Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies at MIPT

Beyond the MTCR: Non-proliferation and disarmament of nuclear-capable delivery systems

Restricting Submarines

by Eugene Miasnikov

The headlines of this report presented at the INESAP Conference "Beyond the NPT: A Nuclear-Weapon Free World", held in Muelhime, Germany in November, 1994. Published in "Beyond the NPT: A Nuclear Weapon Free World" (INESAP document prepared on the occasion of the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference in New York. April, 1995); Part 2.3 Beyond the MTCR: Non-proliferation and disarmament of nuclear-capable delivery systems, pp. 132-133.

Compared to other nuclear capable delivery platforms, submarines can perform covertly, so that their location can not be monitored continuously. Due to their stealth, long range (more than 10,000 miles), and capability to operate being submerged for long time, submarines are able to use their strategic or tactical nuclear weapons close to the territory of an adversary and cause surprise attacks, which are hard to prevent.

Deployment of strategic weapons on nuclear submarines is widely recognized to be the best option to ensure strategic deterrence. Sea based component is the key element of the US, British and French strategic forces. These countries have deployed nearly half of their strategic arsenals at sea. By the year 2003, this list will likely include Russia, which should dismantle its land based MIRV-ed missiles according to the START 2 Treaty.

During the Cold War, the threat of nuclear attack generally emerged from nuclear powered submarines. Non-nuclear weapon and threshold states do not possess such submarines. However, the end of confrontation between superpowers and increased number of regional conflicts all over the world allow to insist that modern conventional submarines can play decisive role in military conflicts as well as other high technology delivery platforms (ballistic and cruise missiles, aircraft).

The following facts lead to this statement.

First sea based ballistic missiles were deployed on conventional diesel submarines. A non-nuclear state will unlikely be able to create submarine launched ballistic missiles in the foreseeable future because of technical complexity. However, nowadays, some "threshold" states are considering plans to deploy strategic SLCMs.1 Modern "Tomahawk" type SLCMs, which are aimed at land targets, are compact enough to fit in standard torpedo tubes of submarines. One can not exclude a possibility to create nuclear capable "Harpoon" or "Exoset" type missiles and mines by the "threshold" states. Compact and stealthy conventional mini-subs represent the best platforms to deliver small saboteur groups and nuclear devices.

It is worth to mention that littorals and shallow waters, which are typical for conflict regions (Persian Gulf, Mediterranean, East-China Sea etc.) represent the ideal environment for a conventional submarine. Submarines can easily hide in skerries, and even lie on the bottom at shallow depth. Antisubmarine warfare (ASW) operations are very difficult in shallow waters.

Submerged conventional submarine are more covert compared to nuclear ones. However they have periodically to surface to charge their batteries. Therefore, the strategy of ASW operations consists in search of surfaced or snorkeling diesel submarines, which become detectable at distances of few dozens of kilometers. Post WWII submarines had to surface once in 24 hours in the average. Diesel submarines of 70-s - 80-s of Type 2092 and "Kilo"3 class can run submerged up to 72 hours to the distance of up to 400 miles. New generation of conventional submarines developed in Sweden, Germany, France and Russia, has got combined propulsion system, which does not need air as an oxidizer. Therefore, underwater endurance of a submarine can be increased by the factor of several times. There is a danger of proliferation of conventional submarines, which will be no more vulnerable than nuclear ones. For example, Pakistan has already signed a contract with France about purchasing three "Agosta" class submarines, which can perform almost 2 weeks without surfacing.4

Currently highly developed countries only are capable to deploy an efficient system of ASW means in restricted areas against conventional diesel submarines. The Falklands War provides a good example of the kind of danger that these platforms can pose.5

Several specific measures must be taken in order to prevent the threat of deploying nuclear weapons on submarines by "threshold" states.

1) On November 16, 1994, REUTER reported with a reference on a publication in Jane's Defence Weekly magazine, that Israel is considering such an option

2) Submarines of Type 209 were initially produced in Germany. Currently, Navies of 11 countries including India and Israel operate these submarines.

3) Submarines of "Kilo" class are produced by Russia. Five other countries including Iran and India purchased several "Kilo" class submarines.

4) Pakistan to get Mesma AIP before France, Navy News & Undersea Technology, October 24, 1994.

5) The Argentinean diesel submarine "San Luis" sailed 800 miles from its base and returned back successfully in spite of the fact that it faced 2 aircraft carriers, 15 escorts, dozens of ASW helicopters as well as nuclear attack submarines of the Royal Navy (Andres de Lionis, Anti-Submarine Review in the Third World, Jane's Intelligence Review, April 1, 1994, p.188, v. 4, no. 4.)