Saturday, February 11, 2012

Terrorist Threat Beneath the Waves

I saw this piece in the Wall Street Journal a little while ago and saved it for a rainy day. 

The author is concerned with terrorism at sea using relatively inexpensive submarines to attack oil infrastructure.

He starts off by noting that the Allies won the battle of Atlantic at great cost, and makes the implication that such battles could be in our future.

Andrew Krepinevich,  Wall Street Journal, 2 November 2011

The world's vast undersea energy infrastructure—oil and gas platforms, wellheads, pipelines and pumps—is now vulnerable to attack by cheap submarines and unmanned vehicles.

In recent years, Latin-American narco-cartels have begun moving their cargo by submarine. While not even remotely in a class with the U.S. Navy's submarines, these simple boats are nevertheless capable of operating undersea in littoral waters while moving tons of cocaine. They have a range of up to 2,000 miles and cost but a few million dollars to build. These submarines can submerge to depths of a few dozen feet, which is sufficient to make detection difficult, allowing them to approach offshore oil platforms with little or no warning.
Even more disturbing is the proliferation of unmanned underwater vehicles, or UUVs, which were once almost exclusively operated by Western militarize. With the growth of the undersea economy, civilian development and production took off in the 1980s. UUVs are now widely used for a variety of commercial and scientific purposes.

These UUVs are perhaps best known for their role in locating sunken ships. Unlike the small submarines operated by narco-cartels, UUVs can descend to the ocean floor. If adapted for military purposes, they could carry mines and other explosives, as well as cameras and electronic sensors. They are also becoming cheaper, with a wide variety of systems available for sale in the private sector.
Then there are naval mines, now manufactured in more than 30 countries. Some producers, like Russia, are developing mines with better sensors, target-recognition systems, stealthy coatings, and self-propulsion systems to enable them to move about. But mines don't need to be sophisticated to be effective, especially against the thousands of soft targets populating the continental shelf...

For a relatively small effort on their part, in short, America's enemies could potentially impose enormous costs on its undersea economy, including loss of energy resources, damaged infrastructure and environmental degradation.

Well, as the byline notes, Mr. Krepinevich is president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.  Its mission is to act as "an independent, nonprofit public policy research institute established to promote innovative thinking and debate about national security strategy, defense planning and military investment options for the 21st century".  Which means that they are a "think tank" and that yes they do take donations.  Why do people donate?  To have their agenda pushed in the Wall Street Journal.  Give them credit for effectiveness.

With the military downsizing, all branches of the services and their suppliers are elbowing to keep as much of their share as possible.  IMO the U.S. Navy is our most important, and historically has been our most effective branch of the military.  But one has to concede that they are lacking in imminent threats at the moment.  So maybe we can see a little motivation toward overstating the capabilities of our opponents.

First to take his side of the case, it might have been a little more impressive he had noted the World War 2 submarine campaign that actually did work.  The U.S. Navy's submarine attack on the Japanese.  And it might have been more impressive if he knew which part of that campaign was the most cost effective and literally shut down water transport between China (where most of the Japanese Army was stationed) and Japan. 

That would be the mining campaign (submarine and air delivered) that used magnetic actuated bottom laying mines.  With no chain to cut, and hard to find sitting at the bottom of the harbor, the Japanese were not able to clear them out in a timely enough fashion to reopen their waterways.   Of course you needed the rest of the U.S (and allied) Navy there to be able to drop these mines with impunity.

He might also have noted that all of the major navies of World War 2 used mini-submarines for various assignments, and particularly the British and Italians had a lot of success with sneaking these subs into harbors and blowing things up.

So far so good.

But there are some problems.  First, none of the submarine based activity was inexpensive, and I doubt any of the commercial submarine activity, legal or otherwise, is cheap either.  It takes the insane profit margins of the drug trade, the potential bonanza of a major oil find, or big T.V. show to fund these operations.  If it were cheap and easy, people would be using submarines to ferry across to islands in bad weather, or go fishing with them.  Submarines have a variety of commercial activities that they are involved in, but the high cost means that the payoff has to be large as well.  He notes a cost of  "a few million dollars."  In a bare bones one-way operation it might be a little less than that, but lets say that it will still be very expensive. Supposedly the entire Al Qadae annual operating budget was $30 million dollars prior to 911.  But they had a lot of people to feed, and nobody was working real hard to stop them.  Or at least, not hard enough.

The other problem with the argument is that you don't really need a submarine to create big headaches.  Just as the Italians (in addition to their submarines) used explosive laden speed boats to attack ships in anchorage in WW2, Al Qadea used a speedboat tot badly damage the U.S. Cole.  It is a serious threat, but you don't need fancy equipment to stop a speed boat.  You need vigilance and a little luck.

Speaking of needs, you don't need a speed boat to create havoc.  All you need is some explosives in a sealed container and some sort of pressure or magnetic fuse.  Take any old boat and drop them into the channel of any old harbor with a timer so they don't activate for a week. Lay lots of them.   Navel mines were used in the United States in the U.S. Civil War.  They were called torpedoes back then. Thus "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!"  means to ignore the minefield and charge ahead. Back then they had both contact activated and electrically activated types.  It is not super simple, but it is not high tech either.  If you wanted to attack the United States, likely the biggest obstacle would be getting the right type of explosives deployed to the United States.

And that brings up the final problem with the scenario.  The small submarines-submersibles are relatively short range creatures.  That is why Navies built them and anarchists did not.  It helps to have a navy that is able to transport the attack vehicle into the area.  Often this was a larger (expensive) submarine.

It just isn't easy.  If you could get enough explosives into the United States to shutdown a couple of major harbors by laying mines, there are just so many other things you could blow up that would get you more publicity.

So I will conclude by partially agreeing with the author.  These mini-submersibles are a big threat.  They have been a threat since World War 2.  But the big threat is from someone with a navy, and it will likely be contained to the area in which that navy operates:  Think Iran - think Persian Gulf.

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