Anti-Submarine Warfare: A Review

  • Author: Rear Admiral J.R. Hill
  • Year Published: 1984
  • Published by: Ian Allan Ltd.

In the mid-1980s, UK-based publisher Ian Allan Ltd. noticed something was wrong. The market had become saturated with military books that featured photos and dry numbers about the latest equipment. Very few of these publications, however, addressed the basic question of how all this stuff was used. Knowing a weapon’s range or a ship’s sensor suite was all well and good, but understanding why it had been built that way and how it worked in combat wasn’t really clear.

Ian Allan attempted to fill this gap with a three-part collection called Combat Roles. Written by men who were experienced and knowledgeable in each field, the books explored the various aspects of modern warfare. Written for the layman, they explored the central dilemmas and tradeoffs that drove weapons design and development throughout the years. They also offered an idea of how each system would hold up in major combat (i.e. the outbreak of World War III).

The first of these offerings, Anti-Submarine Warfare sets a high bar for the rest of the Combat Roles series. Its writer, Rear Admiral John Richard Hill served 41 years in the Royal Navy. Much of that time was spent on destroyers and frigates before working at the Ministry of Defense. Hill wrote no less than 14 books and countless articles that were published in defense journals throughout the world. He was an editor of the Naval Review and the Chairman of the Navy Records Society. So we’re in good hands here.

Hill opens with an introduction that covers the history of anti-submarine warfare and its development from the Second World War to the mid-1980s. We get an outline of the various roles of the modern submarine, from strategic deterrence to tactical employment against shipping and inshore operations. From the outset, he makes it very clear that the start of submarine warfare marks a clear step from tension to war. And for that reason, the rules of engagement in these areas will be fairly liberal. This is the underlying assumption that Hill works with for the rest of the book.

The Soviet threat to NATO convoys in event of WW3 in Central Europe

Chapter Two describes the current threat to NATO. Since the book is from 1984, this is obviously the Soviet Union. More specifically, NATO had planned much of its sea strategy around dealing with the Soviet ballistic missile submarine force, which was designed to attack and destroy NATO countries. Proof of this threat came from the USSR itself – with Gorshkov’s books placing great emphasis on “Fleet against Shore” activities (interpreted as sea-based nuclear attack on an opponent’s homeland) in his own writings.

Hill outlines the development of Soviet ballistic missile nuclear submarines since the end of the war. For decades, the Russians were plagued with problems in attempting to find a satisfactory sea-based ballistic program. A long string of failures led to the development of the dreaded Typhoon class submarine, which he describes as a “submarine battleship.” Its titanium hulls (Hill speculates it has two – actually, it has five), displacement (Hill estimates 30,000 tons – actually its 48,000 tons), and missile-capacity must have seemed fearsome to any naval analyst in the early to mid-80s.

In the same chapter, we get a look at the other side of the coin. The Soviet attack submarine force was largely neglected during WW2. The Russians didn’t seem to know or care much about how to use them. This changed dramatically after the war ended. With one eye toward protecting their homeland against the Polaris submarine threat and the other at taking on American aircraft carriers and NATO shipping, the Soviet attack submarine program took shape in the decades that followed. The design and development of nuclear-powered boats soon took precedence over conventional diesel boats.

Basic ranges and positioning of ASW assets at work

In Chapter Three, Hill writes about the “how” of ASW. Here we get a rundown of how sound travels through water and how the thermocline influences its propagation. Two major factors in understanding the underwater environment are 1.) the volume and quality of data that can be collected and 2.) the depth at which sensors are placed.

There is a constant tradeoff being made in an effort to determine a.) whether a submarine is out there (condition POSSUB) and b.) how to find it (CERTSUB). Advanced sensors pick up more noise and are therefore more susceptible to false alarms. Active sonar has its own particular problems – its range can be increased but at the expense of accuracy. Furthermore, the range of active sonar does not increase proportionately with the power applied. At some point, the law of diminishing returns steps in.

Non-acoustic detection has its own host of problems. Magnetic Anomaly Detectors (MAD) can detect submarines by looking for changes in the earth’s magnetic field caused by the presence of a submarine’s composition – ferrous metals. Unfortunately, their range is limited. Hill discusses the possible future ability to detect minute temperature changes on the water’s surface created by the passage of a submarine far below. This phenomena, known as “thermal scarring”, may be detectable to airborne and satellite observers.

Destroying a submarine consists of five distinct parts: Detection, Classification, Localisation, Tracking, and Kill. Hill describes how this is achieved through the use of bottom arrays, processing equipment such as computers, the use of active sonar and MAD, sonobuoys, and explosives. All of this equipment has its drawbacks and each step is fraught with the possibility for error. A successful ASW campaign involves understanding the intentions of the enemy as well as one’s own capabilities to detect and ultimately kill the enemy.

Chapter Four deals with Weapons. Hill shows how ASW has, by necessity, become a complex and integrated system with various weapons platforms working in concert.

Since submarine speeds have increased considerably since World War 2, the major issue has become how ASW platforms can deliver weapons systems quickly against a detected underwater threat. At the time of writing, rocket-propelled torpedoes such as the Sea Lance system were being developed to address this issue. Helicopters offer even greater flexibility, but are constrained by weight and fuel capacity in terms of the weapons and detection equipment they can carry. Hill goes into considerable detail about the proliferation of towed arrays and how they work.

In Chapter Five, Hill postulates how the ASW battle would be carried out in a hypothetical World War III between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Winning the sea battle would be essential for NATO victory in Central Europe. The primary roles of the navy would be to reinforce Europe, preserve the West’s own strategic deterrence, and either destroy or deter the use of Soviet nuclear ballistic submarines. Sea power would also determine how the war progressed on NATO’s northern and southern flanks.

A look at how ASW assets might be deployed during periods of tension between superpowers

On the offense, Hill suggests a free-for-all approach to defeating the Soviets rather than a set-piece naval battle. He sees independent anti-submarine operations as a way to deceive and confuse the Russians. Only when it suited them would NATO’s submarine and surface forces work in concert to eliminate the Soviet threat.

The Support Group concept as illustrated

As for protecting NATO convoys against Soviet submarines, he believes that sea lanes are impossible to protect given the increasing range of modern cruise missiles and torpedoes. Rerouting convoys to the south would only lengthen supply routes to Central Europe.

Convoy protection boils down to the problem of scale and resources. Hill argues for a shifting support group concept where a constantly-moving collection of ASW platforms (ships, helicopters, carriers, ASW patrol craft) would operate with each other to detect and destroy threats as merchant shipping is passed along each successive patrol area like a conveyor belt.

The book shows that ASW is as much an art form as it is a matter of technology. There is no single simple solution that can be applied to each problem or scenario. Even with all the systems working together, conducting these operations is fraught with the very real possibility of human or machine error.

Overall, Hill’s book is an excellent introduction to the concepts and practice of anti-submarine warfare. It is written simply and with numerous charts, photos, and maps to elaborate his points. Although some of the data on Soviet subs was understandably unavailable at the time, the basics of how to deal with – and ultimately kill them – are no less applicable. I learned more about ASW in this short volume than from all the books about Cold War naval equipment I had ever browsed.

2 thoughts on “Anti-Submarine Warfare: A Review”

    1. Thank you! Book 2 is “Air Superiority” and Book 3 is “Anti-Armor Warfare”. I’ll be reviewing these next. I should mention that Hill wrote a second edition of this book that was published in 1989. He also wrote an unofficial fourth book to the series called “Air Defense at Sea”. It is excellent.

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