Anti-submarine warfare - throwing away a vital capability
In typically restrained official words, the leaked report written by the MoD about the state of RN, states that "Anti-submarine capability is now below a "prudent minimum level". In a world where many countries are investing in new submarines, Britain, an island nation, is throwing away years of carefully acquired equipment, expertise and experience in hunting submarines. Two world wars graphically demonstrated how submarines could bring Britain close to defeat. Although it is hard to imagine a scenario where Britain is directly blockaded, it is not so hard to image how submarines could disrupt the flow of oil and goods that the UK is reliant on and come from all around the world. Our delicately balanced global economy relies on the continuous steady movement of merchant ships and even a few submarines, well handled, could cause major disruption. The UK might not starve but the economic effect could be catastrophic.
At the height of the cold war the RN was highly regarded as a world leader in ASW. Since WW2 the fleet had increasingly been developed to detect and destroy the huge Soviet submarine force. With the end of the cold war this capability, like the RN in general has been eroded. Today the RN has some top quality ASW assets but they are so scare that they will be almost ineffective. Submarines usually hide in the vastness of the oceans. Even with modern sonar that can detect submarines over great distances it is still imperative that there are plenty of 'platforms' (ships, submarines and aircraft) to cover these huge areas. Effective ASW is often a 'team effort' requiring ships and aircraft working in co-operation together.
The excellent type 2087 low frequency sonar. Seen here on the quarterdeck of HMS Westminster, the yellow array is lowered into the water when in use.
Quality but not quantityThe best ASW platforms are actually other submarines but the RN has just 9 nuclear powered SSNs and this number is set to fall further unless more Astute class submarines are ordered soon. The RN just 17 frigates (Surface escort ships designed originally for ASW but used in all sorts or roles). Of these some are in refit, maintenance or "extended readiness" (ie.as a cost saving measure they are laid up with reduced crew and not ready to put to sea). Some of the Type 23 frigates have been upgraded with the very latest low frequency sonar type 2087 which is effective in detecting modern ultra-quiet conventional subs .
The RN's other important ASW asset are the Merlin and Lynx helicopters which are currently undergoing further upgrades. However it was reported to Parliament recently that just 63 out of the 121 RN helicopters are operational showing a drastic decline in servicability rates, probably due to cost-cutting in maintenence and spares. The 2 carriers could also serve as ASW helicopter carriers but experience shows that 'high value' carriers are not best used to hunt submarines.
Like most skills, practice is key to success. With so few vessels available and a high tempo of operations the time for the dwindling number of RN crews to exercise ASW is decreasing. With ships needed for standing commitments such as the Persian Gulf and the Falklands there is precious little time to devote to lengthy ASW exercises. Without enough practice it is hard for the RN to keep ASW skills up to scratch and train (and retain) enough experienced ASW specialists. In addition the RN is reliant on foriegn navies to provide SSKs to practice against as it has none of its own.
The RAF has an important 'local' ASW role supporting the RN in hunting submarines around the UK coast, Atlantic and North Sea. The old MR2 Nimrod Maritime patrol aircraft used for ASW has been subject of a shambolic upgrade program (to the MR4 standard), plagued by the usual delays and cost over-runs, the RAF will now receive just 12 MR4 Nimrod aircraft for surveillance and ASW duties to cover thousands of square miles of ocean.
The modern SSK, small, quiet and hard to find. A serious threat to any surface ship.
The new threatRanged against the RN's tiny ASW forces are the new generation of submarines entering service all over the world. The majority are conventional submarines (SSKs), quiet, small, hard to detect and armed with a formidable array of powerful homing torpedoes and missiles. Developments in air independent propulsion (AIP) also mean that conventional submarines can now stay submerged and run at high speed for much longer making them more diffcult to track and destroy. China is also joining the small but exclusive club of nations operating nuclear-powered (SSNs) with long reach and high endurance. China proved it's increasing submarine potential by penetrating a US Navy carrier group undetected.
For most of the Cold War the RN and USN could usually rely on their superior sonar and quieter submarines to detect the inferior 'noisy' soviet submarines. Today modern submarines are much quieter and harder to detect. In a shooting war, the modern submarine would probably have a great advantage over any surface ship. Soviet submarines also had to pass through predictable 'choke' points' where NATO could begin tracking them. In today's unpredictable world it is hard to know exactly where the submarine threat would appear from.
Frederick Clark has set up a petition calling on the government to "equip all the Type 23s with towed array sonars and invent a new ASW helicopter" which you can sign here. The general gist of this petition that we need to invest properly in ASW is good, although with the upgrades to the already excellent, Merlin and Lynx helicopters (30 x Super Lyx and 30 x Merlin CSP) that are underway means there is not really a need to" invent a new ASW helicopter". Ideally additional new airfames would be ordered in addition to the upgrades. To really boost the ASW capabailites of the RN we need more Astue class submarines (4 ordered so far but at least another 4 are needed to maintain the existing strength). Also the Type 23 & Type 22s will need replacement in about 10 years, so design work and funding for a highly capable ASW platform should be started as a matter of urgency.