Guest Column | Advantage Subs

The government needs to accept that submarines are the most-effective part of undersea warfare

Cmde Anil Jai Singh (retd)Cmde Anil Jai Singh (retd)

The distinct maritime orientation of the Indo-Pacific and its emergence as the centre of gravity of global geopolitics in the 21st century has highlighted the importance of navies as the principal instruments of state policy for safeguarding the individual and collective maritime interests of the region.

This has led to an augmentation of naval capability across the region and nowhere more so than in the undersea warfare domain. This ranges from the non-glamorous and low-cost, albeit effective mine warfare at the lower end to the other extreme of strategic ballistic missile submarines.  Add to this the elements required to counter these threats and the underwater battlespace encompasses not only the three traditional dimensions viz., sub-surface, surface and air but increasingly, the fast emerging other two as well, i.e. space and cyberspace. However, submarines are its most important and effective constituent and the term synonymous with anti-submarine warfare. In fact, in the Indian Navy, ‘Anti-Submarine Warfare’ is still the preferred term vis-à-vis ‘Undersea Warfare’.

This article will focus mainly on the submarine related aspects of this domain, for reasons of space.

The undersea warfare domain is assuming ever greater strategic, operational and tactical significance. Bilateral and multilateral flashpoints continue to flare up and delineation of maritime boundaries is becoming increasingly contentious. ASW remains as important today as it did in the Cold War, albeit in a littoral environment with smaller regional navies also investing in submarines. This is especially true of the Indo-Pacific. The emergence of China and India as potential maritime powers, the Chinese maritime resurgence and its expanding presence in the Indian Ocean with frequent submarine deployments, the US’s considerable naval presence east of the Malacca Straits, the West Asian cauldron, the regional nuclear conundrum and the vulnerabilities of numerous small states in the Indo-Pacific has created an unstable and uncertain maritime environment. This has led to nations reviewing their maritime security architecture and reorienting their force structure with the undersea warfare dimension forming an integral part of it.

With six of the world’s 10 declared and undeclared nuclear weapon states located in the Indo-Pacific, the presence of nuclear armed and propelled submarines will increase as these are not only the most effective delivery platforms but also the most credible second-strike element of the nuclear triad as also the ultimate deterrent. At the operational and tactical level, with the focus of operations shifting towards the littoral, sea denial will become the preferred strategy of the smaller navies.

Submarines are the ideal platforms for this. In fact, submarines not only make small navies credible but have also become instruments of limited sea control with their enhanced capabilities. In recent years, many nations in the Indo-Pacific have initiated submarine acquisition programmes. Developing a suitable military commensurate with its perception of its security imperatives is a natural and legitimate aspiration for a nation state and the presence of submarines is indicative of this.

The legendary Admiral, ‘Jacky’ Fisher famously articulated the potential of the submarine in 1904 when he said “It is astounding to me, perfectly astounding, how the very best amongst us fail to realise the most impending revolution in naval warfare and naval strategy that the submarine will accomplish”. This ‘Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA)’, the Russian term which gained currency with the exponential advances in technology changing familiar paradigms of naval warfare, manifested itself in submarine development which went from strength to strength through the two World Wars and the four-decade long Cold war that followed. Submarines played a major role in shaping not only the course of these conflicts, but to a certain extent influenced the shape of world history itself.

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