Navy’s estimated procurement cost for the Columbia-class ship is soft at best. In an October 2015 report by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), it was estimated that the Navy’s FY2016 30-year Shipbuilding Plan underestimated the cost of Virginia-class SSNs by around three percent and the cost of the Columbia-class ships by as much as 22 percent.22 Historical underestimation of shipbuilding cost led CBO to estimate that the lead Columbia-class SSBN would cost 13.2 billion in FY2015 dollars, with boats 2 through 12 costing $6.8 billion in FY2015 dollars, an average of $7.1 billion per ship.23 This cost growth would consume more of the Navy’s constrained shipbuilding and procurement accounts, and either stretch out the program (increasing total costs) or more likely, divert funds from Virginia-class production.

Given how the Navy has increased its requirement for ships and submarines while underestimating the cost of programs, it is very possible that the Navy will be able to afford to procure only one SSN per year after FY2023. The implications of this scenario are profound for undersea dominance (see Table 3). Without substantial increases in the Navy’s shipbuilding accounts or successful acquisition management of the predicted costs of the Columbia-class SSBN program, it is likely that the SSN shortfall will be more severe and lengthier than depicted. 

Table 3. Adjusted Projected SSN Shortfall

(Adjusted by reducing the total SSN procurement from 2 to 1 in FY2025 and FY2036-FY2039 and FY2041)



Fiscal Year

Annual Procurement Quantity  

Projected Number of SSNs

SSN Shortfall relative to 48-ship goal
FY2017 2 52
FY2018 2 53
FY2019 2 52
FY2020 2 52
FY2021 1 51
FY2022 2 48
FY2023 2 49
FY2024 1 48
FY2025 1 47 1
FY2026 1 45 3
FY2027 1 44 4
FY2028 1 42 6
FY2029 1 41 7
FY2030 1 41 7
FY2031 1 42 6
FY2032 1 42 6
FY2033 1 43 5
FY2034 1 43 4
FY2035 1 45 3
FY2036 1 46 2
FY2037 1 47 1
FY2038 1 46 2
FY2039 1 46 2
FY2040 1 46 2
FY2041 1 45 3
FY2042 1 46 2
FY2043 2 44 4
FY2044 1 45 3
FY2045 2 44 4
FY2046 1 45 3

Source: Table adapted from information presented in Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class Attack Submarine Procurement, Ronald O’Rourke, CRS, May 27, 2016.

As can be seen in Table 3, if procurement of Virginia-class SSNs is reduced from two to one per FY in FY2025, FY2036-FY2039 and FY2041, the shortfall of SSNs will continue beyond FY2046. Furthermore, by FY2046 the Navy will have six less SSNs than predicted in its 30-year Shipbuilding Plan and be three SSNs short of its 48-ship goal (See Figure 1).

Implications and Mitigation Discussion

The first implication of this scenario is the need for senior Navy leaders to gain approval and the requisite funding for their Force Structure Assessment from the new Administration and Congress. The second implication is the need to prioritize available SCN funding for Virginia-class attack boats to ensure that the potential “crash dive” scenario does not come about. 

That said, we still foresee a drop in capacity in the near to mid-term that will increase operational risks. To mitigate the impact of the major shortage of SSNs would have on the Navy’s undersea forces, it is recommended that the Navy continue to explore and expand its use of unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs). As advancements in technology continue to improve the undersea surveillance and monitoring capacity of long-loiter unmanned systems, unmanned undersea operations will be the next frontier in naval warfare.24 As Bryan Clark notes:

“With computer processing power continuing to rapidly increase and become more portable, dramatic breakthroughs are imminent in undersea sensing, communications, and networking. Advancements are also underway in power generation and storage that could yield significant increases in the endurance, speed, and capability of unmanned vehicles and systems. These improvements would compel a comprehensive reevaluation of long-held assumptions about the operational and tactical employment of undersea capabilities, as well as the future design of undersea systems.”25

As the seabed grows in economic and military importance, UUVs can act “as force multipliers and risk reduction agents for the Navy” and work autonomously or in conjunction with manned systems conducting a wide range of missions.26

UUVs can be used to monitor United States and allied seabed systems and survey, and if necessary attack, adversary’s seabed systems. Furthermore, UUVs can provide access to areas that are too hazardous or too time consuming to reach with manned platforms. With this enhanced access, UUVs could act as long-term ISR platforms and provide real-time, over-the-horizon targeting information for manned vessels.27 Likewise, large-scale UUVs could also be used to conduct intelligence gathering missions because of their ability to carry a lot of advanced sensors at a fraction of the cost of the Virginia-class SSN.  The Navy is pursuing extra-large unmanned undersea vehicles with this in mind.28 Allowing UUVs to conduct such missions not only unburdens the SSN fleet, but also minimizes the risks to the multi-billion dollar Virginia-class SSNs and their crews.

Furthermore, UUVs have the capacity to conduct routine yet important and repetitive missions that may not require the attention of multi-million dollar manned vessels. For example, UUVs could be used to maintain and observe valuable undersea infrastructure—such as the U.S. undersea cables that carry the bulk of the world’s Internet data.

Another important capability of UUVs is their potential to provide the Navy with an option for non-lethal sea control. As pointed out in the most recent Navy Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (UUV) Master Plan, “current undersea capabilities limit options for undersea engagement of undersea and surface targets to either observation/reporting or complete destruction.”29 Non-lethal options provided by UUVs could be used in situations short of war and support de-escalation during times of heightened tension.30

Adding to the potential efficacy of UUVs is their ability to be deployed and recovered stealthily from submarines. Beginning with Block V Virginia-class SSNs—procurement set to begin in 2019—the Navy plans to build its SSNs with an additional mid-body section, known as the Virginia Payload Module (VPM). Nearly 70 feet in length and containing 4 large-diameter, vertical launch tubes, the VPM increases the amount of Tomahawk cruise missiles or other payloads that the Virginia-class can carry from 37 to about 65—more than tripling the offensive capability of each ship.31 In addition to increasing the storage capacity for missiles, the VPM also has the ability to store and launch Large UUVs up to 80-inches in diameter.32 Not only does this capability allow UUVs to deploy significantly closer to enemy territory and military infrastructure, but also greatly increases the range at which submarines can track adversary’s vessels. As Rear Adm. Barry Bruner, then chief of the Undersea Warfare Division (N97) stated in reference to UUVs, “it sure beats the heck out of looking out of a periscope at a range of maybe 10,000 to 15,000 yards on a good day… Now you’re talking 20 to 40 miles.”33


As Russia and China continue to improve their undersea capabilities, the competitive advantage long enjoyed by the United States in undersea warfare will continue to diminish. This challenge to U.S. naval hegemony comes at a time when the Navy’s fleet of SSNs is struggling to meet existing obligations to Combatant Commanders around the globe, and is set to suffer a shortfall in the number of available attack submarines in the near future. Exacerbating the expected shortfall is the strategic necessity of building the Columbia-class SSBN; a program that is likely to exceed its predicted cost. The new administration may provide very significant increases to the Pentagon’s coffers that could offset much of the concerns raised in this article, but probably not all of them. To mitigate the impact of the SSN shortage it is imperative that the Navy focus on submarine production and move more aggressively into the development and procurement of advanced UUVs. As so eloquently put forth by Dr. T. X. Hammes, it is time for the United States to embrace the small, many and smart over the few and exquisite.34

Austin Hale is currently working as a research intern at the National Defense University’s Center for Strategic Research and is a student at George Washington University. Special thanks to Dr. F. G. Hoffman for guidance and editorial assistance on this project.


1. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016,” Washington, DC (April 2016): 25-26, http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2016%20China%20Military%20Power%20Report.pdf

2. Kathleen Hicks, Andrew Metrick, Lisa Sawyer Samp and Kathleen Weinberger, “Undersea Warfare in Northern Europe,” Washington, DC: Center for Security and International Studies (July 2016): 7, https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/160721_Hicks_UnderseaWarfare_Web.pdf; Dave Majumdar, “Russia’s Next Super Submarine Is Almost Ready for War,” The National Interest, March 27, 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/russias-next-super-submarine-almost-ready-war-15610?page=show.

3. Dmitri Trenin, “The Revival of the Russian Military,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2016, 23–29, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russia-fsu/2016-04-18/revival-russian-military; Office of Naval Intelligence, “The Russian Navy: A Historic Transition,” Washington DC (December 2015), http://www.oni.navy.mil/Portals/12/Intel%20agencies/russia/Russia%202015print.pdf?ver=2015-12-14-082038-923;  Stephen Frühling and Guillaume Lasconjarias, “NATO, A2AD, and the Kaliningrad Challenge,” Survival, Vol. 58, no. 2 (March 2016), 95­–116; Sydney J. Freedberg Jr “Russians In Syria Building A2/AD ‘Bubble’ Over Region: Breedlove,” BreakingDefense,” September 28, 2015, accessed at http://breakingdefense.com/2015/09/russians-in-syria-building-a2ad-bubble-over-region-breedlove/; Guillaume Lasconjarias and Alessandro Marrone, “How to Respond to Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD)? Towards a NATO Counter-A2AD Strategy,” Rome: NATO Defense College, Conference Report No. 01/16, February 2015; Mikkel Vedbey Rasmussen, “A2/AD Strategy for Deterring Russia in the Baltics,” in Baltic Sea Security, ed. Ann-Sofie Dahl (Centre for Military Studies, University of Copenhagen, 2015), 37-39, http://cms.polsci.ku.dk/publikationer/2015/Baltic_Sea_Security__final_report_in_English.pdf; Major Christopher J. McCarthy, “Anti-Access/Area Denial: The Evolution of Modern Warfare,” Lucent: A journal of National Security Studies, 2010, 3, https://www.usnwc.edu/Lucent/OpenPdf.aspx?id=95.

4. Dave Majumdar, : The U.S. Navy’s Master Plan to Rebuild Its Sub Fleet,” The National Interest, March 16, 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/the-us-navys-master-plan-rebuild-its-sub-fleet-15515.

5. Franz Stefan-Gady, “US Admiral: ‘China Seeks Hegemony in East Asia,’” The Diplomat, February 25, 2016, http://thediplomat.com/2016/02/us-admiral-china-seeks-hegemony-in-east-asia/.

6. Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class Attack Submarine Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress,” 9; Congressional Budget Office, “The U.S. Military’s Force Structure: A Primer,” 59 and 117.

7. Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class Attack Submarine Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress,”10.

8. Ibid., 10.

9. O’Rourke, “Navy Columbia Class, Background and Issues for Congress,” 7.

10. Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Columbia Class (Ohio Replacement) Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN[X]) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” 7.

11. The executive summary can be found at https://news.usni.org/2016/12/16/document-summary-navys-new-force-structure-assessment.   For some criticism see Bryan McGrath, “Quick Review of the Navy’s New Force Structure Assessment,” War on the Rocks, December 16, 2016.

12. “U.S. Navy,” 2017 Index of U.S. Military Strength, The Heritage Foundation, available at http://index.heritage.org/military/2017/assessments/us-military-power/u-s-navy/.

13. Bryan Clark, email on Alternative Future Fleet Architecture Study, 16 Jan. 2017.

14. Jerry Hendrix, “12 Carriers and 350 Ships: A Strategic Path Forward from President Elect Donald Trump,” The National Interest, November 14, 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/12-carriers-350-ships-strategic-path-forward-president-elect-18395.

15. Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Columbia Class (Ohio Replacement) Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN[X]) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” 10-12.

16. Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr., “Columbia Costs, Is it $100B or $128B?,” BreakingDefense, Jan. 9, 2017,  http://breakingdefense.com/2017/01/columbia-costs-is-it-100b-or-128b-well-yes-read-the-adb-memo/

17. Statement of Admiral Jonathan Greenert, U.S. Navy Chief of Naval Operations, Before the House Subcommittee on Defense, Committee on Appropriations on FY2016 Department of Navy Posture (26 February 2015): 7, accessed at http://www.navy.mil/cno/docs/150303%20_CNO_Posture.pdf.

18. Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Force Structure: A Bigger Fleet? Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service (November 2016): 7, available at https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/R44635.pdf;  Sam LaGrone, “FY 2017 Budget: Tight Navy Budget in Line With Pentagon Drive for High End Warfighting Power But Brings Increased Risk,” USNI News, February 29, 2016, https://news.usni.org/2016/02/09/fy-2017-budget-tighter-navy-budget-in-line-with-pentagon-drive-for-more-high-end-warfighting-power.

19. Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Columbia Class (Ohio Replacement) Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN[X]) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” 25.

20. Ibid., 25.

21. Ibid., 25.

22. Congressional Budget Office, “An Analysis of the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2016 Shipbuilding Plan,” Washington, DC (October 2015): Appendix B, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/114th-congress-2015-2016/reports/50926-Shipbuilding-2.pdf

23. Ibid., 25.

24. For a forecast in this area, see Bryan Clark, “The Emerging Era in Undersea Warfare,” Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (September 2016), 8–16 available at http://csbaonline.org/research/publications/undersea-warfare/publication; Christian Davenport, “The New Frontier for Drone Warfare: Under the Oceans,” The Washington Post, November 25, 2016, A16.

25. Bryan Clark, et al. “Alternative Future Fleet Architecture Study,” 16.

26. Department of the Navy, “The Navy Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (UUV) Master Plan,” (November 9, 2004): xvii, http://www.navy.mil/navydata/technology/uuvmp.pdf; Department of the Navy, Report to Congress: Autonomous Undersea Vehicle Requirements for 2025 (February 2016): 3, available at https://news.usni.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/18Feb16-Report-to-Congress-Autonomous-Undersea-Vehicle-Requirement-for-2025.pdf#viewer.action=download.

27. Report to Congress: Autonomous Undersea Vehicle Requirements for 2025 (February 2016): 8.

28. Valerie Insinna, “Navy About to Kick Off Extra Large UUV Competition,” Defense News, January 10, 2017.

29. Report to Congress: Autonomous Undersea Vehicle Requirements for 2025 (February 2016): 5.

30. Ibid., 5.

31. O’Rourke, “Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class: Background and Issues for Congress,” 7.

32. Dave Majumdar, “Russia vs. America: The Race for Underwater Spy Drones,” The National Interest, January, 21 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/america-vs-russia-the-race-underwater-spy-drones-14981.

33. Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “Run Silent, Go Deep: Drone-Launching Subs To Be Navy’s ‘Wide Receivers,” Breaking Defense, October 26, 2012, http://breakingdefense.com/2012/10/run-silent-go-deep-drone-launching-subs-to-be-navys-wide-rec/.

34. T.X. Hammes, “The Future of Ware: Small, Many, Smart vs. Few & Exquisite?,” War on the Rocks, July 16, 2014, http://warontherocks.com/2014/07/the-future-of-warfare-small-many-smart-vs-few-exquisite/

Featured Image: Electric Boat workers prepare submarine Illinois for rollout on July 24, 2015. (Photo: General Dynamics Electric Boat)

PLA Air and Maritime Maneuvers Across the First Island Chain

By Ching Chang

Between late 2016 and early 2017, there were several People’s Liberation Army (PLA) air and maritime maneuvers penetrating the so-called First Island Chain, including a deployment of the only People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) aircraft carrier Liaoning battle group, for a routine exercise in the South China Sea. It went through the Miyako Strait between Miyako Island and Okinawa Island as well as the Bashi Channel, a part of the Luzon Strait between Taiwan and Philippines. All these maneuvers were perceived by strategic commentators and military observers as a milestone that can be signified in the efforts of the PLA’s force building.

Nonetheless, all the military maneuvers penetrating the First Island Chain during this period of time were not entirely revolutionary. Since early 2015, similar air maneuvers have been executed eight times. The Liaoning battle group only cruised through the waters on the east side of the First Island Chain, but no significant or even substantial drill was executed during this leg of maritime maneuvers. While these air and maritime maneuvers are intentionally showing off the PLA’s strength, these military deployments exposed many weaknesses strategically, operationally, and tactically.

First, it is debatable whether these maneuvers are really fulfilling the strategic blueprint of maritime dominance of various island chains as set forth by PLAN Admiral Liu Huaqing in 1982. Liu’s perspectives are widely addressed by many Western strategic thinkers, yet his argument had never been converted into any official PLAN doctrine. At least, the actual developments of PLAN deployments and operations are not consistent with Liu’s original concepts. We must consider whether the PLAN’s strategic planning is still directed and guided by Liu’s visions as presented in 1982. Otherwise, the blindness of self-fulfillment conviction can be a fatal factor in interpreting the PRC’s maritime or naval endeavors.

Second, penetrating the First Island Chain itself is not a strategic barrier but merely a psychological threshold. There are three factors in operational planning and execution: force, space, and timing. The essential strategic space is a geographical space which must be dominated or be occupied by the offensive forces as well as secured or controlled by the defensive side. The nature of the strategically essential space is quite dynamic. A perfect match of the three operational planning and execution factors may turn any geographical space into a strategically essential space at the right time for the right forces. It is meaningless for maritime forces to cruise in the waters that nobody would like to utilize and declare the dominance of these waters. 

On the other hand, cruising through several international waterways during peacetime does not prove the capacity of breaking wartime blockage since no other party had ever expressed objection to these legitimate maritime maneuvers. The fundamental question about these PLAN air and maritime maneuvers is how these maneuvers may imply potential wartime actions. The answer will be inconclusive since these maneuvers can be interpreted as everything but will not be firmly identified as anything. If dominating the waters around the East side of the First Island Chain failed to undermine potential adversaries’ maritime interests, then all the significance emphasized by various strategic commentators are in essence overstated. No matter how routine the People’s Liberation Army Navy and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force crossing the First Island Chain for air and maritime exercises may be, the strategic significance is relatively limited.

Third, unless all the island territories of the associated island chains can be well-controlled before executing any maneuvers, dispatching maritime forces and their airborne counterparts through the First Island Chain runs many risks during wartime periods. In fact, adopting the island chains as the relative geographical indexes may expose the strategic thinking as nothing but an extension of coastal defense. The core of maritime strategic thinking should be the command of the sea, including sea control and sea denial. The essence of maritime majesty is to compel adversaries to follow your will, not to control a space with no strategic value. As compared with Chinese global maritime activities, interests, and naval presence, the actual deployments of the PLAN fleet are already beyond those island chains. Without the dominance of the island chain land territories, the wartime operational sustainability beyond the island chains can be very questionable.

Fourth, many political commentators insisted these People’s Liberation Army exercises and military maneuvers penetrating the First Island Chain are about sending coercive signals to neighboring states, particularly, Taiwan, Japan, and the United States, about the Taiwan issue. The viewpoint can be another overstated bias. Given the three major channels of the PRC for declaring external policies associated with Taiwan, those spokesmen of the Foreign Ministry, Defense Ministry and Taiwan Affairs Office had never taken the initiative to deliver any related intimidating statements during these military maneuvers. In contrast, as many media expressed such speculations, all the PRC mouthpieces, including these three formal spokesmen systems, denied any association between the situations in Taiwan and these military activities. Of course, we still need to scrutinize the realities with the People’s Republic of China’s official statements. Although the cross-strait relationship has significantly deteriorated after President Tsai’s inauguration, the likelihood of employing these military exercises to coerce the Republic of China is still reasonably slim.

Fifth, as reflected by these military maneuvers and exercise scenarios, many operational and tactical features are worthy of discussions. These air maneuvers not only put the focus on air battles but also emphasize the considerations of engaging with the surface combatants, either surface vessels or military sites on land. Attempts for combining different air platforms and integrating units from People’s Liberation Army Air Force and People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force (PLANAF) are obvious. Certain rules of engagement can be expected since a stable modus operandi is revealed by these maneuvers in different periods of time. The major task for the PLANAF is to practice engagement tactics for targeting surface vessels. Several PLAN surface vessels are concurrently directed as the counter forces for such exercises. Maritime patrol aircraft attend as the scouting platforms, and the airborne early warning and mission control platforms are effectively conducting their command and control functions for air combat and surface attack missions.

No indication of live fire exercise has  been seen with the air and maritime maneuvers across the First Island Chain conducted by PLAN surface vessels or their airborne counterparts so far, but it is only a matter of time. Also, very little evidence proves any significant electronic warfare drills having been executed during these maneuvers, though certain platforms may have the inherent capability for electronic warfare. There are flaws in the exercise plans as well. There are few indications for search-and-rescue arrangements or mechanisms or contingency measures for malfunctions or emergencies. Whether we need to praise the bravery of these PLA military professionals for long-range exercise without a bailout mechanism or speculate the reckless of the PLA operational staff is a topic for further observation.

Last but not least, nobody could ever properly describe the exact scenario for these air and maritime maneuvers until now. There is no clear PLA doctrinal norm to support these exercises with different combinations of platforms. The possible operational concepts reflected by these exercises are still yet arguable. Whether these military exercises may well support the possible political aim is still a myth to be further scrutinized. We fail to generalize any possible operational directive from the same well-known modus operandi for concluding possible rules of engagement since it is very hard to tell what should be the expected operational situations for employing these air or maritime maneuvers. After all, to firmly conclude any meaningful implication from events that only occurred less than ten times is indeed a challenge.

At most, we may successfully exclude some plausible speculations and groundless accusations with political smear intentions. To summarize a prompt judgment on these PLA maneuvers penetrating the First Island Chain recklessly, without military professionalism and political consciences, would be a sin of contributory negligence as we misperceive the potential challenge today and are forced to swallow the catastrophic failure in the future.

Dr. Ching Chang was a line officer in the Republic of China Navy for more than thirty years. As a visiting faculty member of the China Military Studies Masters Program at the National Defense University, ROC, he is recognized as a leading expert on the People’s Liberation Army with unique insights on its military thinkings. 

Featured Image: J-15 fighters launching off of PLAN carrier Liaoning (China Daily)

India’s Submarine Arm — Returning to Even-Trim

This article originally featured in Geopolitics and is republished with permission.  

By Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan, AVSM & Bar, VSM, IN (Retd)

The Indian Navy’s Submarine Arm will celebrate its Golden Jubilee Year in 2017. The imminent commissioning of the Kalvari — in her new avatar as India’s first Scorpène Class submarine — is, therefore, an especially timely portent of happier times for the underwater sentinels of our freedom. For some time now, much media-time has been devoted to lamenting the several perceived inadequacies in the country’s submarine prowess, especially after the tragedy that struck INS Sindhurakshak in Mumbai on 14 August 2013, resulting in the loss of 18 precious lives and the loss of an invaluable combat platform. As the Scorpène program ran into time overruns and as the People’s Republic of China began submarine forays into the Indian Ocean, breathless TV anchors defense correspondents have invoked ‘Upgrade’ as a new and urgent mantra against Chinese machinations. The truth is, of course, somewhat more prosaic. ‘Upgrades’ are part of a normal naval response to the technological and tactical changes wrought by the evolution of naval operations through which armed combat is prosecuted upon, over or under the sea. Can technological upgrades make up for numerical limitations? The answer is not straightforward. Although quantity does have a quality all of its own, in undersea warfare, technology has an inordinate influence upon the outcome of combat. So how do we currently fare in terms of both, absolute quantity, and the quality of the quantity that we do have — and what is the prognosis for the immediate future?

Before answers to these questions can be attempted, it is important to understand that warfare at sea differs markedly from that of armed combat upon the land. Terrain is arguably the most important determinant of land-based combat and, as a consequence, armies have goals of ‘occupation’ or ‘possession’ or ‘eviction.’ At sea, however, the effect of terrain diminishes sharply as the distance from the coast increases. The sea is fundamentally a medium of movement and cannot be ‘fortified’ or ‘occupied’. Navies cannot ‘dig-in’ and ‘hold’ sea areas that have great intrinsic value. Consequently, the aims of naval operations revolve around the ‘use’ or ‘denial-of-use’ of specific areas of the sea for a specific period of time. If we want to use a specific area of the sea for a specific period of time AND we don’t want the enemy to interfere with our use, we must exercise what is called ‘Sea Control’ in that sea area and for that period of time. If, however, we do not have any interest in using a specific area of the sea for a specific period of time, BUT we merely do not want the enemy to use it, we must exercise what is called ‘Sea Denial’ — once again in that sea area and for that period of time. Submarines (along with sea-mines) are classic platforms for sea-denial operations. Another feature of combat at sea is that the hunter and the hunted can operate in totally different mediums (surface, sub-surface, air/aero-space), each pretty much oblivious of the presence of the other — as in the case of submarines versus ships or submarines pitted against aircraft — whether fixed-wing or rotary-wing, manned or unmanned. 

Submarines have traditionally been used as a counter to surface ships — both, merchantmen (easy pickings) and warships (far riskier an endeavour). This is where they have the most advantage, operating in a different medium from their adversary and being able to vary their depth to take advantage of the various density-layers that lie between the surface and the sea-bed and affect the propagation of sound underwater. Weapons employed in such cases are typically anti-ship torpedoes and/or anti-ship cruise (i.e., non-ballistic) missiles. Submarines can also be used against targets ashore (on the land) — i.e., for land-attack. They must then be equipped (or be retrofitted) with suitable land-attack missiles with either conventional or nuclear warheads. Naturally, this impacts the size of the submarine’s hull and imposes restrictions upon how close it can approach the coast. 

When submarines are designed or deployed to operate against other submarines, the advantages accruing from disparity of medium no longer apply, for both opponents are now within the same (underwater) medium and torpedoes become weapons-of-choice. Since submarines generate underwater sound in a variety of frequencies, the factor determining surprise is relative noisiness — more usually expressed as ‘stealth.’ SSBNs are inherently noisy. Consequently, smaller and equally speedy but much quieter SSNs, equipped with missiles and torpedoes instead of nuclear-tipped, long-range ballistic missiles are deployed to detect and continuously track an adversary’s SSBNs. Likewise, modern diesel-electric submarines (SSKs) are often far quieter than an SSN and are designed to track and, where necessary, attack not just surface ships but also SSNs — or even other, relatively-noisier diesel-electric submarines. 

Nuclear propulsion maximizes underwater speed and endurance, but demands a larger hull and constrains the submarine in littoral waters. Diesel-electric submarines are far smaller than SSNs and SSBNs and can, consequently, operate both, in the deep seas and in relatively-shallow littoral waters. They make-up for their relative lack of underwater-endurance by one or another type of Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) package, but nevertheless yield enormous underwater speed-advantages to SSNs/SSBNs.

It is against this very rudimentary and fairly simplistic backdrop that one should review the state of Indian submarines (aka boats) and their upgrades. 

India currently operates two classes of nuclear-propelled boats: SSBNs (the Arihant) and SSNs (the Chakra), and, two classes of diesel-electric SSKs (the KILO or Sindhughosh Class, and the Type 209/1500 Shishumar Class), with the commissioning of the lead boat of a third class — the Scorpène Class (which will thereafter be known as the Kalvari Class) — imminent. 

Current upgrades to the Arihant revolve about the replacement of its twelve ‘K-15’ submarine-launched ballistic missiles (which have a range of 750 km) by four longer-range (3,500 km) ‘K-4’ Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBM), which have already been successfully test-launched (in April 2015) from the Arihant. This weapon-upgrade is well in hand.  However, as India takes the next step in the K-series and begins to produce K-5 — a true submarine-launched inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) — the submarine will need to be correspondingly larger with a greater displacement-tonnage. Consequently, for the next boat of the Class, the Arindham, there is a clear need to upgrade the reactor. The Arihant has an 85-MWt reactor (≈17 MWe, since in a naval reactor, roughly 5 MWt = 1 Mwe). The one for the larger and heavier Arindham will need to be somewhere between 160-190 MWt (32-38 MWe) and this is an upgrade that is ongoing.

There is no immediate equipment upgrade planned for the Chakra whose 10-year lease is at the halfway mark. However, the fact that in February 2015, the Modi government accorded political approval for six SSNs, makes a training and manpower upgrade for the Navy a critical objective over the next decade.

Turning now to the central issue of upgrades to India’s conventional submarines, two overarching aspects need to be borne in mind: 

  • The first is that contrary to some mildly hysterical reports in the electronic media, these upgrades are not a knee-jerk reaction to the large Chinese submarine inventory or Pakistan’s submarine program. Nor are they some desperate measure being taken to counter inadequacies in the numbers of submarines held by India. Even if the Indian Navy had three times as many submarines as it does, periodic upgrades would still be the norm. 
  • The second is that contrary to the alarmist lament that India’s diesel-electric submarines — especially the nine surviving boats of the Sindhughosh Class — have crossed their designed-life and are not much better than floating coffins the truth is much more reassuring. The authorized total technical service life of each submarine is actually 35 years. At or around the 13th year of service, each boat undergoes what is known as a ‘Medium Refit’ (MR). This takes two-to-three years, during which time, major upgrades are effected and the submarine is made ready to operate in the contemporary environment for another decade-plus. Then, around the 26th year of service, each boat undergoes a 27-month Service Life Extension Program (SLEP), which enables it to be materially and operationally viable — once again within the prevailing contemporary environment — for the next 9-10 years.

Most MRs of the Sindhughosh Class, have been undertaken in Russia. However, two — Sindhudvaj and Sindhudvaj — underwent MRs at the Naval Dockyard, Visakhapatnam, while the Sindhukirti suffered a dreadfully protracted MR in HSL. The Sindhukesari is the first to have commenced her SLEP. The residual life of the Class may be assessed through the following tabulation:

Submarine Commissioned 13th Year Medium Refit


MR done in: 26th Year SLEP (done in) 35th Year
Sindhughosh 30 Apr 86 Apr 99 2002-05 Russia Apr 12 Apr 21
Sindhudhvaj 12 Jun 87 Jun 00 2002-05 India (ND[V]) Jun 13 Jun 22
Sindhuraj 20 Oct 87 Oct 00 1999-01 Russia Oct 13 Oct 22
Sindhuvir 26 Aug 88 Aug 01 1997-99 Russia Aug 14 Aug 23
Sindhuratna 22 Dec 88 Dec 01 2001-03 Russia Dec 14 Dec 23
Sindhukesari 16 Feb 89 Feb 02 1999-01 Russia Feb 15 2016-2018 (Russia) Feb 24
Sindhukirti 04 Jan 90 Jan 03 2006-15 India (HSL) Jan 16 Jan 25
Sindhuvijay 08 Mar 91 Mar 04 2005-07 Russia Mar 17 Mar 26
Sindhushastra 19 Jul 00 Jul 13 2013-17 India (ND[V]) Jul 26 Jul 39

The corresponding tabulation in regard to the Shishumar Class (Type 209/1500) SSKs is similarly instructive:

Submarine Commissioned 13th Year Medium Refit


MR done in: 26th Year SLEP (done in) 35th Year
Shishumar 22 Sep 86 Sep 89 Jun 98-Mar 01 Mumbai Sep 15 Sep 24
Shankush 20 Nov 86 Nov 89 Aug 00-Mar 06 Mumbai Nov 15 Nov 24
Shalki 07 Feb 92 Feb 05 Mar 07-Jul 10 Mumbai Feb 18 Feb 27
Shankul 28 May 94 May 07 Feb 08-Jun 12 Mumbai May 20 May 29

With ‘alarm’ having been removed from the equation, it is possible to dispassionately examine a few major thrust lines relevant to ongoing and planned upgrades. For the professional naval submariner — planner and practitioner alike — upgrades-of-choice are those that enhance:

  • Stealth
  • Endurance
  • Sensor Performance:
    • Radar
    • Sonar
    • ESM
  • Communication
  • External Situational Awareness (Combat-Information Management Systems)
  • Internal Situation Awareness and Control of the Internal-Environment (Platform-Management-and-Control Systems)
  • Weapons and weapon-delivery systems
  • Safety and Survivability Systems

These upgrades may be either through indigenous or foreign replacements of the original equipment. Obviously, the former is preferable and, indeed, has yielded laudable results. 

Stealth-Enhancement. Although such upgrades are often considered by our breathless media analysts as not being ‘sexy’ enough to merit focused-attention, in truth, stealth is always a life-and-death issue in submarine combat. With the hull design being resistant to any modification or change, these upgrades pertain to the reduction of vibrations and the underwater transmission of these vibrations as sound waves that can be picked up by an adversary’s passive listening devices. Thus, engineering-improvements to propulsion equipment such as speed-governors, bearings, fuel racks, supercharges clearances, and rotating machinery such as superior bearings, pumps, rubber-mounts, etc., count as major— albeit largely unacknowledged — upgrades.  Indigenization has been both successful and invaluable, with the increasing involvement of the Indian private sector companies such as L&T, Mahindra, Reliance, Tata, Siemens, Yeoman, Exide, Elcome, etc., being most encouraging.

Endurance-Enhancement. Although enhanced submarine endurance is almost invariably associated with the provision of AIP systems or nuclear-propulsion, habitability is another factor that directly impacts submarine endurance. For instance, the original air conditioning plants (35 TR capacity) aboard the Sindhughosh Class, which were grossly inadequate in Indian conditions, have been upgraded by indigenous (KPCL) plants of 67 TR capacity. This upgrade has increased the life of the on-board weapon-sensor suites and allied equipment, and, has enhanced operational endurance by improving habitability and reducing environmental human-fatigue. Where batteries are concerned, the upgrade to indigenous production by Exide Industries is stable and world-class — so much so that exports to Algeria and Iran have also been achieved. HBL-Nife is another success story in battery-production. 

Sensor-Performance Enhancement


  • The NSTL-developed and BEL-produced Panchendriya FCS and USHUS bow-mounted cylindrical array — have certainly had their share of protracted teething troubles but the systems have settled down and are delivering world-class performances on each of the six retrofitted boats of the Sindhughosh. This upgrade is in progress as part of the ongoing MR of Sindhukirti, leaving only Sindhuratna and Sindhuvir with the original (Russian) MGK-400 sonar. 
  • Likewise, all four boats of the Shishumar Class have been upgraded with the ATLAS Elektronik’s ISUS-90 combat management system, the CSU-90 cylindrical active/passive bow-mounted sonar, passive planar flank arrays and intercept arrays (for providing warning against approaching torpedoes), passive ranging array, a three-dimensional mine and obstacle avoidance sonar.
  • As part of their SLEP, the Shishumar Class boats Shalki and Shankul are being retrofitted with thin-line towed-array sonars.
  • Electronic Warfare (EW) systems — especially Electronic Support Measures — are crucial to submarines. The upgrade of the originally-fitted ESM suites of all 13 Indian submarines, through their replacement with the indigenously-developed Porpoise EW system, represents a significant enhancement of combat capability.

Optronics. By and large, the Indian media has a suboptimal understanding of the criticality of optronics aboard submarines and, consequently, little interest in periscope-upgrades. This notwithstanding, the fitment of new optronic periscopes onto the Shalki and the Shankul as part of their SLEP is an extremely significant upgrade.

Communications. Within the many criticalities of submarine warfare, communications enjoy a degree of centrality that is underappreciated. The upgrades provided by the retrofitment of the indigenously-developed CCS-Mk2 communications-suite are hugely significant. Where shore-to-submarine VLF communications are concerned, on-board upgrades by way of receiving equipment and Trailing Wire Antennae (TWA) have resulted in noteworthy improvements in combat deployments of all classes of our submarines.

Weapon Upgrades

Missiles. The most telling upgrade to the weapon-suite of Indian Naval SSKs has been the addition of anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) and land-attack cruise missiles aboard the Sindhughosh Class. Of the nine boats of this Class, six now have land-attack missile capability by way of ‘Klub-S’ [3M-14Э] missiles, while seven have anti-ship cruise missile capability by way of ‘Klub-3M-54Э. Likewise, the two boats of the Shishumar Class (Shalki and Shankul) that have commenced their SLEP in Mumbai by ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS) are being retrofitted with 12 x UGM-84L Harpoon Block II Encapsulated Missiles and 10 x UTM-84L Harpoon Encapsulated Training missiles.

Torpedoes. India’s investment in infrastructure for the development and testing of torpedoes notwithstanding, each such program is time-consuming and can take upwards of 15 years. However, the successful induction of the Varunastra heavyweight torpedo aboard the IN’s surface combatants has led to an ongoing development of a submarine-launched version (an upgrade of DRDO’s now-defunct Takshak project). An unfortunate spinoff from the Sindhurakshak tragedy (and that of the Russian Kursk) is a loss of confidence in thermal torpedoes and consequent uncertainties in respect of DRDO’s development of the Shakti thermal heavyweight torpedo, which was expected to be the main armament of India’s nuclear submarines and additionally represented an upgrade-option for the Sindhughosh Class. 

External Situational Awareness. The Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) of all boats has received a significant fillip with the upgraded communication-and-data capability provided by the Navy’s Rukmini satellite, coupled with excellent progress in VLF communication and its remote keying by naval Long-Range Maritime Patrol-cum-ASW aircraft. Moreover, the indigenous Combat-Information Management Systems (CMS) developed by WESEE represents another critical combat-capability and is fitted aboard all boats.

Internal Situation Awareness and Control of the Internal-Environment (Platform-Management-and-Control Systems). The motion-control system of the Sindhughosh Class has been upgraded from the PIRIT-2E to the PIRIT-M. Likewise, the diving-and-surfacing control system has been upgraded from the PALLADI-2E to PALLADI-M. Functionally-corresponding systems are being upgraded as part of the ongoing SLEP of the Shalki and the Shankul.

Safety and Survivability Systems. Critical upgrades in terms of safety and survivability include the installation of the AIDSS (Advanced Indigenous Distress Alert Sonar System) on the nine boats of the Sindhughosh Class submarines, as also the ongoing retrofit of the Shishumar Class boats Shalki and Shankul with the Alenia Sistemi Subacquei’s C-310 submarine-fired torpedo decoy dispensers and a self-noise monitoring system, being part of their SLEP. Seldom recognized but hugely critical nevertheless, are rubber sealants, O-rings, gaskets, etc., that are used to seal the various periscopes and retractable masts that every submarine operates. There have been past incidences of an otherwise fully-operational submarine being rendered unseaworthy for the lack of rubber sealing devices! Consequently, indigenous upgrades under the aegis of the Indian Rubber Board and the Indian Rubber Institute, are far more significant than most media analysts are aware. 


Even as the country awaits — with bated breath — the arrival of the Indian Navy’s Scorpènes, the process of upgrading the combat capability, safety and survivability of our existing sub-surface assets is continuing apace. The truth of the Indian Navy’s subsurface capability lies somewhat removed from the breathless Cassandran prophets of doom that currently crowd our media airwaves. Perhaps this is because of the abiding belief that bad news — even alarmist bad news — sells.  On the other hand, perhaps our countrymen and countrywomen should be considered mature enough to decide for themselves based upon the facts as they are.

Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan retired as Commandant of the Indian Naval Academy at Ezhimala. He is an alumnus of the prestigious National Defence College.

Featured Image: INS Khanderi gets launched at the Mazagon dock in Mumbai.(Kunal Patil/HT Photo)

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.

Skip to toolbar