Threat from PLA Navy submarines has become a challenge to the world now. There is a need to go beyond conventional Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW) to mitigate the imbalance being created by the PLA.
That China is on a steady course to usurping the USA’s position as the world’s most dominant power appears certain. It is only a question of when that would happen, and not whether it will. The differences in the way Covid affected the two countries and how they handled it has apparently speeded up the rate at which China is catching up with the USA. Further, while the USA, a chaotic democracy, is forced to use some of its energy in clearing the embers of their conflicts around the world, an autocratic China has the freedom to focus its energies wherever they please. While the rise of China as the world’s leading power will have wide-ranging ramifications for India, I wish to highlight one particular challenge, which, owing to its magnitude and nature, will need careful thought and early mitigation. That is the looming threat of PLAN submarines in the IOR and our reaction to it, which will have to be more than mere Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW).
Interests at Sea
No matter how many long term agreements they will enter into with Russia, Iran, Central Asian republics or other land powers on the Eurasian continent, the Indian Ocean will remain important for China. That they have understood this well, and that they have been steadily creating the necessary strategic link-ups for this for over three decades, is well known. Nothing that the world has thrown at them, seems to have deterred them from pursuing their aims. In the world of big power rivalries, it is important for every player to understand its correct position in the practical pecking order and use its energies prudently to protect its interests in this world. Towards this, hedging against being threatened in critical areas, is a must. Protecting our maritime interests is one such need for India. And that threat is mainly from PLAN submarines.
Unfortunately for those arrayed against them, submarines hold all the aces, as the laws of physics protect them. Sound, the only practical energy that can get them underwater, showers all its blessings on submarines. But all is not lost. Driven to desperation by the stupendous destruction caused by submarines in the two World Wars, the world squeezed out every possibility from the use of sound, to fight submarines. By amplifying what nature delivered in minuscule quantities, using electronics, the world created several solutions that gave them a fighting chance against submarines. But quantum jumps in the submarine world, by way of nuclear propulsion and SLBMs, coupled with the Soviet policy of placing a large part of their strategic offensive on their submarines, forced the US and their allies to develop innovative solutions. The result was a complex web of fixed underwater sensors, ships, submarines, helicopters, long-range fixed-wing aircraft and monitoring stations on shore engaged in recording a massive amount of data and its analysis. This was both elaborate and expensive, But there was no choice. With the current proliferation of PLAN submarines, what the USA faced in North Pacific and North Atlantic in the 1970s and 80s is what India could face in the not so far future. How we mitigate this future problem too, can’t be very different from the way the US and their allies did it then.
Lessons from a Temporary Distraction
With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the humongous ASW capability developed by the US and their allies turned vestigial overnight. To complicate matters, the next enemy that emerged, Russian built EKMs operating with the Iranian Navy, one of the most silent conventional submarines in the world, produced hardly any noise while underway. They could even turn as mute as a rock, by switching off machinery and staying still, underwater. This was a great challenge, because nuclear submarines, the erstwhile enemy, always radiated some sound, owing to their nuclear plants and associated steam systems which could not be switched off underwater. True to form, the US and their allies matched motives and means and produced several solutions, the essence of which, can be seen in a 2005 USN document, titled Full Spectrum ASW. This was quickly adopted as Navy doctrine.
Essentials of the New Doctrine
The new formulation was a huge shift from the old. It was a holistic approach to ASW, that considered an important truth and an old assumption. The truth was that odds always favoured submarines. The assumption was that submarines, being tough to find, were also tough to be destroyed. The new percept, therefore, was that submarines needed to be only defeated, and not destroyed. This was because owing to their slow speeds and depletable battery power, it was not possible for conventional submarines to catch up with situations at sea. Sufficiently distracted and delayed, they could get left out of battles. The new Doctrine had ten distinct phases, some of them possible, only against enemies with whom the US and their allies enjoyed asymmetric advantages in national capacities. The new approach made ASW the responsibility of National Policy, Diplomacy, Intelligence and National Technological Capabilities, making it much beyond its traditional realm of pure military capabilities.
Step 1 was to create conditions where the potential enemy did not acquire, and if they acquired, did not employ, submarines. Stopping the proliferation of submarines was therefore a stated aim, for which Diplomacy and Policy were important tools. Step 2 was to defeat submarines while they were in port, for which, the tools were Intelligence and the necessary operational capabilities. Step 3 was to defeat shore-based Command and Control setups that supported submarines. Tools for this were Intelligence and Operational/ Technical capabilities. Step 4 was to defeat submarines in the vicinity of ports, shortly after their departure. Tools for this too were Intelligence and Operational/ Technical capabilities. Step 5 was to defeat submarines in choke points, for which technical capabilities for very shallow water detection and attack, were the tools. The world luckily has several choke points, through which submarines have to pass. Step 6 was to defeat submarines in the open ocean. This was the point at which, ASW, which till step 5 was only offensive in nature, now had defensive and offensive elements. The tools for this were capabilities for deepwater ASW and large area searches. Step 7 was to draw submarines into ASW ‘kill boxes’, at the time and place of own choosing, with the tools for it being Decoys and Maneouvre. Step 8 was to mask own forces from detection or classification by submarines, using Decoys and Acoustic/ Electromagnetic ‘quieting’. In this step, they were exploiting a perennial curse that submarines have to live with, that of having to rely on their ears alone, to figure out the happenings above them. The penultimate step was to ‘defeat’ submarines in a close battle, using technical capabilities and manoeuvre. The final step, which graciously acknowledged the huge challenges faced by even the best ASW forces in this world, was to ‘defeat’ incoming torpedoes, using technical capabilities and manoeuvre.
The entire ASW procedures that were born till the end of the Cold War, were now encompassed in step 5 onwards. Quite rightly, ASW had grown out of the military realm. It was now a national, and in the case of the US and their friends, an international responsibility.
Dusting up old lessons
With PLAN submarines poised to challenge them with SSBNs, SSNs, and conventional submarines, the US and their allies will have to dust up all their old lessons. There is no option. Creating the necessary capabilities to mitigate the new challenges is a hugely expensive proposition. Again, there are no options. However, in the new situation, Europe is not nearby, to give land-based support. New allies will have to be found for that.
Lessons for India
We are not placed like Western Europe in their erstwhile fight with the USSR. The strategic linkages that we have with the USA or with the members of possible alliances, like the QUAD or QUAD plus, are very different. It is not wrong to assume, that practically, we are on our own. This calls for serious rethinking. As of now, our approach is still traditional, with only new equipment replacing the old. Our philosophy is not changing. But this has to change, for we as a country are going to face everything the US is going to face too. It is time we took our fight against submarines, to levels beyond classical ASW.
There is much hope. We already have growing awareness and action, in the difficult area of developing Underwater Domain Awareness in our country. We have choke points in the vicinity of friendly countries, through which PLAN submarines have to transit. We have the geographic assets of our own and of friendly countries in the region, which can physically support our operations. We have capable allies who can share intelligence and provide technological help. We have the money. Above all, we also have the widespread angst that many dozens of countries in the region harbour against the Chinese, which can be a strong international glue that binds. We just need to focus.
Title image courtesy: https://www.navalnews.com/naval-news/2020/12
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of India and Defence Research and Studies