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Run silent, run deep: Understanding the regional sub rivalry

Navies throughout Indo-Pacific Asia have increasingly recognised the advantages provided by submarines, leading to growing numbers of submarines operating in Australia’s direct proximity.

With the Australian future submarine program mired by apparent indecision, contractual delays and changing requirements, the regional submarine environment is radically changing. 

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As both great and regional powers scramble to design and build, or buy and introduce, the latest and most capable submarine platforms to ensure their continued dominance, maritime security and ability to deter potential adversaries, Australia's changing strategic environment has raised questions around the survivability, cost and capability of the Royal Australia Navy's ageing Collins Class submarines and the relevance of Australia's future submarines.

So what do the major regional player's capabilities currently look like? 

United States Navy: The US Navy operates a number of different submarines in the Indo-Pacific region, including fast-attack submarines, ballistic missile submarines and cruise missile submarines, which are responsible for providing surface fleet anti-submarine warfare cover, strategic deterrence and long-range strike capabilities. 

America's Indo-Pacific submarine fleet is based at a number of key locations including Naval Base Pearl Harbor, Naval Base Kitsap, Washington State, Naval Base Guam and Naval Base Yokosuka, Japan. 

Attack Submarines (SSN): 

  • Los Angeles Class: Designed during the height of the Cold War to counter increasingly quiet Soviet submarines in the north Atlantic and north-western Pacific, which would pose a threat to the US Navy's carrier battle groups. The 32 remaining operational vessels weigh in at just under 7,000 tonnes when submerged and are reportedly capable of 33+ knots submerged, the Los Angeles Class are capable carrying 37 Mk 48 heavyweight torpedoes, Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles, Harpoon anti-ship missiles and multiple mines. 
  • Seawolf Class: The three Seawolf Class were designed to be the ultimate predators of the sea, responsible for hunting down stealthy Soviet Akula and Typhoon Class submarines in a deep ocean environment. Seawolf Class subs range in weight from 9,140 tonnes to 12,140 (for the USS Jimmy Carter subclass), capable of 35 knots while submerged and carry approximately 50 Mk 48 heavyweight torpedoes, Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles and Harpoon anti-ship missiles.
  • Virginia Class: Acting as the next evolution of US submarine design from the preceding Seawolf Class, Virginia and her projected 66 sister ships are a 21st century submarine, with a classified top speed of greater than 25 knots submerged and submerged weight of 7,900 tonnes. The various 'blocks' of the Virginia Class are capable of carrying a variety of weapons, including Mk 48 heavyweight torpedoes, Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles and Harpoon anti-ship missiles.   

Ballistic Missile and Cruise Missile Submarines (SSBN/SSGN): 

  • Ohio Class: Originally designed as ballistic missile submarines responsible for carrying the sea-based leg of America's nuclear deterrent, the early-to-mid 2000's conversion of four submarines to be classed as cruise missile submarines reduced the total number of ballistic missile submarines to 14. Weighing in at about 18,750 tonnes submerged and a reported submerged speed of 25 knots, the SSBN variants are capable of support 24 Trident I and II missiles, while the SSGN variant carry a payload of 154 Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles, Mk 48 heavyweight torpedoes and Harpoon anti-ship missiles.

People's Liberation Army - Navy: The rising contender, China's Navy has a growing fleet of increasingly capable submarines, both nuclear and conventionally powered vessels providing Chinese leaders with a bespoke submarine fleet capable of responding to different operational contingencies and environments. 

Attack Submarines (SSN): 

  • Type 091 Class: China's first generation of nuclear attack submarine weighs in at 5,500 tonnes when submerged, with a top speed of about 25 knots and is capable of carrying 20, 533mm torpedoes or 36 mines in their torpedo tubes. Additionally, the vessels are capable of carrying submarine launched variants of the C-801 anti-ship missile. 
  • Type 093 Class: China's second generation of nuclear attack submarine weighs in at 7,000 tonnes while submerged, with a top speed of 30 knots. The vessels were designed as a replacement for the Type 091 vessels with key improvements on speed, reliability, acoustic performance and capability. The Type 093 carry a variety of weapons, including 533mm torpedoes, submarine launched variants of the CJ-10 missile and YJ-18 anti-ship cruise and land attack cruise missiles. 

Attack Submarines (SSK): 

  • Type 039/A Class: The first fully Chinese developed conventional submarines, both the Type 039/A Class submarines are designed to supplement the larger nuclear submarines in the anti-shipping and anti-submarine operations in littoral waters. The vessels have a submerged weight of 2,250 tonnes, with a top speed of 22 knots and are capable of carrying 18 533mm torpedoes, the YJ-8 anti-ship cruise missile or 36 naval mines.
  • Kilo Class: Russian designed fast attack submarines, designed to key anti-shipping and anti-submarine operations in littoral waters. Larger than the Type 03/A Class vessels, the Russian designed submarines have a submerged weight of 3,000-3,950 tonnes, a submerged speed of 20 knots and submerged range of approximately 740 kilometres. The heavily armed vessels are capable of carrying 533mm torpedoes, 24 mines and in the case of Russian use, four Kalibr land-attack cruise missiles, eight Strela-3 or Igla-1 surface-to-air missiles.   

Ballistic Missile Submarines (SSBN): 

  • Type 092 Class: China's first SSBN design, the single ship is capable of maintaining a max speed of 22 knots. Weighing in at 8,000 tonnes submerged, the vessels also carry 533mm torpedoes and up to 12 JL-1A submarine launched ballistic missiles with an operational range of 2,500 kilometres. 
  • Type 094 Class: China's second SSBN design, sees an enlarged design of 11,000 tonnes submerged, with a highly-classified speed. The vessels are armed with JL-2 submarine launched ballistic missiles with a range of 7,400 kilometres. 

Russian Navy: America's traditional counter-balancing submarine foe in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, Russia's Pacific fleet submarine force is a far-cry from the glory days of the Soviet Union and its vast submarine fleet. Despite this, Russia maintains a potent submarine force in the Pacific conducting anti-ship, anti-submarine and nuclear deterrence missions. 

Attack Submarines (SSN): 

  • Akula Class: The pinnacle of Soviet attack submarine design, the Akula and its variants vary in size from 8,140 tonnes to 13,800 tonnes submerged with a top speed between 28-35 knots when submerged. The Akula Class were designed to limit the capability of the US Navy's aircraft carriers and associated task groups through overwhelming firepower, including 28 533mm torpedoes, 12 650mm torpedoes, Klibr land-attack cruise missiles and Igla-M surface-to-air missile launcher.    

 Attack Submarines (SSK):   

  • Kilo Class: Russian designed fast attack submarines, designed to key anti-shipping and anti-submarine operations in littoral waters. Larger than the Type 03/A Class vessels, the Russian designed submarines have a submerged weight of 3,000-3,950 tonnes, a submerged speed of 20 knots and submerged range of about 740 kilometres. The heavily armed vessels are capable of carrying 533mm torpedoes, 24 mines and in the case of Russian use, four Kalibr land-attack cruise missiles, eight Strela-3 or Igla-1 surface-to-air missiles.   

Ballistic Missile and Cruise Missile Submarines (SSBN/SSGN):

  • Oscar I/II Class: The Russian counterpart to the US Ohio Class SSGNs, the 19,400 tonne submerged vessels are capable of travelling at 32 knots while submerged and are armed with 533mm and 650mm torpedoes, including Starfish and Stallion anti-submarine nuclear missiles, anti-submarine torpedo or 32 mines, additionally the Oscar I/II Class are armed with 24 Granit nuclear armed cruise missiles.  
  • Borei Class: The next-generation of Russian SSBNs the Borei class vessels have a submerged weight of 24,000 tonnes, submerged speed of 30 knots and are armed with 16 Bulava submarine launched ballistic missiles, 533mm torpedoes and Viyuga cruise missiles.   

Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force: Japan operates a highly capable, modern fleet of conventional attack submarines that are used to conduct maritime interdiction, anti-shipping, anti-submarine and patrol operations of Japan's maritime approaches and zones. 

 Attack Submarines (SSK): 

  • Oyashio Class: The predecessor to the Soryu Class, the Oyashio Class provide a highly capable conventional attack submarine, with a 4,000-tonne submerged weight, top submerged speed of 20 knots. The vessels are armed with 20 Type 89 533mm torpedoes, which are similar to the Mk 48 heavyweight torpedoes used by the US and Australian navies and Harpoon anti-ship missiles.
  • Soryu Class: Designed as the successor to the Oyashio Class submarines, the Soryu provide a capability leap on the older vessels. The vessels have a submerged weight of 4,200 tonnes, a top submerged speed of 20 knots and estimated air independent propulsion (AIP) endurance of 11,297 kilometres and can be armed with 30 Type 89 533mm torpedoes, which are similar to the Mk 48 heavyweight torpedoes used by the US and Australian navies, Harpoon anti-ship missiles and mines.

Republic of Korea - Navy: As with the other aspects of the ROK-N's modernisation programs. The Korean submarine force is undergoing broad modernisation and expansion to counter the continuing threat of North Korean midget submarines and growing threat of Chinese submarines operating in the Yellow Sea and around Korea's strategically vital sea-lines-of-communication (SLOCs).

Attack Submarines (SSK):

  • Chan Bogo (Type 209) Class: Developed in conjunction with HDW of Germany, the vessels provided a stepping stone for the ROK-N to develop submarine capabilities. The three vessels displace between 1,200-1,440 tonnes, have a top submerged speed of 21.5 knots and are armed with 14 533mm torpedoes and Harpoon anti-ship missiles.
  • Sohn Won-Il (Type 214) Class: Developed with HDW, the vessels are a domestically built variant of the Type 214 submarine with a 1,860 tonne submerged weight, with a 20 knot submerged speed and is armed with eight 533mm torpedoes. 
  • Dosan Anh Changho Class: The pinnacle of Korean submarine design, the future submarines are expected to have a submerged weight of 3,705 tonnes, with a top submerged speed of 20 knots. These vessels will be mark a a quantum leap in the armament capacity with the addition of submarine launched ballistic missiles and submarine launched cruise missiles, in addition to standard torpedoes and anti-ship missiles.   

Royal Australian Navy: Australia has a long history operating submarines, ranging from the AE1 and AE2 to the highly capable Oberon Class and now, somewhat maligned Collins Class.

Australia's potentially $80 billion SEA 1000 Future Submarine program, which will deliver 12 'regionally superior' submarines based on the Naval Group Shortfin Barracuda design, which is planned to serve as the nation's response to the changing strategic environment and the existing and emerging capabilities currently in operation or planned for operation in the coming decades. 

Having reviewed the submarine forces now assembling throughout the region, let us know your thoughts in the comments section below, or get in touch with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Run silent, run deep: Understanding the regional sub rivalry
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