Are subs obsolete?

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Are subs obsolete?

This article on China's rush to buy new subs seems to say that they are wasting their money on prestige toys....

In World Wars I and II, first-generation submarines employed simple torpedoes and large-caliber anti-aircraft machine guns as their main weapons. During the Cold War, submarines could also equipped with cruise missiles or ballistic missiles that could be armed with nuclear, chemical or biological warheads in order to enhance their lethality. Submarines thus became mobile launching pads for ballistic missiles at sea. However, surface ships also have missile-launching capabilities, and in fact, have proved to be much more militarily effective and cheaper than submarines.

The invention of radar and subsequently satellite surveillance technology from the United States, meant that the advantages of being submerged were negated totally. Surface ships are easily able to detect submarines if they are equipped with such technology, which is not excessively expensive and is cost-effective.

The ability to travel underwater thus becomes a naval liability, as nautical design meant that submarines might not be heavily armed, nor as heavy, as surface warships. With the invention of depth charges, and then anti-submarine torpedoes, surface warships have become more than a match for submarines simply by having superior firepower, and the option of calling in air support to bomb the menacing submarine.

Submarines are sometimes used in reconnaissance roles of locating enemy ships, but aircraft and surface ships are better and more effective choices. In the case of the US Navy, with its satellite technology, US submarines have become redundant and unnecessary for this task.

Thus, the only combat role left to the submarine is that of harassing defenseless civilian ships and naval support vessels. However, international maritime laws governing the conduct of naval warfare prohibits hitting certain ships, such as hospital ships, supply ships bearing humanitarian aid, as well as ships from countries neutral in a conflict. The international outrage and diplomatic repercussions of states violating this rule far outweigh the strategic advantages of attacking such surface ships.

So that leaves submarines theoretically with only insignificant targets, such as patrol boats and enemy submarines to attack. They could, of course, try to attack major combat vessels but as stated, advanced technology makes submarines far from effective.

In truth, modern maritime security problems lie in the threat posed by non-state actors such as pirates and maritime terrorists, not from other conventional state navies. Early detection and pursuit capabilities are much more important than stealth and firepower in maritime patrolling work. In the case of the Malacca Strait, which is jointly patrolled by navies from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, visible and above-board naval activities and trust among the nations are the more necessary to achieve naval objectives, deterring and capturing pirates and maritime terrorists. In this respect too, submarines are not useful; their underwater operations become redundant to those of surface ships; their presence in the jointly patrolled waters may arouse the suspicion of other nations.

In practice, submarines in a naval arsenal play more of a deterrent role and are prestige symbols of national pride, signaling that a state has reached a sophisticated level of national wealth and military technology. Submarines are like the luxury goods owned by states, stylish but of little practical use. A case in point is the arms race for submarines by Taiwan and China. In a potential future conflict, the most likely battleground would be the narrow Taiwan Strait. Yet, with its shallow seabed, and with such close proximity of coastal bases, aircraft and other surface vessels, the Taiwan Strait is the last place a submarine should be. Indeed, if hostilities break out, any submarine found in the Taiwan Strait would quickly be reduced to mincemeat by the the enemy's concentrated firepower.

The brutal and illegal practice of the German Kriegsmarine submarines, which destroyed numerous merchant ships during the two World Wars, has not been forgotten and has served as a classic lesson of effective submarine warfare to those rogue nations undeterred by international opinion. However, more heavily armed surface ships provide better protection for unarmed ships by providing escort. But in practice, the ratio of combat vessels to merchant or support vessels is far smaller, making the policy of naval escort not very feasible. Thus, submarines could help offset this ratio, should a need for naval escort arise.

Other than as a deterrent and as an occasional naval escort, it is hard to imagine what other use there is for submarines in a world where conflicts are increasingly becoming land-based and the security landscape of nations is moving more towards unconventional, low-intensity wars and terrorism. Like cavalry or chariots, the submarine is fast joining the ranks of obsolete weapons in the history of warfare.
By netchicken: posted on 28-10-2004

This was written by someone who is grotesquely unfamiliar with the realities of naval warfare. If you will check the news recently a chinese sub got in on a US naval exercise and got within torpedo range for the USS Kitty Hawk undetected. Surface anti-submarine warfare is limited in its ability to detect submarines. I know this because I was a sub sailor in the US navy for years.
If you talk to someone at the pentagon they will tell you that sattelites and anti-submarine aircraft can detect any sub, this is a load of crap. The submarine is the sniper of the seas. If properly commanded it can successfully destroy any ship on the wave and with cruise missiles any target within so many miles from shore. And quite often escape without being detected until the ordinance explodes. The only defense against a well trained, well equiped submarine crew is another well trained and well equiped submarine crew.
By paxq: posted on 9-11-2008

Does anyone remember the Chinese sub that popped up inside a U.S. carrier group?

Today's technology does not require the submarine skipper look through a periscope and order a torpedo to be fired at a ship at relatively close range. Submarines are very nice launching platforms for anti-ship missiles. Ohio class U.S. submarines carry trident ICBM's; these are deterrents against notions of first strike by Russia.
It is thought that the Israeli submarines, Dolphins purchased from Germany, carry nuclear missiles as a deterrent against hostile nations such as Iran.

Submarines are not ready for the boneyard quite yet. They still possess the stealth and firepower that will keep them in business for several more years, at least.
By Thomas_Crowne: posted on 10-11-2008

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