Freeman’s words could have been written today by almost any career submariner in response to the frequent argument, made on an annual basis in the pages of Proceedings , about adopting conventional attack submarines (SSKs). But as we enter an age of limited budgets and tough choices about what weapon systems are truly necessary, the submarine force is going to be pushed to strongly consider cheaper alternatives like the SSK.
Consequently, it’s worth reviewing how the interwar submarine force, faced with similar choices regarding limited tonnage and funding, determined the right characteristics and produced the fleet submarine that won the decisive undersea campaign in World War II.
Submarines between the World Wars
The interwar force was charged with supporting the rest of the Navy by scouting ahead of the battle fleet and skirmishing with the enemy, presumably in the Western Pacific Ocean. This was a tall order, given that the predominant type of submarines built at the end of World War I (the S -class) did not have the surface speed or endurance to make a long trans-Pacific transit and stay ahead of the battle fleet. Therefore, the Navy used a 1916 congressional authorization to build nine “fleet submarines” to investigate the characteristics necessary for future subsurface vessels. 3 Those were known as the V -submarines, though they were all different from each other in design.
After significant disappointment with the first three V-boats, which were designed with limited input from the submarine force, Secretary of the Navy Curtis D. Wilbur and Admiral Edward W. Eberle, Chief of Naval Operations, directed the Submarine Officers Conference—an informal advisory group established after World War I—to advise the Navy’s leadership in 1926. 4 By 1930, the conference had identified the ideal characteristics of a fleet submarine: long range, high surfaced-speed, and sufficient weaponry. 5
Achieving the necessary range required a large enough displacement to carry the fuel and supplies needed for extended operations. In terms of speed, submarines had to be able to keep ahead of the U.S. Fleet under normal conditions. In 1930, Admiral William V. Pratt, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Fleet, identified the optimum speed as 15 knots, the cruising speed of battleships. As long as the submarines left before the Fleet, they could stay far ahead of it. 6
But just as the Navy finally settled on the characteristics it wanted in its submarines, the submariners found their ability to experiment limited by treaty restrictions. In 1930, the United States signed the London Naval Treaty, limiting the amount of tonnage displaced by all American submarines combined to only 52,700. 7
Unfortunately, the Navy had already devoted a significant amount of tonnage to submarines. As the service continued to build V -boats, they had become progressively larger, with the V-5 and V-6 displacing an incredible 3,158 tons when fully loaded on the surface. The massive displacement had been considered necessary to install large diesel engines for the V-boats to achieve surface speeds up to 17 knots. 8 Because of the bulky handling characteristics of those large submarines and the constraints of the treaty, submariners began looking for smaller designs that could still operate with the necessary speed and deliver a significant load of torpedoes.
The first of the smaller and experimental submarines was the USS Dolphin (SS-169), displacing only 1,550 tons on the surface. Its layout foreshadowed the future Fleet submarines. In a continuing trend to decrease size in order to make as many as possible, the next two submarines, the USS Cachalot (SS-170) and Cuttlefish (SS-171), displaced only 1,110 tons on the surface. 9 Unfortunately, their twin foreign-made MAN engines performed poorly, and commanders were uncomfortable with the thought of being in enemy waters with only two main engines. 10 Consequently, the submarine force reversed the trend of decreasing size. Using the Cachalot and Cuttlefish as a bottom line, the force started adding better engines and additional components to meet the required characteristics.
In 1933, with new technology available from the General Motors Winton diesel division, the Bureau of Engineering installed four engines and an all-electric drive into the new Porpoise –class submarines. The all-electric drive transferred energy directly from the diesels to the electric motors that turned the propeller shafts, allowing the USS Porpoise (SS-172) to reach 19 knots on the surface, a speed American submarines had never attained before. 11 The all-electric drive went on to power the mainstay U.S. submarines of World War II, far surpassing the modest 15-knot speed requirement Admiral Pratt had called for in 1930. In fact, starting with the 1940 Tambor class, American submarines regularly made up to 20.25 knots on the surface. 12
A combination of submariners and industry together created innovative technological advancements that made the smaller fleet submarines more capable than their larger V -class predecessors. For example, in 1930 submariners were using rudimentary “is-was” circular slide rules to aim torpedo salvoes. 13 But starting in 1932, the Bureau of Ordnance coordinated with Arma and Ford Instruments to develop a small but advanced analog fire-control computer. The Arma Mk 1 torpedo data computer, or TDC, was completed in 1938, and further competition between Arma and Ford Instruments produced the Arma Mk 3 TDC, which turned out to be pivotal to the success of the U.S. submarine campaign during World War II. 14
And perhaps the most important advance that allowed for operations in the tropics of the Pacific Ocean was the inclusion of air conditioning. In addition to eliminating electrical short circuits, metal corrosion, and mildew in mattresses and clothing, that technology genuinely improved the habitability of U.S. submarines. 15
The Right Submarine for the Job
When war came, the 1,500-ton (surface displacement) Gato -class fleet submarine fully met the Navy’s needs in the Pacific. Its high speed not only allowed it to proceed far ahead of American surface forces and maintain contact with the enemy, but it also allowed submarines to outflank slower merchant convoys. With their displacement, fuel capacity, and technological innovations, submarines had the range to shadow Japanese movements all the way from the Sea of Japan or stay on station for almost two months. U.S. submarines eventually sank 55 percent of all Japanese shipping.
Those characteristics still guide our submarine design. With the exception of three permanently forward-deployed fast-attack nuclear-powered submarines out of Guam, and the four Ohio –class guided-missile submarines that operate forward-deployed and periodically return to Bangor, Washington, and King’s Bay, Georgia, for upkeep, the rest of the force still has to transit long distances, remain on station for extended periods, and carry enough weapons and sensors to make the trips worthwhile. To a degree that could not have been imagined in the 1930s, nuclear power permits U.S. submarines to accomplish these tasks with remarkable high speed and long range.
Any one of the Fleet’s nuclear-powered submarines can transit continuously at speeds that even the best conventional submarines can only maintain for a brief time, and they can do it for weeks on end. As a result, much as Admiral Freeman opposed the Marlin and Mackerel , our current submarine force has strongly resisted any attempt to adopt a less capable design.
But much as the London Naval Treaty forced the U.S. force to develop a smaller submarine that incorporated most of the desired capabilities, our current force faces a similar challenge over the coming years with a combination of the budget crunch coupled with the need to replace the retiring Los Angeles –class submarines. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates summed up the budgetary shortfall at the Eisenhower Library in May 2010: “Given America’s difficult economic circumstances and parlous fiscal condition, military spending on things large and small can and should expect closer, harsher scrutiny. The gusher has been turned off, and will stay off for a good period of time.” 16
Only a few days before, Secretary Gates had specifically targeted the Navy’s spending: “At the end of the day, we have to ask whether the nation can really afford a Navy that relies on $3 to $6 billion destroyers, $7 billion submarines, and $11 billion carriers.” 17 He was referring to the expected cost per unit of the next-generation ballistic-missile submarine. But meanwhile, the Virginia –class submarines cost about $2 billion, with some expected cost savings as more are built. Because of these high costs, our force is constrained to making only two additional attack submarines a year, with possible additional pressure coming from the development of the next-generation ballistic-missile submarine. 18
What’s the Mission?
This means that our force will fall below the minimum number of 48 attack submarines, which provide the unified combatant commanders their daily requirement of 10 fast attack submarines, sometime around 2024. The numbers will drop into the 30s and may remain fewer than 48 indefinitely. If we do not find a way to cut costs and build additional capable but cheaper submarines, our force will be stretched thin for an unacceptable amount of time. 19
Today’s force needs to replicate the successful response to the London Naval Treaty of 1930 by seriously considering what sort of missions our submarines must carry out and what sort of capabilities they entail. Anything extra must be removed in the interest of reducing cost.
In addition, the very size of our submarines should be seriously reconsidered. From the Skipjack (SSN-585) to the Virginia (SSN-774), our nuclear attack submarines have jumped in size from 3,500 tons to 7,800 tons submerged. Admittedly the size increase was accompanied by a boost in capabilities, sensors, weapon load-out, and auxiliary equipment like water-distillation plants and oxygen generators. But this expanded crew size by almost 50 percent and required an increase in engine-room size to allow newer submarines to make the same speed as the much smaller Skipjack class.
So it seems worthwhile to investigate if we can build a smaller submarine, using a true Albacore -like teardrop hull and hydrodynamic advances to maximize propulsion as well as using the advances in engineering technology and modular design showcased by the Virginia . And just as the original Los Angeles –class submarines were not built with a retractable towed array or ARCI (acoustic rapid commercial off-the-shelf insertion) systems, which were installed well after construction, we can leave open the possibility of backfitting cutting-edge technologies.
Similarly, this might mean eliminating capabilities like vertical launch tubes or Special Operations Forces transport. But reducing some optional capabilities should be considered if we can possibly construct two smaller nuclear attack submarines for the cost of one Virginia class. After all, every submarine does not need to do everything.
The Trouble with SSKs
Some naval thinkers, such as Naval War College Professor Milan Vego and then-Navy Commander Henry J. Hendrix, argue that the answer to this pressing question is the SSK. In recent articles in Proceedings , both Dr. Vego and now-Captain Hendrix argued that a few SSKs could supplement the current SSN force and prove to be more capable in the littorals. Current foreign-built SSKs have the advantage of being much cheaper than the Virginia –class submarine, costing between $365 million to $500 million. They require a smaller crew of about 30 people, as opposed to the 150 personnel on board a U.S. Navy fast-attack submarine. Moreover, advances in air-independent-propulsion technology, fire-control computer systems, and sonar systems have arguably shrunk the tactical gap between nuclear attack submarines and SSKs. 20
But before we blindly accept these promised advantages, we need to ask the following questions:
Will these submarines really be significantly cheaper? Does the cost savings of foreign SSKs stem from the lack of a nuclear power plant and nuclear-related components, or are the savings actually realized because foreign countries do not build their submarines to the high but expensive standards of SUBSAFE shipbuilding and maintenance practices? In short, will this really be a worthwhile and cheaper option if we take into account the stringent requirements, tested in blood, of the U.S. submarine force?
When we ask these questions, we need to look at not just the construction but also the life costs of the ship. A nuclear reactor may cost a significant amount of money, but advances in reactor design and technology mean that current reactors will never have to be refueled for the life of the ship, while the only direction conventional fuel prices seem to be going is up. Another question to ask is: How much will the fuel for a conventional submarine cost in 30 years?
Can this submarine provide the necessary power to support the fire-control, sonar-processing, and crew amenities we desire? Advances in sonar sensors and fire-control computer processing provide U.S. nuclear submarines with a decided advantage against many adversaries. A conventional submarine without sufficient electrical power to run and cool the advanced-sonar and fire-control processing of a nuclear submarine would be a definite drop in capabilities and not a worthwhile investment. And once again, the cost involved with installing and maintaining these systems must be taken into account. If foreign-built SSKs are significantly cheaper because they do not have this sort of processing, then maybe they’re not worth buying.
Will a reduced crew be able to deal with the challenges of intense missions vital to national security? A smaller crew means less space required for berthing, messing, and stores, as well as diminished trash production. But this also means that even with automation, there is still a lot of strain each crew member must deal with, including day-to-day tasks such as field days, stores loads, preventive maintenance, and all-hands evolutions like mooring and under ways. And during periods of high stress, such as war and overcoming major casualties, the small crew size will mean each person will be cycled excessively.
More Subs for Less Money
To their credit, Dr. Vego and Captain Hendrix acknowledge that conventional submarines would take too long to reach their operational areas without being based in forward-deployed foreign ports. Among logical candidates for such places are ports in Japan and Bahrain. The question is, can we make this long-term concept work at those ports with a minimum of lifetime maintenance back in Pearl Harbor or on the mainland? And can we be sure these ports will remain open to us in the future?
The SSK concept is only worthwhile if it is genuinely cheaper and can be based out of areas that will make up for the SSK’s lack of sustained speed and endurance. If the absence of nuclear components means only a marginally cheaper submarine with less processing, weapons, and sustained speed, then it isn’t worth it. Instead, the better option is an innovative and cheaper nuclear submarine applying a number of the lessons that have been learned on board other innovative nuclear submarines, such as the NR-1 , and incorporate the technological advances of the Virginia .
The bottom line is: We need to buy more submarines for less money. But to do so, we need to seriously ask what missions and capabilities we absolutely require. Having decided that, we can move ahead and produce an innovative and cheaper submarine, with a minimal loss of capabilities, that is our era’s Gato -class fleet submarine, not an ineffective Marlin or Mackerel .
1. RADM C. S. Freeman, Commander Submarine Force to the Chief of Naval Operations, Subject: Submarines—Employment of in a Pacific War, 27 July 1938, 420-15. 1938, Box 112, Subject File 420-15; General Board, Subject File 1900-1947; General Records of the Department of the Navy, Record Group 80; National Archives Building, Washington, DC, 2. Emphasis by RADM Freeman.
2. Norman Friedman, U.S. Submarines Through 1945: An Illustrated Design History (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995), p. 227.
3. John Alden, The Fleet Submarine in the U.S. Navy: A Design and Construction History (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1979), p. 10.
4. Gary E. Weir, Building American Submarines, 1914-1940 , Contributions to Naval History, no. 3 (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1991), p. 38. See also: James Leutze, A Different Kind of Victory: A Biography of Admiral Thomas C. Hart (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1981), pp. 66–67.
5. Weir, Building American Submarines, pp. 40–43.
6. Testimony of ADM W. V. Pratt, 27 May 1930, “Testimony of Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Fleet, in Regard to Needs of the Fleet,” Hearings Before the General Board of the Navy, 1917–1950 (hereafter cited as General Board), p. 181.
7. Statement by ADM Mark L. Bristol, 15 July 1930, “General Characteristics and Design of Future Submarines,” General Board , p. 268.
8. Alden, The Fleet Submarine in the U.S. Navy , pp. 18, 24–35.
9. Statement by ADM Thomas C. Hart, 4 March 1937, “Characteristics of Submarines,” General Board , pp. 95–98. See also: Testimony of RADM Harry E. Yarnell, 8 July 1930, “Main Engines and Necessary Auxiliaries for the U.S.S. V-8 and U.S.S. V-9 ,” General Board , pp. 253–266, and Alden, The Fleet Submarine in the U.S. Navy , pp. 18–19, 36–37, 38–39.
10. Friedman, U.S. Submarines Through 1945 , pp. 191-193.
11. Testimony of RADM Emory S. Land, RADM Samuel M. Robinson, CAPT G. J. Meyers, and CDR C. R. Hyatt, 26 May 1933, “Characteristics of New Submarines,” General Board , pp. 64-75.
12. Alden, The Fleet Submarine in the U.S. Navy , pp. 101-08.
13. NS402: Junior Officer Submarine Practicum Distinguished Speaker Lecture by RADM Maurice Rindskopf, speech presented to students at the U.S. Naval Academy, 28 January 2003, in which he stated: “It was called an ‘Is-Was’ because when you got an answer that is where he was .”
14. Letter by and Testimony of RADM H. R. Stark, 15 February 1935, “Proposed Military Characteristics of Submarines 182-187,” General Board , pp. 32-35. Testimony of CDR R. W. Christie and LT E. K. Walker, 24 May 1938, “Characteristics of Submarines,” General Board , pp. 65-66. See also: Friedman, U.S. Submarines Through 1945 , pp. 194-7.
15. Report of J. H. Brown, 11 September 1930, in Statement of CDR C. R. Hyatt, 22 September 1930, “General Characteristics and Design of Future Submarines,” General Board , pp. 372-374. See also testimony of CDR R. H. English, 6 March 1936, “Characteristics of Submarines,” General Board , p. 33; testimony of LCDR L. F. Small and Commander R. H. English, 4 March 1937, “Characteristics of Submarines,” General Board , p. 113; VADM Charles A. Lockwood, Sink ’Em All: Submarine Warfare in the Pacific (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1951), pp. 36, 49-50; and Alden, The Fleet Submarine in the U.S. Navy , p. 48.
16. Remarks of Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, at the Eisenhower Library, Abilene, KS, 8 May 2010, http://www.defense.gov/speeches/speech.aspx?speechid=1467  .
17. Remarks as delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Gaylord Convention Center, National Harbor, MD, 3 May 2010, http://www.defense.gov/speeches/speech.aspx?speechid=1460  .
18. Lance M. Bacon, “Deep dive: Self-inflicted attack sub cuts cripple America’s sea superiority,” Armed Forces Journal (May 2010), http://www.afji.com/2010/05/4583999  .
20. Milan Vego, “The Right Submarine for Lurking in the Littorals,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 136, no. 6 (June 2010), pp. 16-21. See also: Commander Henry J. Hendrix, “Buy Fords, Not Ferraris,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 135, no. 4 (April 2009), p. 57.