The September 26 attack on the Nord Stream pipelines off Sweden and Denmark are a wake up call for western navies. Seabed warfare has been a bullet point in PowerPoints for the last 20 years, now it is getting real.
Sweden’s submarine force, and particularly the future A-26 Blekinge class, may be very relevant. And, fortunately for NATO, inherently well suited.
From Ivy Bells To Internet Cables
Seabed warfare is nothing new. Since the early days of submarines some missions have involved aspects of it. In World War Two British X-craft midget subs were used to cut Japanese communications cables. And it would be remiss not to mention Operation Ivy Bells, the U.S. Navy’s Cold War mission to tap Soviet communications. And Britain’s SBS used diesel subs to retrieve Soviet listening devices laid off the UK. During the 1980s it was the Swedes’ turn to play the game, with numerous suspected Soviet submarine incursions in their waters.
The seabed warfare focus back then was military infrastructure, such as anti-submarine sensor networks and communications cables. However things have changed since the Cold War. The amount of infrastructure laying on the sea floor had increased and now includes fiber optic internet cables. As you read this article there is a chance that the data has reached you by one of these ‘submarine communication cables’ (SCC).
Add to this the gas pipelines, wind farm infrastructure, electricity cables, and so much more. We are much more dependent on seabed infrastructure than before. The vital nature of these cables and pipes to economies is not lost on governments. But few countries are equipped to deal with the threat.
Going forward navies are expected to be able to defend, and in times of war attack, seabed infrastructure. Some, like Russia and the United States have decades of investment and specialist submarines. Other major navies, like the United Kingdom and France, are now reinvesting in this neglected area with specialist vessels.
On the defense front, governments will want the ability to inspect and repair underwater infrastructure and investigate incidents. Offensively, missions may include placing sabotage charges or listening devices, and interfering with enemy sensor networks. These needs overlap with mine warfare and mine countermeasures.
In many defensive scenarios surface vessels will be sufficient. Typically they will use remote operated vehicles (ROVs) to reach down into the depths. But submarines offer the advantages of greater discretion. And they can operate in bad weather which may inhibit surface vessel. In offensive missions the submarines’ stealth will come into its own. Having suitable submarines will give governments options that they may not currently have.
So, as in previous times when the missions of navies have evolved rapidly. Countries will look to their regular submarines to play a role. And few designs seem as well suited as Sweden’s.
What Makes The A-26 Submarine Particularly Suited
This is where the A-26 design may come into its own. It has been designed from the outset to better accommodate special forces missions, and underwater drones. These features, principally the large hangar between the torpedo tubes, may also be useful in seabed warfare.
Sweden is already ahead of the curve with the development of the Saab SubROV. This form of ROV can be launched and operated from a torpedo tube of any submarine. In more traditional terms it can perform intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). It feeds high-resolution data back to the submarine in real time via a cable without the risk of signal detection. It can also be used to recover other underwater vehicles.
But it also gives the submarine the ability to perform some seabed warfare missions. It can locate and inspect pipes or cables. It could be used to inspect infrastructure down to 500 meters (1,640 feet), which is deep enough to reach anywhere in the Baltic.
But the new A-26 class will take things to another level. The hangar, known as a Flexible Payload Lock, allows it to carry larger underwater vehicles. These could include the Saab Double Eagle and Sabertooth systems. These can be operated both remotely (as an ROV) or autonomously without the tether. Large objects could carried and placed on the seabed with the aid of the ROV/AUV. Or recovered objects to be carried away. These underwater vehicles would increase the reach of the submarine. Some versions of the Sabertooth can dive to 3,000 meters (9,850 feet).
There is no doubt that seabed warfare has, briefly, moved out of the shadows. Navies and policy makers are more open about the threats to undersea infrastructure, and the need to defend it. But whether this will lead to changes to submarine procurement remains to be seen. But if it does, the A-26 design may find itself well positioned. And for Sweden, which already has them under construction, they will open up new possibilities.