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The Battle of Locust Point: An Oral History of the First Autonomous Combat Engagement

Fiction Topic Week

By David R. Strachan

TOP SECRET/NOFORN

The following classified interview is being conducted per the joint NHHC/USNI Oral History Project on Autonomous Warfare. This is the first of an eight-part series with Admiral Jeremy B. Lacy, USN (Ret), considered by many to be the father of autonomous undersea warfare, where we discuss the development of the Atom-class microsubmarine, and its role in the first combat engagement of the autonomous era, the Battle of Locust Point.

November 17, 2033

Annapolis, Maryland

Interviewer: Lt. Cmdr. Hailey J. Dowd, USN


The last twenty-five years have witnessed extraordinary developments in naval warfare. Ever smaller, smarter, more lethal vehicles have revolutionized the way navies fight, and the way nations project power beyond their borders. Historians agree that the genesis of this “micronaval revolution” can be traced to the year 2016, when a disabled Russian Istina-class microsubmarine was recovered off the coast of Cape Charles, Virginia. The Chesapeake Bay Incident, as it became known, was a harbinger of things to come, for just ten weeks later, as crowds descended on Baltimore Harbor for Fleet Week and the commissioning of the U.S. Navy’s newest destroyer, USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000), Russian and U.S. microsubmarines would square off just beneath the surface in what would be the first combat engagement of the autonomous era, the Battle of Locust Point.

Historians also agree that the micronaval revolution can be traced to a single individual, an individual whose name, like Hyman Rickover, is virtually synonymous with the bold thinking that has come to define the modern U.S. Navy.

Admiral Jeremy Baynes Lacy, USN (ret.) graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1989, earning a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering. He served at sea aboard the USS Pennsylvania (SSBN 735), USS Henry M. Jackson (SSBN 730), USS Springfield (SSN 761), and the USS Pogy (SSN 647), deploying to the North Atlantic, Arctic, and Western Pacific, as well as conducting numerous strategic patrols. Ashore, Lacy earned a Masters Degree from the Naval Postgraduate School in Naval/Mechanical Engineering, and served as Major Program Manager for Undersea Project 7, the Atom-class microsubmarine program. Following his work on the Atom-class, he established and commanded Strikepod Group (COMPODGRU) 1, eventually serving as Commander, Strikepod Forces, Atlantic (COMPODLANT). His personal decorations include the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit (three awards), the Meritorious Service Medal (two awards), the Joint Service Commendation Medal, the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal (five awards), and Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal (two awards), in addition to numerous unit and campaign awards.

Admiral Lacy is currently enjoying his “retirement” as the Corbin A. McNeill Endowed Chair in Naval Engineering at the United States Naval Academy. He was interviewed at his home in Annapolis, Maryland.

Would you tell us a little of your background? How did you end up in the Navy?

I was born and raised in the rural New Jersey hamlet of Port Murray, nestled among cornfields and cow pastures many people can’t believe exist the Garden State. My mother was a secretary at the local elementary school, and my father managed a printing plant just outside New York City. He grew up dirt poor on a farm in New Hampshire without a whole lot of options, so he enlisted in the Navy the day after he graduated from high school. After basic, he ended up in crypto school in California, then a Naval Security Group detachment in Turkey where he eavesdropped on Soviet communications. When I was little he used to make these veiled references here and there to his time in the service, but he never elaborated on anything. He took his secrecy oath very seriously, and it wasn’t until the mid 80s, when I was a curious teenager, that he felt comfortable opening up about what he did. I was totally captivated by the stories he would tell, and the meaning that the work gave him. As luck would have it, I was a pretty good student, and managed to get accepted to the Academy. Fast forward four years and I’ve got a degree in mechanical engineering, and five years of submarine service waiting for me.

Why did you choose submarines?

Never in a million years did I expect to end up choosing submarines. It was the time of Top Gun, and boy I was gonna fly jets! But during my summer service orientation I went for a cruise on the Nebraska, and that was it. I was hooked, and fifteen months later I’m on the Pennsylvania for my junior tour.

Would you say it was the submarine service that spurred your interest in unmanned vehicles?

Oh, definitely. When I was on the Pogy we worked with some very early prototypes sent up from [Naval Undersea Warfare Center] Newport for arctic testing. Nothing too sexy – ocean survey, bathymetry. But I guess at that time I was intrigued with the idea, and started imagining the possibilities, the implications. What if these things could think for themselves? What if they were weaponized?  And what if the bad guys had them? After my tour on Pogy, I ended up at the Naval Postgraduate School working on my masters, and actually wrote my thesis on UUVs – a survey of current architecture, an examination of future technologies and how these could be leveraged for unmanned systems, and how UUVs could be integrated into fleet operations.

Legend has it DOD wanted to classify it.

[Laughs] Well, not really. It was nothing more than a skillful integration of open sources, some analysis, and extrapolation. It did manage to attract some interest, though.

From ONR? DARPA?

Well, actually it was the folks at Newport who reached out to me initially. My advisor at NPS was friendly with the CO there, and at the time – around early 1999 – they were working with APL, SPAWAR, and some other folks on crafting the Navy’s UUV master plan. So they called me up, asked if I’d like to come aboard, and next thing I know I’m on a plane to Rhode Island.

What was your contribution to the 2000 UUV Master Plan?

Well, by the time I entered on duty, the bulk of the heavy lifting was pretty much complete. But I did manage to contribute some perspective on the vision, CONOPS (especially in ASW), as well as technology and engineering issues. But where I think I added the most value was regarding the feasibility of the SWARM [Shallow Water Autonomous Reconnaissance Modules] concept – the idea of utilizing large numbers of small AUVs to create a dynamic, autonomous sensor grid for wide area mine countermeasures.

Was the SWARM concept a precursor to the Strikepod?

Conceptually, yes. It was an early articulation of an undersea battle group, the idea of numerous autonomous vehicles cooperating together to complete a mission. But while the idea was entirely feasible, I felt that SWARM was rather narrow in its scope. As an MCM platform, I suppose it made sense, with scores of small, relatively inexpensive nodes spread across hundreds of square miles, air dropped from B-2s or Hornets. But what we needed was an entirely new class of vehicle that was flexible, adaptive, and capable of carrying out multiple missions, whether in networks of two or two thousand. So, then, I guess you could say that SWARM inspired both Strikepods and the Atom-class submarine, but for different reasons.

Can you talk about how the Atom-class program originated, and how the Strikepod concept evolved?

I’d been having discussions with some of the Newport and MIT folks while working on the Master Plan, and we were all pretty much in agreement on the core elements of a UUV pod structure – connectivity, redundancy and expendability. We were also in agreement that small is beautiful, if you will, but all of the work on miniaturization was being done in the universities. Long story short, not only did ONR find the funding, but agreed to bring the university people on board, and next thing we have a lovely, windowless compartment in the basement of the Navy Lab. And we had a nice, nondescript name: Undersea Project 7.

It was an exciting time, and it was a genuine privilege working with some of the brightest minds around, people who could have easily been making five times their salaries at Google, or JP Morgan. 

The technology was complex, and the work could be pretty tedious. Lots of highs and lows – two steps forward one step back. For some of the top brass it was hard to justify the expense, pouring all that money into a system that seemed unnecessarily complicated, and, for them, pure science fiction. Do we really need roaming schools of killer fish? Don’t forget, these were guys who came from the era of SOSUS. But that’s what we were offering – and more. A smart SOSUS that could be deployed anywhere, at any time.

We envisioned three variants – one for command & control, or what we called the Rogue, one for navigation and communications, which we called the Relay, and a third that could physically attach itself to vessels, mines, infrastructure. This we called the Remora. Together they could be organized in networks of any size, undersea strike groups capable of communicating with each other and, via the Relay, surface assets and ashore bases.

The Atom-class was under development for nearly fifteen years. Were you at all aware of what was happening with adversary developments, and did that play a role in the design?

Absolutely, and somewhat.  Over time, I became increasingly involved with the intelligence side of things – collection guidance, and analysis. There came a point where I was ping-ponging pretty regularly between Carderock and Suitland, especially by the late 2000s when we were really stepping up our efforts. We were well aware of Chinese interest in unmanned systems, and around 2010 we started receiving reports about the Shāyú program. We were also keeping close tabs on some tech transfer between North Korea and Iran, something reminiscent of their Yono and Ghadir cooperation. There was a real sense of urgency, that we needed to be out-innovating and out-classing our adversaries if we were going to stay ahead of the curve. But we believed strongly in the Atom and Strikepods, and while it was important to know what the other guys were up to, we didn’t let it distract us from our own vision.

The most intriguing stuff was the HUMINT coming out of Rubin [Central Design Bureau for Marine Engineering] – concerning a Project S3, or “Istina” – references to unmanned systems, miniaturization, and a breakthrough in energy production. And then there were reports of Russian vessels showing up unexpectedly during our boomer patrols. They seemed to just know where we were. The counterintelligence guys were in overdrive – this was eerily familiar to the red flag that plagued Richard Haver before the Walker ring was exposed. So we couldn’t just stand there and scratch our heads. But everything checked out internally. So, if there was no security breach, then, how could they know?

So, I started compiling data, and mapped it all out. CIA and DIA both believed it could be evidence of a non-acoustic sensor of some kind, and while this was certainly plausible, the evidence was mostly hearsay. We had imagery of SOKS sensors, and journal articles, and public statements by high ranking officials, but no hard data to substantiate the existence of a viable, working platform. We were, however, receiving quality product on the Istina program that suggested the Russians had developed some kind of miniaturized naval platform capable of lurking silently off Groton or King’s Bay, then trailing our boats to expose their positions to the Russian Fleet.

But you couldn’t sell it?

[Laughs] Well, no, which, admittedly, was pretty frustrating. But something that gets lost in all the scandals and the slanted reporting is the commitment to analytic rigor that permeates the intelligence community. These folks understand that their work has a direct impact not only on U.S. policy, but ultimately on human lives. The difference between right and wrong can mean the difference between life and death, and they carry that burden every day. So, no, I couldn’t sell it. And it was back to the drawing board.

And then Cape Charles happened.

And then Cape Charles happened.

Can you tell us about that day?

I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a Saturday morning, one of those heavy, dewy August mornings in D.C. I was out getting in my run before the heat of the day, when I get a call from Chandra [Reddy, the ONI liaison for Undersea Project 7]. He tells me I need to come in to the office. We were working weekends pretty regularly, but I’d blocked out that day for a round of golf with my dad. I kindly remind him of this, and all he says is, “Jay – we’ve got something.” An hour later I’m on an SH-60 out of Andrews with Chandra and four engineers from S&T, tracking the Potomac out to the Bay. 

They briefed me enroute. Apparently the Coast Guard in Cape Charles, Virginia got a call around 7:30 that morning from a fisherman about a mile off the coast who said he came across something that “looked military.” They send out an RB-M, and bring back what they believe is a U.S. Navy prototype submersible. They phone it in, and ninety minutes later we’re putting down on a grassy airfield in the middle of nowhere, where we’re greeted by an earnest seaman recruit who proceeds to leadfoot it all the way to the station.

It was being kept in a back room, sitting on a table under a blue tarp. When I first saw it, I thought it was just a radio-controlled sub, like someone’s weekend garage project had gone astray. It was basically a miniaturized Oscar II, maybe six or seven feet long, which I suppose shouldn’t be surprising, since the Oscar was built for capacity, and why go to the trouble of designing and developing a whole new hull form when you can just miniaturize one that’s already in the inventory? 

We didn’t know how long it had been disabled, or if the Russians were even aware. We did know that the [Vishnya-class intelligence ship] Leonov had been lurking offshore, and there were a couple of fishing boats we were keeping an eye on near Norfolk, but for all we knew the handlers were right nearby, somewhere on shore. We had to assume they would come looking, so we had to act quickly.

We cracked it open and took a look right there on the table. The guys from S&T were like pathologists, very careful and thorough. One of them had a video camera, which I eventually realized was patched in to the White House Situation Room. 

I don’t think I need to tell you that the intelligence value was immeasurable, a holy grail. It confirmed, of course, what I’d been speculating all along, but it also showed us just how far along the Russians were. The propulsion system alone was a quantum leap for them, and was very similar to what we had been developing for the Atom.

Too similar?

I’d say strikingly similar. Maybe alarmingly so. But there was so much information floating around in the public domain – academia, scientific journals – so much private sector R&D going on, the design could have originated anywhere. For sure there was plenty for the counterintelligence guys to lose sleep over, but at that moment we had bigger fish to fry.

Did you bring it back to Washington for further analysis?

Well, actually, no.

You see, during the autopsy, one of the tech guys notices something – a small explosive charge right against the hull, wired to the CPU. The damn thing had an autodestruct! It was right out of Mission Impossible, but it obviously had failed to activate. We’d been toying with just such an idea for the Atom-class – a small blast to punch a hole in the hull and allow it to disappear into the depths, then ping like a black box for eventual retrieval.

Chandra’s on the secure phone, presumably with the Situation Room, when he turns to me, pointing at the Istina. “They want us to blow it,” he says. “They want us to put it back.” Immediately I think – are they crazy? This is the biggest intelligence haul since K-129, and they want to just dump it?  But then I realize – of course!  The Bay is shallow enough that if the Russians come calling, they will expect to find it, and if they can’t, they’ll have to assume we did. We needed them to believe we were clueless, so we had to let them find it. That way they’d never know what we knew.

So we closed it up, drove it back out into the Bay, and scuttled it.

Was it then that the President authorized Operation Robust Probe?

The biggest question on everyone’s mind was: Is this an isolated penetration, or is it part of a larger operation? Prudence required that we take action to sanitize the Bay, so yes, Robust Probe was ordered, and the Navy immediately mobilized.

But as urgent as the situation was, there was also a need for discretion. We couldn’t exactly fill the Chesapeake Bay with destroyers. Even an increased presence of Coast Guard or small patrol craft would likely not go unnoticed, at least by the Russians. So, within hours the Navy had cobbled together a flotilla of private watercraft manned by cleared contractors and sailors in civies. They fanned out across the Bay, banging away with dipping sonar, fish finders, and whatever they could use.

Fortunately, we’d been putting Alpha, the first operational Strikepod, through its paces, and had been having a lot of success. So we fast-tracked sea trials, put a crew together, rigged up a mobile command post – the very first Strikepod Command – in what looks like a plain T.V. news van, and we’re in business. 

Within twenty-four hours Alpha had detected another Istina lurking just off Thomas Point Light. It was an odd mixture jubilation – knowing that the Atom-class was a success – and dread, the weight of knowing of what was at hand, that the Russians had not only designed, developed and deployed a sophisticated micro AUV, but they were using it to brazenly violate our territorial waters.

Was there any other reaction from the White House?

The President immediately convened the National Security Council, and, yes, yours truly was ordered to attend and provide the briefing. He was not happy. How did we not see this coming? I explained how we were aware of Russian efforts, but that our coverage had been spotty. And there were no indications that the Russians were on the brink of deploying a new vehicle to the fleet, much less inserting it into U.S. territorial waters. 

I remember how surreal it felt, sitting there in the Situation Room, the looks on the faces around me. 

Fear?

Not fear. More like a mixture of deep concern and disbelief as if no one could wrap his head around the fact that this was actually happening. And I think everyone in that room knew that things were about to change, that all of our theorizing, prognosticating, and preparing for the future of naval warfare was coming to a head. The future had arrived, right in our back yard. 

The prevailing opinion in the room was that we should move immediately to destroy it and contact the Russian government. The guys from CIA made a compelling argument for restraint – one with which I concurred – that this was more an opportunity than a threat. There was no reason to believe this was Russia’s opening move against the United States, and that if anything it was the latest example of resurgent Russian bravado and Putin’s longing for the Cold War days. This was an opportunity to gather as much intelligence as possible on a new foreign weapons platform. But there was also concern that, if weaponized, the Istinas could be used to stage a terror attack and sow further insecurity and political unrest in the United States. In the end, though, we managed to convince the President to hold off, but if at any point it was determined that there existed a threat to life or property, we would have to destroy it.

Did you personally have any theories as to its intentions?

Not many. There was Aberdeen [Proving Ground]. Theoretically an Istina could get in close enough to extract some SIGINT or MASINT, depending on the vehicle’s sensor capabilities. But who really knew? Maybe the Russians were just interested in ship spotting, or counting crabs.

And then it just kind of hit me. It was September – the following month was Fleet Week in Baltimore. The Navy would be showcasing its wares –warships, the Blues – which normally wouldn’t be such a big deal, except there was something else that year.

Zumwalt? 

Exactly. Zumwalt was on the agenda that year for commissioning. She’d be sailing up the Bay, and then docked for several days at Locust Point. We weren’t concerned with an Istina attacking Zumwalt, per se, but we knew that there was much to be had intelligence-wise. And while we had no desire to enable a Russian intelligence operation, we also wanted to collect as much as possible of our own.

When we examined the Istina in Cape Charles, we didn’t discover a warhead of any kind, so we assumed any others wouldn’t be weaponized either. And even if they were, it was unlikely that a single Istina could inflict any meaningful damage on an armored warship, unless the Russians had managed to develop a super compact, high yielding explosive, but there was no intelligence indicating such. Perhaps a group of Istinas detonating simultaneously could cause a problem, enough to raise some eyebrows or even provoke a crisis, but it would take dozens to equal the yield of even a single torpedo.

It was a delicate, rapidly unfolding situation that was unlike anything we’d ever experienced in the modern era. Of course, we’d ventured into Soviet waters in manned submarines during the Cold War, at great risk to both human life and the delicate balance that defined the Cold War. But had Parche or Halibut been detected or attacked and sunk during Ivy Bells, it would have provoked a political crisis that may well have triggered World War III. Were the stakes just as high now? It was anyone’s guess.

Were you able to deploy additional Strikepods?

Yes. Alpha had been working like a charm, but then abruptly it loses contact with the Istina as it moves under a passing tanker, which was of course disappointing, but not entirely unexpected. In the meantime, we’d deployed two more six-ship Strikepods – Beta to cover the central Bay, and Gamma the southern region. It was a lot of territory to cover, but that constituted the sum total of our Atom-class fleet at the time. There were eight currently in various stages of production, but it would be at least a day or two before we could deploy them.

Pretty soon we get word that Gamma has detected something down near Bloodworth Island.  At first we figured we’d reacquired the original, but an analysis of the acoustic data revealed that it was actually a new vehicle. It was alarming, for sure, knowing that there were now at least two Russian microsubmarines lurking in the Chesapeake Bay.

We tracked it for about two days, and then Beta manages to reacquire Istina number one. About twelve hours later, Alpha detects not one, but two more right at the mouth of the Patapsco River. That’s when everyone’s hackles went up. This was no longer a counterintelligence operation. 

Operation Robust Probe becomes Robust Purge?

Correct. Once we realized that we were dealing with at least four Istinas in the Bay, and they were lingering in Zumwalt’s path, the time for just being sneaky was over. We needed to at the very least disrupt, if not outright destroy them. 

By now the eight new Atoms have come off the line, so we fit them each with a makeshift warhead of C4, designate them Remoras, and deploy them immediately – four for Alpha, which was now tracking two separate targets, and two each for Beta and Gamma. They would only be employed if we felt that there was an immediate threat to life or property.

In the meantime, Zumwalt, Leyte Gulf, and Jason Dunham, and the other ships arrive, and as they transit the Bay, the Istinas take up position about 500 meters astern. Once the ships turn into the Patapsco, though, they back off and assume a position just outside the mouth of the river. They linger there for about twelve hours, until we get a burst from Alpha: One of the Istinas is headed up river.

So now we have a decision to make. Alpha is tracking two separate vehicles. Do we order Alpha to pursue, and break off contact with one of them? Turns out Sea Rays and Boston Whalers aren’t particularly effective ASW platforms, and Strikepods Beta and Gamma were both busy with their own tracks, well to the south, too far away to assist Alpha in time.

Then one of our brilliant engineers suggests splitting Alpha pod. We could repurpose one of the Remoras as a Rogue, and assign it an armed Remora and a Relay for coms. The engineers get on it, and in about fifteen minutes a small splinter pod breaks off and starts trailing the Istina up the Patapsco.  Things get increasingly tense as it nears the Key Bridge, and we decide that if the Istina begins moving toward the bridge supports, we would have no choice but to destroy it.

After a few anxious moments it passes under the bridge without incident, and continues on a path toward Locust Point, where the warships are docked. Word comes down from the Sit Room: The Istinas now present a clear and present danger, so immediately we order the splinter pod to attack. A minute later a Remora detonates about five meters below the surface, and we watch as it and the Istina disappear from the tactical display. Beta and Gamma attack as well, sending their respective contacts, as well as two Remoras, to the bottom of the Bay.

And just like that it was over?

It was over.

The Strikepods and surface vessels continued to prosecute Robust Purge until Zumwalt and the other ships made it safely to the Atlantic. By all accounts, Baltimore Fleet Week, including the commissioning of the Navy’s newest destroyer, came off without a hitch. No one had any idea that the first decisive battle of a new era in naval warfare had just occurred within throwing distance of Fort McHenry.

What were the takeaways?

Well, we had terabytes of data to analyze, of course, but perhaps even more importantly, there were myriad political, security, and even philosophical questions to consider. What exactly were AUVs? Were they vessels? Weapons? In a way they were like spies, but rather than round them up and expel them, or put them in jail, we’d have to disrupt them, or even kill them.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway, though, was the realization that a new form of conflict was dawning. Submarines had of course always been characterized by stealth and secrecy, and had engaged in high risk cat-and-mouse games in order to stay ahead of the adversary. But now that submarines were unmanned, and, like their stealthy manned cousins, operated far from the prying eyes of the public, a kind of limited war was now possible, a war with little or no risk of escalation, or political fallout, and most importantly, no loss of human life. A war characterized by secrecy, anonymity, and non-attribution.

In other words, as we sit here today in my living room, in the year 2033, with the benefit of hindsight, our vision of AUVs as merely an extension of the Fleet’s eyes and ears was really rather primitive.

And only the beginning of the story.

[End Part I]

David R. Strachan is a writer living in Silver Spring, MD. His website, Strikepod Systems, explores the emergence of unmanned undersea warfare via real-time speculative fiction. Contact him at strikepod.systems@gmail.com.

Featured Image: Arctic Sub Base by Jon Gibbons (via Deviant Art)

Narco Submarines: A Problem That Will Not Sink

The Southern Tide

Written by Wilder Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“The security environment in Latin America and the Caribbean is characterized by complex, diverse, and non-traditional challenges to U.S. interests.” Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, before the 114th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee, 10 March 2016.

By Alejandro Sanchez

In the past year a number of narco submarines have been seized in several Latin American states. Narco submarines continue to be a problem as hemispheric security forces combat drug trafficking. Unfortunately for every narco sub that is seized, another is under construction. While recent successful operations should be applauded, combating narco subs needs a regional strategy of its own.

This commentary is a continuation of previous articles published by CIMSEC on this issue: “An Update on Narco Submarines and Maritime Law Enforcement Agencies’ Efforts to Thwart their Operational Effectiveness,” “Narco submarines: Drug Cartels’ Innovative Technology,” as well as the author’s “U.S. Southcom vs Caribbean Narco Pirates.” The incidents mentioned in this commentary will focus on events that have occurred over the past year. (The colloquial term “narco sub” will be utilized for these platforms, though we will later do a more thorough analysis of their characteristics.)

Recent Narco Sub Incidents

In recent months, several narco submarines have been seized in various Latin American states. For example, on 5 August, Ecuadoran marines located one in the Las Delicias area, close to the border with Colombia. For Colombia, a narco sub was seized in an operation by army and naval personnel in the San Juan and Baudó Rivers in the Choco department in late July. The platform, which was carrying approximately four tons of cocaine, was apparently manufactured by ELN rebels. The Colombian Navy explained that this was the first time a narco sub was operating in a river, and that it probably took some five to six months to be constructed. Not long after, in mid-August, the Colombian Navy located yet another narco sub, this time in the Nariño department and with the capacity to transport up to four tons of drugs. This one measured 14 meters, with a diesel motor and propellers, the Navy explained in a communiqué.

On the Ecuadorian Colombian border, the Colombian National Navy located and seized a submarine that had the capacity and autonomy to transport approximately five tons of cocaine. (Colombian National Navy photo)

Narco subs have also been located in Central America. For example, a narco sub, reportedly 16 meters in length and capable of transporting up to five tons of drugs, was found in Guatemala in mid-April. Months later, in late July, the Costa Rican Coast Guard found a similar illegal platform on a beach. Local authorities believe that the vessel, with the capacity to transport up to four tons of drugs, had a motor problem and was discarded by the crew, until it washed ashore and got stuck in the sand.

Catching Them At Sea

The aforementioned examples highlight one fact. So far, the vast majority of narco-platforms are captured in the mainland (meaning either on dry land or “docked” in some body of water), either before they depart or upon arriving to their destination.

As far as the author has been able to find, in the past couple of years, there have only been a couple of narco subs intercepted in open waters. One was in July 2015, when during a “joint operation, the U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, and assets from the Customs and Border Protection Office of Air and Marine, intercepted a “narco submarine” off the coast of El Salvador,” Business Insider explains. The platform was carrying over 16,000 pounds of cocaine.

U.S. Coast Guardsmen board a narco sub as part of a drug seizure in September 2016. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

More recently, in early September 2016, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Waesche intercepted a narco sub in the Pacific Ocean off the Central American coast. The Cutter reportedly launched two vessels and an armed helicopter in pursuit. U.S. personnel caught up with the sub, apprehended five suspects, and thwarted a scuttling attempt by pumping water out of the interior of the sub.” By preventing the sinking of the sub, the USCG seized more than 5,600 pounds of cocaine, with an estimated value of USD$73 million.

Who Finds The Narco Subs?

Nowadays, several Latin American and Caribbean navies and coast guards are undergoing a modernization process, which includes the acquisition of new platforms. For example, Colombia and Mexico are domestically manufacturing new fleets of patrol vessels. Christian Ehrlich, a director of intelligence for Riskop, a Mexican Strategic intelligence and risk control company explained to the author that  the Mexican Navy is in the process of adding Damen Sigma 10514 frigates to its fleet, “this will provide a decisive boost to Mexico’s Maritime Domain Awareness but unfortunately it will be some time before this system has an acceptable operational level” (construction for the first of the new frigates commenced in mid-August). Meanwhile The Bahamas is in the final stretch of its ambitious Sandy Bottom Project, via which it is obtaining a fleet of different patrol boats from Damen Group. Similarly, in late June IHS Jane’s reported that Louisiana-based shipbuilder Metal Shark and Damen will construct near coastal patrol vessels (NCPVs) for regional U.S. partners like “the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Guatemala.” It is worth noting that Mr. Ehrlich, remarked how Mexico possesses aircraft like CASA CN—235 and Beechcraft King Air 350ER for ISR; Colombia also possesses similar assets.

Nevertheless, in spite of more modern navies and coast guards, locating narco subs at sea continues to be a problem. In an interview with the author, Gustavo Fallas, a journalist for the Costa Rican daily La Nacion, explained that “[Costa Rica] depends on the Americans to combat [narco submarines]. In 2006 we detained a submersible with three tons [of drugs] and it was thanks to an American frigate. In 2012 we chased another one in the Caribbean, and it was also after the Americans alerted us. For those reasons it is vital to have U.S. aid to locate these platforms.” Mr. Fallas added that Costa Rica must create a shield (meaning more vessels, radars, personnel) to prevent drug traffickers from using the country as a warehouse or transit path for drugs.

Unfortunately, Randy Pestana, a policy analyst at Florida International University’s Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy, has a gloomy assessment about regional naval forces vis-à-vis narco subs. Mr. Pestana explained to the author how “relying on partner nations to stop, slow, or detain these shipments is difficult in itself as they do not have the necessary tools to do so unless provided by the U.S.” Of a similar opinion is Mr. Ehrlich, who stated to the author that “there isn’t a navy or coast guard in Central America with the [necessary platforms] to detect, follow and interdict [narco submarines].” 

In other words, Central American navies will continue to rely on the U.S. (be it SOUTCHOM or the Coast Guard) to monitor maritime areas in order to combat, among other threats, narco submarines. This is problematic, since, as Mr. Pestana remarked, even U.S. security agencies have limits to their abilities, particularly nowadays when the U.S. has other security operations and geopolitical concerns around the globe. Furthermore, there is the problematic and ever-present red tape, namely, “the inability of the U.S. to respond to an identified narco submarine without permission from higher leadership. This often led to the narco submarine to either get away, or move out of the U.S. areas of operation,” the FIU expert explained.

How To Find A Narco Sub

Locating a narco submarine at sea is a tricky business. In an interview with the author, Mario Pedreros, a retired Chilean Naval officer and an expert in airborne maritime patrol, provided an excellent analysis on this problem.

As previously mentioned, the term narco submarine is commonly utilized for these vessels, however they are not really submarines. As Mr. Pedreros explains, these platforms are semi-submersibles, meaning that they cannot go completely underwater, and if they can do so, it is for brief periods of time. (“Narco submarine” is still a catchier name than “narco-semi-submersible” though). However, even if these vessels cannot fully dive, they are nonetheless difficult to locate at sea. Mr. Pedreros explained how some of these platforms have electronic motors, which makes them more silent than diesel engines, making them harder to find with passive sonar. “When it comes to semi-submersibles, utilizing  sonar is not very efficient,” Mr. Pedreros concludes. Adding to the problem is that the vessel is pretty small, and “once at sea, the submersibles have 20 percent of their structure above the surface,” making them hard to pinpoint by radar.

A narco submarine found by the Costan Rican Coast Guard (MSP)

Mr. Pedreros recommended maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) as an ideal tool to combat narco submarines at sea, as these aircraft possess superior sensors and radars for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Obviously, locating the target is only part of the solution, because then it has to be intercepted. “The aircraft must work with together with a vessel to capture the submersible. In other words, there are three components in this process: an aircraft (MPA), a vessel, and a light boat that can board the submersible and detain the crew,” the retired Chilean Naval officer explained. As previously discussed, various Latin American and Caribbean navies are acquiring OPVs with attached light boats, while Colombia and Mexico have platforms for maritime patrol, fulfilling the requirements by Mr. Pedreros; what is needed is greater multinational support, apart from additional platforms. 

The Future of the Narco Sub

It would be naïve to assume that recent successful operations by regional security forces will convince drug traffickers to stop investing in narco submarines. There is simply too much money to be made in drugs, and the subs cost only around USD$1 million to manufacture. Even if five narco subs are stopped, drug traffickers only need one or two successful deliveries to make up for their losses.

Moreover, recently seized narco subs show they are becoming more technologically advanced, including bigger in size so they can transport greater quantities of contraband. The narco sub seized in mid-July in Choco had space for a crew of four, measured 9 meters in length by 4 wide, had radars, stabilizers, ballast weights and was powered by over 100 batteries, according to the Colombian daily El Colombiano.

Indeed, the (brief) history of narco subs shows a trend towards modernization, particularly as drug lords are always looking for new methods to transport drugs, from Cessna aircraft and go-fast boats during the Pablo Escobar era to drones and narco subs nowadays (though of course, narcos continue to utilize the former as well). Mr. Pestana drives this home remarking how “top drug traffickers are relatively smart and have a good grasp on technology and history.” Moreover, the attractive wages narco-organizations can afford to pay means that they can hire “former engineers or other trade workers,” as Mr. Pestana explains, to continuously improve previous designs.

Final Thoughts

From a scholarly point of view, the appearance of the narco sub is a fascinating development as it highlights drug traffickers’ ingenuity as they continuously think of new ways of transporting their contraband. Unfortunately, this represents an ongoing problem for regional security forces, as new narco subs become more technologically advanced. Unfortunately, even though many narco subs have been stopped, it only takes one successful trip to make a large profit.

In spite of several successful operations, combating narco submarines requires both a multiagency and multinational strategy of its own. Mr. Ehlrich stresses the necessity to disrupt the construction of these platforms (which requires cooperation between police and military units). As for when narco submarines are at sea, the Greater Central American region requires united front, such as a regional anti-narco submarine task force. By combining resources, in which member states can contribute platforms to create the three-platform interception teams that Mr. Pedreros described, this unit would ideally be more successful at locating narco subs at sea, and not just in inland waterways. This will decrease the region’s dependency on the U.S., which Mr. Pestana and Mr. Fallas highlighted.

Unfortunately, narco submarines are a problem that will not sink, hence new strategies are needed in order to combat them more efficiently.

 Alejandro Sanchez Nieto is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez

The author would like to thank the various experts that contributed to this commentary:

Christian J. Ehrlich, Director of Intelligence, Riskop; External Analyst, Mexican Navy

Gustavo Fallas, Journalist, La Nacion (Costa Rica)

Mario Pedreros, a retired Chilean Navy Officer, expert in aero-maritime patrol. He participated as a Tactical Coordinator Officer (TACCO) in different missions overseas onboard Chilean Navy P-3 Orion aircrafts. Missions include Anti Submarine Warfare, Anti Surface Warfare, Anti Terrorism missions and Search and Rescue operations. He is currently based in Washington, DC. doing consulting for several Defense and Security companies.

Randy Pestana, Policy Analyst, Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy, Florida International University

The views presented in this essay are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

Featured Image: Members of the Colombian Navy stand guard on a seized submarine built by drug smugglers in a makeshift shipyard in Timbiqui, Cauca department. Colombian authorities said the submersible craft was to be used to transport 8 tons of cocaine into Mexico. (REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga)

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

Conclusion

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.

References

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)

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)

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)

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

Sonars

  • 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. 

Conclusion

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)