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San Diego Union-Tribune January 22, 2004

Quiet diesel subs surface as new threat

By James W. Crawley

Years after the Cold War threat of a Soviet submarine attack ended, the U.S. Navy is confronting a new danger - the growing fleets of quiet, diesel-electric subs among potential enemy nations.

As a result, the service is creating a San Diego-based command tasked with training and developing strategies and tactics for hunting undersea foes.

"We have a plethora of capable diesel submarines throughout the world," said Bob Brandhuber, a retired Navy sub captain who is spearheading the opening of the Fleet Anti-Submarine Warfare Command at Point Loma.

Added military analyst Patrick Garrett: "The Navy is in dire straits. If you can't track down submarines, it's impossible to control the seas."

Over the past decade, the submarines that once cruised the ocean depths waiting to launch nuclear missiles at U.S. cities have rusted away at Russian naval bases.

Relieved, the Navy mothballed many of its anti-submarine forces, including sub-hunting submarines and aircraft based in San Diego. Naval training has largely eschewed looking beneath the waves, instead focusing on long-range missile attacks and escorting aircraft carrier strike groups.

However, several nations, including potential adversaries such as Iran and China, now have small but growing fleets of almost undetectable diesel-electric subs.

A hostile, seafaring nation that wants to influence world events has only to go out and buy a diesel sub, Brandhuber added. Newer models, plus older surplus ones, are being sold by Germany, France, Italy and Russia.

Just like nuclear-powered submarines, diesel subs can carry torpedoes, cruise missiles and mines. While conventional submarines must refuel during long journeys, military planners worry that such vessels can hide and wait at strategic "choke points" such as the Taiwan Strait or the Strait of Hormuz in the Middle East, attacking U.S. warships and cargo vessels.

However, no navy has been in a "shooting war" with a submarine since a British nuclear sub sank an Argentine cruiser during the 1982 Falklands War.

The Navy must counter the submarine threat to ensure freedom of movement on the seas, analysts say.

The command, with a rear admiral in charge, will be "a centralized, coordinated voice" for anti-submarine warfare, Brandhuber said.

It will have about 90 uniformed, civilian and contractor personnel, plus 40 in Norfolk, Va., and a few in Japan, he added. No one has been selected for the rear admiral's job, and the date for the establishment ceremony has not been scheduled.

Brandhuber estimated the annual economic impact through payroll and private sector contracts for the community to be tens of millions of dollars when the command becomes fully operational in about 18 months.

The shore-based unit will not command any warships, squadrons or submarines, he said. Instead, the personnel will develop anti-sub training exercises and tests for ships, squadrons, strike groups and fleets.

The Navy needs to maintain its skills in locating and hunting the new generation of quiet diesel subs, both near straits and strategic points and in deep water, said Ronald O'Rourke, a naval analyst with the Congressional Research Service.

China and Iran have bought brand-new, top-of-the-line, Kilo-class diesel subs from Russia, and other nations also have been buying submarines. North Korea has a significant fleet of diesel subs, but most are obsolete, analyst Garrett said.

Some submarines being built can submerge without regular surfacings to replenish their air supply. Once a province of nuclear-powered subs, the new "air-independent propulsion" systems add to the difficulty of tracking diesel boats, experts said.

Subs "aren't getting easier to find," said Garrett, who monitors navies for the independent research group GlobalSecurity.org.

All submarines and most warships have some anti-sub capabilities, as do specialized aircraft and helicopters.

However, many of the anti-sub aircraft are being retired, assigned new duties or becoming obsolete. There are fewer nuclear attack subs today than 10 years ago as older vessels are being retired. The Navy has the lowest number of warships since before World War I.

Add to that the difficulty of finding a black-painted submarine in the ocean depths.

"It is as much an art as it is a science," naval analyst O'Rourke said.


Copyright 2004, Union-Tribune Publishing Co