The Submarine: Outdated Menace or Force Multiplier?

By Ensign Jeb Scott Lyne, U.S. Naval Reserve

One of the maxims in today's warfare doxology is that submarines are the best special-warfare and special-operations platforms available in present or conceivable future service. The reasons for this are immediately apparent and relatively indisputable: Submarines are the stealthiest weapon systems built to date. This absolute stealth is of paramount importance to a special-warfare unit, which is almost always outgunned by its opposition and always must rely on such force multipliers as surprise and stealth-both of which are initially provided by deploying from a submarine. However, a submarine's capabilities go beyond simply ferrying Navy SEALs and other specialized units. The Virginia-class submarine (NSSN), which has been specially designed to accomplish these missions, will be able to mine a harbor covertly, chart a mine field covertly, collect intelligence and conduct covert surveillance ashore, and, of course, engage and destroy land-based targets. All of these missions are performed by submarines today. The only difference between today and the future is that planned submarines have incorporated the lessons learned today into their actual design, with the implied promise that future performance of these missions will be more rapid and cost-effective.

The threat of submarine forces to conventional shipping has long been a major concern to all nations and navies. With the disintegration of a two-superpower world, however, a new dimension has been added to the submarine threat. "Long the weapon of choice for inferior seapowers, a submarine of any variety can delay and perhaps even thwart the efforts of a superior naval power." This means that navies that otherwise would receive little thought have to be respected if they possess submarines—especially if they are in a position to control important choke points. All sea-bordering nations realize this; consequently, there has been a worldwide scramble to obtain submarine fleets. Russia, in fact, purportedly has sold and delivered variants of its most recent improved-Kilo class diesel-electric submarine to Algeria, China, India, Iran, Poland, and Romania.' Note that we have had hostilities with all of these nations and have fought or engaged in military actions against all of them except India and Poland during the 20th century. Furthermore, India has made no secret of its willingness to challenge the United States military, if we should interfere too stridently with its foreign policies.

Historically, U.S. submarines have been extremely important in antishipping operations. For example, in World War II, submarines were responsible for the vast majority of the merchant shipping losses that isolated and starved the Japanese mainland. In modern times, air- and ship-launched missiles obviously could provide a more cost-effective way of sinking enemy combatants and merchant ships than submarine-launched weapons. Since few navies have surface fleets of any consequence, however, merchant ship sinking capability will be foremost in our examination. With this in mind, the United States certainly could deploy surface combatants to hunt merchant ships in any future total war. They would—as already have illustrated, however—be vulnerable to simple surface-to-surface missile box launchers or other antiship devices. Alternatively, if we were to employ air power in merchant fleet destruction, we would need to dedicate carrier battle groups to that task. Clearly a carrier battle group would have higher priority tasks to perform in a general-war scenario. Unlike surface vessels and carrier battle groups, though, submarines would be able to hunt merchant fleets with relative impunity, without tying up a large portion of U.S. sea power.

Having examined the threat submarines present to all opposing surface vessels, we must also look at the best way to deal with that threat. Practitioners of every major warfare specialty in the Navy think they are highly capable of antisubmarine warfare, yet few actually can produce consistent results. A torpedo's impact is likely to be the first notice a ship receives of a hostile submarine's presence, and little evidence exists to support the surface Navy's claim that a surface ship can be a primary means of undersea warfare. That is not to say that surface ships cannot support the undersea warfare mission competently, because clearly they can—because of their large supply of weapons, helicopter-carrying capability, and long station-keeping times. However, the primary non-submarine threat to enemy submarines is actually that of helicopter mounted dipping sonars. At least three helicopters are needed to track a nuclear submarine, once that submarine has been found, but one helicopter is all that is required not only to track but also to classify and prosecute a nonnuclear submarine. This is significant, because most navies do not have nuclear submarines. Nevertheless, numerous ships are required to support undersea warfare and success is highly unlikely if helicopters and other aerial units are not employed properly—and these helicopters and ships can present excellent targets to shore-based missile stations. Furthermore, these assets realistically can only locate and track diesel-electric submarines when they schnorkel for air or when they run their generators to charge batteries. Under all other situations, only another submarine possesses the versatility and quiet mobility to locate, track, classify, and prosecute an enemy submarine.

Although undoubtedly more expensive than surface ships that can perform similar missions, submarines offer unique and valuable capabilities that dramatically increase their cost-effectiveness The controversy over just how many submarines we require and why we really need them will continue as long as nations have navies. In the interim, however, submarines clearly present an integral and necessary element in any navy, and therefore are preeminently important to our own.

Ensign Lyne is a 1999 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.


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