Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Monarchial Submarine Strength Today

For a considerable period of time, most of the countries in the world (and virtually all the monarchies) directly or indirectly under American military protection have voiced considerable opposition to American policies, the American character and the presence of American military forces around the world. Today, for a change, that skepticism is provoking a response in the United States with anti-war Democrats, Libertarians and Trump supporters finding themselves part of a growing chorus of American people who are either opposed to or dissatisfied with the current network of alliances that sees American military forces pledged to defend countries all around the world, from western Europe to Japan. In considering what would happen if U.S. military protection was withdrawn from these quarters, it is necessary to look at how capable these countries are of defending themselves against the powers that threaten them. For no other reason than that is an area of interest to me, this article will deal specifically with the naval strength of the monarchies of the world in terms of their submarine fleets. If further justification is demanded, all I can say is that this does tend to be illustrative of how committed countries are to national defense in general and, as any naval expert can tell you, a submarine is a singularly significant weapon in that the best way to deal with a submarine is another submarine.

HMAS Waller coming into Pearl Harbor
There are currently nine monarchies in the world that include submarines in their naval arsenals; Australia, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Going in alphabetical order, we will first look at Her Majesty’s submarines in the Commonwealth of Australia. The Royal Australian Navy currently operates six diesel-electric submarines of the Collins-class. Based on a Swedish design, these are the first submarines to be built in Australia. However, while nice boats on paper, the Australian submarine force leaves much to be desired. Although six boats are currently in service, so few Australians have volunteered to serve on them that there have often only been one or two that are operational at a time. The Collins-class has suffered a number of problems as they entered service with numerous mechanical breakdowns, being excessively noisy and thus easy to detect as well as glitches in the combat system. There were other problems that could be expected with a new boat and most of these were corrected but certain malfunctions plagued the class as a whole and this, combined with accusations of corruption in the design and construction process, has given the Collins-class boats quite a bad reputation. They have certainly had more than their fair share of problems but, if you look closely, these tend to stem from an overall lack of seriousness on the issue of naval defense more than the boats and the Royal Australian Navy itself.

HMCS Windsor
The Royal Canadian Navy currently operates four diesel-electric submarines, the British Upholder-class purchased from the U.K. and renamed the Victoria-class. These are excellent conventional submarines though four seems an extremely small number for a country with such a vast coast to defend. Purchased in 1998, they are older than some but carry their age quite well. Unfortunately, one suffered a fire that killed a Canadian sailor and set off a series of ugly exchanges between Britain and Canada with the Canadians effectively accusing the British of selling them faulty merchandise and the British blaming the Canadians for not operating the boat properly. It was a sad, messy affair that did no one any good and unfairly gave a bit of a ‘black eye’ to the Upholder-class boats in Canada. That should not be the case though as the Upholder-class has shown itself to be one of the very best types of conventional submarines in the world with extensive service in the Royal Navy. Today, more recent boats may be outpacing them but they are still good value for money as conventional subs go (“conventional” meaning diesel-electric rather than nuclear powered). The bigger problem is that there are only four of them, divided between the Atlantic and Pacific and having two boats per ocean is not the mark of a country that is serious about having an independent naval defense.

JMSDF Oyashio-class submarine
In the Pacific, the monarchy with the largest submarine force is easily the State of Japan. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force currently operates 19 diesel-electric submarines, part of an ongoing expansion of the submarine force from 17 to 22 boats. The subs currently in service are all of the Oyashio-class and the latest Soryu-class. These are both very advanced and highly capable conventional submarines and their expanding numbers show that Japan is taking naval defense more serious than most, which is not surprising given that Japan is so close to the lunatic-regime in North Korea, an unfriendly Russia with a very large and highly advanced submarine fleet and most worryingly Communist China which has the fastest growing submarine fleet in the world. The Japanese have been very good at coming out with new and always improved submarine types and the latest, the Soryu-class, is an extremely technologically advanced and capable conventional submarine indeed. They have the tools, they have the talent and they are increasingly taking national defense more seriously. The only real shortcoming, aside from being limited to defensive weapons only, is that no one in the Japanese Self-Defense Forces has ever heard a shot fired in anger and so while they are well trained and have the latest equipment, none have any actual combat experience. That, however, is something all but one of the countries covered here have in common and Japan does have a strong submarine tradition which is more important than most probably realize.

Malaysian submarine Tunku Abdul Rahman
When one thinks of naval powers, the Kingdom of Malaysia probably does not spring immediately to mind. However, if one considers the geography of the country, it does make sense for Malaysia to put a priority on naval defense. They could probably do with more. The Royal Malaysian Navy currently operates a grand total of two Scorpène-class diesel-electric submarines, a Franco-Spanish design built under license by a number of countries and operated currently by Chile, India and Brazil as well as Malaysia. The Malaysian boats were purchased from France. They include some of the latest advances in underwater endurance and an improved sonar system. Other than that, they are fairly typical of the sort of conventional boats that appear on the world market, solid, reliable and good value for money but not anything exceptional. In dealing with Malaysia’s immediate neighbors, they would be up to the challenge though having only two is obviously a weakness and against a major power such as China they would be only a minor bump in the road. Obviously, purchasing foreign boats also means depending on another power for such naval weaponry and this is a serious issue for Malaysia to consider. The old days of being able to depend on the Royal Navy for protection at sea are long gone.

Dutch Walrun-class submarine surfacing
Moving back to European waters, we have the case of the Kingdom of The Netherlands. Currently, King Willem Alexander has four submarines to call his own of the Walrus-class of diesel-electric boats. The lead boat of the class, HNLMS Walrus, was completed in 1989 and commissioned in 1992. A fire onboard caused a delay in getting the boat fully operational and out to sea, however, it is a highly advanced and innovative design that carries its age well. In NATO naval exercises this type of boat did quite well in mock actions against the U.S. Navy, penetrating an escort screen to make a theoretical attack on an American aircraft carrier. They are all around very good boats for their type and it does help that The Netherlands has a fine tradition of submarine service, even if most do not know about it. The first Japanese warship to be sunk in World War II was actually sunk by a Dutch submarine (O-Boat) and they took quite a toll on Japanese shipping in the waters of the (then) Dutch East Indies. They have good technology and talented personnel so that their only drawback is the small size of their fleet. Given that The Netherlands still has island possessions in the Caribbean, naval power is something that the Dutch should still give more attention to.

Norwegian submarines in Bergen
Compared to her neighbors, the Kingdom of Norway could be taken for a powerhouse in submarine warfare but, unfortunately, only if one looks at nothing but the numbers. The King of Norway currently has a force of six diesel-electric submarines of the Ula-class. Built in Germany, they have been in commission since 1989 so are rather old boats and most of their vital equipment comes from foreign countries. They are good boats, very quiet, highly maneuverable and are good value for money. However, they do show their age somewhat, have a fairly limited range and are not as technologically advanced as some others. For a country like Norway, they are an adequate force but realistically would not pose much of a threat to a potential enemy such as Russia. Being foreign built, they also show a lack of commitment to independent naval security. In cooperation with a stronger ally, they could be quite useful but, on their own, would not present much of a challenge.

Spanish sub Tramontana
Far to the south, the naval forces of the Kingdom of Spain have certainly declined a great deal from the days when the Spanish dominated the seven seas. His Catholic Majesty currently has a force of three diesel-electric submarines of the French Agosta-class in the Armada Española. These boats have been around since 1977, older even than Malaysia’s Scorpène-class boats and not even the latest of their type (which is used by Pakistan). They were built under license in Spain, which is something, and one was even recently deployed during the Libyan emergency though, of course, it saw no action. They are decent boats and do provide the Spanish navy with options they would not otherwise have but neither are they anything to write home about. Their capabilities are quite limited and other designs have made them rather outdated. All of which is a shame, along with the fact that Spain has no real submarine combat tradition, considering that in the early days of submarine development the Spanish were much more involved than most people today realize. As was sadly common, internal instability in Spain simply prevented anything from coming from this period of early promise with the downfall of the monarchy, the Second Republic, the Spanish Civil War and of course the recent economic collapse allows for little hope that Spanish naval might will be returning in the foreseeable future.

Swedish submarine Gotland
If, however, there is any one country that would probably take the most people by surprise in the field of submarine warfare it would probably be the Kingdom of Sweden. For a country that has been so adamantly neutral for so long, the Swedes have shown an admirable focus on being independent in security matters, even if such independence does not always equal actual military strength. The Swedish Royal Navy currently operates a small force of five diesel-electric submarines, a meager force but all Swedish in their design and construction. Three of these are from the most recent Gotland-class which were commissioned in 1996. They have been around for a while but are very advanced boats, the Swedes being pioneers in the field of Air Independent Propulsion which has revolutionized the endurance of conventional submarines and been widely copied around the world. These boats were impressive enough that one was borrowed by the U.S. Navy to test American anti-submarine forces against a conventionally powered submarine enemy and the Swedish boat performed extremely well in the ensuing exercises. They are very quiet, have good endurance and are able to perform a variety of functions. Again, the only drawbacks are that they are few in number and are getting older. Still, they are quite capable and are domestically produced, which is good. There just are not many of them nor does Sweden have a submarine tradition like some other naval powers.

HMS Victorious, Vanguard-class SSBN
Finally, we come to the last name on our list and perhaps fittingly so for that is, of course, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. When looking at the British, there are positive as well as negative aspects to be considered with the sheer number of positive aspects making the negative ones all the more infuriating. The British have a strong submarine tradition, have survived two devastating submarine campaigns against them and have a level of actual experience that absolutely no one in the world today can match, Russia and America included. The U.K. is currently the only monarchy in the world that operates nuclear submarines as well as being the only monarchy that possesses nuclear weapons. The Royal Navy is the only force to date that has sunk an enemy ship with a nuclear submarine and one of only two countries in the world to have successfully attacked an enemy ship with a submarine since the end of World War II (the other being, believe it or not, Pakistan, which sunk an Indian ship with an old French sub they had purchased). The Royal Navy has tradition few can match, experience that none can match, great tools and great talent. That being said, there are problems.

HMS Ambush, Astute-class SSN
Her Britannic Majesty currently operates a force of eleven submarines so, yes, in terms of the number of boats, Great Britain is lagging some distance behind pacifist Japan. Four of these are nuclear ballistic missile submarines (the Queen’s sole independent nuclear deterrent) and seven are nuclear attack submarines (ballistic missile submarines - SSBN, nuclear attack subs - SSN). The SSBN boats are of the Vanguard-class, each armed with 16 Trident nuclear ballistic missiles. In exercises, they have proven themselves capable of doing what they are intended for, however, the class has had a number of mechanical problems and mishaps that have taken some of the luster from their escutcheon (as it were). The seven attack submarines are of the Trafalgar-class and the new and improved Astute-class nuclear boats. Both of these types are extremely good, the Trafalgar-class being one of the best SSN types in the world in its time and the Astute-class being basically bigger and better. They are quiet, highly adaptable and pack a powerful punch, combining torpedoes and cruise missiles in their arsenal of weapons. In every way except for numbers the submarines of the Royal Navy are probably the only ones on the level of the United States and Russia. They have great equipment, unmatched experience and highly competent personnel. The training routine for British submarine commanders, the Perisher Course, is arguably the best in the world and a number of countries have sent naval personnel to be trained by the Royal Navy.

HMS Astute, underway
The biggest drawback, obviously, is that a force of eleven submarines is extremely limited for an island nation that depends on the sea lanes for its very survival and which still has a number of very far flung overseas possessions to defend. The British military has publicly said that they are basically incapable of independent military operations at this point and while the submarines of the Royal Navy are highly effective, they are far too few. Consider the fact that Britain has 11 submarines whereas the one major naval power that has most threatened Great Britain, Russia, has a fleet of 61 submarines, including recent models of extremely high quality. That is more than all the monarchies in Europe combined and by a wide margin. For monarchies on the other side of the world, the biggest concern is China which recently surpassed Russia in having the second-largest submarine fleet in the world with 69 boats and that number is growing faster than anywhere else in the world as well. China has territorial disputes with almost all of their neighbors, including Japan and Malaysia and the Chinese now operate conventional and nuclear attack submarines as well as ballistic missile submarines. Early on the quality of their boats was laughably poor but they have been steadily improving and today, while still lagging behind more well established naval powers, no one is laughing anymore for sure.

Russian Kilo-class sub purchased by Iran
All in all, there is a great deal of high quality naval weapons listed above that the people of the monarchies in the world can be very proud of. The problem is that none of them would be capable of dealing with a major naval power on their own, due to having too few boats and many of those being elderly and all but the British being restricted to conventional power plants. Think about the monarchies not on this list as well. None of the Arab monarchies possess a single submarine whereas the Iranians are currently operating three Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines purchased from Russia which are very capable boats. They also have an extensive fleet of midget-subs but, frankly, they have yet to prove worthy of any consideration at all. China, as mentioned, has more submarines than anyone other than the United States (which currently has 75 on duty) and nearby monarchies such as Thailand, Cambodia and Brunei have none (and certainly in the case of Brunei, lack of sufficient funds cannot be used as an excuse). If it came to blows, without American involvement, Australia would be easily swamped by a Chinese tidal wave of naval forces. Currently, if Australians managed to suppress their mockery and denigration of the English long enough to ask for help, Britain could do little more than lodge a formal protest with the United Nations.

HNLMS Zeeleeuw
The bottom-line then is that all of these countries should be doing much more to make national security a priority than is currently the case, especially if they are unhappy with the current alliance system. I know, many see any major conflict as totally beyond the realm of possibility but history teaches us that such sentiments are hardly new. Many people, many times, have thought the same thing and wars have often broken out when least expected. And, even if you are happy with the current system of alliances, you still should be concerned. It is, I would say, unwise for any country to depend entirely on another power for protection if at all possible, no matter who that power may be. Likewise, just because things have been relatively peaceful for quite some time, does not mean they always will be. There are real threats in the world today and make no mistake about it there are still forces out there that would be all too happy to threaten you, to take what you have, if they thought they could get away with it. If, as is the case today, you live in a country that has reduced your naval inventory to a mere handful of vessels and are having trouble even finding sailors to man them, that is a sign of a serious problem; a problem of a populace that is not taking their national security seriously at all.

1 comment:

  1. As a Malaysian, I must tell you that while I wish for an all-powerful Royal Malaysian Navy, our location between the shallow waters of the South China Sea and the Malaccan Straits renders submarines practically (though not totally) unnecessary for us. They were purchased for scandalous, political reasons and were not even able to sink properly at first try. And with our lack of simple effective radar, lack of manpower, and a political class behaving as if it were a presidential cabinet in a republican federation of monarchies, the situation for Malaysia is dire.

    Still, there is hope. The Raja Muda, or Crown Prince, of Selangor (the sultanate-state in which I live) has been sent to Sandhurst by HRH Sultan Sharafuddin for an education. So, I sit in hope for the day an Agong reigns over Malaysia that knows the importance of national defense. Daulat Tuanku!


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