The willful discretion of submarine activity should not fool the bored observer into thinking nothing happens in the depths of the world’s coldest waters: a lively fight is going on, in the underwater canyons and the industrial facilities where the secret boats are created. Russia, after a post-Cold-War slump, has renewed its strategic standing and is once again a major submarine power and a new competitor which European industries are struggling to address.
The days of Red October are back. Despite the most famous submarine being fictional, Russia longs for the days when it was feared in all the deep waters of the world and has been re-building its submarine might. Justin Mohn, writing in The National Interest, suggests: “Since the 2011, Russia has been pursuing an ambitious plan of modernization for its armed forces on land, sea and air. After a period of neglect during the 1990s, Russia is preparing to challenge its competitors beneath the waves once again by including its submarine fleet in this renaissance.”
After dedicating a quarter of its large military budgets to submarine building, and also thanks to the increased financial resources yielded by the rise in oil and gas prices, Russia has pushed its fleet to over 60 strong, with a full range of ballistic nuclear submarines, new-generation attack subs and special purpose submersibles. Russian submarines are considered among the most advanced, with several recent technologies detected, and more breakthroughs suspected by intelligence services. With its new armada, Russia is able to occupy underwater space in strategic areas (such as the Arctic, the Northern Sea and the Bering Strait) and defend its territory. Business insider Christopher Woody confirms: “Russia decreased its undersea activity after the Cold War, and its navy went through a considerable decline. But in recent years Moscow has embarked on a modernization effort, putting money into developing newer, quieter subs manned by better-trained crews.”
Of course, NATO is keeping a close eye on the new development and seeks to restore its advances on its Russian counterpart. Russia has not caught up with the West, but it is getting too close for NATO comfort. The American fleet comprises 66 submarines across all classes, and Washington has been pressing its Atlantic pact allies to increase their funding to stay ahead of their counterpart’s capacities, with new threats rising from the Middle East, Russia and China. Some of the members of NATO are providing valuable support in the submarine struggle, namely the Dutch and their impressive small-but-capable fleet. In 2016, a Dutch submarine was able to sneak up to a Russian carrier, causing embarrassment for the Russians, as told by the Guardian: “Russian defence ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said two navy destroyers spotted the Walrus-class submarine on Wednesday while it was 20 km (11 nautical miles) away from its escorting ships.”
Much of the effort relies not so much on the number of vessels but on the available technology for allies such the Netherlands to increase their tactical contributions to NATO operations. The Netherlands, which is aiming to replace its fleet of submarines, will have to contend with the European market and the shape it is in, before it resumes its role as a major NATO player. Most of the research being undertaken is targeted at propulsion systems (stealth, range and sustainability), detection systems (new-generation sonars can detect objects as small as mines, thus protecting battle groups and convoys, and operate well in high-temperature waters) and weapons.
But, in the eyes of many military experts, Europe isn’t there yet, and needs to get back in shape before it can consider pushing forward the technological limits. With few orders in the log, many shipbuilders have spent years in technical unemployment, which leads to loss of technical know-how, as weathered experts drift away from the idle industry. Swedish shipbuilder Kockums, now owned by Saab and once known for producing top-notch submarines, is now facing a desperate situation for not having built a submarine in years. And TKMS, one of the most famous shipbuilders, saw its first delivery of modern frigates to the German Navy refused, as the vessels were plagued with quality issues and considered unseaworthy. Military analyst Tyler Rogoway reports: “These problems include a persistent list to starboard and the fact that the ship is dramatically overweight, which would limit its performance, increase its cost of operation, and most importantly, negatively impact the Deutsche Marine’s ability to add future upgrades to the somewhat sparsely outfitted vessel.”
Additionally, the entire fleet of German submarines, built exclusively by TKMS, is currently locked in workshops, depriving the nation of submarine coverage thus being able to be a part of NATO operations. The National Interest reports: “On paper, the Deutsche Marine has six Type 212A submarines equipped with advanced air-independent propulsion, allowing ultra-quiet operations submerged for over two weeks at a time. In reality, the Deutsche Marine does not currently have a single submarine in operational condition.” In other words, these modern subs may have implemented the most modern technology available, but basic quality problems render the ships useless.
Submarine warfare may be the most symbolic form of warfare: a war which is fought many years before the battle is actually waged. With Russia back on track, Western European countries are fighting hard to keep up in the technological and economic race. With political pressure coming from the agitated American side, and strategic pressure coming from the Russian side, European defense industries are facing a grim situation.
By Torkel Sandberg
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