Submarines: Key to the Offset Strategy

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

Any future conflict in the open ocean will start with submarines. For the immediate future no country will have the capacity and capability to deploy an armada to contest the sea in the face of the overwhelming superiority of the U.S. Navy. Even should such a navy appear, there will be no “fleet actions.” Any war at sea will be fought between submarines and such antisubmarine adversaries as can be assembled. In the words of historian and commentator John Keegan:

. . . command of the sea in the future unquestionably lies beneath rather than on the surface. . . . Consider the record of the only naval campaign fought since 1945, that of the Falklands in 1982. From it two salient facts stand out: that the surface ship can barely defend itself against high-performance, jet propelled aircraft and that it cannot defend itself at all against a nuclear powered submarine. 2

Recognition of the preeminence of American sea power is evident in the proliferation of submarine forces around the world. Even small countries investing in a navy elect submarines as their naval weapon system of choice. Many, if indeed not most, of those countries building navies and investing in submarine forces are friends or allies. Their submarines are not aimed at American carriers. Others, however, with nascent or resurrecting submarine forces, are devoted to efforts that threaten U.S. dominance at sea.

‘Only the First Step’

But a simple selection of hulls is only the first step in creating an effective submarine force. Developing such a capability requires serious investment of money, intellect, people, and time. Development takes years or even decades to create the kind of capability that Germany, Japan, the United States, and Great Britain wielded in World War II. Attempts by smaller countries to produce an effective submarine force have foundered on lack of resources, failure to enlist and retain skilled people, and an inability to construct and sustain the logistics infrastructure necessary to create and then maintain these complex machines. Some Western countries have been successful in building and maintaining an effective submarine force, but only in small numbers and not without difficulty. Canada, Germany and Australia, for example, all have admitted their inability to man all the submarines that they have in commission.

The United States, on the other hand, has a major force of submarines manned by experienced crews, practiced in the operations at sea and in the far corners of the world. These are supported by a construction and maintenance infrastructure that is the envy not just of other navies but of other parts of the U.S. Navy as well. The submarines this force operates are the world’s quietest and most technologically advanced. More important, behind this force is a training establishment that not only instructs a steady stream of new personnel but provides advanced training in maintenance and operations including realistic simulators in which submarine operational tactics are practiced daily. Finally, still smarting from the ineffective torpedoes of World War II, the Americans shoot real torpedoes regularly, including proof-testing war shots.

To properly employ submarine forces of whatever size requires leaders that grasp the unusual nature of their operations—the limitations as well as the capabilities of these ships and crews. Ships that “intentionally sink” do not follow the norms for other seagoing vessels. In World War II the Japanese failed to employ to their full capability talented crews and well-built submarines because the leadership of these forces rested with admirals experienced in battleship operations and conditioned to expect decisive battle between surface fleets. The lack of experience and understanding in the senior Imperial Japanese Navy leadership often resulted in deploying submarines as if they were surface ships, as scouts and supply vessels. Despite their misemployment, Japanese submarines scored a number of significant blows. On 15 September 1942, the torpedo spread from the I-19 that sank the aircraft carrier USS Wasp (CV-7), fatally damaged her escort destroyer USS O’Brien (DD-415), and put the battleship USS North Carolina (BB-55) out of action for months has to be at least close to the most significant score from a single submarine salvo in history.

German and U.S. submarine operations in World War II benefitted not just from leaders who knew and understood such actions but from command climates that for the most part encouraged honest reports and critical self-examination. Such climates are not erected overnight or come as a result of classroom instruction. They take time, energy, and personal investment to create. Regular and sustained operations at sea are a vital ingredient not only to hone the ability of the individual ships’ crews to conduct their affairs but also to set the expectations of the command and staff personnel as they learn and exercise their functions. The limits of radio communication with submarines requires advanced planning, a climate of mutual understanding, and trust that comes about only with personal investment and routine practice. As difficult and time-consuming as they are to create, these climates can be fatally damaged by senior leadership that disabuses reporters of bad news, ignores symptoms of trouble or distress, or hogs credit for successes rightly achieved by subordinates. Societies that are based on rigid caste systems, have formal class hierarchies, or must conform to rigid political straitjackets have difficulty creating and maintaining such command-and-control characteristics. But any navy that expects to effectively employ its submarines requires these distinctive attributes.

The operational military effort involved in a strategy to dominate the sea is a return to Alfred Thayer Mahan’s classic dictum that the first aim of the Navy is to destroy the enemy’s fleet. 3 Before 1945 this meant major fleet actions but today any such action is exceedingly unlikely. As demonstrated in the Falkland Islands campaign, the ability of nuclear-powered submarines to dominate the ocean surface means that in future conflict, warships will be widely dispersed and the most important parts of a fleet will be stealthy. Engagement will be defined by the ability to locate individual units and bring them to battle. The historical parallel is the cruiser warfare of the War of 1812 and World War I rather than the major fleet actions of Trafalgar or Jutland. But the goal remains the same: the first aim of a Navy in war is destruction of the enemy fleet.

Whatever the name, this effort is offensive submarine warfare. The operational aim at the heart of the strategy is to position submarines in the coastal and near-ocean areas of a potential enemy as a crisis builds and, should war break out, to quickly sink all opposing surface warships and submarines. War games have demonstrated the great advantage of “flooding the littorals with SSNs.” Properly operated, submarines become a national maritime resource, not simply a component of a battle group or the launcher of land-attack missiles.

The Pitfalls

Here lie pitfalls within the Navy itself. Submarines have themselves become primary antisubmarine weapon systems. Their presence and performance as part of a task group have built an aura of security and a confidence that, when so assigned, threatening submarines will not appear undetected. This record is admirable but creates a situation that can dilute the primary task in the event of war. Commanders’ demands for submarines to be assigned to protect their task groups subvert the primary attribute of conducting unrestricted warfare against the enemy’s forces in waters that otherwise are not open or accessible to others. The proper employment of submarines is as a major force to be wielded as a unit—dispersed and widely distributed under an operational command whose task is to “sweep the seas.” Destruction of the enemy fleet is the goal; protecting our own fleet by eliminating the threat is a beneficial byproduct.

The second difficulty in properly using American submarines in times of war rises from their new role as arsenal ships. Recent wars and related actions against shore targets have seen employment of submarine-launched missiles in significant numbers—not because the submarine is the best-fitted launch platform or situated within an enemy surveillance and strike zone too dangerous for surface ships. Submarine-launched weapons are used because they are there. Surface-ship launchers outnumber the submarines’ in most situations, but such launchers are also homes for antimissile and antiair weapons. Where such threats may exist, the number of land-attack weapons in the surface fleet is substantially reduced—often leaving submarines as a significant source of land-attack missiles. Combatant commanders with eyes focused on objectives and targets on the land are likely to want to add the land-attack weapons on board submarines to those available for attacking targets ashore at the expense of assigning their host submarines to efforts at sea.

For at least the duration of the period in which maritime dominance is being contested, submarines should be employed in pursuing elimination of the enemy navy—a task for which they are singularly fitted. In this early phase, submarines should be used as missile shooters only when they are the only launchers within range of high-priority targets or when the attack needs to launched from an otherwise-impossible azimuth. Once maritime dominance is established, submarine missile shooters can then be positioned where most advantageous in regard to time of flight and direction of attack considerations.

Nuclear propulsion not only allows the submarine to operate under the cloak of invisibility, but it powers the ability to reposition quickly without a logistics train and for a long duration. These are all incalculable advantages in any time-constrained situation. This logistic-free tail allows dispatch of submarines singly or in numbers on short notice and with little buildup or fanfare. Among the advantages arising from this is an opportunity to learn the environment first and to find the most advantageous positions in relation to expected threats and geography.

Great Flexibility

Flexible submarine deployments can be accomplished without adding to the tensions surrounding a crisis, and with no notice or with subtle direct evidence if such is to our advantage. Early major deployments before the commencement of hostilities give the combatant commanders the assets to execute attacks and interdiction from the first moment of a war. This “freedom of movement and decision” that Secretary Hagel found so important is inherent in nuclear-powered submarines. This ability to enter the area of conflict without notice provides an additional benefit in that any opponent of the United States must assume that American submarines are always present on his littoral and across his maritime pathways.

Because nuclear power adds this dimension of logistic flexibility and rapid reaction, the capability to redeploy America’s total force of submarines on short notice places great stress on any potential opponent. Such an adversary must count on facing all active U.S. submarines within days. In any crisis the first forces to arrive at the scene are of great tactical importance and strategic significance. When those forces are not only powerful, but stealthy, the effect is multiplied by uncertainty concerning their location and strength. Regular operations by submarines in these waters are a necessary ingredient in this aspect of submarine warfare—not only to train crews but to establish the expectations that, should conflict occur, the American submarines will be on-scene early.

The potential peer maritime competitor appears to be developing an anti-access/area-denial strategy based on a suspected land-based ballistic missile and an undefined ocean surveillance and targeting system aimed at large ships at sea. While the difficulties in creating and then operating such a system are enormous, its deployment might threaten major capital ships (read aircraft carriers). But a strategy based on such a system does not address the threat to the adversary’s navy and maritime assets from submarines. In the words of defense analyst and former Assistant Secretary of the Navy Seth Cropsey:

As a hedge against China’s anti-access strategy, submarines are matchless. . . . So long as submarines remain stealthy, they bypass the age-old technological cat-and-mouse game of countering an adversary’s technology and in turn being countered. 4

While this recognition is well understood by those with submarine experience, the annunciation by a nationally recognized figure who has no investment in the submarine force signals the wide awareness of the asymmetric advantages of submarines, now and in the future.

One necessary ingredient in the success of an offset strategy is the potential competitor’s recognition of these aspects of the contest. Establishing this perception is not accomplished by ships in harbor, much less ships on the building ways. Sustained operations at sea and regular visits to the neighborhoods populated by potential opponents create the impressions on which to lay the ground work to effect the strategic objective. By the end of the Cold War most public utterances of officers of the Soviet Navy acknowledged the omnipresence of the Western powers’ submarines. That impression was one of the keys to their adaptation of defensive tactical operations—and to the success of the 1981 “Maritime Strategy.”

1. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Southeastern New England Defense Industry Alliance, Newport, RI, 3 September 2014.

2. John Keegan, The Price of Admiralty (London: Hutchinson, 1988), 324.

3. Alfred T. Mahan, Naval Strategy (Boston: Little, Brown, 1918), 5.

4. Seth Cropsey , “A Naval Disaster in the Making,” The Weekly Standard , 6 October 2014, .

Rear Admiral Holland devoted most of his service to submarines or submarine-related activities. He is a frequent contributor to Proceedings .


Conferences and Events

Maritime Security Dialogue

Fri, 2018-10-05

Maritime Security DialogueNaval Aviation: Readiness Recovery for Combat A discussion with VADM DeWolfe Miller, USNCommander,...

The New China Challenge

View All

From the Press

22 September - Annual Symposium

Sat, 2018-09-22

22 September - Annual Symposium

Sat, 2018-09-22

John B. Lundstrom

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 140 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership