Engaging Silent Enemies: NATO’s Anti-Submarine Warfare Challenge

Roger Hilton, GLOBSEC Security and Defence Fellow

In the classic film The Hunt for Red October, Soviet Admiral Ramius addresses his crew prior to diving and declares, “They (the West) will tremble again at the sound of our silence”.  The essence of the quote could not be more timely with NATO kicking off Exercise DYNAMIC MONGOOSE, its advanced anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and anti-surface exercise in the High North. While exercises do not receive the glory that political summits do, the need for NATO to test its ASW competency is imperative given the current great power competition landscape and integration of advanced technological weapons systems into current military doctrine.

ASW is without a doubt one of the most difficult missions for any national navy or NATO Maritime Command (MARCOM). The scope of an ASW mission is enormous and unforgiving. Enemy submarines are permanently lurking threats that can stealthily travel prolonged distances and carry both conventional and non-conventional missiles capable of hitting targets hundreds of miles away. Consequently, ASW units must always remain elite. The playbook for hunting a submarine in the 21st century calls for a combination of, sonar, lasers, surface ships, and aircraft that is known as “Full Spectrum ASW”.

Sonars using sound waves try to locate and identify objects underwater based on their background signals through calculating a signal-to-noise ratio. This tactic remains the dominant detection method within ASW. When looking for a submarine from a land-based position, lasers acts like as rangefinders as well as target designators. The use of lasers in ASW is growing in prominence where powerful LEDS hold much potential to increase detection chances. To engage in sub-killing, a diverse set of surface ships can patrol potential enemy areas, ready to delivery a lethal torpedo to enemy submarines. Like laser detection, torpedoes are also becoming smarter weapons with an expectation that they will be able to hunt submarines on their own through a “fire and forget” approach. To round it all off, eyes in the sky are provided by sub-hunting airplanes that can expose adversaries  at great altitude through image intensifiers, infrared sensors, and sonobuoys which are dropped into the water to generate sonar pulses to provided a better image of what lies below.

Given complexity of ASW, the active deployment of robot submarines is no longer science fiction either. Recently, an internal study from the Office of Secretary of Defense in Washington examined the role robot submarines could play. Specifically, the study is looking to free up larger manned submarines for more complex and sensitive missions as well as amplify the Navy’s reconnaissance resources under the sea.  It is worth noting in a time of upcoming austere defense budgets due to COVID19, these robot submarines are significantly cheaper than traditional attack submarines.

With the hazards lining this domain, maintaining operational readiness and support for NATO’s multinational submarine safety is a crucial task that cannot be taken lightly.  According to Dr. Sebastian Bruns, Head of the Center for Maritime Strategy and Security at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University, “ASW has been a much-neglected mission in many NATO navies in the era of counter-piracy and anti-terrorism maritime security operations. It is timely that the Alliance exercises this more often than ever. Submarines of third-party states are perhaps the most threatening challenge to the Alliance at sea in the time of great-power competition. Given that the undersea domain is opaque and rather poorly understood, and even more complicated to explore and explain, defense-policy wise, the exercises such as Dynamic Mongoose are vital to train for alliance and national defense. It also serves as a useful reminder that NATO is indeed a maritime, an Atlantic alliance.”

That is why NATO’s MARCOM decision to simulate a multi-threat environment in the northern Atlantic Ocean with naval forces from Canada, France, Germany, Iceland, NATO, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States is paramount for the safety of all members. In line with the modern ASW playbook this year’s exercise will deploy for 5 surface ships, 5 submarines, 5 maritime patrol aircraft that will enable the Alliance to test its response to threats posed by sub-surface forces and demonstrate that the Alliance stands ready to defend all Allies. It builds on NATO’s recently held BALTOPS. Furthermore, joint exercises such as Dynamic Mongoose, enhance NATO’s collective capability to respond swiftly to a variety of operational contingencies in the European theatre as well as globally

Canada’s contribution to Dynamic Mongoose is derived in the form of the HMCS Fredericton a Halifax-class frigate. When not participating in MARCOM exercises, the Fredericton is deployed within NATO’s Standing NATO Maritime Group One, as part of OPERATION REASSURANCE, in support of NATO assurance and deterrence measures in Europe. These exercise efforts continue a proud tradition of Canadian excellency in the ASW domain that dates back to Cold War. Throughout the Cold War submarine warfare constituted a major strategic priority for the Alliance to defend. The most contested battlespace between the Soviets and NATO was the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) Gap.  Securing this space for NATO was critical due to the fear of Soviet submarines targeting American convoys reinforcing Europe in the event the conflict escalated.

Today, the threat has remerged and is more comprehensive due to new technologies on next generation delivery and detection evasion systems.  Sweden’s 2014 hunt for a Russian submarine off the coast of Stockholm was one of the earliest indication of this resurgent threat.  In August of 2019, Russia held its largest naval exercise in 30 years. Exercise OCEAN SHEILD, consisted of vessels from the Northern Fleet, Baltic Fleet and Black Sea Fleet in the Baltic Sea. More recently and concerning was the failure of the U.S. Navy to track the Severodvinsk, a Project 885 Yasen class Russian guided missile submarine that was stalking the American East Coast during the fall of 2019. When debriefing this failure, it must be noted that the Severodvinsk can carry up to 40 Kalibr land-attack cruise missiles with a range of 2,575km (1600) miles that can be repurposed to be nuclear-tipped. This troubling development led Commander of the U.S. Navy’s 2nd Fleet Vice Admiral Andrew Lewis, to assess that his service no longer considers the East Coast as an “uncontested” area or automatic “safe haven” for American ships and submarines.

The dwindling monopoly in this operational space by Russia against the United States and NATO should not come as a surprise. After a brief period of atrophy during the post-Cold War environment, Russia has ramped up investment as well as research and development in its capabilities. The fictional Admiral Ramius would be supremely envious of the quality of Russia’s Borei-A class submarine. Currently, the Russian Navy has three Project 955 Borei class submarines in active service that represents some of the most advanced submarines in their fleet. Not only are the Project 955 submarines deadly silent and better equipped to avoid radar traps, they also uniquely able to deliver the new RSM-56 Bulava nuclear armed submarine launched ballistic missile.

Consequently, the danger these submarines pose for the Alliance cannot be overestimated. They offer a wide geographical coverage dilemma for NATO and can be sent across strategic locations in the, Arctic, Atlantic, and Mediterranean. In addition to their first strike capabilities they also compliment existing Russian Anti-Access and Area Denial (A2AD) capabilities situated in the Baltic through Kaliningrad and Crimea in the Black Sea.

If Russia’s growing technological clout in the submarine warfare domain was not troublesome, their recent “creative” interpretation of the 1936 Montreux Convention confirms their intention to maximize the threat multiplication effect of its submarines. Last April, a Kilo-Class Russian submarine transitioned through the Bosporus Strait in direct violation of the Convention according to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Although the Russian Black Sea Fleet has submarines, it has never received the level of investment compared to the flagship Northern or Pacific Fleets. Despite not possessing any nuclear submarines, the Black Sea Fleet Recently received upgraded Project 636.3 Kilo Class submarines like the Rostov-on-Don. These are armed with Kalibr land attack cruise missiles akin to the U.S. Navy’s Tomahawk which should be respected from a NATO defence planning standpoint.

Should Russian begin to disregard the longstanding principles of the Montreux Convention, they could conceivably deploy more powerful nuclear submarines to the Black Sea with little fear of having them enclosed there. It would allow them to deploy Black Sea Submarines more frequently to the Mediterranean doubling their strength in both bodies of water and by extension creating a more dynamic situation for NATO MARCOM to address.

Finally, the need for NATO test its ASW capabilities would be incomplete without mentioning China’s growing submarine prowess. In late-April, two newly upgraded nuclear-powered strategic submarines went into service in China to coincide with the 71st anniversary of the navy. The vessels are revamped versions of the Type 094, or Jin-class, nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN). Typically, the Type 094 can deploy 16 JL-2 ballistic missiles, which carry a range of about 7,000km (4,350 miles). While Beijing continues to reply on the Type 094 as well as the Typo 095, they are already hard at work on its successor. The Type 096 will carry 25 JL-3s, which are purported to possess an estimated range of more than 10,000km (6,200 miles), pushing the United States, Europe, India and Russia within targeting range. China’s appetite for the newest technology also knows no diplomatic alliance, as the recent arrest of scientist Valery Mitko on charges of selling classified information regarding Russian submarines to Chinese intelligence is telling of Beijing’s desire to further their expertise.

As awesome components of technology continue to be incorporated into the domain of submarine warfare and its growth as front tier conflict zone grow globally, it is clear the Alliance will be preoccupied with this threat for some time. In addition to calling for silence, Admiral Ramius pronounces, “Comrades, our own fleet doesn’t know our full potential. They will do everything possible to test us; but they will only test their own embarrassment”. In a time of heightened tensions, the last thing the Alliance wants to do is fall pray to Admiral Ramius’ words. Looking to the future, NATO Allies, coastal or landlocked, should pay this theatre the attention it deserves and remain circumspect of Exercise Dynamic Mongoose results. Evidence suggest we have only just started this dive.

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