At the end of World War I, the U.S. Navy discovered that surrendered German U-boats were superior to U.S. submarines. The U-boats could go faster and farther, and they could carry almost twice as many weapons as the newest U.S. submarines. They also could submerge four times faster. The U.S. Navy’s subs possessed advantages only in maximum depth and an extra half knot submerged.1
At the start of World War II 23 years later, however, the U.S. submarine force possessed versatile “fleet submarines” that proved their technological quality throughout the war.
The interwar development of the fleet submarine remains relevant. Today’s Navy has undertaken an aggressive program to develop new platforms and payloads, even as the United States’ competitive advantage shrinks or even disappears in some areas.2 The architects of tomorrow’s fleet should study the lessons offered by their interwar ancestors and base design requirements off realistic strategy, refine requirements and technologies through operational feedback loops, take advantage of industrial collaboration, and accept contributions from the deckplates.
1. Norman Friedman, U.S. Submarines through 1945: An Illustrated Design History (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press [hereafter: NIP],1995), 159–61.
2. ADM John M. Richardson, USN, A Design for Maritime Superiority Version 2.0, December 2018, 9.
3. Michael Vlahos, The Blue Sword: The Naval War College and the American Mission, 1919–1941, U.S. Naval War College Historical Monograph Series, No. 4 (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 1980), 97–121, 163; Craig C. Felker, Testing American Sea Power: U.S. Navy Strategic Exercises, 1923–1940 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007), 9–32; Gary E. Weir, Building American Submarines, 1914–1940, Contributions to Naval History no. 3 (Washington: Naval Historical Center, 1991), 5–11, 23–46.
4. John Alden, The Fleet Submarine in the U.S. Navy: A Design and Construction History (NIP, 1979), 10, 18, 24–35.
5. Albert A. Nofi, To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923–1940, U.S. Naval War College Historical Monograph Series, no. 18 (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 2010).
6. John T. Kuehn, America’s First General Staff: A Short History of the Rise and Fall of the General Board of the U.S. Navy, 1900–1950 (NIP, 2017).
7. Felker, Testing American Sea Power, 65–72; Submarine Officers’ Conference to the Chief of Naval Operations, Subject: Submarine Officers’ Conference to Discuss Submarine Characteristics for New Construction (188 to 193), 16 December 1935; 420-15 1936; 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, 1–2.
8. RADM Thomas C. Hart, Commander Control Force, to the Chief of Naval Operations, Subject: Results of Study of Submarine Warfare in Conference at Submarine Base, New London, and Recommendations on Submarine Design, 31 March, 1931; 420-15 1931–1933; Box 111; 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, 1–2, 15–16.
9. Submarine Officers’ Conference to the CNO, 2.
10. 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, Washington, DC, 1.
11. Clay Blair Jr., Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War against Japan (Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1975), 18–19, 66–67, 116, 146–47, 199–201, 361; Anthony Newpower, Iron Men and Tin Fish: The Race to Build a Better Torpedo during World War II (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2006), 22–32, 59–73, 87–111, 131–96.
12. Testimony of Commander R. H. English, 6 March 1936, “Characteristics of Submarines,” Hearings before the General Board of the Navy, 1917–1950 (hereafter “General Board”), 12–32; Alden, The Fleet Submarine in the U.S. Navy, 48.
13. RADM William D. Irvin, USN, “Oddball S-Boat,” in Submarine Stories: Recollections from the Diesel Boats, ed. Paul Stillwell (NIP, 2007), 64; Letter by and Testimony of RADM H. R. Stark and LCDR O. R. Bennehoff, 15 February 1935, “Proposed Military Characteristics of Submarines 182–187,” General Board, 32–35; Testimony of CDR R. W. Christie and LT E. K. Walker, 24 May 1938, “Characteristics of Submarines,” General Board, 65–66.
14. Friedman, U.S. Submarines through 1945, 195.
15. Testimony of ADM W. V. Pratt, 27 May 1930, “Testimony of Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Fleet, in Regard to Needs of the Fleet,” General Board, 181.
16. Testimony of RADM Harry E. Yarnell, 8 July 1930, “Main Engines and Necessary Auxiliaries for the USS V-8 and USS V-9,” General Board, 253–66. Friedman, U.S. Submarines through 1945, 191–93.
17. ADM Stuart S. Murray, USN, “Developing the Fleet Boats,” in Stillwell, Submarine Stories, 70.
18. Alden, The Fleet Submarine in the U.S. Navy, 42–74.
19. Keith Wheeler, War under the Pacific (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1980), 70.
20. “Type IXB,” uboat.net; Friedman, U.S. Submarines through 1945, 294, 311.
21. James E. Wise, Jr., U-505: The Final Journey (NIP, 2005), 2, 154; David J. Bercuson and Holger H. Herwig, Long Night of the Tankers: Hitler’s War against Caribbean Oil (Calgary, AB: University of Calgary Press, 2014), 283–84.
22. Joel Ira Holwitt, “Execute Against Japan”: The U.S. Decision to Conduct Unrestricted Submarine Warfare (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2009), 82–83, 183, 204–99.
23. ADM Scott H. Swift, USN, “Fleet Problems Offer Opportunities,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 144, no. 3 (March 2018): 22–26.
24. William M. McBride, Technological Change and the United States Navy, 1865–1945 (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 176–79; Rodney K. Watterson, “Top Sub Shop,” Naval History 27, no. 1 (February 2013): 50–55.
25. Clinton H. Whitehurst Jr., “Is There a Future for Naval Shipyards?” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 104, no. 4 (April 1978): 30–40.
26. “Adm. Rickover Predicts Gains If Navy Builds Subs,” The New York Times, 6 May 1981, A23.