Small Wars Journal

The Art of Urban Warfare from the Deep Seas

Tue, 09/14/2021 - 9:26pm

The Art of Urban Warfare from the Deep Seas

By Mangesh Sawant


In the short Sherlock Holmes story from 1885, Mycroft Holmes, the intellectual panjandrum of the British government, tells his brother Sherlock about the plans of the Bruce-Partington submarine. Mycroft mentions to Holmes that the submarine’s importance can hardly be exaggerated. It has been the most jealously guarded of all government secrets. “You may take it from me,” Mycroft declares, “that naval warfare becomes impossible within the radius of a Bruce-Partington operation.”[i]


                         Stealth is the common feature between submarine warfare and urban warfare. Submarines are asymmetric weapon platforms in the vast oceans. Contemporary US and Russian submarines are sophisticated and powerful weapon platforms. One nuclear submarine can obliterate two to four cities with intercontinental ballistic missiles or target centers of gravity like aircraft carriers and military installations with cruise missiles by staying safe thousands of miles away from the target.


                         Submarines were at the core of Soviet naval strategy as over three quarters of naval expenditure was allocated to the submarine arm.[ii]  During the Cold War Soviet submarines equipped with anti-ship cruise missiles were a threat to US aircraft carriers. Throughout Soviet naval history submarines were the vanguard of combat operations.[iii]


The Soviet naval strategy is followed by its successor Russia. Submarines are the principal combatants and the mainstay of Russian naval power. Since the last two decades Russia has undertaken several advanced projects to modernize its submarine fleet leading to the launch of stealthier submarines.[iv] Rather than manufacture aircraft carriers Russia has embarked on designing and constructing 5th generation submarines like the Borei and Yasen class. The Russian Navy has installed anti-ship cruise missiles like the 3M51 Alfa, 3M-54 Klub and KH 59MK on its submarines. Russia is testing the hypersonic anti-ship cruise missiles 3M-22 Tsirkon to be deployed on the Yasen class submarines with the primary objective of striking aircraft carriers. The new class of nuclear powered submarines equipped with hypersonic anti-ship cruise missiles are replacing the Soviet-era attack submarines.


Guerillas in the fog


Submarines in submarine warfare epitomize strategist Carl von Clausewitz’s “fog of war,” with its inherent qualities of friction and ambiguity. Due to its stealth features submarines deprive the adversary’s capability to command battlefield dominance. During WWII German U Boats wrecked havoc in the Atlantic and even attacked merchant ships off New York and New Jersey coasts.[v] Even in an age of advanced warfare submarines are difficult to detect in the vast expanse of the oceans. Clandestine submarines operating in enemy waters can nullify the enemy’s anti-access/area denial strategy. As compared to aircraft carriers, submarines are less vulnerable to detection and destruction.[vi]


Small is big


Since 9/11 small wars have been the central theme of warfare and conflicts. Now small wars have been complemented by small weapon systems such as conventional submarines and anti-ship cruise missiles. Targeted warfare like special operations, surgical strikes and attacking high value targets from terrorists to aircraft carriers are dismantling conventional large scale wars. Guerilla warfare will be replicated in sea by low cost conventional submarines. For today’s naval warfare, as in urban warfare, small is big.  


The WWII German naval strategy relied on submarine campaigns to inflict massive damage to UK and US merchant ships. German heavy battleships like the Bismarck, Tirpitz and Graf Spee were sunk or damaged by smaller weapons platforms such as submarines, frigates and aircrafts. The advent of anti-ship cruise missiles with conventional or nuclear payloads greatly multiplied the offensive power of submarines.[vii] Today submarines perform multiple roles such as Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, Special Operations, attacking surface combatants, sea denial capability, littoral operations and destroying land targets. Submarines inflict enormous destruction by launching various types of weapons from torpedoes to intercontinental ballistic missiles. In modern warfare submarines are fulfilling the role of air assets of the carrier battle group by launching cruise missiles against centers of gravity.


Aircraft carriers are massive platforms increasingly vulnerable to submarines. Economically and logistically operating a carrier battle group is expensive while conventional submarines can be manufactured faster and in larger quantities.[viii] The primary function of the carrier battle group is to project power but in a secondary role all surface combatants and anti-submarine warfare assets serve to protect the aircraft carriers. This diminishes the carrier battle group’s strike capabilities and the return on investment. While two nuclear submarines can deploy overwhelming fire power. Unlike submarines the carrier battle groups cannot operate independently and stealthily as they can be detected through aerial and satellite surveillance. Russian submarines are operating off the US coast.[ix]


Submarines armed with anti-ship cruise missiles are the favorite weapon systems of weaker powers against powerful adversaries. China’s naval strategy is based on asymmetric warfare. The modernization of China’s submarine force remains a high priority for the People’s Liberation Army Navy.[x] China continues to increase its inventory of submarines armed with anti-ship cruise missiles. China has equipped eight Kilo class conventional submarines with SS-N27b Sizzler missiles. In the Indo Pacific region submarine warfare is taking precedence over surface warfare as Singapore, Indonesia, Japan and Vietnam induct conventional submarines to counter an expansionist China.


Submarines are insurgents from the deep seas

Striking similarities exist between insurgent’s urban warfare tactics and those of submarines in submarine warfare although both operate in diverse geographical environments. The crucial difference is the size and destroying capacity of the weapon systems of the attackers and defenders.


Submarines are the insurgents operating and applying urban warfare strategies. Submarines prowl the ocean’s depths to ambush surface combatants in the same way insurgents in urban areas wait to ambush infantry units and armored columns. Aircraft carriers are vulnerable to submarine launched anti-ship cruise missile honey bees swarm attack tactics seeking to overwhelm carrier battle groups defenses. Anti-ship cruise missiles function much like rocket propelled grenades with the aircraft carriers akin to tanks in land warfare. Surface combatants would therefore equate to armored personnel carriers. Submarines act like snipers as they can launch anti-ship cruise missiles from as far away as 800 miles.[xi] This is way beyond the defensive perimeter of the carrier battle group. It’s difficult for carrier battle groups to attack a submarine before the launch of an anti-ship cruise missileAs the insurgent in an urban environment the submarine retains the first strike option against the adversary.


Stealth is a common factor between submarines and insurgents. Insurgents are difficult to locate as they are hiding in rooms, sewers and the canyons of the city environment. Similarly a submarine is difficult to detect in the vast expanse of the ocean as it hides in the canyons of undersea mountains. Submarines are becoming quieter making them increasingly hard to detect due to advances in noise canceling acoustic technologies. Like insurgents in a city the submarines have the advantage of unrestricted warfare while surface combatants have a difficult and a tedious task of hunting, detecting and destroying submarines. Just as insurgents have attacked forward operating bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, submarines can silently approach and attack carrier battle groups. A Chinese Kilo class submarine equipped with Klub anti-ship cruise missiles popped up undetected behind a US carrier battle group off the coast of Japan.[xii]


The anti-access/area denial strategy is a common feature between insurgents and the submarines.  People’s Liberation Army Navy can prevent carrier battle groups from attacking the Chinese mainland by establishing an anti-access/area denial zone.[xiii] Just as it is difficult to defend an army unit against an insurgent ambush, it will be difficult for a carrier battle group to protect its aircraft carrier against a coordinated cruise missile attack from a submarine squadron. The WWII German wolf pack submarines are the classic examples of swarm attack tactics.


In anti-submarine warfare an assortment of weapons systems like helicopters, aircrafts and corvettes are deployed to detect and target a single submarine. This is similar to a combined army division versus a group of insurgents in an urban environment. Defending an infantry unit is not a difficult task as it is operating in a joint warfare environment. Here the commander can order an air strike on insurgent positions. But in a networked environment aircraft carriers are like sitting ducks for submarines. Submarines are difficult to detect in the vast expanse of the ocean just as insurgents are in an urban environment.


People’s Liberation Army Navy will apply the age old classical guerilla warfare strategies deployed by Viet Cong in the jungles of Vietnam and the insurgents in the urban environment of Baghdad and Basra. The US Army and Marines resorted to urban warfare tactics in Iraq as tanks turned out to be ineffective against rag tag insurgents. Lessons learned from Iraq wars indicate that a different strategy is required for asymmetric wars. The same applies to naval warfare.




A submarine centric US naval strategy will be a game changer in an age of asymmetric warfare. China’s shore based missiles, fighter aircrafts and conventional submarines are a potent threat to surface combatants. But US submarines can operate unimpeded in anti-access/area denial areas, thus converting China’s access denial strategies into a permissive and exploitative environment.[xiv] Submarines’ deterrence value is more potent than that of aircraft carriers. The fog of war can be implemented in Taiwan Straits as two US nuclear submarines will have a more strategic impact as compared to an aircraft carrier. The principles of urban warfare will be extended to the oceans as mediocre adversaries engage technologically superior naval powers. Future naval wars will be comparable to unconventional wars fought in Iraq.


Submarines have played an important role in military history. In the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the German naval strategies of WWII or the Soviet and Russian undersea strategies the submarine has remained at the forefront of warfare. The world has entered the era of asymmetrical warfare being fought from the urban environments to the deep seas.


[i] Black Jeremy, Naval Warfare A Global History since 1860, ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD, 2017, Pg  78

[ii] Black Jeremy, Naval Warfare A Global History since 1860, Pg  186

[iii] Russia Submarine Capabilities, NTI,

[iv] Russia Submarine Capabilities,

[v] Seek and Sink, A Symposium on the Battle of the Atlantic, Royal Air Force Historical Society, Pg 26,

[vi] Black Jeremy, World War Two, A military history, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2005, Pg 63

[vii] Hattendorf John, Editor, U.S. Naval Strategy in the 1970s Selected Documents, NAVAL WAR COLLEGE NEWPORT PAPERS,  NAVAL WAR COLLEGE PRESS, Pg 70 

[viii] Black Jeremy, Naval Warfare A Global History since 1860, Pg 70

[ix] MCLEARY PAUL, How The US Is Preparing To Hunt New Chinese, Russian Subs,

[x] US Department of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020, Annual Report to Congress, Washington DC, Pg 45

[xi] China’s Anti-Access Area Denial, Missile Defense Advocacy,

[xii] Todd Brian, Chinese submarine tracked U.S. aircraft carrier off Japan,

[xiii] Krepinevich Andrew, Why AirSea Battle?, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2010, Pg 22

[xiv] Tangredi, Sam "Antiaccess Warfare as Strategy," Naval War College Review: Vol. 71 : No. 1 , Article 4, 2018, Pg 9

Categories: urban operations

About the Author(s)

Mangesh Sawant, an alumnus of Columbia University's masters program where he concentrated in international security policy, is a subject-matter expert on military, security and defense matters. Mangesh has 16 years of experience in military strategy and tactics, weapons systems analysis, studying warfare, conducting research, policy analysis and formulation, developing case studies and lessons learned and incorporating global best practices. He conceived, designed and developed counter-terrorism, physical security and critical infrastructure protection and transportation security training programs for law enforcement agencies, corporations and universities.



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