Thursday, September 29, 2011

Submarines and Numbers

***Unapologetic Geek & Nerd alert!***
Read on at your own risk.

The other day I posted to Google+ that the United States could shadow every deployed element of the Iranian Navy without a major dip in its combat capabilities. This was in reply to an article that said Iran was planning to deploy its own navy more aggressively, and possibly "near American waters". I wasn't even remotely worried, not only is our navy larger, it is orders of magnitude more capable. My original comment was that the US could put one of its fast attack submarines on the tail of a Iranian surface ship and more or less blow it out of the water if it so much as shot a firecracker at a ship in international waters. The lopsidedness of such a pairing would be laughable if human lives weren't in th balance.

Well, that got me thinking (a dangerous development), about world navies and their respective naval powers. More to the point, I was interested in comparing their submarine forces, since Submarines are more uniform in their use than almost any other class of seagoing vessel. I ran some numbers, and then referenced them against the listed populations of each nation. I'll get to the relevance of that in a second, but let me show you the numbers.

First of all, a bit about the abbreviations.
SSN is the US designation for a nuclear fast attach submarine.  
SSBN is the US designation for a nuclear ballistic missile submarine. 
SS is the US designation for a conventional submarine.

The list below is hardly exhaustive of all navies. These were just nations that I happened to be familiar with militarily. The info was from Wikipedia, so we know there are some room for error to be considered. Second, I'm going to make some huge generalizations here. There are exceptions to these, I know, but still, I can't account for all of the nuances of the world submarine fleet in one blog post.

Nuclear fast attack submarines like the American Los Angeles class are long range power projection weapons. They are designed to leave American ports, submerge, and then not surface again until they came home three months later. They are large, heavy, and not as quiet as most modern conventionally powered submarines, meaning that some measure of stealth is sacrificed for range and endurance. Most current nuclear powered submarines that I am aware of are capable of firing guided missiles. The ability isn't necessarily innate to the technology, but a nation that can afford to build a sub-sized reactor has probably already fielded guided missiles.

Ballistic missile submarines are something of an odd-man out in this game. Ideally, they are designed to leave port and vanish for 3 months, doing nothing but hiding so that a foreign power will never precisely know where that segment of the nation's nuclear arsenal is. However, there is an increasing movement lately to use the stealth and experience of these ships and their crews to deploy special forces and carry cruise missiles as a conventional offensive weapon. Four Ohio class submarines have been so modified.

Conventionally powered (diesel-electric) boats are generally a defensive vessel. Their range, speed and endurance, size, payload and warload are almost always smaller than a nuclear-powered fast attack submarine. That's not to say that they can't be used offensively, but the limited abilities means that that type of activity would likely not the be norm, or would be accordingly scaled down in a modern conflict.

Now, lets look at the numbers.

Pop. / Submarine Population SSN SSBN SS Total
United States 4,398,746 312,311,000 53 18 71
China 20,298,861 1,339,724,852 7 4 55 66
Russia 2,977,192 142,905,208 20 11 17 48
Great Britain 5,660,182 62,262,000 7 4 11
France 6,582,189 65,821,885 6 4 10
Australia 3,786,397 22,718,381 6 6
Norway 831,500 4,989,000 6 6

First of all, The United States has the most combat submarines of any nation in the world. This makes sense since it is the most geographically isolated the world's major players, with the Atlantic and Pacific oceans between it an most of its principal allies. Its military doctrine has been centered on its ability to protect sea lanes, and project military force over water. The fact that all of its submarines are "fleet" grade nuclear boats also supports that policy.

China is the second highest number of submarines. But if you look carefully,  only 11 of those are nuclear powered, meaning it they have limited projection abilities.  But it you really want to compare numbers, look at the population per submarine. The United states currently has one submarine for every 4.3 million US citizens. Now, look at China. Their numbers pale in comparison. They have 20 million people for every submarine, and most of those subs are strategically defensive in nature. This shows a defensive Naval doctrine, one where a fight will likely be had in Chinese waters, and not the open ocean or off of another nation's coast. If you look at modern policy, and modern politics, that fits with what we know of china. Most of its adversaries share a land border with it, and in the grand scheme of things, it has limited military obligations or interests outside of that scope.

Russia is an interesting animal as well. First of all, a lot of their arsenal is upkeep and rebuilds of cold-war and 1990s era equipment built by the Soviet Union. But still, if you look at their numbers, its a telling correlation. Per Capita, they have one submarine for every 3 million people (2.9 if you want to get technical), and a full half of that is nuclear powered fast attack submarines. This shows a nation that wants to be able to project  its power and take the fight to "the other guy" rather than  hunker down in friendly waters. Again using the US as the benchmark, this is a nation with a more aggressive naval strategy and doctrine, and more intentions (or aspirations at the very least) for force projection.

On paper, Great Brittan (.062 Billion) has the same  "fleet" (nuclear) submarine force (though higher quality) as China 1.339 Billion) . Relatively speaking, this shows how unagressive China currently is with its navy, while Great Britain still clearly wants to retain some level of naval force. Still, per capita, The queen has fewer submarines than the US with 5.6 million people per submarine. Again, looking at the numbers, this is a nation that wants to protect its ability to use the ocean, but feels it has fewer obligations than the US. I hate to skip over France, but if you look at the numbers, the populations, and the boats, they are more or less in the same situation as England, with a force meant to send power elsewhere, rather than just wait for it to come to their coast.

I included Australia because I was interested in their situation. Militarily, there are very few forces in the world that pose a direct threat to the island nation, and no one realistically able to invade and occupy. Their submarine fleet consists of 6 conventionally powered boats, all built with western technology in Australia. Whats interesting  is that even though they only have 6 boats, if you math that out against their population, they are more invested in a strong naval defensive strategy than any of the above players aside from Russia. 3.7million people per boat. While their navy will probably never numerically rival America or China, when you consider their population, they are a nation that feels that a naval conflict might well come to them, and they need to be able to stand up to it.

Last but not least, Norway was a bit of a pleasant shock to me. I look them up because I knew they had a formidable submarine fleet for the region. What I found was a nation who's conventional sub force matched Australia's, and in terms of raw number of attack submarines, was also on a par with Great Brittan and France. All this from a nation that boasts 4 million people, just over 831 thousand per submarine. This is a nation that clearly feels like it needs to be able to stand up to some heavy hitters in order to protect its own coast. When you consider than they more or less exists as a next door neighbor to Russia, that postulation fits.

Now, part of the reason this comparison works is how specific the mission of the submarine is. Yes, the role of the sub has expanded greatly over the years, but in the grand scheme of things, it still has a very limited, focused role in modern warfare. Conversely, the flexibility and power most modern surface ships has diversified almost beyond belief. The size of a ship today has far less bearing on its firepower or function that it did in times past. Classifications like frigate, destroyer and cruiser are now pointless, with modern navies increasingly equipping all of their ships with guided missiles and powerful radars. Where twenty years ago there was a single ship for nearly every purpose in the US navy, the word stage today is based more on adapting and modifying. A destroyer could be doing the work of a cruiser one day, and then loading refugees from a war torn nation the next, and then ferrying special forces for a helicopter raid on the third. That really is where we are with it. As such, looking at and evaluating a Navy's surface fleet is a lot more dicey than looking at its submarines. Having a lot of amphibious assault ships would indicate a navy with a strong offensive doctrine (which the US has), but lately, the Italian, Spanish and British navies have been training to use their small aircraft carriers as assault ships as well, giving them a duel purpose ship, making it hard to decide where the emphasis is on a given day.

In the end, it is a lot of academia, and a lot of numbers, and if you're not into it, it is all very dry. But, if you are willing to shift through it all, and do some basic reading, figures like these can help shed new light on news reports like "china is building a new submarine", or "the United States is decommissioning one of its submarines". Submarines are just one facet of the equation. What you really need to look for is abilities, and what nations are increasing what abilities. With that knowledge, you might catch yourself actually thinking one step ahead of the anchor on the evening news one day.

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