A Different Angle of Attack

By Norman Polmar

Despite intensive American efforts to locate and "sink" his ships, Admiral Woodward was able to close to within 11 miles of the Coral Sea to simulate firing his Exocets and destroy the carrier. He later would write:

Therefore, reads the moral of this tale, take caution should you ever find yourself as a battle group commander in these circumstances, because it is fairly likely that in bad weather, you would lose the battle. This is especially true against a really determined attack in which the enemy is prepared to lose several ships in order to sink your carrier-which he should always be, because when the carrier goes your air force and very likely your entire campaign go with it.

Now, 15 years after the Falklands, Mr. Robinson and Admiral Woodward recall the Coral Sea event in their novel. But in Nimitz Class, the U.S. supercarrier Thomas Jefferson is attacked by a Kilo-type submarine-and sunk in a nuclear explosion. The attack takes place in 2002, as the battle group approaches the U.S. base at Diego Garcia. The 11 cruisers, destroyers, frigates, and attack submarines that are screening the Thomas Jefferson fail to detect the diesel-electric sub.

Speaking about the novel, Admiral Woodward stressed that "this is not a prediction of the future." Rather, he called it a "parable . . . a warning."

After discussing the attributes and the costs of aircraft carriers of the Nimitz (CVN-68) class, the admiral addressed the submarine issue. He expressed regret that the U.S. and British submarine forces had become all-nuclear and explained his two reasons for wanting to see nonnuclear boats in both navies:

  • Submarine cost-a modern SSK, he explained, costs one-third to one-fifth as much as a nuclear attack submarine
  • High-risk submarine operations-inshore surveillance; operating in shallow, mined waters; landing agents; and other activities when one should risk a smaller, cheaper SSK rather than a nuclear submarine

Admiral Woodward, a veteran submarine officer, also noted that with the end of the Cold War, there will be many operations in which NATO nonnuclear submarines will not be available as the United States takes unilateral actions. The U.S. Navy "probably should have half a dozen small diesel [submarines] for those operations," he added.

"There are lots of good reasons for keeping diesels in your [the U.S.] inventory," he concluded. During the Falklands campaign, the Royal Navy employed five nuclear attack submarines, which provided invaluable service. The special forces command, however, also sent the diesel-electric submarine Onyx, which was used for clandestine operations that were "outside" Admiral Woodward's purview. The British had said virtually nothing in public about the Onyx's activities; the U.S. Navy's report on the campaign says only that special forces teams "were put ashore by helicopter, small boat, and submarine. Their activities . . . had significant influence on the outcome of the conflict."

(Of major concern to British forces during the Falklands Conflict was the Argentine submarine San Luis, a Type 209. She made a combat patrol of an estimated 36 days, which included several days in the area of the main British task force, but was unable to make a successful torpedo attack because of problems with her fire-control system. The British conducted many attacks against suspected submarine contacts, expending a large number of antisubmarine weapons, but without success.)

Subsequently, in the Gulf War of 1991, two British diesel-electric submarines, the Otus and the Opossum, entered the Persian Gulf to carry out special operations. While details of the "spec-ops" have not been revealed, both boats returned to their home base of Portsmouth in camouflage paint and flying the skull-and-crossbones flag from their sails. The Jolly Roger indicated that they had been in combat. The Otus had been deployed for seven months and the Opossum-which had traveled around the world-for 11 months, testimony to the endurance of these diesel-electric submarines. (For reasons not completely explained by U.S. Navy officials, no U.S. nuclear attack submarines operated in the Gulf during the conflict.)

Meanwhile, the nonnuclear submarine debate continues in the United States, as evidenced in the pages of Proceedings and The Naval Submarine Review. Rear Admiral W. J. Holland recently wrote:

Most naval officers today view the diesel-electric submarine in shallow waters as an almost invincible adversary. This impression arises not from analysis or experience, but from simple ignorance. Lack of theory and practice has perpetuated this myth, even in the face of advances in almost every area of submarine and antisubmarine warfare (ASW) technology.

Such views are not universal within the Navy, however. Many U.S. naval officers who have participated in the UNITAS exercises with South American navies operating Type 209 submarines and in exercises with the Israeli Navy's IKL 500 submarines have very different views about the efficacy of modern diesel-electric submarines.

There appear to be two themes in the current round of the continuing submarine debate. The first is that the nonnuclear submarine does not present a threat to U.S. naval operations. Referring to the fictional attack on the aircraft carrier Thomas Jefferson, Admiral Woodward noted that there are "four or five" navies with diesel submarines today that could pull off a successful attack against a U.S. carrier.8 But he expects that there will be more in the future, and with the proliferation of advances in submarine weapons as well as nuclear weapon technology, the threat to U.S. naval operations could be very real.

The second is that the cost of U.S. nuclear submarines-even the New Attack Submarine (NSSN), originally initiated as a low-cost platform-as well as the effectiveness of nonnuclear submarines in a number of roles demand that objective studies and analyses consider their viability for the U.S. Navy in the 21st century.

The ongoing study of future U.S. submarines by a task force of the Defense Science Board, the primary advisory group to the Secretary of Defense, should address this second issue. And both issues must be addressed if the United States is to maintain a viable Navy into the 21st century.


Norman Polmar is an analyst, consultant, and author specializing in naval, aviation, and science and technology issues. He has been a consultant or advisor on naval-related issues to three U.S. senators, the Speaker of the House, and the Deputy Counselor to the President, as well as to the Director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He has written or coauthored more than fifty published books and numerous articles on naval, aviation, technology, and intelligence subjects.

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