The Obsolescence of Submarines

Interesting article on the submarine arms race between remaining hidden and detection. It seems that it is much more expensive for a submarine to hide than it is to detect it. And this changing balance will affect the long-term viability of submarines.

Posted on February 19, 2015 at 6:15 AM • 36 Comments


ScottFebruary 19, 2015 7:04 AM

This sort of capability has been available to the U.S. since the late 1980's. The issue at hand is that peer adversaries are on the threshold of being able to implement the same methods. The United States lead in the relevant technologies has steadily eroded, but that was probably inevitable.

Past that acknowledgement, public discussion and disclosure by people who understand the underlying science and technology issues probably isn't a good idea.

Leonardo HerreraFebruary 19, 2015 7:34 AM

Sure, between superpowers submarines are mostly useless. But most countries don't have this sort of technology.

SoWhatDidYouExpectFebruary 19, 2015 7:44 AM

The basic argument, that sooner or later it becomes more expensive to hide something than to do it, seems to have become moot. Now that we all "know" what the spooks are up to, instead of hiding it, they are going public and boasting about what they have done. Further, they are openly promoting doing more of it (my observation, others may think differently).

As for the submarines, some may now have the technology to find them but will that make any difference? Nope. We will put out more submarines, many of them the equivalent of cardboard fakes, to fool those that have such technology.

I fear this story may be just an effort to push up the spending level, much of which won't find its way into any submarines but just the pockets of those calling the shots.

Besides, there are few countries that want to know where our submarines are, and they aren't about to spend much on further detection or deterrence. However, one generally puts on a public show, the Ukraine for example or some worthless islands as a public focus, in order to hide or gloss over what they don't want anyone else to see.

Submarines won't become the next battleship. Battleships were outdated more than 50 years ago due to radar, airplanes, bombs, missles, satellites, and simply a lack of necessity. Submarines will be well protected by the military industrial complex as has been done for for years with regard to expensive aircraft carriers.

jbmoore61February 19, 2015 8:11 AM

I am not sure that the argument is entirely credible. Large nuclear subs are noisy, but AIP subs are not. AIP subs can also hide in the noisy layers of the ocean and close to shore. One would not be able to sonically detect them in the noise. The use of autonomous submersibles/weapons may make the nuclear and AIP subs even more dangerous than they are now. Imagine launching 5 AUVs with the exact acoustic signature of the sub. Your weapons system then only has a 1 in 6 chance of a kill unless you use an area effect weapon like a tactical nuclear depth charge. That article seems to be scare mongering with an agenda to buy an even more expensive nuclear submarine system when one could get more bang for the buck with AIP or nuclear/electric hybrid subs (not sure if a nuclear sub would have enough batteries for propulsion though) with cheap throw-away AUVs/weapons/drones/decoys.

Carl 'SAI' MitchellFebruary 19, 2015 8:15 AM

One very important distinction the article doesn't make well is that between attack subs and boomers. Boomers are ballistic missile carriers, if they ever get within 1000km or so of any enemy ship they've screwed up royally. A Trident II SLBM has a range over 7000km with a full load. Boomers can stay safe from detection simply by virtue of distance, and their primary mission is to provide a second-strike deterrent that can't be eliminated prior to a nuclear exchange.

Attack subs have to get close to engage enemy ships directly. Those are the subs that might become obsolete, though not for a while. New technology takes quite a bit of time to deploy to existing ships, where that's even possible. Most countries don't make new ships that often, I'd guess at least 20 years until deployment becomes widespread, probably more.

CharlieFebruary 19, 2015 9:02 AM

I was involved in anti-submarine technology (SOSUS, etc) during the Cold War. Detection is NOT everything. Prosecution may not be possible even when a submarine has been detected.

Have you seen what happens regularly in Scandanavian waters? Just because they detect a submarine doesn't mean they can do anything about it. Besides, an SSBN could unload everything in a few minutes, after that what difference does it make?

AllenFebruary 19, 2015 9:07 AM

Another important factor, at least on the boomer (SSBN) front is going to be in relation to the other legs of the nuclear triad. A CATO Institute report from last year argued that, for cost-cutting measures, the nuclear triad should become a monad (the boomers only). However, it's not just a question of whether it becomes more costly to hide than detect, but how that cost imbalance stacks up against the similar hiding/defense problem in the Air Force bombers and land-based ICBMs. The US will continue to pay for nuclear delivery of SOME kind, even if the cost grows, because of a pervasive belief in the security realm that nuclear weapons are ultimately advantageous. So while this is interesting, in terms of what comes of it, at least on the boomer side, I'm skeptical.

MiergApefJiddFebruary 19, 2015 9:45 AM

The same asymmetry outlines the geopolitics of the whole world today. Independent states can only exist if it is cheaper to defend an area than to attack it.

Anonymous CowFebruary 19, 2015 10:24 AM

re: triad vs monad

The US hasn't had any of it's bombers on deterrent alert since the 1990s. Yes the bombers can be loaded with nuclear weapons but that takes time. And there's been no effort to hide land based ICBM; after all what sense does that make? Anyone intent on attacking the US will make those sites their first targets.

"Boomers" like their bomber counterparts have versatility built in so can perform other missions. At least one old boomer was converted to deliver SEALs in support of their missions. And there's been research into a cruise missle pod that can be loaded into a missle tube; such pods could make a boomer a serious attack platform.

Clive RobinsonFebruary 19, 2015 11:06 AM

If you step back from the fact it's an expensive bath toy submarines like all military hardware suffer from an age old problem that goes back to the times before cross bows.

To avoid being destroyed you need to either avoid being attacked or have sufficient armour that an attack will be ineffective. Modern weapons such as tactical nukes render sufficient armour mute, thus you have to consider avoidance.

How do you avoid being attacked, well basically if falls to hiding or running. As long as you are not detected then your presence remains unknown to the enemy, if you are detected then you need to be somewhere else quite rapidly befor the enemy can bring arms to bear on your current position.

The problem with both hiding and running is size/mass the more you have the easier you are to detect and the slower you are to get away. Whilst being small and light gives you speed and agility, you have little or no payload capacity, which in kinetic warfare is a significant problem.

After a little bit of thought most will realise that future warfar is going to in essence consist of high speed stand off weapons and very small very cheap and very numerous detection systems.

I should imagine this is making "old school" weapons manufactures a bit nervous about their long term future...

It might also account for why Cyber-Weapons are the way some people are going, afterall they are very fast, and have no mass as they are intangible "information" they are also easy to hide easy to make, easy to deploy and don't have any real expense after the prototype stage. If war does go that way, then the only people safe will be third world goat hearders and nations that have taken adiquate deffensive measures for their ICT dependent infrastructure and life styles... which is why my money is currently on the goat hearders.

David McClainFebruary 19, 2015 11:35 AM

"This sort of capability has been available to the U.S. since the late 1980's. The issue at hand is that peer adversaries are on the threshold of being able to implement the same methods."

... um, you mean, like when we (USA) have to go to China or Tomsk to find a suitable Laser crystal?

albertFebruary 19, 2015 11:41 AM

It's very much like the stealth vs radar technologies.

Beelions of dollars spent every year, with only incremental progress being made. And the 'development' costs rise exponentially, while the 'benefit' increase is linear.

If we took hegemony and greed* off the table, there would be no need for this discussion.

Nuclear-armed submarines are either offensive (I shoot first), or retributive (You shoot first). They are not defensive weapons. Land-based ballistic missiles are in the same class. Only the mad proponents of MAD find this system rational.
Lots of information is available at
(do a local search for 'submarine' 'crs')
I gotta go...

*The two are inexorably enmeshed; When Hitler died, he was probably the richest man in Europe. Was there any dictator who didn't live high on the hog? Kim Jong-Un looks pretty well fed to me. I hope those super-brained NK hackers aren't reading this. Sorry, Bruce.

VladimirFebruary 19, 2015 12:06 PM

How hard to deceive detectors to think that there is a submarine when there is actually non?

paulFebruary 19, 2015 12:54 PM

It's not whether submarines are detectable, it's whether they're detectable by people for whom the risk-reward calculus is in favor of sinking a major-power submarine. I'd submit that that's unlikely to be the case for other major powers.

AnuraFebruary 19, 2015 1:02 PM

Naval warfare in general is practically dead; Japan/China *might* revive it for a short period, but I doubt it. The primary role of the navy in modern military is delivery of aircraft/troops/supplies/missiles, with a secondary role of offering limited protection against pirates. With the cold war over, submarines exist basically as a testiment to the fact that nukes are here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Manned aircraft are starting to become obsolete as well, and I wonder what the future holds for land warfare. I like to imagine the future of warfare looking a lot like a RTS game: one person, controls a handful of semi-intelligent robots, designating targets, formations, positions, etc. He who can build the most drones can rule the world. Will manned vehicles go next? When will we be able to replace several squads of troops with robots controlled by a guy sitting at a desk?

Of course, what do we see in the distant future? Nanobots that can dismantle militaries, weapons, factories, infrastructure; the ability to send any modern country into the third world without killing a single person? Of course, when military gets the capability, civilians aren't far away. I figure, as a function of time, the number of people who have the capability to end most life on Earth is only going to increase; at some point the number of people with the capability to end all life will be large enough so that it becomes likely that someone WILL use that capability. Ah, the future, please get me on the first ship to Alpha Centauri...

Slime Mold with MustardFebruary 19, 2015 1:44 PM

Submarines have carried decoys for decades . I don't doubt that new sensor technologies will yield only new countermeasures; decoys, spoofs, jammers, etc. I am surprised that Clive's comment did not point this out - it's the kind of thing he usually does. Radar and other technologies did not eliminate aircraft - they accelerated ECM.

@Scott In the six years I've followed this blog: Once - exactly once - I saw a commenter post something classified. Until the Snowden revelations, Bruce never did either.

albertFebruary 19, 2015 3:39 PM

"...offering limited protection against pirates.."
Very limited. All they (US NAvy) can do is arrest 'em, and haul 'em back to Somalia, and that's if they can beat 'em to their targets. The alternative is to declare 'war' on piracy, then blast 'em out of the water, sort of like we do on land. Drones would be cheaper, faster, and better. 'No sail' zones around shipping channels; violators end up in Davy Jones locker. OR, just allow freighters to be armed.
Supply/Support is the most important role for the Navy right now.
Have you seen those videos of 6-legged 'bots running through the woods? Spooky!
You are not part of the 0.01%, otherwise, you'd already have your ticket....
'Tactical nuclear warfare'? I don't think anyone, even the military, believes that's possible. Nuclear fallout affects the whole world; it can't be localized. Chernobyl and Fukushima are just mini-previews of that future. I agree that cyberwars would be cheaper and easier to fight, BUT local infrastructure damage would be catastrophic for any 'advanced' nation. We're a _long_ way from protecting our countries from such attacks.
As long as the world's biggest militaries keep getting everything they ask for, the situation is not going to improve.
Is you a viper?

John SchillingFebruary 19, 2015 4:37 PM

"It seems that it is much more expensive for a submarine to hide than it is to detect it"

I do not think that is the case, and Clark certainly does not make that case.

Clark talks, vaguely and IMO inaccurately, about novel detection technologies. It isn't expensive to hide a submarine against those, it's dirt cheap - because there doesn't seem to be any relevant countermeasures on which you could spend your money. Build a submarine the way you always would have, spending as much as you otherwise would have, and acknowledge that the existence of novel detection technologies places a limit on how stealthy you can be.

But it's a pretty generous limit, because those novel technologies are inherently limited. The optical depth of pure sea water, e.g., is only 70 meters even at the most favorable wavelength.

Even spotting Clark every technique he brings up, and assuming no novel countermeasures, submarines will still be at least an order of magnitude harder to detect than any other naval platform. Combined with the lethality of torpedoes and cruise missiles, that means the most likely outcome of a battle between a submarine and a surface ship or land target will be that the enemy is destroyed without ever knowing what hit him. If Clark wants to claim that, no matter how much we spend, the odds will never be more than 90/10 in the submarine's favor, he may be right.

And that may be an argument against trying to build multi-gigabuck invincible supersubs, but it hardly marks the obsolescence of the submarine in general.

Clive RobinsonFebruary 19, 2015 4:57 PM

@ Gerard van Vooren,

Nice of you to beatle along :-)

@ Slime Mould with Mustard,

Yes CM / CCM etc delays the inevitable but it's like squid ink, or laying down smoke, just a way to hide briefly whilst running away / somewhere else. As a few lucky squid --that just managed to escape-- know, some enemies --such as wales-- know how to deal with the ink cloud...

Just like there are limits on speed and agility there are limits on what a CM can do for you and at some point there will be a CCM for it that will be cheaper and more effective. Because the problem is realy not that the CM decoy is eventually going to fail to a smarter CCM, the real problem is being spotted in the first place...

As I said the defensive sensors are getting smaller, they are also quickly getting cheaper and easier to build and deploy. The subs however are not getting smaller, they are not getting cheaper or easier to build and thus we have arived at if not crossed a tipping point.

We know that conventional maned subs are now only showing fractional percentages of improvment for a significant increase in price and complexity, whilst we also know that in the same time period sensors are doubling or quadrupling their effectiveness whilst also dropping in cost... The end of the game is in sight, the same as it was for the saber toothed tiger and the wooly mammoth, thus talking about delaying the inevitable seems a little crass, when we need to consider where warfare in general is going. Even though we have treaties against it the next logical hiding space for kinetic or energy burst weapons is in space. And these don't need to be nukes, just large lumps of rock pushed out from their current orbits will do, a look up at the moon with a telescope shows you that.

Speaking of nukes, apparently the same Russian scientists that designed the Tsar Bomba, also had plans for a doomsday weapon. Basically a whole oil tanker sized hydrogen bomb sailing in international waters. If it detected signs of a nuclear war it would explode converting unimaginable amounts of sea water into a globe covering radioactive cloud. The Russian politicians apparently decided the scientists were compleatly nuts and stopped all work in that area. Which appears to have made the Russian leaders saner than some of the Wests leaders at the time.

@ Albert,

Whilst current military stratagists might not believe in tactical nukes, they certainly did in the past, look up the Davey Crockett three man battle field nuke. The Russians are alleged to have made "suitcase" nukes, and the British did develop a small device dubed the "nuclear hand grenade" with an adjustable yield and minimum kill radius of around 1/3 of a Km that could be put in small artillery shells. We know that type 47 torpedos have had nuclear warheads developed for them and so have cruise missiles of the 1980s. We also know that Russia under Putin has started making new nukes and it is credibale to think the US are currently doing similar.

Yes it's lunacy but nobody said you have to be sane to be a political leader, in fact quite the opposite...

I would argue that the headlong rush to cyber warefare without any consideration for defence is actually "proof positive" that those up on the hill are definitely "several sandwiches short of a picnic", and the reason why my money is on the goats...

Charles PetersFebruary 19, 2015 5:34 PM

All interesting and insightful points. Subs are simply a launch pad for nuclear attack when land based systems fail. We lead the "we can detect you but you have a harder time to detecting us" game. Unfortunately, the Chinese decided they could careless about undetectable subs, they are simply building 4 to our 1 and have decided to overpower the waters with their equipment. According to many documents they simply believe we cant sink all of them and thus win the tonnage game.

DanielFebruary 19, 2015 6:50 PM

It is interesting as to how this cat and mouse game relates to the one happening on land between the individual and mass surveillance. A satellite can read the license plate on a car. At some future point in time to merely step foot into the open air will result in a person being detected, coded, and their every movement tracked by the eye in the sky. Sure there is order of magnitudes difference between tracking billions of people vs a few subs but in theory the approach is the same, it's just a question of technological progress.

JacobFebruary 19, 2015 9:54 PM

Interesting but irrelevant. Offense versus defense. A submarine represents stand off power. Also. As long as we lack transporters, sea lane control is important. The balance act will continue

Stuff gets put out to see what sticks. Recently there was a story about a people sub that would take them from Tokyo to San fransisco in 45 minutes. Oh hell no! Any kind of depth with that kind of speed you would be dead before you had time to get a surprised look on your face if any casualty situation happens. Telescoping is bad unless you are looking at the stars. ;)

WaelFebruary 19, 2015 11:10 PM


Of course, what do we see in the distant future? Nanobots that can dismantle militaries, weapons, factories, infrastructure;...

I'm sure someone is already working on it. We've seen this in movies!. In the future (stardate 3192.1 [1]), wars could be conducted in this "humane" manner

[1] Taste of Armageddon

Bong-smoking Primitive Monkey-Brained SockpuppetFebruary 20, 2015 12:12 AM

@Gerard van Vooren,

Paint the subs yellow, sing a song about it and smoke some weed.

I am the only one who knows what kind of submarine you're talking about[1] ;) Wait! Perhaps the duche nozzle "Tovarish" Alexander Panov also knows ;)

[1] We all live in a yellow submarine....yellow submarine...yellow submarine -- Beetles

tyrFebruary 20, 2015 1:37 AM

Many years ago I realized that boomers were what
happens when a failed idea keeps getting money
thrown at it in hopes it will work this time.
The Gatling gun was developed as a "Weapon so
horrible it will end all war". It didn't work
so it kept being improved and made more expensive
and it still doesn't work.

We've recently seen a couple of NATO navies run
around in circles looking for phantom submarines.
One was claimed to be in an area no sane sailor
would be in with a sub. That one suddenly was
claimed to be four. The next incident brought
a bunch of dead sea life but no oil slick. So
obviously these are indetectable and invisible.
It was probably Celine playing a joke on NATO.

I have a USN patrol bomber model it has HVAR
rockets but the rest of its armament is Tac
Nukes, (depth charges and torpedoes). Once
the balloon goes up all bets are off and it
may cure the climate but I'm not too thrilled
about the idea of a nuclear winter in a world
with the current population.

One interesting development is SLAR and by now
it should be applicable in realtime. That means
even a goatherd with fillings in their teeth
sticks out like a sore thumb. Short of a full
faraday cage there's no place to hide. It's
going to take a whole new physics to make
hiding a useful option again.

I've seen the newsreel of the Davy Crockett
testfire, it was the dumbest idea ever invented.
Physicists assured the Army it was safe, turned
out it wasn't and a lot of physicists found
out they were wrong the hard way. It only made
sense if you were about to be steamrollered
by a Motor Rifle Division and wanted to take
some of them with you in a blaze of glory.

Every world leader needs a copy of Gahan
Wilsons "I think I won" to hang on their office

As a modest proposal we could cut the military
budget by a tenth and use the money to hire
all the new college graduates who can't find
a job to help all the existing teachers with
their classes. Puts them to work, exposes the
kids to current ideas and actually improves
something worthwhile. Goldplating the latest
gatling gun variant is a waste of time and

MarkHFebruary 20, 2015 11:16 AM

I'm bemused by how the linked article, and several of the comments here, extrapolate to strategic missile submarines with no discernible basis.

Bryan Clark wrote: "As [advanced detection techniques] become more prevalent, they could make SOME COASTAL AREAS too hazardous for manned submarines." (Emphasis added by myself.)

What part of "some coastal areas" don't others understand? Or did I miss something?

The technological improvements to which Clark refers seem completely divorced from strategic missile submarine operations.

albertFebruary 20, 2015 12:39 PM

One thing I'd like to point out:

You guys have made some thoughtful, logical, and coherent arguments. Kudos!


Military spending (and that includes 'cyberwarfare') IS NOT based thoughtful, logical, and coherent arguments. Quite the opposite, in fact.

From the Defense contractors point of view, it's all about money.

From the Governments point of view, it's all about maintaining US hegemony (and subsequent monetary benefits)

It's not complicated.

Utter Martyr SemmitchFebruary 22, 2015 1:53 AM

Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons

Sounds like Reefer Madness to me. Or should I be more blunt? Gotta smoke 'em out somehow.

Remember, at the Superbowl the teams may play and only one team can win, but the real winner on the day is Acapulco Gold!!! (Unless you've got Miami Heads. grumble mumble mumble overpriced junk!!! grumble mumble mumble :)

And the real lesson the Army and Marines learned from Vietnam was to let the troops self-medicate...

Noisy UnderwaterspaceshipFebruary 22, 2015 7:06 AM

Australia had it's noisy Collin's Class subs built by Sweden. The Collin's subs had problems with squeaking propellar shaft that could be heard for hundereds of kilometers underwater, which made them the laughing stock of the submarine world. They also leaked, along with computer problems and many other techincal faults. They cost tens of billions of dollars, plus much more in attempting to fix them.

The Australian government is about to spend tens of billions of dollars on a new fleet of submarines. Guess which country is going to build them again?

NathanaelFebruary 23, 2015 12:40 PM

"Naval warfare in general is practically dead...

Manned aircraft are starting to become obsolete as well, and I wonder what the future holds for land warfare. "

Worth noting that unmanned long-distance bomber or spy aircraft are essentially obsolete too: they still create destruction, but they're unable to conquer territory, they're unable to destroy critical assets (nobody has ever made precision bombing work; it's too easy to have decoy factories), and they tend to alienate the formerly-sympathetic local populations. So they're useless in grand strategy.

Close air support of ground troops seems to be the future of the air forces.

Land warfare is going back to very old patterns (but then, does it ever really change?) It's now very cheap to disrupt electronic communications -- as a result, classic independently-operating units, with commanders who have the ability to make geopolitical decisions, are the form of units which win. Classic grand strategy considerations (most simply, does this win friends or make enemies?) are always relevant.

NathanaelFebruary 23, 2015 12:44 PM

"Military spending (and that includes 'cyberwarfare') IS NOT based thoughtful, logical, and coherent arguments. Quite the opposite, in fact."

So true. The people in charge are fools.

"From the Defense contractors point of view, it's all about money."
Well, OK, they seem to be doing pretty well. They're not fools.

"From the Governments point of view, it's all about maintaining US hegemony (and subsequent monetary benefits)"
They're fools. They've already lost US hegemony, mainly due to military spending.

In 2001, the Taliban offered to turn over bin Laden if the US didn't invade. (This is credibly reported from multiple sources.) Think about what an incredible propaganda coup this would have been: catching him and trying him as a common criminal for murder in a NY courtroom. The hegemony of the US would have been assured for a generation.

Instead -- well, Bush did exactly what bin Laden wanted him to. Exactly. Just as bin Laden described his plans in his published statements -- get the US to invade, make the US act racist, make the US abandon civil liberties and torture people, make people around the world hate the US. Couldn't have done it more exactly if bin Laden had been paying him. As a result, al Qaeda is winning the war of mindshare.

anonymousApril 26, 2015 8:30 AM

How does NAVY detecting Russian submarines with nuclear weapon in the North Pole Area???

I'm talking about under-ice patrooling. For month or half of year or something.

There are many kinds of special technologies to connect with them, by special sonar with ocean cable.
There are couple of points in the ocean, where submarine would connect to the earth by this cable.

Say, completely autonomous, for year.

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