Is "asymmetrical" submarine warfare possible?

When the US goes to war with a nation equipped mainly with soviet-era arms (e.g. either Iraq war, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, etc.), the result is the enemy air force barely features except as target practice.

If the US were to get in to war with nation with a small soviet-era submarine fleet (e.g. North Korea or Iran). Would the result be the same?

The whole cold war submarine strategy was based on the inability of opposing navies to find and destroy submarines before they could launch their missiles. Does that still hold when your submarines are cold-war relics and the navy the is looking for for them is state of the art?

In the Cold War, as you allude to, there were enemy submarines with intercontinental nuclear missiles waiting hidden in the depths, and they would have to be destroyed in order to prevent the missiles from being unleashed upon cities or military bases. That’s not the case in the situation where the US faces off against any of its current potential adversaries with submarines (Iran, North Korea.)
Since the 1960s, the submarine, which generally had the role of destroying enemy warships or merchant shipping, have had bifurcated roles:

(1) there are attack submarines which still have the old role - the destruction of enemy warships and merchant shipping

(2) there are missile submarines which have a strategic role - the last resort hidden arsenal of long-range nuclear weapons that can be used strategically against enemy installations and homeland.
While both North Korea and Iran have submarines, the only submarines they have are the 1st type - attack submarines. Because of this, it’s unlikely that a war would involve finding submarines with the primary mission of staying hidden before they launch long-range missiles. The Iranians and North Koreans don’t have submarines that can launch such long-range missiles, and they don’t have a navy that could pose a threat to US missile submarines that would be stationed too far away from Iran or North Korea.
It’s much more likely that the US Navy would be responsible for the protection of civilian and military shipping in the waters near Iran or North Korea in case of such a war, and there we would see attempts by Iranian or North Korean submarines to penetrate and attack convoys or warships, and a sophisticated US Navy put up against lower-tech submarines. According to publicly-available information (like the Harpoon naval games,) the US edge in antisubmarine warfare would be a huge advantage, but who knows how that would play out in reality.
It’s conceivable that the US could one day go to war with one of the nations that does have long-range missile submarines, like China or Russia, or much[sup]umpteen[/sup] less likely the UK or France. If so, the US would not enjoy the technological antisubmarine edge it enjoys over Iran or North Korea. Who knows how that would turn out - guessing what would happen in a war before it happens is risky.
Your question is kind of interesting because submarine warfare has really always been a form of asymmetrical warfare.

The large, wealthy naval power (the UK, US) goes in for a surface fleet that can’t be matched by its adversary, so the adversary (Germany, the CSA) goes for a less expensive submarine fleet in an attempt to defeat the wealthy naval power without attempting to directly confront the powerful surface fleet.

Wevets has covered the point that the third-tier navies referred to in the OP don’t have ballistic missile submarines.

However, to your overall question, the answer is “pretty much,” with the caveat that any diesel boat on its batteries is capable of being very quiet and stealthy, even obsolete Soviet-era submarines.

However, the biggest discriminator is training (or lack thereof) on the part of these third-tier navies. The crews are often lucky just to successfully submerge and surface their submarine, much less engage in combat with a force like the U.S. Navy.

What about the propellers? I’ve heard that the Chinese subs were, until recently (when they got hold of advanced technology) were easy to find due to their props captivating (churning noisily).
I’m guessing the older Soviet designs may not have been up to snuff by modern standards, and modern subs have super-secret coatings to defeat traditional sonar. Would Iranian/Korean subs have been retro-fitted? Korea - no way in hell is anybody giving them the technology. Iran - if the Russians did put on some kind of coating, I’m guessing it was one which the Russians could defeat.
Countries in the Mid East are famous for switching sides.

Not necessarily the case (from a 2009 report on the North Korean missile threat:

I can’t imagine sub launched ICBMs are within their reach. But a short/medium range SLBM, even if it didn’t have a nuclear warhead, would a be pretty scary thing for them to have, if they could be confident of avoiding detection and make their way to the US’s back yard.

But even if they do only have attack subs. The scenario I was thinking of (idly while watching Hunt For Red October :slight_smile: ) would not be them trying to attack the US fleet, but sinking a cruise ship or a tanker off the coast of the US or one of her allies, that would be considered a pretty spectacular morale “win” for NK or Iran.

During the Cold War the United States might have faced an asymmetrical submarine warfare situation, with the USSR deploying a technically inferior but more numerous fleet. But since then any potential submarine threats would be both technically inferior and less numerous.

In any event- Stalin’s boast about quantity being a quality of its own notwithstanding- there comes a point in which numbers can’t make up for smaller and cheaper. The more technologically refined the state of the art is, the less a qualitatively inferior force is going to count for.

AFAIK thats not what is meant by asymmetrical warfare. It is not describing a cold war or WW2 situation where one side has a technology disadvantage, but has strength of numbers (and industrial capacity) and is quite capable of achieving an overall military victory. I thought it meant to describe a situation such as an insurgency where one side is outnumbered and outgunned, and has no chance of a traditional military victory.

In that context NK and Iran would not be hoping to “win” by sinking the US fleet. But a warhead (not nuke, possibly not even chemical or biological) delivered to NY or London from a sub off shore would be considered a “win”, even it doesn’t knock out anything more strategically vital than a 7-11.

That’s cavitating. As in, the rotation of the blade creates pockets of air, or *cavities *if you will ;), in the water.

Every submarine or boat propeller cavitates BTW, or is prone to do it to some extent. Including top shelf whizbang American ones. The only difference between them is the specific turnspeed at which point these bubbles will start imploding due to pressure differentials caused by the screw at a given depth/ocean pressure.

Thanks for the correction - I hate using the wrong word. Should’ve googled.

Another factor to consider is that the balance between better detection equipment versus harder to detect submarines must eventually shift to “you can always find the submarine”. A submarine, no matter what you dress it up with, is a metal object with a propeller more than 100 feet long. It does not in any way resemble aquatic life.

Supposedly, great strides have been made with making the submarines quieter - but that is no protection against active sonar. Sonar absorbing panels have been developed - but there are ways to detect this. And, of course, the electronics for signal analysis are many orders of magnitude better than the ones used in ww2.

There may have been a period of time, shortly after nuclear submarines and guided torpedoes were developed, when it would have been possible for a fleet of submarines to sink every surface warship in the seas and basically dominate the oceans. That time is no longer.

Diesel electric boats are significantly quieter than nuclear subs when running on batteries, this makes them very hard to detect even with a significant technological edge. But they’re very limited in range - they could only operate in small areas around their bases.

But at the same time, third rate navies are generally poorly trained, poorly maintained, and with outdated equipment - they would have a hard time engaging US subs effectively too. The threat of third tier navies is actually mostly a terroristic threat - that they could attack and disrupt the world’s cargo shipping and be a significant disruption to the world’s economy, while being difficult to hunt down, which works as a disincentive to attack them in the first place. They’re a viable way for an attacked nation to lash out.

They would also have a decent shot at sinking US ships - in war games against (more advanced, better crewed) NATO diesel electric subs, they’re often able to get through the carrier group’s anti-sub defenses and sink the carrier. A competently crewed, bold, lucky old diesel electric boat in the right circumstances would pose a significant threat if a carrier group were operating close to its base. The most likely scenario for this would be an unexpected first strike after a carrier group moves into an area to apply pressure or threats. They wouldn’t be all-out pinging everywhere with active sonar and sonobuoys yet, and there would definitely be a window of opportunity.

Also, apparently U.S. carriers do not have anti-torpedo weapons. If the launch platform manages to get into range and fire torpedoes at the carrier, and they don’t lose tracking on the target, the carrier will be hit.

This actually suggests another tactic : sneaking a 100+ foot long diesel submarine into range of an aircraft carrier might be difficult. But, what about a 1 shot drone submarine or an extremely long range torpedo? When you ask the question, what would it take to sink a Nimitz class carrier for the lowest cost, solutions like this come up.

What about “drone” subs? With no humans on board, no need for oxygen…or food. these subs could be manufactured cheaply, and sent to locations near the USA coast, where they would park on the bottom. then, they could launch missiles or attack surface ships.
It could be very cost effective and hard to combat.

The real asymmetric undersea weapon is the acoustic mine. Very low cost, and doesn’t depend on a large infrastructure to deploy it. Kind of the sea equivalent to IEDs, but where the targets cost a lot more to replace than road vehicles.

I bring them up in this thread because that’s one of the roles of diesel-electric subs - sneaking into sea lanes or coastal areas, deploying mines, and getting out again. The submarines don’t even need to enter areas where enemy ships are operating to cause a lot of damage.

Just popped in to say that this kind of excellent reply is why I read the Straightdope, thanks Wevets and thanks for an interesting question OP!

Pirate Sub! (3:50)

Navy vet here, my rating was Damage Controlman and served on a carrier. My job was majorly firefighting, minor in flooding and shoring damage and CBR (chemical, biological, radiological) defence.

I’ll use the oversimplified example of being unlike the Titanic. Modern Navy ships are a honeycomb of small compartments. One torpedo might blow a dozen to smithereens, but in scale a minor wound. It would take multiple hits to cause enough damage to sink a carrier. If and it’s a big if, on a moving target you could hit the same spot over and over it would take less hits to cause a critical failure.

Like trying to kill an elephant with a stick. Hit it enough times with a little stick you will take it down, getting it to stand still long enough is the hard part.

Yes and no. Yes, if the top tier nation state starts the war, Iran or any of the other opposing powers has x number of submarines. So those get found before kick off and disabled.

No , if the opposing power decides that its going to get invaded, so better off to be pre-emptive and surge the sub force to their sea denial stations. Then it becomes a war of attrition. Their side, the subs are effectively holes in the ocean, unless someone gets lucky. Their downside, is that they are only so fast. Once they launch a torpedo attack, as someone put it, its a flaming data point on a map, and anti sub planes can be dispatched faster than the kilo can un ass the area.

After that, they only have so many torpedos on board, use up the warshots and they have to reload, so that means you find the cow, or it has to head back to port. With LA and Virginia class subs, prowling the waters, its only a matter of time.


But surely Iran and NK are not leaving their submarines lying around in dock waiting to be found, any more than the soviet’s were. They are i assume out at see somewhere right now and would need tracking down if war started tomorrow.

how much of a risk would it be if a terrorist group got hold of a sub, and decided they wanted to sink a VLCC or ULCC? Is this possible? Are there any (effective) defenses against it short of WW2 style convoys?