Covert, deniable, versatile, and packing an ever bigger punch, modern submarines are the weapons platforms of choice for those navies which can afford them. It is not surprising, therefore, that both new build, and upgrade, submarine programmes are proliferating worldwide.

Since the end of the Cold War, navies which operate nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN) have expanded the envelope of operations of these exceptionally potent platforms. Previously focused largely upon locating and tracking potentially hostile submarines, particularly nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) carrying nuclear Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs), they now routinely operate in conjunction with surface warships. SSNs thereby provide greatly-enhanced surveillance, defence and attack capabilities for deployed task groups, supporting both blue water and littoral operations.

Royal Navy

The UK is one of only a handful of nations deploying SSNs and SSBNs. In terms of the former, the third of the Royal Navy’s new ‘Astute’ class SSN, HMS Artful, was commissioned in late March 2016. London has confirmed that a total of seven of the class will be built by BAE Systems in Barrow-in-Furness, northwest England, by 2024. The ‘Astute’ class replaces the legacy ‘Trafalgar’ class SSNs and have an underwater displacement of 7400 tonnes a length of 97 metres/m (318.2 feet/ft) and a beam of 11.3m (37ft.). Propulsion for the SSNs comes from a Rolls-Royce PWR2 pressurized water reactor, and is fitted with a pump-jet propulsor, enabling a maximum submerged speed of 30 knots (55.6 kilometres-per-hour).

Regarding the sensor fit of the ‘Astute’ class, they carry a Thales 2076 Stage-2 as well as CM010 non-penetrating optronic masts from the same manufacturer. HMS Artful is the first boat to be fitted with the BAE Systems’ Common Combat System (CCS), which is to be retrofitted to earlier examples of the class (HMS Astute and HMS Artful) that employs commercial-specification software. For armament, the boats carry Raytheon’s UGM-109E Tomahawk Block-IV surface-to-surface cruise missile and BAE Systems’ Spearfish heavyweight torpedoes. Four boats are still to enter service with the Royal Navy, notably HMS Audacious, HMS Anson, HMS Agamemnon and HMS Ajax. According to 2013 statements in the House of Commons, these vessels are expected to commission every two years between 2018 and 2024. There have been numerous cost revisions since the project commenced in 1997, with a series of British Ministry of Defence figures released from late 2011 onwards indicating that the total cost for the construction of the class is likely to be around $11.9 billion.

‘Astute’ class boats
The UK government recently confirmed that a total of seven ‘Astute’ class boats will be constructed by BAE Systems to replace the current ‘Trafalgar’ class. (BAE Systems)

US Navy

Alongside the Royal Navy, the US Navy operates SSNs and SSBNs. The US Navy is currently replacing its fleet of ‘Los Angeles’ class SSNs with new ‘Virginia’ class boats. A total of 48 of these are planned, with the build being shared between General Dynamics Electric Boat, and Huntington Ingalls Industries Newport News, with each of these boats expected to cost $2.7 billion per boat, according to a March report entitled Navy Virginia Class Attack Submarine Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress, written by Ronald O’Rourke and published by the US Congressional Research Service. In terms of the boats’ performance, a Knolls S9G nuclear reactor linked to a BAE Systems pump-jet enables a speed of at least 35 knots (64.8km/h), while twelve vertical-launch tubes house UGM-109E missiles and there are four tubes for Raytheon Mk. 48 torpedoes. An extremely comprehensive, highly classified, sonar outfit includes a Lockheed Martin AN/BQQ-10 active/passive bow-mounted array, as well as Lockheed Martin TB-34, Chesapeake Science RB-33 towed arrays, and side-mounted fibre optic arrays. To date, twelve boats have been commissioned, the most recent, the USS John Warner, being commissioned on 1 August 2015. Meanwhile, the USS Illinois was launched on 10 October 2015 and, judging by the time taken to commission previous boats, should be commissioned this September. As of December 2008, five other boats have been ordered, four of which—the USS Washington, USS Colorado, USS Indiana and USS South Dakota—are under construction, with a fifth, the USS Delaware on order. Based on the programmes’ existing milestones to date, these first four boats could be launched in circa May, September, November and October 2017 with commissioning under one year from these dates. The USS South Dakota has not yet commenced construction.

‘Virginia’ class SSNs
The US Navy’s ‘Virginia’ class SSNs are replacing the existing ‘Los Angeles’ class SSNs, and are designed for both littoral and deep sea operations. Production is likely to continue until at least 2043. (US Navy)

France

Like the United States and the United Kingdom, France is renewing its SSN fleet via the procurement of DCNS’ ‘Barracuda’ class with the Suffren, the first of a projected six new 5300 tonne-displacement family for the Marine Nationale (French Navy) now under construction. The Suffren is expected to be commissioned in 2017, with the final boat, the De Grasse, commissioning in 2029. A 2013 French Senate estimate put the cost of the entire programme at about $7.87 billion. These boats use an Areva-Technatrome K-15 nuclear reactor and pump-jet propulsion, giving an underwater speed of at least 25 knots (46km/h). Weapons carried by the vessel include MBDA’s SCALP (Système de Croisière Autonome à Longue Portée–Emploi Général/General Purpose Autonomous Long-Range Cruise Missile System) Submarine-Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM), MBDA’s SM-39 Block-2 Exocet Anti-Ship Missile (AShM) and DCNS’ F21 heavyweight torpedoes. The vessel’s weapons systems, sensors and tactical information is handled by the class’ DCNS/Thales SYCOBS battle management system, which integrates all sensors (including Thales’ S-Cube integrated sonar suite, and Seaclear mine and obstacle avoidance sonar, plus two Sagem optronics masts), the signal processing of downloaded external tactical data, and the launch and control of weapons as well as communications and navigation systems.

Russia

The first of the new ‘Yasen’ class of SSNs for the Russian Navy, Severodvinsk, was commissioned, after many delays resulting from funding problems, in June 2014, its construction at the Sevmash shipyard having commenced in 1993. The second of class is due to enter service in 2016 with five more planned, four of which, the Kazan, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk and Arhangelsk, are under construction. The 14021-tonne submarine with a length of 120m (393.7ft) and a beam of 15m (49.2ft) features a KPM pressurised water reactor, giving a top submerged speed of 35 knots (64.8km/h), with the submarine having reportedly been tested to a depth of 600m (1969ft). The vessel’s weapons fit includes eight vertical launchers are able to fire NPO Mahinostroyeniya P-800 Oniks AShMs, Novator 3M-54 Klub-S family and Raduga OKB Kh-101 SLCMs. Eight 650mm and two 533mm torpedo tubes, slanted due to the size of the bow spherical sonar, are fitted with each boat costing an estimated $1.6 billion.

SSKs

‘Kilo’ class SSKs
‘Kilo’ class SSKs are currently in service with eight nations. The boats continue in production, with Algeria being a customer for the latest ‘Project 636M Kilo’ class. (US Navy)

Away from the nuclear domain, an increasing emphasis is being placed on diesel electric submarines (SSK) by the lead naval players in the Middle East and North Africa. For example, two Rubin Design Bureau ‘Project 636E Kilo’ class submarines are due to be delivered to the Algerian National Navy in 2018, joining four earlier ‘Project 636M Kilo’ and ‘Project 877EKM’ class boats. The main role of Rubin’s ‘Kilo’ class family is anti-shipping and anti-submarine operations in relatively shallow waters, and the submarines are reputedly very quiet, the main propulsion shaft speed having been reduced to provide a substantial reduction in the acoustic signature. Furthermore, an Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) ‘plug in’ for these boats Kilos has been developed, but there have been no reports that the Algerian boats will be so fitted. AIP uses fuel cells, combined with the means to generate oxygen to enable boats which are so equipped to remain underwater for considerable periods of time, and also to run very quietly, given that they are not dependent on the cooling pumps which can generate a considerable amount of noise. The first of these two boats are to be delivered by the end of 2018. 

Also boosting its underwater capabilities is the Egyptian Navy. Egypt’s existing submarine inventory consists of four ageing Krasnoya Sormovo Shipyard ‘Romeo’ class boats, upgraded in the 1990s, which are capable of firing US-supplied Boeing UGM-84 Harpoon family AShMs. These boats are now being replaced, with the first of a planned four ‘Type 209’ class SSKs, being constructed by ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS), having been launched in December 2015. Previous boats of this type have featured an Atlas Elektronik ISUS-90 integrated sensor underwater system, a non-hull-penetrating mast, as well as Atlas Elektronik CSU-90 hull-mounted passive and active search-and-attack sonar and flank sonar arrays.

Israel

Israel, meanwhile, is emerging as a major underwater power, as part of a build-up of its naval forces precipitated by the need to protect its vast new offshore gas resources in the Mediterranean. Progressively entering service with the Israeli Navy is a class of three advanced ‘Dolphin II’ class SSKs being constructed by TKMS’ Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft subsidiary. This programme, with a reported total cost of $1.8 billion is being part-subsidised by the German government. The first two boats, Tannin and Rahav, are already in Israeli hands, and the third is due to be delivered in 2017. These highly-classified boats feature sophisticated AIP technology, which enables a submerged speed of 25 knots submerged. Armament options include Atlas Elektronik DM-2A4 Seehake wire-guided torpedoes and Boeing UGM-84C AShMs, as well as LFK-Lenkflugkorpersysteme Triton anti-helicopter missiles. The boats have six 533mm and four 650mm diameter torpedo tubes; the larger tubes can launch both cruise missiles, and deliver naval commandoes from Israel’s maritime Special Forces, Flotilla 13, as well as torpedoes.

Australia

Looking further East the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), a very experienced SSK operator, strategically situated, with strong professional links to both European and Asian navies, is committed to both a major upgrade of its existing inventory of trouble-plagued ‘Collins’ boats, and a submarine replacement programme. According to Peter Coates, a very experienced Australian submarine warfare analyst, “The diesel engines are likely to need particular attention, while there is a fundamental problem to be addressed with the fuel tanks, in that they are not designed to cope with the highly saline water in which the ‘Collins’ boats have to operate.” ASC, builders of the RAN’s current six ‘Collins’ class submarines, are going to be heavily engaged over the next decade with new surface combatant programmes. The company will therefore only have very limited capacity to devote to the ‘Collins’ upgrade programme, which is likely also to involve improvements to the submarines’ batteries, combat platform, communications systems and sonars. A senior RAN source told Armada, “The politically sensitive option of having some of the boats refitted in Sweden, from where their design originated, is being explored.” The use of Spanish shipbuilder Navantia to construct the hulls of the RAN’s two new ‘Canberra’ class amphibious assault ships attracted much criticism from politicians and others who maintained that, for security and economic reasons, all the work on the ships should have been done in Australia. Tendering out probably costly, and technologically advanced, work on Australian submarines to a foreign yard would, therefore, very likely be strongly attacked by both opposition politicians and trade unions.

Mr. Coates confirms that for the replacement submarine programme, DCNS is likely to be pitching a boat of about 5300 tonnes underwater displacement. Drawing upon both ‘Barracuda’ and ‘Scorpene’ SSN and SSK technology, TKMS a ‘Type 216’ class variant of about 4300 tonnes, and a development of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries/Kawasaki Heavy Industries’ ‘Soryu’ class SSK which will probably feature rapid-charge, high energy density, lithium ion battery power technology. Some senior sources within the RAN told Armada that the service is “about 60 percent inclined” towards the Japanese option at present, but rivals are fighting hard for the contract. The Australian government’s recent Defence White Paper put the currently predicted likely total cost of the programme to build twelve submarines at $37.9 billion. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull confirmed earlier this year that despite previous more optimistic predictions, the first new submarine will not be available before 2027. Mr. Turnbull asserted that this did not represent a delay, as the previous predictions were never realistic. The RAN might, therefore, be facing a medium-term decline in its submarine capabilities, a development with potential implications for the regional balance of power.

Collins class
The operational availability of the six-strong Collins class has been poor, due to personnel shortfalls and technical problems. They are slated for a major upgrade programme and eventual replacement by up to twelve new-build SSKs. (Royal Australian Navy)

Latin America

Away from Australasia, looking towards South America, arguably the most important acquisition in the region is being performed by the Marinha do Brasil (Brazilian Navy), the region’s leading naval power. The fleet currently operates five ‘Type 209’ class SSKs, and is co-operating with DCNS to both revamp its conventional submarine capabilities, with a new class of four SSKs based on the company’s ‘Scorpene’ class design, and to join that elite group of nations which operate nuclear-powered boats. French news agency Viadeo in 2010 reported that the total value of the contract is $9.3 billion. “I can confirm that the Scorpene submarines will be equipped with F21 heavyweight torpedoes, and also the new generation DCNS CANTO countermeasures system,” said Marion Bonnet, head of media relations at DCNS. “Anti-ship missiles are another likely fit,” she added, although it has not been revealed which AShMs may equip the boats. The first Brazilian ‘Scorpene’ class boat is in build, using mainly French-supplied components, at ItaguaI on the southern Brazilian cost, where a new base for submarines is also being built. Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva stated that Brazil needed a nuclear submarine capability to provide long term security for Brazil’s vast coastline, and offshore energy resources. It is likely that today’s senior politicians also have an eye on their country’s future national status and influence, particularly possible permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council. 

USS Alexandria
The US Navy’s USS Alexandria (foreground) sails with the Brazilian Navy’s Tikana, with both boats to be replaced in the near future. (US Navy)

Brazil’s projected nuclear-powered submarine is likely to displace about 4000 tonnes submerged. A Marinha do Brazil design, using a Brazilian 2131-R Pressurized Water Reactor was released in 2013. A model of the design showed the reactor positioned amidships, with 8 torpedo tubes at the bow. Construction of Brazil’s nuclear boat, which has been allocated the name Alvare Alberto, was scheduled to begin in 2015, but there have been no reports that this has yet commenced. DCNS will assist with hull technology and construction, and with non-nuclear internal technologies. Admiral Eduardo Barcellar Leal Ferreira, the head of the Brazilian Navy, recently confirmed that priority is being given to the nuclear submarine programme. Nevertheless, Brazil’s current economic and political woes, as well as the filing last year of corruption charges against Othon Luiz Pinheiro da Silva, a retired Admiral, and head of Brazil’s state nuclear power company, are likely to hinder the country’s submarine ambitions.

‘Scorpene’ class submarines
‘Scorpene’ class submarines, designed by DCNS are in service with four nations, and a project to assemble four in Brazil, in co-operation with DCNS, is underway. (US Navy) 

Summary

Globally, national concerns over maritime sovereignty, offshore energy resources, and the protection of sea lines of communication, continue to ratchet up, in parallel with continuing advances in submarine performance and capability. It therefore seems inevitable that the construction of new submarines, and the upgrading of existing boats, will continue to see substantial growth.

by Trevor Hollingsbee

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