Commander William Earl Fannin, Class of 1945, Captsone Essay Contestting arsenal of weapons and capabilities—have an overwhelming fighting advantage in the maritime domain. While submarines do not offer many of the peacetime benefits or the visual presence of power projection that aircraft carriers can, U.S. submarines can dictate the outcome of any naval war and be a critical determinant in major power conflicts.
Sea power’s mantle was held by the aircraft carrier during and immediately following World War II. Today, Nimitz-class nuclear-powered carriers (CVNs) embody global power projection. Displacing more than 100,000 tons, they constitute a mobile and forward-deployed sovereign piece of U.S. territory to conduct operations. The colossal size of U.S. CVNs allows them to support a highly capable, diverse, and flexible carrier air wing consisting of F/A-18 Hornets, EA-18G Growlers, E-2D Hawkeyes, MV-22 Ospreys, and SH-60 Seahawks.
Deployed U.S. aircraft carriers enable the United States to quickly react to global crises, especially for the purposes of humanitarian assistance and economic trade stability. Carriers are superb tools for American diplomacy because they excel in the day-to-day missions that a peacetime worldwide Navy strives to accomplish. Despite the incredible capabilities of U.S. Nimitz-class carriers and the follow-on Gerald R. Ford class, vast improvements in submarine capabilities since World War II along with upcoming developments in undersea capabilities ensure that submarines will reign supreme in future naval combat.
Naval Combat Comparison
Examining the performance of U.S. submarines and aircraft carriers during our last major naval conflict, World War II, is instructive. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, the United States conducted a massive naval buildup aimed at fielding a fleet capable of fighting the Japanese Empire. Aircraft were relatively new to warfare, especially in the maritime environment. Strategic planners correctly assessed victory in the Pacific campaign would depend on naval air power.1 U.S. carriers dominated at the Battle of Midway, providing the United States a crucial victory to turn the momentum in the Pacific Campaign.
Gato-class and subsequent Balao-class and Tench-class diesel submarines also performed remarkably during World War II. With a maximum depth of only 300 feet and requiring periodic surfacing, U.S. submarines during World War II initially were deployed to scout out enemy surface targets and to initiate the battle with trailing battleships and cruisers. After Admiral Chester W. Nimitz became Commander in Chief, United Pacific Fleet, and declared unrestricted submarine warfare, our boats proved far more effective in sinking ships. While only comprising about 2 percent of the Navy, U.S. submarines sank over 5,000,000 tons of Japanese merchant shipping, which accounted for approximately 60 percent.2 Our submarines’ incredible success in sinking merchant shipping left Japan’s military short of the necessary resources it required, especially oil. Their war efforts suffered greatly as the attrition mounted.3 Submarines also sank 600,000 tons of Japanese warships (30 percent of the total) including eight aircraft carriers.4
Despite the notable success of U.S. submarines, the aircraft carrier, having taken center stage in the Pacific Campaign’s most critical battles, ascended from World War II as the premier naval platform. U.S. submarines were not directly responsible for victory in any of the key naval battles against the Japanese fleet. At the Battle of Midway, for example, all four Japanese carriers were destroyed by aircraft from U.S. carriers. While U.S. submarines were involved in many of the marquee battles, aircraft-dropped ordnance and surface-dropped depth charges— while not always effective killing agents—were enough to force U.S. submarines to retreat without firing any strikes.
Such submarine limitations were removed forever in 1954 with the commissioning of the USS Nautilus (SSN-571). While the Nimitz-class carriers and the modern aircraft that comprise the carrier air wings are greatly improved from the carriers and aircraft used during World War II, these advances do not exceed the significance of bringing nuclear propulsion to submarines.
Nuclear Power Changes the Game
Deadly quiet, heavily armed, and capable of remaining submerged until food is exhausted, modern nuclear-powered submarines are frightening and effective. U.S. submarines are the most capable platforms for achieving sea control, projecting power, and attaining dominance in the surface, subsurface, and even command-and-control domains. During a 2013 multinational war game, the fast-attack submarine USS Dallas (SSN-700), managed to covertly approach and reach well within firing range of the British carrier HMS Illustrious.5 Meanwhile, the Dallas was actively hunted by several surface ships and helicopters to no avail.6 Success against carriers in war games is not an isolated occurrence. In 2007, HMCS Corner Brook, a Canadian diesel-electric submarine, also achieved a simulated kill on the Illustrious.7 Even in 1974, a Victor-class Soviet submarine accidentally collided with the USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) while trying to stalk her.8 The Kitty Hawk had been unaware of the Soviet submarine’s position until the collision.9 In 2006, a Chinese Song-class diesel-electric attack submarine also covertly approached the Kitty Hawk well within firing range.10 The Song avoided detection by a dozen U.S. warships until she surfaced to boast her tactical victory.11
Considering the carrier’s proven vulnerability and that U.S. diesel boats sank eight Japanese aircraft carriers during World War II, it is clear that modern nuclear-powered submarines possess the enhanced combat capabilities to prevail over aircraft carriers and surface warships. This advantage is not unique to U.S. submarines. In a major naval conflict with Russia and China, the U.S. aircraft carrier will be a vulnerable target. U.S. carriers’ freedom to maneuver will depend heavily on the superiority of U.S. attack submarines.
UUVs: Force Multipliers
U.S. attack submarines will become increasingly more capable and more dominant with the introduction of unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) technology. UUVs will provide the U.S. submarine force with at least three distinct advantages: increased detection effectiveness for antisurface warfare and antisubmarine warfare, improved mine warfare, and a greater role in electronic warfare. UUVs provide U.S. submarines with an extended reach. They can access and remain covert in shallow waters or explore areas that are too risky for a submarine to tread. UUVs allow fast-attack submarines to further dominate naval combat allowing them to remain hidden while successfully detecting enemy surface ships and submarines at extended range.12 Ballistic-missile submarines can also benefit from such technology by helping them remain aware of enemy locations to prevent detection.
UUVs improve the ability of the Navy to conduct and defend against naval mines. Naval blockading could threaten economic stability in an increasingly globalized economy. One of the most cost-effective ways of establishing an effective blockade is to set naval mines in large quantities. While mines can be set from aircraft, surface ships, and submarines, employing mines with UUVs is perhaps the safest and most covert option available. The Navy should expect inferior navies to use naval mines against its superior fleet. This is because mines are a cheaper alternative that, if employed correctly, can equalize a superior force’s naval assets.
China, for instance, can cheaply bolster its anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) defensive sphere with the employment of naval mines by obstructing access to its coastline. Mine technology has significantly improved since the U.S. deployed mines against Japan in World War II. China has invested heavily in mine technology and could produce some devastating weapons in the future. China or some other adversary could employ “smart mines” that remain dormant on the bottom of the ocean until triggered by an enemy vessel.13 Such mines could launch a missile with the ability to attack targets up to 30 kilometers away.14 While mines with such capabilities do not exist yet, the U.S. submarine force needs to be prepared to neutralize any undersea threat. UUVs could assist U.S. efforts to disarm enemy mines without risk to U.S. submarines. Strategically, effective anti-mine warfare is critical for the Navy to assure uncompromised sea control and power projection.
Submarine-launched UUVs operating farther into enemy littoral zones can also conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, collecting vital information to make electronic warfare more viable.15 Operating in close proximity to enemy radio-waves and electro-optics, the UUV is an attractive vehicle to extend the electronic warfare mission from the EA-18G Growler platform, which has singularly been responsible for this mission set. In the early stages of any naval conflict, however, it is unlikely that Growlers will be able to reach enemy coastlines until U.S. submarines have established sea control for the aircraft carriers to safely operate. UUVs will bolster U.S. electronic warfare capabilities especially early in the conflict.
Covert Strike and Nuclear Deterrence
Not only will the EA-18G Growler be unable to operate near enemy coastlines during the early stages of a major conflict, but neither will the rest of a carrier air wing, including the strike aircraft. In order to neutralize critical land-based enemy infrastructure and command-and-control elements, cruise-missile submarines and their large payloads of Tomahawk missiles will be relied upon before sea control is achieved. Covert strikes from cruise-missile submarines will be especially important if facing an adversary, such as China, that has invested heavily in A2/AD systems.16
The covert capabilities of U.S. ballistic-missiles submarines are also critical. The single most important reason why modern U.S. submarines overshadow the aircraft carrier is that ballistic-missile submarines house the single most powerful weapon, and deterrent, the world has ever known. Nuclear weapons, while capable of unimaginable destruction, are uniquely responsible for relative worldwide peace since World War II.17 Since the introduction of nuclear weapons with “Little Boy” on Hiroshima and “Fat Man” on Nagasaki, world powers have been greatly deterred from entering into major conflict. While the fear of mutually assured destruction was real and terrifying, the reality of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was that conflict did not ensue. Even though proxy wars have occurred, such as in Korea and Vietnam, nuclear weapons have cultivated an environment that constrains superpowers from engaging each other.
Today, deterring mutually assured destruction largely falls on the shoulders of U.S. ballistic-missile submarines. While the United States maintains two other “legs” to its nuclear triad in strategic bombers and intercontinental ballistic-missile silos, submarine-launched ballistic missiles account for the largest share. Submarine-launched ballistic missiles will be responsible for up to 70 percent of the nuclear arsenal in the future.18
The clandestine nature of submarine-launched ballistic missiles from below the surface prevents the enemy from thwarting the launch and further challenges his ability to defend against it. Not even the President of the United States knows the exact location of U.S. ballistic-missile submarines. Since enemy intelligence may be aware of at least some of our missile silos and strategic bomber airfields, the United States counts on ballistic-missile submarines to reliably deter enemy aggression.19 Trust in the U.S. submarine force as the strongest “leg” of the nuclear triad drives the nation’s ongoing plan to produce 12 Ohio replacement-class submarines notwithstanding a tightly constrained defense budget.20
Despite the horrifying implications of mutually assured destruction, our ballistic-missile submarines’ stochastic launch position and dependable ability to fire nuclear weapons deter nuclear war to underwrite peace for the United States and its citizens. While aircraft carriers remain vital to project air power into enemy territory of non-naval powers as well as to provide a global presence for the United States, nuclear submarines not only deter major-power war but are pivotal to maritime superiority. They can dominate surface warships, including aircraft carriers, defeat enemy submarines, and win the fight in contested waters.
2. “Submarines Before Nuclear Power: Submarines in World War II,” National Museum of American History, www.americanhistory.si.edu/subs/history/subsbeforenuc/index.html.
3. Frank Hoffman, “Talkin’ World War II: Blockades & Subs in the Pacific,” War on the Rocks, 7 October 2013, warontherocks.com/2013/10/talkin-world-war-ii-blockades-and-submarines-in-the-pacific.
4. “Submarines Before Nuclear Power.”
5. James Hasik, “Are U.S. Aircraft Carriers About to Become Obsolete?” The National Interest, 3 April 2016, nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/are-us-aircraft-carriers-about-become-obsolete-12540.
12. Dave Majumdar, “The U.S. Navy’s Robotic Undersea Future,” The National Interest, 3 November 2015, www.nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/the-us-navys-robotic-undersea-future-14239.
13. CDR Timothy McGeehan and CDR Douglas Wahl (Ret.), USN, “Flash Mob in the Shipping Lane!” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 146, no. 1 (January 2016), 50–55.
15. Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “Robot Subs, Electronic Warfare & Cyber: Navy’s Role in Offset Strategy,” Breaking Defense, 28 January 2016, breakingdefense.com/2016/01/robot-subs-electronic-warfare-cyber-navys-role-in-offset-strategy.
16. Majumdar, “The U.S. Navy’s Robotic Undersea Future.”
17. Robert Spalding, “Nuclear weapons are the U.S.’s instruments of peace,” The Washington Post, 4 October 2013, www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/nuclear-weapons-are-the-uss-instruments-of-peace/2013/10/04/6f6969ba-2d14-11e3-b139-029811dbb57f_story.html.
18. “SSBN,” Submarine Industrial Base Council, http://submarinesuppliers.org/programs/ssbn.
19. Kingston Reif and Travis Sharp, “Pruning the Nuclear Triad? Pros and Cons of Submarines, Bombers, and Missiles,” Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, 16 May 2013, armscontrolcenter.org/pruning-the-nuclear-triad-pros-and-cons-of-submarines-bombers-and-missiles.
20. Eric J. Labs, “A Fiscal Pearl Harbor,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 142, no.2 (February 2016), 18–23.