Only the Dead Have Seen the Last of Submarine Warfare – Part Two

Iain Ballantyne, author of ‘The Deadly Trade: The Complete History of Submarine Warfare from Archimedes to the Present’, concludes a two-part look at the contours of a fast evolving new undersea confrontation. Iain is talking about the history of submarine warfare during this year’s Isle of Wight Literary Festival and will touch on some of the topics outlined below.

The bad old days are back. Just as happened during the Cold War face-off, today the Russian Bear and the West are snarling at each other in a war of words while their militaries train relentlessly for the day it all turns red hot. They hope that by being ready for combat they will deter the other side from launching an attack, though there is no capitalism versus communism ideological struggle underpinning it this time.

Pumped up, ultra-muscular nationalism allied with a desire to maintain superpower status and control scarce natural resources to shore up a tottering economy seems to drive Russia. It also nurtures massive resentment towards the West for not respecting it enough post-1991 and is intensely hostile towards EU and NATO expansion into its ‘near abroad’.

In the West, there is bewilderment at how things could suddenly get so serious again, with reluctance to invest in hard power tools in a time of economic and political turbulence.

There has been a nerve agent assassination plot committed on a NATO member state’s soil by Russian military intelligence agents. A series of cyber attacks on commerce, industry and national infrastructure along with alleged interference in the political process are also suspected of being staged by Russia. There is a temptation to see this as the most vital East-West battleground – a conflict in which cyber weapons and the occasional foray by not-so-secret agents are the main weapons deployed by Russia. In reality it is all running in parallel with the flexing – and even use – of hard power military muscle by the Kremlin, including submarines.

The newly upgraded Oscar II Class guided-missile submarine Orel returning to her Northern Fleet base in the Kola Peninsula. Photo: Russian defence ministry.

With Moscow’s submarines now at their most active since the end of the Cold War, President Vladimir Putin has authorised construction of up to a dozen Yasen Class, nuclear-powered attack submarines. An expansion of Russia’s conventionally powered submarine force is well underway too. The new Improved Kilo Class boats are cruise missile capable, with some having already launched attacks against rebel targets in Syria (to shore up the Damascus regime). The older, nuclear-powered Oscar II Class – so called carrier-killing guided-missile boats (SSGNs) – are also being regenerated with new weaponry. They will form a serious threat to Western naval forces.

NATO has responded by proposing establishment of an Atlantic Command to operate in times of crisis to counter surges in Russian naval activity. The precursor to this has been reactivation of the US Navy’s 2nd Fleet organisation to take overall charge of co-ordinating efforts from the North Atlantic down to the Caribbean. In recent years there has been an upsurge in NATO Anti-submarine Warfare (ASW) exercises, from the Mediterranean to the Arctic. The Russians have responded by staging their own ASW training in the same operational theatres, most recently as part of the huge time zone-spanning Vostok-18 exercise.

The Astute Class attack submarine HMS Ambush (nearest) during an ASW exercise in the Mediterranean with other NATO units. Photo: WO Artigues (HQ MARCOM)/NATO.

Beyond such play-acting, serious though it is, there have been episodes where units from both sides of this so-called new Cold War have been engaged in hunting each other. Russian submarines have trailed a Franco-American carrier strike group in the Mediterranean while Moscow’s anti-submarine vessels pursued a Dutch diesel boat seeking to gather intelligence on the Russian Navy’s own aircraft carrier operating off Syria. A US Navy attack submarine has allegedly engaged in trailing Russian surface warships in the Med. In more northern waters the Finns, Swedes, Norwegians and Balts have responded to suspected submarine intrusions (and in the case of the Finns even using depth charges).

Aside from those shadow games, the bombardment of Assad regime chemical warfare sites in Syria this April saw a nuclear-powered submarine launching cruise missiles from somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean. It was not a British boat, but the USS John Warner, one of the USN’s Virginia Class SSNs. There were reports in the media of Royal Navy submarines also being on standby to participate in the attacks. In the end, so it was claimed, rather than launch cruise missiles, an Astute Class boat was engaged in an undersea game of cat and mouse with two Russian Navy Improved Kilo Class submarines deployed from Tartus, Moscow’s main naval facility in Syria.

However, there are also doubts an Astute Class SSN was there at all – due to a lack of availability in the UK’s SSN force. Yet in the current war of nerves between the Russia and the West, which takes so many different forms, just the thought of a British, or American, SSN lurking in the eastern Mediterranean was surely a powerful inhibitor on the Russians? A Kilo might be super-stealthy at slow speed on battery power, but nothing beats the sheer speed and hitting power of SSN. The mere suspicion of one being nearby would make a Kilo captain very cautious.

The Russians have, meanwhile, described Britain’s new super-carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth – which this autumn made her maiden transatlantic voyage to welcome aboard her first F-35B strike jets – as ‘just a convenient, large maritime target’. Russia undoubtedly has every intention of sending out submarines to find and trail Queen Elizabeth, in order to gain intelligence on the carrier’s performance that may help sink her, should it ever come to hot war.

Resuscitating the NATO ASW effort is no small task. Rear Admiral Roger Lane-Nott, a former RN Flag Officer Submarines (FOSM), warned at the end of last year: ‘The chilling fact is that the organisations, relationships, intelligence, and capabilities that once supported a strong ASW network for NATO in the North Atlantic no longer exist.’

An exterior view depiction (from astern) of the forthcoming City Class (Type 26) frigate (or Global Combat Ship as the design is officially known). Image: BAE Systems.

The commitment to building eight new generation City Class (Type 26) ASW frigates is, however, a major investment UK national security and will be big boost to NATO defences. They are to be base ported at Devonport, the traditional home of the RN’s ASW primary surface warships. Three Type 26s have been ordered at the time of writing, to be named Glasgow, Cardiff and Belfast, with another to be christened Birmingham.

There have also been cash injections into programmes to build new Dreadnought Class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and to ensure a seventh Astute Class SSN (to be christened Agincourt) is constructed. The arrival of the first of nine new P-8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPAs) for the RAF in 2019 is another welcome sign of long overdue revival.

There have even been encouraging indicators the British political leadership is finally awake to the new struggle for the freedom of the oceans – and the need for strong ripostes. UK Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson in late May gave the inaugural Sir Henry Leach lecture during the RUSI Sea Power conference in London.

He pointed out that Russia’s submarine activity has “increased ten-fold in the North Atlantic.” Mr Williamson went on: “But that’s not all. In 2010, the Royal Navy had to respond once to a Russian Navy ship approaching UK territorial waters. Last year we had to respond 33 times. It goes to show the increasing aggression, the increasing assertiveness of Russia, and how we have to ensure we give the right support to our Royal Navy in order to give them [sic] the tools to do the job and keep Britain safe.”

Whether or not the Royal Navy is getting enough of the tools – and quickly enough – to do the job is open to debate. Were the UK sticking to a North Atlantic orientated maritime defence strategy, then seven Astutes, eight Type 26s, six Type 45 destroyers, nine P-8s and two new super-carriers (the cutting edge of the New Navy) would be just about enough to cope – but British strategic over-reach looks likely to be layered on top of existing overstretch, with simultaneous major long-term commitments to the Arabian Gulf and also patrolling the South China Sea.

During the Cold War a Soviet Navy submarine of the Whiskey Class is escorted out of NATO waters by the British frigate HMS Rothesay. Photo: Via US DoD.

Back in the late 1960s the British gave up enduring commitments – and shore bases – east of Suez at a time when they had dozens more frigates and destroyers, several aircraft carriers and dozens of nuclear and conventional submarines, with around 20,000 sailors at sea. Today the Royal Navy is so short of sailors it is selling off warships or putting them into mothballs so their people can be sent elsewhere.

The Royal Navy is redefining the concept of spreading the jam very thinly but it gamely battles on, retaining a reputation for excellence and playing in the big league in those niche areas. It must be hoped the gaps it its sovereign capabilities are not one day exploited ruthlessly by a merciless opponent (like Russia).

The challenge The Royal Navy is facing today – and for decades to come – is clearly formidable, especially in the realm of ASW, with the current head of US Navy forces in Europe, Admiral James Foggo warning in a podcast this month (October): “Russia has renewed its capabilities in the North Atlantic and the Arctic in places not seen since the Cold War.”


The admiral also warned that Russia is seeking to “project power” not only into the Arctic but also the North Atlantic and Greenland Iceland UK Gap (GIUK) – Britain’s back yard. Foggo did not hide the nature of the undersea threat: “I think Russian submarines today are perhaps some of the most silent and lethal in the world,” he said, though adding that the US Navy’s own “hold the edge.”

The admiral also explained that Moscow is tasking its submarine forces with finding weak points in NATO’s armour. “We know that Russian submarines are in the Atlantic, testing our defences,” said Admiral Foggo. He suggested the Russians are “preparing a very complex underwater battlespace to try to give them an edge in any future conflict. And we need to deny them that edge.”

Admiral Foggo believes Russian “actions and capabilities [have] increased in alarming and sometimes confrontational ways”. Moscow is laying down the gauntlet to both the USA and NATO, which inevitably includes the UK.

Admiral James G. Foggo during a meeting with Admiral Ketil Olsen, Military Representative of Norway to the NATO Military Committee. Photo: NATO.

Its Trident nuclear missile submarines have been subjected to attempts by Russian SSNs to find and trail them, so negating the deterrent’s chief effect – the ability to deter a potential enemy by hiding in the sea and being ready to strike with devastating force at any moment.

Admiral Foggo remains “concerned about the potential for miscalculation” and suggests NATO cohesion is key to handling the risks. That has to include seeking a decisive edge in both submarine warfare and ASW, with British naval forces compelled to be at the fore, for reasons of geography if nothing else.

• This is an adapted and updated version of an article that was published in The Association of Royal Navy Officers Newsletter (Summer 2018)

Recent episodes in the new East-West naval rivalry and action-packed aspects of submarine warfare across the ages are recounted in Iain Ballantyne’s new book ‘The Deadly Trade: The Complete History of Submarine Warfare from Archimedes to the Present’, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (752 pages, hardback £25.00/eBook £12.99). More details here.  It is available via Amazon and Waterstones or other retailers and shops.
Iain Ballantyne is also founding and current Editor of WARSHIPS International Fleet Review magazine, www.warshipsifr.com which in 2018 celebrated its 20th birthday.

Only the Dead Have Seen the Last of Submarine Warfare – Part One

Iain Ballantyne, author of ‘The Deadly Trade: The Complete History of Submarine Warfare from Archimedes to the Present’, begins a two-part look at the contours of a fast evolving new struggle in which the UK’s submarines and surface forces will inevitably be required to play a key role.

Whether it has been the French, US-based Fenians pursuing the cause of Irish Liberation, the German Navy – by order of the Kaiser and later the Fuhrer – or the Soviet Union, the enemies and potential foes of Britain and its allies have over many decades enthusiastically pursued submarine warfare.

While we are unlikely to see vast, epic clashes as occurred during the two world wars, it is likely only the dead have seen the last of submarine warfare (to adapt a famous phrase coined by the philosopher George Santayana – NOT Plato as some have claimed – who wrote in 1922: ‘Only the dead have seen the end of war’).

In fact, submarines of the West and Russia have in recent times frequently unleashed weapons in anger – to strike deep inland, via cruise missiles, rather than using torpedoes to sink ships – while a new Cold War-style confrontation is also evolving across the oceans, stretching all the way from the North Atlantic and Mediterranean to the South China Sea.

Symbol of a resurgent Russia under the sea: The Improved Kilo Class submarine Rostov-on-Don, which Moscow has used to fire Kalibr cruise missiles into Syria. Photo: © Cem Devrim Yaylali. https://turkishnavy.net

Today Russia is deploying more and more submarines to test the defences of NATO nations and a high priority in the North Atlantic remains detecting and trailing the nuclear deterrent boats of the UK, USA and France. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the assault ship HMS Albion in the late summer of 2018 made her presence felt in the South China Sea, where she conducted a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in waters that Beijing has (illegally) claimed sovereignty over. China has flouted international law by constructing a chain of fortresses on reefs and small islands, in a bid for total dominance of surrounding waters (and in which it intends to create Soviet-style bastions to protect its nuclear missile submarines). The Royal Navy has joined the American, Japanese and Australian fleets in agreeing on a major effort to show China it cannot restrict rights of transit through such key zones.

Arguably the best counter to Russia’s submarines lurking on the edge of UK territorial waters – or the Chinese seeking to exert unwarranted control on (or under) the South China Sea – is another submarine, namely a nuclear-powered hunter-killer. In that respect the British have something to offer. Despite difficulty maintaining force levels since the end of the Cold War they have preserved a reputation as deadly exponents of submarine operations.

Given the hostile attitude of many Royal Navy admirals in the early 1900s to the mere idea of submarines, development of such expertise over the years was not necessarily a given. Yet the RN’s submarine arm has achieved many feats in combat, some of which have yet to be equalled (which, let’s face it, is actually a good thing as it means an absence of major sea wars).

The one confirmed instance of a submarine destroying another while both were submerged remains HMS Venturer’s sinking of U-864 off Norway in early 1945. The only time a nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarine has sunk a surface vessel in time of war remains HMS Conqueror’s attack on ARA Belgrano during the 1982 Falklands conflict. Since WW2 the only other episodes in which submarines have sunk surface vessels using torpedoes are the sinking an Indian frigate by the Pakistan Navy boat Hangor (in the early 1970s) and destruction of a South Korean corvette by a North Korean craft in 2010.

The assault ship HMS Albion calls at Yokosuka, Japan, prior to her recent patrol in the South China Sea. Photo: US Navy.

During the latter stages of Cold War – which saw plenty of dangerous moments that, thankfully, did not result in actual, full-on submarine versus submarine combat – the novelist Tom Clancy upset his own nation’s navy by paying tribute to Britain’s formidable submariners rather too enthusiastically.

‘While everyone deeply respects the Americans with their technologically and numerically superior submarine force, they all quietly fear the British,’ Clancy observed. He added: ‘Note that I use the word fear. Not just respect. Not just awe. But real fear at what a British submarine, with one of their superbly qualified captains at the helm, might be capable of doing.’ Those skills were very much in demand during the confrontation between NATO and the Soviet Union, with British submarines on the leading edge of a high stakes poker game under the waves, which saw numerous close shaves.

Watching the Hollywood version of Clancy’s best selling-novel, ‘The Hunt for Red October’, the other day, it struck me that it no longer seems like a 1980s museum piece. Today we are back in ‘a war with no battles, no monuments’, as Captain Marko Ramius (played by Sean Connery) puts it in the movie. The revival in Hollywood interest in submarine movies, such as ‘Hunter Killer’  [not based on my own book] and the forthcoming ‘Kursk’  reflects the upsurge in tensions and rivalry and under the sea between East and West (as well as the enduring appeal of submarine dramas).

For the West is confronted with what Vice Admiral James Foggo USN in 2016 described as a fourth Battle of the Atlantic – following on from those of the 20th Century’s two world wars and the Cold War – in which a new generation of Russian submariners are seeking to dominate the oceans. In October 2015 another senior USN officer, Admiral Mark Ferguson, who at the time commanded NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command and US Navy forces in Europe and Africa, depicted Moscow as constructing ‘an arc of steel from the Arctic to the Mediterranean’ by deploying ‘a more aggressive, more capable Russian Navy’.

Holding the line in the new Battle of the Atlantic: The Royal Navy nuclear-powered attack submarine HMS Trenchant. Photo: US Navy.

The Russians mean to exert this decisive presence as part of a global maritime challenge to the West. At the beginning of 2015 Russian submarines reportedly tried to detect – and then trail – one of the UK’s Trident submarines as the latter departed (or returned to) its base on the Clyde. Having cut the RN’s frigate force and axed the Nimrod anti-submarine aircraft, under the calamitous 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), the UK Government had to ask its allies to help hunt down the intruder or intruders (a job previously performed by the Royal Navy in tandem with the RAF).

In fact, since 2014 – following the Crimean annexation that heralded a more aggressive Russian military – Moscow is suspected of regularly sending its submarines to stray close to, or even sneak into, territorial waters of not only the UK and USA, but also Sweden, Finland, Norway and the Baltic States.

Fears were raised at the end of 2017 that the Russians might even use their submarine forces to attack the UK’s seabed infrastructure, such as Internet cables and energy pipelines. This was surely not unexpected? Since WW2 the capability to interfere with (or sever) underwater cables has been pursued by leading submarines forces (of both East and West). For example, during WW2 the Royal Navy made a major effort to cut seabed communications links between Japanese garrisons scattered across Asia. The latter day effort by the Russians serves only to enhance the contention that we have not seen the end of submarine warfare – in all its many forms.

This is an adapted version of an article that was published in The Association of Royal Navy Officers Newsletter (Summer 2018)

 

xx

Recent episodes in the new East-West naval rivalry and action-packed aspects of submarine warfare across the ages are recounted in Iain Ballantyne’s new book ‘The Deadly Trade: The Complete History of Submarine Warfare from Archimedes to the Present’, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (752 pages, hardback £25.00/eBook £12.99). More details:  It is available via Amazon and Waterstones or other retailers and shops.
Iain Ballantyne is also founding and current Editor of WARSHIPS International Fleet Review magazine, www.warshipsifr.com which in 2018 celebrated its 20th birthday.

Convoy Battles were as Important as El Alamein, Stalingrad or Guadalcanal

Seventy-five years ago saw what has often been lauded as the moment of victory for the Allies in the Battle of the Atlantic. The key clashes were staged across April and May 1943, with convoy escorts battling a U-boat force encouraged by an impressive score in March – sinking 107 Allied ships in the month’s first 20 days – to believe it could yet secure supreme triumph for Germany.

As was so often the case in war, such an upswing in fortune could so easily become a downturn and signs of the German decline to come were there even in March. The month had closed amid dreadful weather, with only 15 enemy merchant vessels sent to the bottom by U-boats during its final 11 days. The submarine crews were tired, the boats battered and in need of repair, while fuel and torpedo stocks were depleted.

A U-boat hunts for a convoy in the vast N. Atlantic. Image: Dennis Andrews.

Yet the resilient U-boat force soon sent its submarines back into action, to become locked in battle with escort groups, trying to break through and attack merchant vessels.

The first of the pivotal fights came in early April with the assault on convoy HX-231, of 61 merchant vessels, a battle stretching across hundreds of miles of ocean. The cutting edge of the wolf pack was blunted above all by the determined actions of the B7 escort group, led by the Royal Navy’s formidable Commander Peter Gretton. Six merchant vessels were sunk, for no boats lost, but the overall performance of the German submarines had been timid, the U-boat force War Log blaming it on ‘the inexperience of young Commanding Officers.’

A British escort charges off to tackle a U-boat to prevent it from sinking merchant ships in convoy across the Atlantic. Image: Dennis Andrews.

In fact, morale was so fragile in the U-boat force that some submarine COs eagerly embraced any mechanical defect to report their vessels non-operational. Kriegsmarine commander-in-chief Grand Admiral Karl Donitz responded by threatening stiffer penalties for those he perceived to be shirkers.

The B7 group was also sent out to protect the 41-ship convoy ONS-5. The U-boats were ordered by their boss to wait for nightfall on 5 May and then to attack with vigour in order to ensure ‘there will be nothing of the convoy left’. This was far from being the case, with just 13 merchant vessels sunk, a poor return for five U-boats and their crews destroyed.

When the U-boats tried to score big again in late May, they failed utterly, with four submarines lost during attempts to attack convoy SC-130. All 37 of its precious merchant vessels – carrying fuel oil, explosives, lumber and grain among other things – were delivered safely to Liverpool.

By this time in the contest Allied escort groups & aircraft were clearly achieving a measure of superiority in the open ocean war that stacked the odds heavily against Germany’s submariners. In the first five months of 1943, Allied warships and aircraft sank 81 U-boats. With that rate of losses Donitz felt he had no choice but to admit wolf pack operations were no longer possible – at least not for the time being. He therefore issued an order for U-boats to withdraw from the North Atlantic on May 24.

The quality of Allied warships, not least their weapons and U-boat detecting equipment, had risen dramatically since German submarines had been able to wreak havoc on convoys (especially during 1940 – 1941). The senior leadership of the Allied escorts – the skill of junior officers too – was also greatly improved.

Gretton, along with other escort group commanders, including the equally lethally proficient Donald Macintyre and ‘Johnny’ Walker, were now getting into their stride. As they wielded their ships to great effect, long-range air patrols by Allied air forces bore down heavily on the enemy too, at times scoring a similarly devastating rate of kills.

An Allied aircraft attacks a U-boat as the struggle in the N. Atlantic continues during WW2. Photo: US Navy/NHHC.

Amid all the memorializing of the great victories on land at the end of 1942 and in the first half of 1943, the great turning of the tide against the Axis – via the British victory at the Second Battle of El Alamein, the Sixth Army surrendering to the Russians at Stalingrad, the capture of 275,000 Italian and German troops in Tunisia and Americans triumphing at Guadalcanal – the significance of the convoy battles in the Atlantic of April and May 1943 can become forgotten. Such critical events in the turn of the tide at sea risk being lost amid the amorphous term Battle of the Atlantic.

Those laurels that were awarded to the warship captains who beat the U-boats came in the form of paper slips on which were written decryptions of coded signals conveying congratulations from senior commanders. In the aftermath of the fight to get ONS-5 through there was at least a message of thanks from Prime Minister Winston Churchill signaled to escorts.

One post-war admiral – a junior officer serving in destroyers during 1943 – judged Allied victories in the Battle of the Atlantic to be as great as any land victory. According to Vice Admiral Sir Roderick Macdonald, they were vital in ‘preparing the way for the invasion of Europe’. Had it been fought ashore, or even a sea engagement in the age of fighting sail, the ONS-5 victory ‘would be [lauded] in the history books, like Salamis or Trafalgar’ for it was ‘no skirmish’ and the battle ‘to defend convoy ONS-5 was of more significance than Alamein.’

That may be stretching it a little, but the point is well made, for pitched battles at sea do not leave behind scarred buildings or pockmarked bunkers, or wrecked tanks littering the landscape. Nor do the casualties lie in lovingly tended war cemeteries close to the scene of the battle to offer an all too tangible reminder of sacrifice.

Those who perished in the battles for convoys HX-231, ONS-5 and SC-130 lie in unseen and unknowable watery graves, vanished under the sea either inside their sunken ships and submarines or swept away by the cruel sea until absorbed into the vastness of the ocean.


Each merchant vessel that reached a UK port was another victory for the Allies in the struggle against the U-boats in the Battle of the Atlantic during WW2. Photo: US National Archives.

Victory for the Allies was actually recorded in the ships the enemy never saw – the vessels that slid by the U-boats without a shot being fired and to enter a British port to offload their vital cargoes, all routine and largely unremarked. Each ship unloaded was, however, another small victory and diminished even further Germany’s chances of success.

Even though May 1943 is often regarded as the moment when the Battle of the Atlantic was won by the Allies – enabling the invasion of Normandy just over a year later – in reality the bitter struggle between Allied escorts/airpower and U-boats continued right until the end of the war in Europe. There were even fears the war at sea off Europe could still be lost by the Allies.

It morphed into a different kind of contest – in fact a series of contests stretching from the deep ocean to inshore waters around N.W. Europe – that at various times was arguably harder for the Allies to deal with, though the US Navy’s escort carrier hunter-killer groups reaped a devastating harvest in the mid-Atlantic, around the Azores. Tough as the fight may have become once again, British escort groups were relentless elsewhere.

The Allies feared the ‘U-boat peril’ (to borrow Churchill’s description) right up until the Reich’s total collapse, not just because of the looming (if troubled) introduction into service of the much-vaunted Type XXI and Type XXIII U-boats, but the Total Underwater Warfare concept.

Donitz hoped it could deliver final victory to Germany. So, in May 1943 the war of the transatlantic convoys may have peaked but now the battles had different objectives and the Allies’ hard won advantages were under threat of neutralization by Total Underwater Warfare.

 

How that German bid to achieve victory at sea unfolded – along with many other episodes in submarine warfare across the ages – is told in my latest book ‘The Deadly Trade: The Complete History of Submarine Warfare from Archimedes to the Present’, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (752 pages, hardback £25.00/eBook £12.99) which is available via Amazon and Waterstones plus other retailers and shops.

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