Why did no Royal Navy submarine launch missiles against Syria?
Contrary to expectations, there has been no announcement that a Royal Navy submarine fired Tomahawk missiles during the operation against Syrian regime targets in the early hours of 14th April. In this brief speculative piece, we look at some of the the possible explanations.
Urgent tasking elsewhere
it is possible that the routine, but critically important business of shadowing Russian submarines in Northern waters was considered a greater priority for the RN submarine force. Protection of the UK deterrent submarine is always a prime concern and it may have been felt their were sufficient assets already in the Med for the task. This kind of choice may not be especially great for the Royal Navy’s public image, but would be a sensible prioritisation of scarce assets.
Supporting the operation in a less overt way
Instead of firing TLAM, RN submarine(s) were possibly involved in collecting intelligence and intercepting communications off the Syrian coast. Alternatively they were used to protect the surface warships by tracking Russian Kilo class SSKs, known to be in the eastern Med. These kind of operations require stealth and launching TLAM would comprise this. Today’s Sunday Times tells a wonderful tale, reported as ‘fact’ that an Astute class boat was in a duel with a Kilo class boat. Such reports are within the bounds of possibility but should be treated as speculation only.
Lack of Tomahawks, an abundance of Storm Shadow
Submarine-launched TLAMs have been used in several conflicts since the UK purchased a stock of just 65 Tomahawks in 1998. (These launches were all followed by public announcement of their use.) In 2015 an unspecified number of additional missiles was purchased. Assuming this was just to make good missiles already used, stocks of this precious weapon probably number a maximum of 70. In contrast a huge stock of 900 Storm Shadow was purchased for the RAF, entering service in 2003. 27 were used during the second Gulf War and a further 80 were used in operations against Libya in 2011.
Niche capability of Storm Shadow
Storm Shadow has a much shorter range than TLAM but has a more sophisticated warhead designed specifically to penetrate hardened bunkers. TLAM produces a much wider blast effect like a conventional bomb. The majority of ordnance used in the recent attacks on Syria were US Navy TLAM. It is possible that the RAF was tasked with hitting a few select hardened targets for which Storm Shadow was best suited.
No submarines serviceable?
Casual open source observation of recent RN submarine movements suggests this is almost certainly not the case and at least 2 boats are probably at sea. The short-term crisis of zero attack submarine availability of early 2017 was only a temporary and lasted a matter of weeks.