Saturday, October 2, 2010

SSK's, Do We Need Them? Part 1

HMS Upholder, Unseen, Ursula and Unicorn
I have read on many blogs and other articles that both the US Navy and the Royal Navy should bring back large fleets of SSK's. There are two main reason's sighted for this.

Firstly the cost, Diesel powered submarines are significantly cheaper than the Nuclear alternative. Secondly their capability, SSK's are much quieter than SSN's especially when using air independent propulsion. Both of these arguments are sound however they neglect one key point. Neither the US Navy or the Royal Navy  require submarine presence near their own coasts. Submarines have to be deployed to their stations. SSK's lack the speed range and endurance of SSN's. With this in mind is their any point in us having them.

The last SSK's in operation with the Royal Navy where the Upholder class. The boats were built in the late 1980's but were paid off in the early 90's following the end of the cold war. The boats were sold to Canada and re named the Victoria Class.

Upholder Class re-named Victoria
The reason for building these boats was to supplement the Royal Navy's Nuclear force. The Royal Navy felt it required 12 diesel electric boats to supplement its 14 Nuclear fleet submarines. Nuclear Submarines could not be built fast enough to give the numbers required. They were also much cheaper to build. The boats typically operated in UK waters but would deploy into the Greenland-Iceland Gap as well as the Mediterranean.

Advantages of SSK's

Their are a number of advantages to having SSK's

  • SSK's are cheaper and quicker to build than Nuclear Boats
  • They are quieter than SSN's
  • AIP's can give decent endurance and speed and is very quiet
  • They are smaller and more capable of operating in littorals
  • They can visit friendly ports to refuel and arm
  • They can be exported
  • They do not require expensive decommissioning and treatment of their fuel
  • They require smaller crews
  • They do not require expensive Nuclear engineers to run them
  • Even with AIP their transit range and speed is poor
  • They are not as fast as SSN's
  • They are slower than ASW escorts
  • They are not as large and are unable to carry as much weaponry
As we can see there are a number of pros and con's. The main issue with these boats is there ability to transit to operations area's. However if we opted to base these boats in theatre then that would no longer be an issue. Almost all operations we are likley to conduct will be in the Indian Ocean. If we deploy an SSN to the the Indian Ocean then we will either need to transit the Suez Canal or spend 3 weeks travelling around Africa. A Suez transit is hardly stealthy and it makes the boat very vulnerable to the likes of a terrorist attack. We would also have to assume that Suez would be open in a potential crisis. A three week transit around Africa is hardly a rapid response.

If we base SSK's in Diego Garcia then we can have them placed close to their area of operation. If we based SSN's in Diego Garcia then India would likley freak out. An SSN is viewed as a capital ship. It is a major statement of intent. An SSK is seen as a standard naval vessel. It does not make a political statement.

Having three SSK's homeported in Diego Garcia would allow us to patrol areas from the Gulf and Somali coast to the straits of Malacca and South China Sea. They would be an ideal way to insert small special forces teams into terrorist countries. Or to hold the line against China should it ever become aggressive in the Indian Ocean. The vessels could train along side our allies such as Australia and India and help cement our relation's with them.

Industry and Cooperation

At present Australia is looking for a partner to build a new fleet of SSK's to replace its Collins class. Australia is looking at 12 boats. There requirements are for an SSK which is similar in size, weapons payload and capability to an SSN. They also want the boat to be able to transit long distances and operate well into the Indian Ocean and Pacific. Australia has no indigenous submarine capability and it is desperately looking for a partner who does. At present the US is slated to possibly fill this role. However the US has not built a diesel boat since the USS Dolphin in 1962.

USS Dolphin

BAE Australia will likley complete any work on these vessels done in Australia. If we also select to build a number of these boast then we could expect atleast the first 4 Australian hulls to be completed by BAE in the United Kingdom at Barrow. With the end of the Astute production Barrow will have nothing to do until the Vanguard replacement. Indeed one of the main reasons the Vanguard replacement has to be so early is to keep the yard in Barrow going.

To retain our submarine manufacturing skill base we must complete a new boat every 22 months. With an RN fleet that is likely to contain only 6 SSN's and 3-4SSBN's this will be impossible in future. Supplementing this fleet with 4 SSK's as well as export orders from allies could allow us to atleast keep the yard in Barrow going. With a number of Navy's around the world looking to increase their Submarine fleets would would be able to re-enter a defence market that we have not been in for 30 years. At present both Germany and France have been very successful in selling their diesel electric boats across the world. This has helped their domestic industry to weather the decline in orders from their own military.

British Design for Collins Class Replacement


If we purchased 4 boat's we could base 3 of them in Diego Garcia. One of the 4 boat's would be in the UK on deep refit at all times. This would allow us to have one on patrol in the Indian Ocean at all times with two more ready able to deploy in a time of crisis. It would help to take allot of the strain off of the SSN's. With only 6 SSN's likley in future we can expect at best to have two avalable. One is required to assist the SSBN's in transiting to and from port while the other will be required to go along with the Queen Elizabeth Battle Group. That will leave none for other duties.


  1. lift the export ban on nukes.
    If we still cant sell them, just run a 15 sub fleet.

    If india get their knickers in a twist, tough, they cant have DG, and they should have bigger things to worry about closer to home

  2. I would love a 15 sub fleet but lets face it it aint going to happen. A British or American SSN's reactor require Uranium that is so highly enriched that it is it's self a nucleur weapon. Long and the short of it is we can't export SSN's and we are never going to be able to build enough to keep our yards going.

  3. I understand it might be a legal problem, but realisticaly, buying Astutes would be a very expensive way of amassing a nuclear arsenal.

    We would have a pretty small customer list though, India?

    Also, I'm just guessing, but I think the 22month order things is more nuclear than anything else. At the end of the day, a normal ship submerses, mostly.

  4. Hi Raging tory, The 22 month thing is partly a Nuclear thing and partly a barrow thing. At the end of the day its cheaper to keep the Rolls Royce Nuclear facility sitting around doing nothing on a govenment subsiday than to keep both them and barrow sitting around.

    Astute would not have many customers. Australia was an option but I don't think they will go Nuclear now. Brazil and India would be the only possibilities.