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A key role for any first rate military force is anti-submarine warfare, this is especially true for an island nation.

As the submarine represents one of the most severe threats to any nation with a coastline, to any navy or anyone that relies on seafaring trade; so it is of the utmost importance to have first rate ASW capabilities.

For the UK these capabilities are currently operated by the Royal Navy in the form of Frigates, currently the Type 23 and soon to be Type 26, and that of our own submarine fleet.

Though in the coming years the RAF will once again be joining the ASW force when they have their state-of-the-art Poseidon P-8s are delivered. Yet all of these come at a huge cost: £1bn per Astute class submarine, £2.2bn for 9 P-8s and £750m per Type 26 frigate of which we will get 8.

So why are we spending all this money on vessels and aircraft that essentially serve the same role? To answer this we first need to understand the threat of the submarine.

For the UK the obvious example is the Battle of the Atlantic where German U-Boats were sinking the shipping that kept citizens alive and eating. Now the submarines are even more dangerous and deadly, many of them nuclear powered so they could remain submerged for months on end, some of them armed with nuclear weapons but all are armed with torpedoes.

Torpedoes that are designed to explode underneath a ship, creating a gas bubble to break the ship’s keel (its back) which no ship could survive. Even the toughest of ships, aircraft carriers are not immune to this so civilian shipping would be extremely vulnerable.

So you can see why this is a threat that governments have to treat with the utmost seriousness and why so many resources need to be dedicated to ASW. As today submarines are quieter and quieter, with sound absorbing hulls and materials, machinery fitted on shock absorbers to minimise noise and nuclear reactors to stop the need for regular surfacing.

Making them harder and harder to track and we are having to track more and more submarines so it is no wonder why money is spent in the billions for ASW. It is always said that the best counter for a submarine is another submarine and while out Astutes are second to none; the submarine fleet however is a shadow of its former glory with only 7 attack submarines in service.

But these field some of the best sonar arrays in the world and are extremely silent themselves making them of the best in the constant game of submarine cat and mouse. The frigates represent close protection for the fleet and carrier groups being a specialised platform for ASW with high end sonar equipment and tower sonar arrays to detect and track any submarine approaching herself or the carriers.

The maritime patrol aircraft when they come back into UK service will enhance these abilities, we will be able to deter hostile submarines in our waters, track submarines in our areas of interest, protect our nuclear deterrent and if need be attack enemy submarines. A combination of arms that will allow for true protection of our naval assets even if it is not true protection in our waters.

As now we can have P-8 detect hostile submarines before they are too near a carrier group, a frigate then acquire and hold the contact as it nears the fleet and a friendly submarine intercept and if need be attack.

Yet the question still arises if this is enough, after all we will never have all 7 submarines at sea, 9 aircraft can never patrol all of our waters, 8 frigates can’t trawl all the depths.

However, there is no obvious answer to this as we could buy many more submarines but at point what do we have enough, a 1:1 balance, a higher balance or lower. Though as good as any of our equipment is to subsidise having fewer, they can’t be in two places at once.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Sadly there are many people in decision making positions who look at parity of numbers rather than what do we need to keep the seas safe. Submarines are like terrorists, they only have to get through occasionally to reek total havoc, decimate key hulls in a thin fleet and close the sea lanes. No current political parties will address how skinny all three branches of the forces are.

    • totally agree Ian

      We need another 2 astutes at least and a load more firgates. but as you say all three branches are impacted. Time to really drill down into these budgets and decide what is important and what is not.

      We should be able to buy £10bn of kit per annum out of a £36bn defence budget – but seem unable to.. That just doesnt make sense to me.

      Another £16bn for people (currently closer to £10bn is the official figure) and we are still left with £10bn for all things operational (maintenance, facilities, R&D etc). So where is the money acually going.

      Wherever it is going I suggest it is not the military

  2. While I will never argue with people saying we need more ships, aircraft, tanks or whatever sometimes it is worth realising what we have achieved especially given the size of the UK and its population. For example compare the US Navy (commissioned) ships / boats with the Royal Navy but multiply our fleet by 6 (the difference in populations) to find some equivalence?
    US carriers – 10
    UK carriers – 2 x 6 = 12
    US attack subs – 52
    UK attack subs – 7 x 6 = 42
    US ballistic and GM subs – 18
    UK ballistic subs – 4 x 6 = 24
    US GM cruisers – 22
    UK – none
    US destroyers – 63
    UK destroyers – 6 x 6 = 36
    US ASW and other frigates – none
    UK ASW and other frigates – 13 x 6 = 78
    Total US navy Commissioned ships – 234
    Total UK Royal Navy ships- 77 x 6 =462
    (US non-commissioned ships – 105)
    (UK RFA ships – 14 x 6 = 84)
    These are the obvious main comparisons but we hold up well with others.

    Again this does not mean we should not invest more in our military and given the hoped for Brexit saving of some £13 Bn a year some of that could and should be allocated for that investment.

  3. As an island nation our very survival is dependent upon keeping our sea lanes open and secure. Twice in the last 100 years the UK was nearly defeated by submarine blockade (WW1 and WW2). Only heroic and titanic efforts in antisubmarine warfare prevented our defeat.
    Thus i am bemused by our political masters choices in defence spending and lack of critical mass in our armed forces.
    8 Type 26 frigates is probably only going to be adequate to screen and protect 1 QE carrier and 1 other surface ship group. 9 P9 A poseidons (once actually in service) will only really provide enough MPA capability to begin an anti submarine campaign. Not an adequate force level for any prolonged combat or high intensity operations.
    7 Astute class is not an adequate force level, even though highly capable vessels, when you consider just 20 years ago the RN had 12 SSN and 4 SSKs in service.
    My concern is not with the quality of the vessels or aircraft or the personnel that operate them. It is simply the RN and RAF lacking critical mass after too many ill conceived defence cuts and SDSRs. We just need to order a few more astutes 2-3 more and a further batch of 6-9 Poseidon’s and a follow on batch of another 6 type 26s. That should cost about £9 billion. Or thought of differently less than 1 years UK contributions to EU budget and less than 1 years foreign aid budget.
    A small price to pay to guarantee our sea lanes and the very survival of our nation against any future submarine threat.

  4. Continued.. I know others are going to argue but we are in NATO and can call upon our allies to protect us.
    Really? Is that correct defence posture? Or is it better to take responsibility for our own defence and not have to rely on the willingness of other nations to guarantee our future national well being and survival? The first responsibility of HMG is the defence of the realm and currently we are only paying lip service to this responsibility. We need to go to 2.5 or 3% GDP to defence expenditure ratio to afford the capabilities needed, especially where ASW is concerned.

  5. This containerised variable depth sonar system is being bought by the Canadian navy. Apart from being small enough to fit on opvs, it is also suitable for installation on ‘ships of opportunity’ such as large trawlers and oil rig support vessels. If it works as advertised, it would seem to be the ideal way to quickly and ‘cheaply’ increase the asw resources available in times of need.
    http://geospectrum.ca/towed-reelable-active-passive-sonar-traps/

  6. @UKdefence journal
    Could this article be re-posted in the Sea category, so that it gets the attention the topic deserves?

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