Fitting Submarines into the Fleet

By Rear Admiral William J. Holland Jr., U.S. Navy (Retired)

While continuing improvements are being made in the nature and type of communication links to submarines, these physical phenomena are not subject to manipulation, regardless of the anxiety of impatient flag officers. Controlling submarines in real time requires technical and process knowledge not common to other forces or platforms. In many cases, rather than accepting these physical realities and learning the processes needed to employ the submarine, commanders have simply ignored their presence, let alone their potential value.

Since their invention submarines have rarely been incorporated effectively in Fleet movements and operations. Because of their limitations, they have been adjuncts at best. Even when deployed in support of Fleet operations, their roles usually have been as independent operators.

The Submarine's Five Epochs

American submarine operations have spanned five epochs. In their youth (1900-15), they were designed to operate as coast-defense ships. In their adolescence (1918-42), submarines were designed to be scouts for the battle line. Ineffective in this role at Midway, the USS Darter (SS-227) and Dace (SS-247) not only announced the main force of the Japanese at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, they sank two heavy cruisers and so damaged the flagship that the Japanese admiral had to shift his flag with only part of his staff.

But even though they were designed as Fleet scouts, these submarines made their most significant contribution in World War II as commerce raiders, strangling imports and destroying the Japanese merchant marine (1942-45). In their late teens (1945-55), they struggled to find appropriate functions, first as pickets for Fleet operations and national defense, then later as embryonic antisubmarine warfare platforms.

With the advent of nuclear propulsion, submarines under such power could dominate the ocean. As predicted in 1892 by Mycroft Holmes, the fictional elder brother of Sherlock, "You may take it from me that naval warfare becomes impossible within the radius of a Bruce-Partington [submarine] operation." 1 Indeed, historian John Keegan flatly asserted 20 years ago that, "the era of the submarine as the predominant weapon of power at sea must therefore be recognized as having begun. It is already the ultimate deterrent. . . . It is now also the ultimate capital ship, deploying the means to destroy any surface fleet that enters its zone of operations."

Nuclear power brought previously unfathomable stealth and endurance to the submarine. Improvements in propulsion and hull design added speed. With these advantages, the attack submarine could participate in Fleet operations not just as scouts, but eventually filling the role of ASW escort in direct support. But it was their role as spearheads of the Maritime Strategy that dominated their missions during the Cold War, missions that capitalized on their ability to operate independently in distant waters and potentially hostile littorals.

The same stealth qualities made the ballistic-missile submarine (SSBN) the key component of the national strategic arsenal. Since then, operation of the submarines armed with national strategic weapons has not been an issue of Fleet concern or even interest. These ships will continue to operate outside the domain of the Fleet-a national mission, a political force with no equal. Ballistic-missile submarines are not in the mix of ships that will be of concern to task force or Fleet commanders. 

So Misunderstood

The submarine's mobility and endurance are particularly useful traits, underestimated by those not familiar with them. All submarines can intrude and operate alone in otherwise enemy-controlled territory, but this type of ship can not only get to the battlefield faster, but remain there indefinitely. This ability to be dispatched instantly and to transit quickly allows concentration of weapons and sensors by multiplication of platforms.

Ignorance of this dimension has been demonstrated repeatedly in war games in which blue commanders, offered more submarines as quick reinforcements, have refused to add them to the battlefield organization because they failed to understand the capabilities they would bring.

Unlike other forces in the Fleet needing escorts and chained to their logistic support, a single submarine is a meaningful and effective task force. One submarine is an effective unit as soon as it is under way. No critical mass exists; the ship need not wait for escorts, supply ships, or air-wing modifications.

This mobility and speed mean submarines serve as the Fleet's primary instrument to carry the attack early and decisively into enemy waters. In the only maritime war since the advent of nuclear propulsion, the Falklands campaign, the Royal Navy's plan was in essence the Maritime Strategy set in the Southern Hemisphere. Nuclear-powered submarines arrived on scene first and effectively eliminated any and all threats from enemy carrier-based and surface forces.

Argentina did not have a weak or bad navy; in fact, it was far better than most countries' and in some respects a formidable opponent. Yet this navy, in the face of a few British nuclear-propelled submarines, lost the General Belgrano , its major surface warship, to HMS Conqueror and retreated ignominiously into port.

Tactical Missiles on Board

The submarine's influence is now magnified by the addition of land-attack tactical missiles to its magazines. When the Arsenal Ship foundered on arguments of high vulnerability and low interest its mission devolved onto ballistic-missile submarines no longer required for national tasking. Today, the largest land-attack tactical missile inventory at sea lies in four converted missile submarines-invisible, nearly invulnerable, and capable of operating close to shore to provide large volumes of fire with short flight times. While these four big submarines have larger magazines, all American submarines have a capability to launch a dozen or more of these missiles with the same degree of rapidity and high accuracy.

Indeed, in the initial salvo in the Iraq War, the "shock-and-awe" phase, more Tomahawks came from attack submarines than from any other platforms. Because submarines cannot replenish ammunition under way, the sustainability of such fires is limited. But the nuclear submarines' speed and endurance compensates for individual magazine exhaustion by multiplying the number of ships in theater relatively quickly.

Those outside the community generally acknowledge the utility of the submarine in reconnaissance, but they do not understand the details—in part because of the sensitive nature of these operations in peacetime and in part because of the classification of their results. Lack of appreciation for the productivity of such operations hampers the utility of the submarine less than it might, because such operations are in large part independent of the rest of the Fleet's operations, conducted under higher-level authority. However, the enthusiasm with which the Special Operations Command has endorsed the SEAL team features incorporated into the SSGN conversions is testimony to the high value of covert platforms in sensitive operations. 

Under Cover

Submarines were widely used in covert operations during World War II. Marine raiders attacked Makin Island and submarine-launched divers reconnoitered beach gradients and obstacles at Normandy and the Pacific islands and supported guerrilla forces in the Philippines. With dedicated ships these covert activities are likely to grow in importance. A more general understanding of their utility and of the intricacies of employment is unlikely to ever be more than a vague idea in the minds of most naval officers. The experience of the Army and its special forces has shown that proper coordination of these forces is not generally well understood either by the regular forces or the special forces themselves.

Though important, for operations requiring landing forces ashore, a submarine's troop-carrying capacity is small-never more than a platoon or two at best. Mounting such an operation from a submarine has all the benefits of covertness but all the shortcomings of limited firepower. Only small numbers of select personnel can be exploited in this manner, and such operations require intense planning and careful staging. They cannot be conducted on the spur of the moment or overnight. Submarines are unlikely to ever supplant an amphibious warfare ship.

The major and regular role of submarines in operations associated with the rest of the Fleet is as a primary antisubmarine platform. The difficulty of ASW has been continuously underestimated since the submarine was invented. Every opponent of submarines has overestimated the ability to counteract the submarine threat and has underestimated the potential of enemy submarines to interdict lines of communication. That condition exists in most of the world today. Inexperienced in ASW, with little understanding of the true potential dangers, even the majority of naval officers consider the submarine threat to be overstated until operating in the presence of a potentially hostile submarine. 2

By being able to arrive early at any scene (even waters ostensibly controlled by an enemy), to operate wherever is most the beneficial to either hunt or hide, and to endure, independent and unsupported, throughout long periods, the submarine has innate advantages that other platforms lack. While these advantages make it the first line of attack against enemy shipping of any kind, nuclear-powered submarines are particularly effective when operating against conventionally powered boats. But time is the key.

Finding a submarine that does not wish to be found is very difficult, requiring good sensors on lots of platforms, careful accumulation of search results, and exploitation of every lead. A modern ASW submarine can sanitize an area large enough to accommodate aviation operations in a matter of days. But clearing a wide area of enemy submarines requires weeks. Even with the best sensors, ASW has to rely on a semi-cooperative enemy-one that must snorkel to charge batteries, move quickly to attack or to change patrol area, or to close a ship with effective active sonar.

ASW: A Collaborative Effort

Those who have been involved more than casually with ASW universally agree that the resources required for effective defense against even one submarine are very large. Effective ASW is a team game. Submarines are best employed in combination with other forces that can bring wide-area sensors, e.g., maritime patrol aircraft, surveillance ships (T-AGOS), and overhead devices. These are true Fleet-wide activities.

Coordinating all the components in a major ASW operation requires skill and dedication. Major exercises that train officers of all the relevant specialties together are necessary to develop the knowledge first and then proficiency in these actions. Appreciation of these difficulties seems to be limited to those within the dedicated ASW communities. As one commentator observed: "The reason ASW has a low priority or is of minor concern is that leaders have no experience in it. Like World War I generals in chateaus who ordered frontal assaults on entrenched machine guns, they are so distant from the front line they are. . . incapable of learning from experience.'" 3

Autonomous and remotely operated vehicles can extend the submarine's reach into the most tightly contained and controlled sanctuaries, just as cruise missiles already extend the reach of submarine weapons well inland. For several years some submarines have been equipped to penetrate moored minefields. Soon, underwater autonomous vehicles launched from the submarine will extend their search areas and capability against bottom mines. Mine countermeasure operations, like ASW, require long time periods; search rates are low and inherent dangers great. Other forces can sweep mines faster and more safely, but only a submarine can sweep in areas where air dominance is not assured or where secrecy is desired.

Submarines are probably the least effective units in the Fleet for presence missions, blockades without the use of force, interception and boarding of merchantmen, and demonstrations of intent. In these tasks, their virtue, invisibility, becomes a drawback. On the other hand, the swift response and the great endurance of nuclear-powered submarines mean that opponents must consider that they will be present before and during any crisis situation.

Though antiair weapons for submarines have been investigated, and some research on anti-ballistic-missile capabilities has been conducted, the use of submarines in these areas of warfare will continue to be minimal. British submarines in the Falklands Campaign maintained surveillance of mainland airfields that provided early warning to their fleet, but these operations fall more into the characteristic reconnaissance and surveillance roles than AAW.

As the other components of the Fleet have come to be more and more dispersed, the submarine's role has come to be seen as less and less specialized. At the same time, the submarine's capabilities and limitations remain underappreciated by those versed in other warfare specialties. Fascination with the characteristics for the Littoral Combat Ship masked recognition that the capabilities that such a warship would bring to the littorals already existed in an even more stealthy platform, the submarine.

In creating and operating a fleet, fascination with less powerful but well known pieces can distract attention from those less visible and therefore less understood, regardless of importance or value. While apparently of peripheral use in insurgent wars now, if there is ever another maritime war, submarines will be the Fleet's capital ship.

 



1. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Adventure of the Bruce Partington Plans," His Last Bow, The Complete Sherlock Holmes (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1988), p. 916.

2. RADM W. J. Holland Jr, USN (Ret.), "SSN—Queen of the Seas," Naval War College Review, Spring 1991, p. 113.

3. Barry Posen, The Sources of Military Doctrine, France, Britain and Germany Between the World Wars (Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 1984), p. 56. 

Admiral Holland is a frequent contributor to Proceedings . A retired submarine officer, he presently is Vice President of the Naval Historical Foundation.
 

 
 

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