A Renaissance for Attack Submarines in the Mediterranean

Mediterranean navies currently operate a combined total of 58 attack submarines. This may come as a surprise given that the Mediterranean’s relatively clear waters make this type of ship easier to spot from the surface than in the oceans of the world. Despite a higher degree of vulnerability to detection from the air, combined with a scarcity of space for manoeuvre, the submarine in the Mediterranean is seemingly enjoying a renaissance of sorts.

By compiling an inventory of all attack submarines operated by Mediterranean countries between 1991 and the present day, we can get a better sense of the role subs play in the Sea’s growing militarisation.

Turkey and Greece top the chart with twelve and eleven submarines respectively. All remaining navies, with the exception of Spain (two), have roughly similar submarine forces – at least in terms of numbers.

Qualitatively speaking, however, the picture is more complex. Some countries operate large submarine fleets, but have to deal with large numbers of obsolete ships. For instance, six out of Greece’s eleven subs were commissioned in the 1970s. Spain’s two submarines were both commissioned before 1991 and make the country’s submarine fleet both smaller and less capable than its counterparts. France’s six subs on the other hand are all nuclear-powered and very capable – especially its Suffren-class boat.

Rising Numbers

Many Mediterranean navies are on an upward trajectory in terms of submarine capabilities, while some have been in flux since the end of the Cold War. European countries are over-represented in the second group due to increasing internal pressure to cut military spending. This is certainly the case for Spain (see Figure 1), whose navy operated eight submarines in 1991 compared to just two nowadays. France’s navy (which also operates ballistic missile submarines that fall outside of the scope of this article) went from eight to six, while Italy went from ten to eight in the same period. Greece is the only European country to have seen its submarine fleet grow in numbers, though at the cost of obsolesce for many of its subs currently in operation.

Back to Cold War Levels

Zooming out slightly from the data by looking at the total number of attack submarines operated each year by all Mediterranean navies reveals that we are witnessing a phase of modest rearmament in the region, as countries attempt to keep up with their neighbours and rivals (like Turkey and Greece), or simply build up their submarine capabilities (Algeria and Israel).

Figure 2 shows that we are two attack subs away from equalling the total number of subs in commission back in 1991. While the post-Cold War record high of 62 was recorded in 1995 and 1996, this was probably a delayed effect of high levels of military spending during the Cold War itself. The same figure also shows that, after falling to a 30-year low of 47 total units in the mid-2000s, the number of Mediterranean attack submarines has steadily climbed back up to today’s 58.

Europe’s Sub Capabilities: No Longer Unchallenged

What stands out from Figure 3 is that not only has the number of European attack subs in the Mediterranean shrunk significantly since 1991 (from 36 that year to 27 in April 2021), but so has the European share of total subs in the region, which dropped from 60% to 46% during the same time frame. The overall picture might not change in the long term. While France and Spain will launch a handful of new submarines in the short term, Greece is unlikely to replace all of its outgoing submarines, which will eventually have to be decommissioned as they exceed five decades of service. Italy also should not be expected to exceed the current figure of eight operational subs.

Conversely, Figure 3 shows how Middle East & North Africa (MENA) countries in the Mediterranean have now overtaken their European counterparts in terms of total number of attack submarines in service. This is clearly a very interesting development considering that European countries in the Mediterranean operated twelve more attack submarines than MENA navies in 1991. Furthermore, unlike European navies, MENA navies operate more subs now (31) than they did in 1991 (24) – possibly a symptom of the increasing sense of insecurity that looms over the Mediterranean since the U.S. started its pivot to Asia.

Increasing Capabilities: AIP and Missiles

Behind the rising numbers of submarines in the Mediterranean, however, lies also trend of increasing capabilities. More navies in the region are acquiring missile-capable subs, while air-independent propulsion (AIP) is quickly becoming the standard among newly-launched boats.

Algeria in particular has looked to greatly improve its submarine capabilities with its four Russian-built Kilo-class Project 636 subs, which are capable of launching Russian Club-S Kalibr missiles, thus granting the Algerian navy the ability to hit enemy shipping as well as land-based targets.

Even Egypt’s recently-commissioned German-built Type 209 submarines are equipped with UGM-84L Block 2 Sub-Harpoon missiles. This is certainly a trend among Mediterranean navies. Indeed, the Italians, whose most modern subs do not have missile capabilities, have been reported to have made the ability to launch missiles a requirement for their U212 Near Future Submarine (NFS) programme.

While all of France’s attack submarines are nuclear-powered – a unique capability among Mediterranean navies – the advent of AIP has allowed many regional navies, and their diesel boats, to achieve levels of stealth previously unattainable by conventional submarines. Able to operate submerged for weeks instead of days, AIP submarines are already in service with the Greek (Papanikolis class), Italian (Todaro class), Israeli (AIP Dolphin 2) and Egyptian (Type 209/1400 mod) navies. Turkey will soon commission its first of six planned AIP boats, while Spain’s troubled S-80 was designed to feature AIP from the start – though the first two boats in the class will be commissioned without only to receive it later.

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