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Lieutenant Commander William L. Marks, U. S. Navy, Executive Officer, USS Barbel (SS-580)
Let’s Get Fair Play Into ASW Freeplay
History is full of examples of military planners failing to recognize the mission and/or capabilities of their potential adversaries. We are falling into this trap today in our training against the Soviet diesel submarine threat.
We have let our decision not to build or develop diesel submarines for the U. S. Navy color our judgment when appraising the threat of the Soviet diesel submarine force.
The most obvious failing in training involves the exercises in which the diesel submarine is forced, by the operations order, to operate in a manner exactly the opposite of what a prudent submarine commander would do. As a result the diesel submarine is attacked and destroyed, further reinforcing the myths that diesel submarines lack significant capabilities and that current antisubmarine warfare (ASW) tactics are effective against diesel submarines.
Naval air ASW forces are the worst offenders of this apparent "head in the sand” training. By operational directive, naval aviators place the diesel submarine in a small circle, in deep, convergence zone water, devoid of merchant traffic or fishing craft, direct daylight snorkeling and predictable snorkel cycles, and top it off by labeling the exercise “freeplay.” Is this done to conceal their lack of capability or to enhance the statistical evidence on the probabilities of obtaining a “kill” against a diesel submarine? Certainly not! It’s done under the guise of “enhancing training through forced contact.”
I am ready to concede that if one can gain contact on a diesel submarine one can devote enough ASW assets to get a “kill” or to at least destroy the
sub’s effectiveness by diverting potential targets and forcing the submarine to fight for her survival.
The ASW problem, as always, is gaining contact.
We ought to train against the real diesel submarine threat—in shallow water, near beach noise and fishing fleets. We ought to train in darkness and over vast areas. We ought to train against aircraft crew boredom and disappointment. We ought to train against the uncertainty that a submarine really is there. We ought to train against realistic aircraft maintenance and sonobuoy assets. We ought to train against aircraft crews who are fatigued. And, finally, we ought to train against a diesel submarine that is permitted to exploit the environment to her advantage.
A diesel submarine is not effectively employed in open-ocean interdiction. Her nuclear sisters, with their high speeds and exotic sensors, are more readily suited for that mission. The diesel submarine is a highly selective, highly effective mobile minefield. Her radius of action is limited by her ability to locate and classify targets. The astute Soviet tactician is not going to place his diesel submarines in open ocean hoping that a U. S. task force or convoy will happen their way. Instead, he’ll station his diesel subs at choke points—the straits, ports of departure, or ports of destination.
Will the waters at these points be deep, quiet, convergence zone waters? Will the Soviet skipper snorkel in broad daylight or on a predictable schedule? Will he snorkel when he can visually or electronically detect the presence of ASW aircraft?
If we’re going to run highly structured, pro-aircraft exercises then let’s call them that so we can accurately assess all our capabilities. If we’re going to have a freeplay exercise which will actually train aircraft crews to seek out and destroy diesel submarines then let’s give the submarine a mission, a realistic operating area, and several weeks headstart. And let’s allow the submarine commander complete tactical freedom to operate the ship as he would in time of war.
We've all poured our heart out to our boss, spouse, chaplain, or kid and asked, “Right?” only to be told, “I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening. ” Nobody listens any more. But a few do read. If nobody seems to care what you think about anything, perhaps you ought to contribute to "Nobody asked me, but ...”
Maybe what you have been saying isn’t worth listening to. But, if it is, we may print it and pay you $50.00. If it isn’t, you’ll feel better for having got it off your chest.
Then, after several such exercises, let us examine again our ASW capabilities against the Soviet diesel submarine. I’m certain one conclusion we can safely draw is that the Soviets need not invest any money in the development of a diesel submarine- launched antiaircraft weapon, until such time as a valid air threat exists.