Fighting a submarine is similar to fighting a ghost. Because you have a feeling that there is a threat around, you receive signals, but you cannot see it. While you are trying to devise and apply countermeasures to the unseen foe, you detect a weapon coming at you at high speed, either underwater or from the air. This is the submarines’ kiss of death.
Submarines are strategic assets in Naval Warfare
Although the dizzying advancements in naval warfare weaponry and sensors offer more convenience in detecting and classifying hostile elements at sea, the underwater environment remains blurred. Because, while there are several sensors for detecting surface and air contacts, the primary underwater sensor is still various types of sonar, which are limited by the rules of underwater physics.
Each time carrying out anti-submarine warfare operations, seasonal fluctuations in the waters (salinity, pressure, and temperature) affect the sonar performance in different ways. Due to the difficulties in detecting a submarine, a naval fleet needs to allocate a significant ASW force, composed of surface and air assets, to seek and destroy even for one submarine. Yet, a submarine can hear a surface ship long before the surface ship can detect the submarine, and therefore it can take evasive action before its detected.
While on patrol, new modern submarines may stay below for weeks or even months and move relatively undetected. Many submarines produce less noise than the surrounding water.
“Finding the submarine in the ocean is akin to seeking a needle in a haystack.“
Because of these roughly stated difficulties, the presence of submarines, regardless of kind, is a critical parameter that alters regional balances itself. As the submarines’ unique capabilities to change the course of the war by attacking the enemy’s center of gravity and breaking the opponent’s will to fight, make submarines “strategic” assets.
What are the key benefits of Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) Submarines?
Main propulsion systems and weapons of the submarines are used to sort them into various subclasses. Diesel-electric submarines (SSK), often known as “classical submarines,” have been in use for decades by numerous countries. Despite the benefits of being submerged in complete silence, modern submarines are forced to return to snorkel depth on a regular basis to recharge their batteries. During the snorkeling process, submarines are sensitive for detection and engagement.
Nuclear submarines (SSN) are larger and more advanced, allowing them to maneuver more effectively and carry more weapons. The noise from nuclear reactors and other operational equipment is the most significant disadvantage of nuclear submarines, as it causes them to be detected from a larger distance than diesel-electric submarines. SSNs have no limitations on how long they can stay underwater.
AIP offers a new approach to combining the advantages of silence and remaining submerged for significantly extended periods. Though current AIP submarines cannot match with SSNs in terms of weapon load, submerged endurance, and maneuverability, their capabilities have been improving year after year.
Non-AIP diesel-electric submarines can’t match the underwater endurance of AIP submarines. Since AIP submarines rarely surface or return to periscope depth, they are less to be mentioned in intelligence reports, which is one of the most critical instruments for finding and tracking submarines. Silence underwater for such extended periods is a serious threat to the adversaries.
Turkey meets AIP technology with Reis-class project
The Turkish Navy will have AIP technology based on the proven Howaldswerke-Deutsche Werft (HDW) fuel cell with the Reis-class submarines. The AIP system employs fuel cell technology, including a PEM Fuel Cell (2x120kw) and high capacity batteries (232 units), allowing the submarine to sustain long-endurance deployments without snorkeling.
The Turkish Navy will receive six Type 214 TN AIP submarines as part of this program. On March 23, 2021, the Golcuk Naval Shipyard floated out the leading boat of the project, TCG Piri Reis, which is scheduled to enter service in 2022. For the next five years, the remaining boats will be built and commissioned. The Reis class submarines will be capable to deploy heavyweight torpedoes (DM2A4, indigenous AKYA, and MK48 Mod 6AT), anti-ship missiles (Sub-Harpoon, maybe indigenous ATMACA in after the first sub), and mines.
Reis-class submarines & Regional Balances
While naval forces are not the only instruments for regional balance, they should be regarded as key actors due to their roles of “supporting government policies” in peacetime and striking capabilities during conflicts. As a result, the countries conduct comprehensive naval modernization and acquisition programs in accordance with their economic situation and infrastructure.
Submarines, whose strategic importance has already been highlighted, have a direct impact on the countrys’ A2/AD capabilities. As a result, the quantity, types, capabilities, and weapon power of the submarine fleet affect regional balances. Because, the increased number of submarines allows for greater control over larger maritime areas while remaining undetected, and because these submarines may remain underwater for extended periods of time, causing the fleets of other countries to face increased uncertainty.
- Aegean Sea and the East Mediterranean
One important example of this issue is Greece’s Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias’ repeated warnings to Germany to block the sale of Type 214 class submarines to Turkey. He repeatedly stated that acquiring these submarines will tip the regional balance in Turkey’s favor.
“The Hellenic Navy currently has four such vessels, which give us a strategic advantage in the Southeast Mediterranean and the Aegean. If Germany delivers [these vessels], Turkey will again have an advantage against Greece,”
Nikos Dendias, Foreign Minister of Greece
Russia, Greece, Israel, and Egypt have the most significant fleets in Turkey’s neighboring seas. Only Greece and Israel have AIP-capable submarines among these states. Greece currently operates four Type 214 AIP submarines and one Type 209 AIP upgraded submarine. Israel operates two Dolphin-II class AIP submarines, one Dolphin-II submarine is currently under construction, and has recently ordered three Dakar-class submarines from TKMS.
Turkey, which will have six AIP-capable Reis-class submarines after 2027, will have the most AIP submarines in the region with Israel (although the schedule of Dakar class submarines is not yet known), compared to Greece’s five. In addition, Turkey aims to commission 4-6 national submarines (MILDEN), which will be AIP capable and possibly armed with indigenous GEZGIN strategic missiles. In the second half of the 2030s, the delicate balance of the region is likely to change in favor of Turkey in terms of AIP submarines. (MILDENs will replace Turkey’s aging Type 209/1200 (AY class) submarines.)
- Black Sea
Following the invasion of Crimea, Russia strengthened the Black Sea Fleet at the Sevastopol Naval Base to preserve a strategic balance against NATO expansion into Eastern Europe and the wider Black Sea region. According to open-source statements, the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s warships increased from 34 to 49, while submarines increased from 1 to 7.
The Russian Black Sea force operates improved Kilo-class submarines that can launch Kalibr land-attack missiles but are not AIP-capable.
The Reis-class submarine’s commissioning is likely to have an impact on the Black Sea balance as well. The Turkish Navy currently has 12 diesel-electric submarines, and after the Reis-class is operational, the total number of submarines will be 18 (6 AIP + 12 non-AIP). This submarine force would be capable to penetrate Russia’s strong A2/AD in the Black Sea.
According to the Montreux Convention, which governs the straits’ transit regime as well as regulating the tonnage and types of naval assets deployed in the Black Sea by non-Black Sea states, the non-Black Sea countries are not permitted to deploy submarines in the region. As a result, as a NATO ally, Turkey’s submarine fleet is the only asset capable of countering the Russian Navy’s ambitions on behalf of NATO. Thus, the Reis-class submarine project could be considered as a factor to affect NATO-Russia balance in the Black Sea.