NATO Submarining

by Rear Admiral Andy Burcher USN

It was a beautiful, calm day on the Mediterranean as HS Matrozos glided out of its pier across from Athens and headed through the myriad of anchored merchant ships in the Athens harbor. The 71-yard submarine effortlessly weaved its way to the nearby dive point as it prepared for its monthly torpedo exercise (TORPEX). As Commander, Submarines NATO (COMSUBNATO), I was invited to attend the event along with my military assistant Lieutenant Commander Luis Estrada and the US Naval Attaché Captain Rose Rice. The submarine’s departure, and subsequent return, in the calm waters of the Aegean was without tug or pilot. As we passed over the shallow section of the channel leaving Salamis Naval Base, Captain Konstantinos Kontogiannakos, COMHELSUB –the head of the Greek submarine force, pointed out to me that this was the place that in 480 BC hundreds of ships had been sunk in the Battle of Salamis – a turning point in the Greco-Persian Wars depicted loosely in the movie 300: Rise of an Empire.

The Type 214 diesel submarine is a formidable platform. With Air-Independent-Propulsion (AIP), it has the capability of remaining submerged for tactically significant periods of time and can travel at surprisingly fast speeds for evasive or positioning maneuvers. The X-Plane variant (Type 212 and Type 214) is incredibly maneuverable in shallow water – able to maintain zero angle during depth excursions. With very capable sonar sensors, special operation forces capabilities and a capacity of eight to12 torpedoes depending on the variant, it can easily be understood why nations with littoral national interests are increasing their procurement of these submarines – all to the benefit of the NATO Alliance.

As the sun started to set on the calm waters, the submarine submerged – using processes and procedures similar, but different to those of US submarines. By way of example, the bridge lower hatch remained open as the submarine proceeded to submerge to periscope depth. A slight vacuum is created and personnel check for leaks around the hull prior to closing the hatch and proceeding deeper.

Within less than an hour, the TORPEX was successfully completed, the submarine had resurfaced and was headed back to port. With the exception of the visitors mentioned above, there were no additional personnel on board such a safety officers or range supervisors which is a testament to the crew’s proficiency. Critical to returning was only the fact that the recovery ship had located the exercise torpedo.

With the glaring lights of the new Cosco port in Athens bouncing off the water, I watched Captain Kontogiannakos take a puff on his very large cigar. It was clear to me that our Allies that operate in this littoral environment are a capable force to be relied upon in the event of conflict.

With the above in mind, it should not be lost on the reader that there are 13 nations within NATO that operate submarines. Adding to this capability is Sweden, a NATO partner-nation with an additional seven submarines. In total, including partner countries, NATO has at its disposal nearly 95 conventional submarines. Of these 95, 57 are diesel submarines, 14 of which are AIP capable, and approximately 48 SSNs depending on how you allocate the US submarines.

Created in 2012 with the merger of SUBSOUTH and SUBNORTH, COMSUBNATO, a US rear admiral, serves at the NATO Maritime Headquarters (MARCOM) in Northwood, UK. COMSUBNATO is responsible as the NATO Submarine Operating Authority (SUBOPAUTH) when submarines are operating under NATO Operational Control (OPCON). COMSUBNATO also acts as the Submarine Movement Advisory Authority (SMAA), de-conflicting Allied submarine operations and as the NATO Submarine Broadcast Authority (BCA). SUBNATO is responsible for NATO’s annual Anti-Submarine Warfare Exercises, Dynamic Manta (Mediterranean) and Dynamic Mongoose (North Atlantic). COMSUBNATO is also responsible for running the International Submarine Escape and Rescue Liaison Office (ISMERLO) and conducting the tri-annual submarine rescue exercise Dynamic Monarch.

While the focus in the public domain is heavily focused on individual countries and burden sharing, it is clear, from an undersea perspective, that NATO nations take the threat and the need for capability seriously. Over half of the 13 submarine-operating NATO nations are in the process of building or modernizing their submarine fleets. Given that at current numbers, NATO/partner submarines outnumber Russian submarines by at least 20, assuming all Russian submarines are within the NATO area of responsibility, proponents of the Alliance should be comforted in this capability and future growth.

The NATO submarine force is a capable, credible deterrent to Russian aggression in the undersea domain. The combination of US, UK, FRA SSN capability along with 57 SSKs across the Alliance provides a depth across all mission areas.

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