An event took place in October, 1949, which, though largely unheralded and unnoticed, will eventually prove to be of the highest military importance. Briefly, it consisted of the first active participation in fleet maneuvers of submarines capable of firing rocket missiles. Experimentation had been progressing on such a project for a number of years and successful launchings had been achieved earlier in 1949 by the U.S.S. Cusk, but the joint maneuvers entitled “Miki,” held off Hawaii in October of that year, provided the first proof of the ability of rocket firing submarines to operate in conjunction with other vessels and other services.
At first glance this startling step in the development of the submarine is nothing more than just that—a startling development. This fact probably accounts for the conspicuous lack of publicity attending the unveiling of the new weapon. It is only when one delves below the surface of the thing, so to speak, and examines the possibilities and potentialities of the rocket firing submersible, that the full importance and significance of the aforementioned event becomes apparent. However, before considering the possible future employment and value of such a warship, it might not only be in order, but even advisable, to describe briefly the ship and the rocket missile which it delivers.
The submarines concerned in Operation “Miki” were of conventional appearance, being of the War Program Balao class. Doubtless their operating characteristics insofar as speed and range are concerned have been unchanged by their conversion, since such factors would seem to have no immediate bearing on the problem involved. From the only photograph of either of the craft so far released by the Defense Department, that of the U.S.S. Carbonero, it would appear that the only changes in design involved the removal of deck armament and the construction of a rocket launching ramp extending, apparently (the view, being poor due to the obscuring of a large part of the photograph by the exhaust of the ascending rocket), from slightly forward of the conning tower to the stern. Though it is more than likely that future rocket firing submarines will resemble the “Guppy” type of submersible, the most important point concerning the changes necessary to enable a submarine to launch the missiles is the apparent simplicity of the alterations. Obviously, therefore, numbers of submarines can be comparatively easily and conveniently outfitted in like manner, should the situation so require.
Concerning the rocket missile delivered, quite a little is known considering the secret type of equipment involved. The name assigned the rocket is “Loon,” and it can be truly said that in appearance the missile does not belie the name bestowed upon it. In actuality the “Loon” is the V-l or “Revenge Weapon No. 1” developed by the Germans and used so abundantly by them against London in the latter stages of World War II. The “Loon” is 15,000 pounds in weight and delivers a warhead of approximately 1,500 pounds, consisting at present of conventional explosives. The rocket is capable of a speed of between 400 and 500 miles per hour and, although the missile fired in Operation “Miki” carried a distance of only some eighty miles, the maximum range attainable is actually about 200 miles.
Having completed the description of the mechanical elements involved, it remains now to examine the potential and possible utility of the new weapon and the effects it may have on future military operations.
It is obvious to begin with, that the rocket firing submarine, though it now may possibly be, will not continue to be, in the sole possession of the United States. To be more explicit, Russia, the only potential enemy in prospect, not only possesses quite a considerable number of undersea craft, largely of the most modern type, but also managed to acquire, in one way or another, the larger portion of the German rocket scientists who survived the war. It would not therefore be inconsistent with reason and logic to assume that the Soviet Union will shortly possess, if indeed she does not already, the rocket firing submarine together with all the advantages that may accrue from such possession.
It is likewise apparent that even though vast numbers of rocket firing U-boats can be built and utilized, their role in the event of a future war will be limited to nuisance raids and missions of similar nature as long as conventional explosives continue to be used in the warheads of the missiles fired, and the capacity of the submarine remains limited to one or possibly two projectiles. In fact the expense incurred to achieve so modest an effect would probably render any such project impractical. Thus the rocket firing submarine would become of minor importance and might, in fact, totally disappear. However, consider this possible, and even probable, eventuality. Remove the warhead of the missile consisting of ordinary explosives and insert, instead, one consisting of atomic explosives. Consider the possibilities of such a development and its probable effect on the course of any future conflict. As will be shown, the potentialities are tremendous!!!
First of all, it is almost unanimously agreed that both the East and the West possess the atomic bomb or at least are capable of producing an atomic explosion. Since this is so, the problem remaining to both sides is primarily one of delivery. Heretofore the atom bomb had been delivered, of necessity, by aircraft. The limitation thus imposed by such a restriction worked to the advantage of the Western Allies and to the disadvantage of the U.S.S.R., since the admittedly limited range of Soviet aircraft prohibited any round trip sorties. Therefore, though the Western nations have solved their delivery problem, Russia has not. The rocket firing submarine however, can, and very likely will, provide the remedy and the medium the Reds are seeking.
Up to a point and with certain limitations, the delivering of an atom bomb by submarine is more efficient and certain than is delivery by aircraft. This is made possible by the natural advantage inherent in every submarine, of being able to conceal itself almost completely in the depths of the sea, thus escaping detection in its approach on the selected target. This natural advantage has been increased and accentuated in recent years by the development of the “schnorkel,” and the invention of the hydrogen peroxide engine. Obviously such developments have added greatly to an already difficult task on the part of defending forces, that of detection prior to attack. The aircraft, on the other hand, while also an extremely effective means of delivering the atom bomb has not the same advantage of concealment which shields the submarine from discovery, although in all likelihood a majority of the attacking force would reach its objective in any given problem. The element of surprise, however, would be largely sacrificed, for the attacking aircraft would in all probability have been detected comparatively well in advance of the actual assault. As regards the elements of surprise and concealment, therefore, it would appear obvious that the advantage rests with the submarine.
There are certain important limitations affecting the submarine which do not apply to the aircraft. For one thing delivery by bomber is unquestionably far more rapid, a factor which may or may not be of vital importance in future hostilities, but which is, nevertheless, a point distinctly in favor of the aircraft. Then too, besides being faster, aircraft delivery can potentially, at least, be effected on any given target while submarine delivery is restricted to targets within a 200 mile radius of the delivering submersible. Actually, therefore, only targets within 200 miles of the sea can at present, due to the range limitations of the rocket missile, be affected by this method of attack. This superiority which the bomber possesses can and will be of vital importance in any future war, but does not rule out the possibility and even the probability of the employment on a large scale of submarines firing atomic rocket missiles by a certain nation or nations. As will be shown in the following paragraphs, geography will be the principal determining factor.
Considering the position of the Western Allies, and assuming the opponent to be Soviet Russia, we find that the physical location of the U.S.S.R. militates strongly against large scale use of rocket firing submarines. Few large cities in the Soviet or in her satellite nations are susceptible to such assault. Leningrad in the Baltic and Vladivostok and one or two smaller Pacific ports constitute almost the entire list of probable targets accessible. It is obvious, therefore, that unless and until the range deficiency is seriously remedied, submarine delivery of the atom bomb must be of only secondary consideration and that the Western Powers must put their faith and energies into improving delivery by aircraft. The submarine may prove a valuable adjunct to airpower in delivering the atom bomb but, as matters are now, cannot supersede the bomber in such operations.
As regards the Soviet Union though, the picture is entirely different, for the rocket firing submarine will give to Russia her first and, up to now, only medium of delivery available and certain. The geographical positions of her adversaries lend themselves readily to such an assault. England is entirely vulnerable, no point on the island being further than eighty miles from the coast. On the continent, Antwerp, Brussels, Rotterdam, The Hague, Amsterdam, Paris and the French coastal cities are open and inviting targets. Here in the United States, while the interior would be free from assault, the large ports and industrial cities on both coasts would be open to attack. Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Norfolk, Washington, Savannah, Mobile, New Orleans and Houston among other cities on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, and San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and Seattle among other cities on the West Coast would fall easy prey to the undersea raiders. Most of the large cities in Australia and almost all of the large populous areas in South and Central America, India and Africa could be reached and assaulted. Japan and Italy, like England, would be almost entirely open to attack, and many towns and cities along the Mediterranean coast would lend themselves admirably to such a method of delivery. It would seem apparent therefore that such a weapon would be invaluable to the Soviet and that delivery by rocket firing submarines would give advantages to her that delivery by bomber cannot equal.
Thus, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that, in the event of any conflict between the East and the West, and in the event that such a conflict would involve the large scale use of atom weapons, the decision may rest on the outcome of the duel between delivery of the atom bomb by aircraft having the submarine as an auxiliary, and delivery by rocket firing submarine having the aircraft as an auxiliary.
From what has previously been said it would seem clear that the Western Powers would rely on the aircraft as the primary delivering agent of the atom bomb, but the Soviet Union could, and perhaps would, rely chiefly on the submarine to effect the same result. Consequently, it would seem reasonable to suppose that it would be incumbent upon Russia rather than on the Western Allies to press for the speedy development of rocket firing submersibles. On the other hand, it would seem reasonable to suppose that there is a grave obligation, or if you will, necessity, that the free nations of the world see .to it that adequate preparations be immediately initiated in order that the defense against such submarine attack might be effective and immediately available in the event of war. In considering such a problem it would be well to examine and analyze the capabilities of the weapon and the probable characteristics of the type and manner of attack.
The progress recently made in submarine development will, in all likelihood, enable any attacking force of rocket firing U-boats to proceed from their base of operations to a given point off the selected target entirely underwater and probably, though not necessarily, undetected. Having arrived at the desired launching area, the submarine can proceed to surface, launch the rocket missile, and retreat. Once again submerged, the probability is that, barring accidents, she will return safely to her base. This sort of assault poses two important and difficult problems— that of detecting and destroying the submarine prior to the launching of the missile and that of detecting and destroying the missile in the event the submarine succeeds in launching it.
With regard to the first problem the only answer, of course, lies in increasing the quantity and quality of anti-submarine vessels and devices and the annihilation of enemy submarine bases through bombing or amphibious assault. Development of new detection techniques and eternal vigilance and alertness are likewise mandatory and will prove helpful.
Concerning the second problem the answers are not quite so apparent. One of the possible solutions which would be of assistance would be the creation of an effective radar net work, including ships stationed at regular intervals at sea, for the purpose of detecting approaching enemy aircraft. Such a net, if properly and efficiently utilized, would probably detect most, if not all, of the missiles as they approached the target area. The real problem, therefore, resolves itself into one of destruction rather than detection of the missile.
From the nature of rocket missiles, it is almost mandatory for destruction to be accomplished over the sea if at all possible. To allow the projectile to arrive intact over the coastal areas may, in fact, make it unwise to destroy it at all, for it may, in that event, be deemed wiser to permit it to run its course unmolested, hoping that it will miss its intended target and fall harmlessly in some deserted area. To allow this to occur, however, is most unsatisfactory and could easily prove disastrous. In such matters the element of time will be of vital importance. It is a matter of simple mathematics to arrive at the conclusion that from the time of launching until arrival over the target, considering maximum range and probable speed, the rocket missile will be in the air no longer than twenty-four to thirty minutes. It is further evident that a shorter period of time will be available to defending forces in which to take effective Countermeasures for, assuming as we must, that the submarine commander is sufficiently resourceful and skillful to circumvent the radar screen provided by ships, we must almost wholly rely on shore stations for purposes of detection. It may be that ten or twelve minutes, most probably less, will constitute the total time available to defending forces for interception and destruction.
What can be accomplished toward the timely destruction of the missile in that brief period will depend on the degree of vigilance practiced by the defenders and the number, availability, and quality of their intercepting aircraft. Of course, in the event that submarines of the future may possibly be equipped to launch missiles of the V-2 type, the problem would become even more acute. However, as matters stand now, diligent, forceful and expert utilization of means of defense presently available together with increased efforts in developing new and more efficient interception and detection techniques and devices can defeat attacks by rocket firing submarines just as delivery of the atom bomb by aircraft can be thwarted by similarly alert defenses. However, the problem still remains one of the greatest magnitude and will continue to require much attention.
We come now to the conclusions, certain, probable, and possible, which may validly be derived from the momentous event of October, 1949:
First of all, it is clear that the event was of tremendous import and deserved far more attention and notice than it received, having as it did, extremely wide military significance.
Secondly, it is probable that the newly revealed weapon will ultimately offer to the Soviet Union, especially, a new and effective agent for the delivery of atomic explosives. In so doing it will provide a remedy for one of the glaring deficiencies existing in the Soviet today, that of not being able to utilize effectively what she has just recently acquired, for, up to the present, though Russia has been successful in developing the atom bomb, her aircraft, unlike those of the Western Nations, have not had the required range to provide effective and universal delivery.
Thirdly, in providing the U.S.S.R. with a delivering agent almost, if not equally, as effective as that possessed by the Western Nations, the rocket firing submarine will tend to neutralize or even cancel out the advantage which, heretofore, the West has held over the East in matters pertaining to delivery. Such an equalizing of position may well lead to a further effect on the military planning of the two antagonists in that it is not impossible that it may prohibit entirely the use of atom weapons in future conflicts or may relegate and limit the atom bomb to retaliatory roles.
Finally, the event indicates that a transitional period in submarine development is in the offing, for the undersea craft, with this acquisition of new power, will almost certainly evolve into a strategic as well as a tactical weapon. It may be, that eventually, with the passage of time and with the discovery and exploitation of new and greater capabilities, the submarine may supplant the aircraft carrier as the capital ship in the world’s fleets, though, at present, this possibility can only be regarded as pure conjecture. In any event it is clear that I lie submarine has become even more of a wartime threat than ever before in the history of the world.