1997 Congressional Hearings
Intelligence and Security


8 APRIL 1997

The submarine challenges that face the U.S. Navy today are more diverse and complex than those faced during the “Cold War”. These challenges now encompass both the open ocean and the littoral. They range from stealthy, highly capable, and modern Russian submarines in open ocean at one end of the spectrum to relatively unsophisticated, North Korean conventional submarines operating in shallow and acoustically demanding coastal waters at the other.

The proliferation of submarine technology is the most significant long-term submarine challenge facing the U.S. Navy as we approach the 21st century. There is a great deal of sophisticated submarine applicable technology floating in today’s marketplace. Taken individually, a towed array, a sound mount, a submerged launch anti-ship missile or a new type fuel cell may seem relatively benign. However, when new and advanced sensors, quieting technology, firepower and propulsion are combined, they form the components of mission success. As such, these new technologies may be backfitted to older platforms or incorporated into new construction. The “mix and match” of these components by existing or prospective submarine forces has the potential to yield surprising advances in submarine capability.

While the total number of submarines worldwide is in decline, the general quality level of the world’s submarine fleets is rising. “Quantity” is being replaced by “quality”. This trend is exemplified in both the Russian and Chinese navies - two of the major elements of the submarine challenge triangle facing the U.S. Navy. The Russian submarine force has undergone a numerical decline of 60% since 1990, and the Chinese submarine force will likely decline by about 30% over the next decade. However, this decrease in numbers is being accompanied by significant qualitative improvements in their new submarines.

Turning from general trends to specific challenges, the Russian submarine force remains atop the submarine challenge triangle. Like the rest of the Russian armed forces, the Navy is facing severe financial constraints which affect procurement, readiness, manning and morale. To manage the impact of its resource problems, the Russian Navy, in the early 1990’s, made a series of hard choices aimed at preserving its core submarine force capabilities. These included early retirements of older and less capable units, strict controls on operating tempo, and focused maintenance on its best submarines. The Russian Navy continues to invest in new construction. In recent years, it has completed several new submarines of the third generation OSCAR SSGN and AKULA SSN classes and has begun construction of its fourth generation LADA SS, SEVERODVINSK SSN and BOREY SSBN class submarines. In addition to its investment in new construction, the Russian submarine force has been investing in its tactical and operational development by conducting demanding anti-SSBN and anti-Surface deployments near the U.S. and allied nations. The technological components and technical/operational knowledge underpinning this force is world class and increasingly for sale.

Russia’s continuing investment in its submarine force, even in this period of great austerity, is not particularly surprising. Russia’s grip on superpower status springs from the viability of its remaining strategic nuclear weapons. If ratified under START II, more than half of Russia’s strategic weapons will reside aboard SSBNs. Thus, by their inherent strategic value, the SSBNs, and their supporting general purpose forces (SSs, SSNs and SSGNs), remain at the vital center of Russian defense planning and national security.

China represents the second element of today’s submarine challenge triangle. China has announced a tenfold increase in the area of its strategic maritime interests from 200 km off its coast (“first island chain”) to 2000 km off its coast (“second island chain”). It is making major investments in its maritime forces to enable the Navy to implement its missions in this expanded area. Much of this investment is being applied to improvements in the submarine force. China hopes to leap generations of technology in its acquisition and production of modern submarines.

Like Russia, China is replacing quantity with quality in its submarine upgrade program. Its current conventional submarine force is largely obsolete, being composed of ROMEO and MING SSs with 1950’s era design and technology. These old diesel submarines are in the process of being replaced by smaller numbers of the indigenously produced SONG SS. The SONG is the first Chinese submarine equipped with a submerged-launch anti- ship cruise missile. China has also decided to acquire four KILO SSs from Russia. Two of these boats will be upgraded units with improved quieting and sonar technology. The improved KILOs are among the quietest conventional submarines in the world, and coupled with the SONG SS, provide a generational leap in China’s conventional submarine technology.

Nuclear powered submarines are an important component in China’s status as a regional power. China currently operates a force of five HAN class SSNs and is preparing a new design for production in the next century. This new SSN, the Type 093, is expected to be similar in design and capability to the Russian VICTOR III SSN. Like the SONG SS, it will carry submerged-launch antiship cruise missiles and will be a significant advancement from the HAN.

China, like the other major nuclear powers, recognizes the desirability of mobility and stealth in the deployment of its strategic nuclear forces. The nuclear powered submarine provides these advantages and China will construct a limited number of SSBNs to supplement the single XIA class SSBN now in service. This new class, designated the Type 094, will be fitted with a new ballistic missile currently under development, the JL-2 with a range of over 4000 nm - making it China’s first truly intercontinental strategic nuclear delivery system.

The third and perhaps most demanding element of the submarine challenge triangle is composed of those “countries of concern” that are acquiring or building submarine capabilities for use in their home waters and along the littoral. Shallow, coastal waters with difficult acoustic conditions have always been a most challenging environment for ASW forces. The missions of these submarines generally include anti-shipping, mining and special force operations. The execution of these simple missions along the littoral does not require the world’s best technology or the most sophisticated crew training. These countries recognize that even a small, conventionally powered, submarine force performing these limited missions can yield temporary great power status within a limited geographic area - like the Strait of Hormuz.

Developments within the North Korean and Iranian submarine forces exemplify the challenges posed by “countries of concern”. In the past year, North Korea demonstrated that its rudimentary SANGO class submarines can support special force operations and operate, undetected, for extended periods in shallow coastal waters off South Korea. SANGOs would conduct their other wartime missions of mining and anti-shipping operations in similar coastal waters around the Korean peninsula. It is perhaps a measure of the submarines’ perceived utility that despite the severe economic hardships besetting North Korea, that government remains committed to serial production of the SANGO class submarine.

Iran received its third and final KILO SS from Russia in January of this year. The acquisition of these submarines is an important element of Iran’s declared goal of controlling the Strait of Hormuz and consolidating naval superiority in the Persian Gulf. The KILOs can carry wake-homing and acoustic torpedoes, as well as mines, and will likely be tasked in wartime with interdicting surface ship traffic in the strategically vital strait. Like the North Korean diesels, the Iranian submarines will have the advantage of coastal operating areas with complex acoustic environments. The Iranian KILO’s will also have aspects of “home field advantage”, including the support of Iranian air defense forces and nearby logistics sites. While submarine operations were limited in 1996 due to material problems, the Iranians are working to overcome their difficulties and a more robust operational schedule may be expected in the future.