Last issue the question “why submarines” was answered. It was explained that submarines have the five significant operational characteristics of stealth, endurance, freedom of movement, flexibility and lethality, which when packaged together give them great operational effect in sea control, sea denial and maritime force projection operations.
It is now time to drill down a little further to examine in detail generic submarine roles. Part one of this analysis will look at peacetime roles. It is hard to resist the temptation to launch straight into a diatribe on what submarines do in wartime, but doing so would ignore that fact that submarines spend much, if not all, of their life cycle in a state of peace. In times of peace they can contribute to prevention of conflict, preparation for conflict, naval diplomacy and constabulary tasks.

Part two, next issue, will explore roles in time of conflict. Part three will wrap these peace and wartime roles into the Australian context such that it is possible to determine what type of submarine capability might best suit Australia’s needs.

Prevention of War

Submarines can contribute greatly to a nation’s deterrence strategy.

The fact that a nation possesses a credible submarine capability can deter an adversary from using military force to resolve an issue. Submarines contribute significantly to the cost that might be imposed on another nation if it elects to escalate a dispute and use force.

Another interesting aspect associated with the possession of a submarine capability is the burden it places on potential adversaries to raise, sustain and skill an Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capability. This activity can consume a significant proportion of potential adversary’s peacetime budget and resources.

Preparation for War


A major peacetime role for submarines is the training of submarine and ASW personnel.

Ownership of a capable submarine platform and associated weapons by themselves is not enough to ensure a high level of tactical success. In order for the submarine to be ready to carry out assigned tasks, it is necessary to train the personnel who operate and command them in such a way that they can calmly and competently carry out what is demanded of them. Submarines are also critical for providing realistic training to their own ASW practitioners.

Technological Evolution and Advancement

Another peacetime activity for naval planners and submarine force commanders is the development or procurement of new submarine technologies and equipment. Introducing newer technology than that possessed by an adversary gives a submarine force a great advantage.

Examples of technology changes which historically had great effect on submarine warfare include the introduction of the diesel engine, improved batteries, the snorkel, the reactor, hydrodynamic hull forms and shapes, acoustic quietening, narrowband sonar processing and Air Independent Propulsion. There are other less transformational technology examples that contribute in a smaller but still valuable way.

A submarine that remains technologically static throughout its life is one that slowly loses its capability edge.

Tactical Development

Coupled with the introduction of new technologies and equipment is the need to develop and update submarine and ASW tactics. Tactical and technological developments are so intertwined as to be inseparable.

Tactics need to change as technology changes. Tactics must also remain within the context of total force resources and capabilities, which demands a high level of individuality. The man with the quickest aim and the farthest vision will teach the wrong tactics to a man less well endowed.

Tactics are developed by uniformed and civilian specialist and then tested at sea using submarine and ASW assets. This development activity ensures submarine and ASW commanders have a range of tested tactical options available for any given scenario and that a variety of tactics exists to support a prolonged campaign.


Submarines can be used to conduct peacetime Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) operations.

A submarine can covertly enter an area and remain there undetected for significant time periods to observe and record enemy activities.

At the very technical data gathering levels, they can collect Acoustic Intelligence, Signal Intelligence – consisting of both Electronic Intelligence and Communications Intelligence – and, finally, Visual Intelligence. Submarines can position themselves to capture line of sight transmissions or observe undersea or over water tests that other assets are unable to see. Submarines fitted with multi-beam sonars and environmental instrumentation can also covertly collect bathymetric and sea floor classification data. Similar data collection, with the additional of ice thickness measurements, can be carried out underneath the polar ice cap – a useful thing to know if you plan to fire missiles through it, or come to the surface.
At a less technical level, submarines can conduct systematic and continuous observation of a targeted area or group to monitor operations, fleet movements and patterns or to establish tactics, strengths and weaknesses and vulnerabilities of a potential opponent.

Whilst a surface ship can carry out surveillance activities, it is not an especially covert method and the very presence of it – once noticed – may cause those being observed to alter their behaviour to prevent accurate intelligence being obtained. The submarine takes advantage of lapses in an enemy’s operational security and so is less vulnerable to an adversary’s operational deception. Aircraft, manned and unmanned, can also carry out surveillance but these platforms usually require back-to-back sorties to ensure sustained surveillance of a specific area and furthermore they can be limited by weather, cloud cover and the location of targets. Satellite observations are intermittent and predictable and are limited by cloud cover and orbital geometries – for example, the Indian atomic weapon programme came as a complete surprise to other nations due to an over-reliance on satellite monitoring.
Having said that, signals intercepted from submarines can complement space or air based signals intercepts. Information gathered by the submarine can also provide “tip off” information to allow optimal allocation other intelligence collection assets. Conversely, the product of submarine ISR operations can be greatly improved if information is passed to it from other strategic and operational surveillance assets.

Submarines are the optimum asset for detecting and observing underwater activity to establish an adversary’s true submarine capability. It might not be unusual to see submarines operating in close vicinity to another country’s submarine bases and operational areas, particularly noting the recent proliferation of modern submarines.
Sensitivities associated with ISR operations are high, particularly in relation to those operations that occur during peacetime. The “where, when and whys” associated with these missions attract some of the highest security classifications associated with peacetime military operations. Needless to say, they generally take place in the training and operating areas of likely adversaries.

It must also be pointed out that the volume of meaningful intelligence that can be collected can increase significantly the closer a submarine moves to shore. It may in fact be necessary to enter foreign waters so that line of sight information can be gathered. Certainly, some country’s submarine forces are given approval to operate inside foreign territorial waters during peacetime. Soviet submarines have been publicly reported in Danish (Greenland), Finnish, Italian, Norwegian and Swedish territorial waters. A Soviet Whiskey class submarine even ran aground near Sweden’s Karlskrona naval base on the 28th October 1981 and remained there for some weeks.

United States Navy submarines reportedly conducted operations inside Soviet territorial waters during the Korean War and other times during the Cold War, as did German submarines off the coast of Latvia and Lithuania. It is even possible that the Royal Australian Navy has been involved in such activities in the Asian region. In the Middle East, a foreign submarine believed to belong to a friendly nation also illegally penetrated Israeli waters in November 2004. North Korean submarines have been known to operate inside South Korean waters and in November 2004 a Chinese intruder submarine was caught operating inside Japanese waters. In mid-September 2008, the Japanese destroyer, ATAGO, visually detected the periscope of an intruder submarine, which it then tracked on active sonar for over 90 minutes.

Counter detection of a submarine inside another country’s waters, particularly in times of tension or if the detection occurred in a sensitive area, would probably have significant strategic implications and, accordingly, this sort of action would require the approval of the highest national authorities after appropriate risk versus gain assessments have been made.
More than 50% of the mission tasking of US Navy nuclear attack submarines is in the ISR domain.

Naval Diplomacy

Naval diplomacy covers a broad spectrum of naval activities, ranging from benign tasks such as joint exercises and goodwill visits. These demonstrate to foreign governments and foreign citizens an interest in their region. Other less positive violent acts short of war are intended to influence the thoughts and actions of foreign decision makers.
On first thought, submarines might not be considered useful for naval diplomacy on account of the fact that they need to retain their stealth to be effective and they also lack the ability to use proportional force. Deeper enquiry shows this to be incorrect. A submarine communicates a threat without its exact location being known and the introduction of low lethality weapon such as guns, mini-torpedoes and low yield missiles addresses the proportionality issue.

Submarines can indirectly support surface ships conducting naval diplomacy, which brings about a prima facie case that the submarines are also in fact playing a diplomacy role. They can also have direct influence in naval diplomacy. A submarine’s presence can be announced by submarine operating authorities, either discretely through diplomatic channels or via the media if public attention is desirable.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the US used one of its ballistic missile submarines to make a gesture towards the Soviets. At the time of the 1963 crisis, six ballistic missile submarines were at sea and one, USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN, was alongside undergoing maintenance at Holy Loch, Scotland. She was ordered to sail immediately in response to escalating tensions and did so a quick 15 hours later. Whilst the deployment was probably carried out for military expediency, it also provided a strategic signal to the Soviet Union, who would have been aware of the submarine’s unexpected departure.

During the height of the 1995 Turbot War between Canada and Spain, the Spanish Armada was asked to prepare a surface task group to send to Canadian waters. One of the Canadian responses to the prospect of a hostile fleet being sent was to establish a submarine Notice of Intention off the Grand Banks. This was done so through NATO’s SUBOPAUTH using submarine Water Space Management protocols. Whether or not a Canadian submarine was ever deployed in the area was not considered important. What was important was this made Spain acutely aware that a submarine may be operating in the area. Whether this helped to de-escalate the situation is unknown, but it was certainly one tool the Canadian government used to resolve this unfortunate incident between NATO states. The Spanish Armada’s frigates and tankers never sailed.
A more recent example of a submarine being deployed in a diplomacy role occurred in 2010. When speculation arose that the British company Desire Petroleum had struck oil in drilling operations to the north of the Falkland Islands, the Argentinean government started sabre rattling, the British Government responded with media based communiqués reminding the Argentineans of the extant military forces on the island and the fact that HMS SCEPTRE, a Royal Navy attack submarine, had been deployed to the South Atlantic.
Finally, on the 26th of March 2010, a North Korean submarine sunk a South Korean corvette ROKS CHEONAN, although the cause of the sinking was only established in the month following. In the context that this action caused influence without causing war, it could be categorised as an act of naval diplomacy albeit a very brutal one.

Constabulary Tasks

Counter Terrorism

Submarines can become involved in counter terrorism operations. They can be used to conduct ISR in close proximity to terrorist group training areas and command areas to develop an understanding of their capability and intent. They can be used to insert Special Forces or to deliver a surgical land strike package. They can also be used to conduct covert tracking of seaborne terrorist operations.

Protection of National Resources and Infrastructure

Submarines can also be used to protect national resources and infrastructure. They can covertly monitor and, if necessary, act upon any illegal behaviour.

For example, they can be used to conduct fisheries patrols. They can operate close to, but without the knowledge of, illegal fisherman recording evidence of the illegal activity for use later in prosecution/legal proceedings. Whilst some might think that such a task is a waste of a high cost military asset, operations conducted by HMCS OJIBWA and OKANAGAN off the east coast of Canada in 1993/4 against illegal US fishermen resulted in a drop in the number of US violations of the Hague Line from 33 in 1993 to six in 1994 and one in 1995. The fishermen did not have the capacity to determine whether or not a submarine was watching them.

Submarines can also be used to conduct surveillance in waters around national oilrig infrastructure or to detect and monitor perpetrators of environmental breaches such as illegal dumping.

Anti-Piracy/Smuggling/Counter Narcotics

Submarines can be very useful in policing operations including illegal trafficking of goods and people, anti-piracy, anti-weapon smuggling and anti-drug running operations. A submarine can operate invisibly against criminals without directly influencing the scenario, collecting acoustic, visual and electromagnetic evidence for presentation in court.

During the 1970’s, Royal Navy submarines were deployed in the Irish Sea to catch vessels smuggling guns to Ireland for use by the Irish Republican Army.

In a 1992 Royal Canadian Mounted Police anti-drug operation, a Canadian submarine conducted close surveillance of a target vessel for two months, with the operation resulting in the biggest drug bust in Canadian history to that date. HMCS CORNER BROOK was also publicly recognised for participating in a 42 day anti-drug smuggling patrol in April/May 2008. In addition, Columbian submarines have also been used to track drug running operations in the Caribbean and it is worth noting that smugglers themselves have started using submersibles.

Special Forces and other law enforcement agents can be embarked and landed for counter drug operations or for boarding operations, although for boarding parties it may be better for the submarine to cue other units.

Between September and November 2010 a Dutch submarine was used to provide surveillance and reconnaissance support for NATO anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia.


Despite being optimised for war, submarines nevertheless have valuable roles to play in peacetime.

In addition to important conflict prevention and preparation for conflict tasks, more and more submarines are being seen participating in diplomacy and peacetime law enforcement missions.

Pressures on Defence funding, coupled with the need for ongoing financial support for an expensive underwater asset has resulted in submarine commanders imaginatively looking for ways of exploiting a submarine’s operational and tactical characteristics for operations short of war.

Submarines have real ways in which they can contribute to national defence outside of conflict. A submarine’s peacetime roles must also be thrown into the mix of considerations associated with Australia’s future submarine selection.

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