Who cheated whom in Russian-British submarine duel?

After the missile attack in Syria on 13 April, The Times reported that Russian naval forces successfully managed to suppress a British nuclear submarine which prevented it from launching its Tomahawk missiles. Supposedly, one or two Kilo-class submarines, two frigates, and an anti-submarine aircraft made it too difficult and dangerous for the British Astute-class nuclear submarine to move within firing distance from its targets in Syria. Allegedly the British submarine got support from American P-8 Orion maritime patrol aircraft which were tasked to track Russian surface and subsurface naval units.

Unsurprisingly, Russian media picked up the story. However, they cited the British story and did not provide more details from Russian sources.

Astute submarine
Astute class submarine. Photo: Royal Navy.

The whole story is a bit strange, and Michael Peck asked the apt question in The National Interest, Did Russia’s Diesel Submarines Really Hunt Down a British Nuclear Sub? Peck’s analysis focuses mostly on the technical feasibility of such an endeavor. Traditional military calculation would argue that the nuclear submarine has the best odds in a duel, even though the Kilo-class is a worthy competitor. Peck concludes that we just don’t know whether the Russian ships actually tracked down the British submarine, and that we also don’t know whether this prevented the British submarine from launching its weapons.

My take on this is that I don’t think the point of the submarine was to fire any missiles in the first place. Often a submarine is deployed not to deliver weapons but to keep the adversary busy. The mere knowledge that there is a submarine in the area forces the opponent to commit resources to finding it.

I guess that the United Kingdom sent the Astute submarine to keep track of the Russian ships in the area. A well placed news leak made sure that everyone knew about the presence of the submarine. Russian threats to shoot down both missiles and launch sites in case of an attack on Syria didn’t matter much because the submarine wouldn’t be a launch site.

That would have made it the job of the submarine commander to draw as many resources as possible from the Russian pursuers. In other words to be challenging yet achievable.

I don’t know whether this is what happened. But it does seem more plausible than the notion that the Royal Navy hit a streak of bad luck and had their mission blown by an unfortunate news leak and a masterfully executed Russian ASW-operation.




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