Submariners Must Prepare for War

By Commander Michael Dobbs,U.S. Navy (Retired)

Despite the timeless lesson of preparing in peace for future wartime operations, today’s submarine force is committing a similar error, albeit for different reasons. The current demand for peacetime submarine intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operations is degrading wartime preparedness for a near-peer naval competitor such as China.

Guard against timidity

Ironically, the submarine force finds itself in a somewhat analogous position to that of its World War II forefathers. The United States has enjoyed the premier underwater fleet since the end of World War II. The quality and quantity of U.S. submarines are vastly superior to those of even our nearest peer competitors, and submarine officers are recruited primarily from the top 25 percent of Naval Academy and ROTC graduates. Since the end of the Cold War, however, U.S. submarine crews have been focused on operations that are only tangentially related to vital wartime missions such as antisubmarine and antisurface warfare, and have operated at a deployment tempo that leaves little time for practicing tactical skills in an accurately simulated wartime environment. To make matters worse, many peacetime operations place a premium on stealth that fosters a culture of timidity not wholly dissimilar to what existed in 1941.

The actual employment of submarines is classified. However, it is no coincidence that when answering the question “What do submarines do?” a pair of former commanding officers started with ISR missions before moving on to others such as power projection, antisurface warfare, and mining. These authors pointed out: “Operated with care and cunning and deploying multiple sensors, submarines can monitor happenings in the air, surface, or subsurface littoral battlespace, providing a complete picture of events across all intelligence disciplines.” 1

Submarines have robust capabilities to intercept communications and other electromagnetic emissions that are in high demand and help prepare the current and future battlespace. Submarines also can remain undetected in sensitive areas and provide vital indications and warnings that might tip off leaders to the start of a conflict.

When conducting ISR missions in sensitive areas, the first and last deadly sin is to be detected and classified as a U.S. submarine. Such a faux pas could have significant diplomatic and military repercussions. In today’s submarine culture—as in the 1930s—remaining undetected is often the top priority for captains on both attack (SSNs) and ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs). While this is essential during peacetime ISR missions, in wartime commanding officers would be forced to adopt a more aggressive mindset and strike a more nuanced balance between stealth and the need to approach and attack the enemy from distances at which counterdetection and counterattack are increasingly probable.

ISR missions will continue to make up the lion’s share of SSN operations, partially because the demand for ISR pays the bills. Somewhat counterintuitively, more than one study has concluded that the demand for SSNs is driven by peacetime operations in support of regional unified combatant commanders. A study released by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1999, for example, found that while 76 SSNs were required to cover peacetime demands, only 55 were needed during probable war scenarios. 2  The study predicted that although wartime missions would remain important, “the need for intelligence missions will increase substantially.”

Demand for ISR grew even stronger after the U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks. Submarines were called on and contributed more during the ongoing global war on terror than our nation will ever fully grasp. But these missions do little to prepare submariners for a conventional war against near-peer naval competitors, since most nations targeted in that context have few or no naval forces with which to contend.

The development of submarine officers for the mental and tactical rigor of conventional combat missions also is limited by the fact that SSBNs account for one-third of U.S. submarine crews. Operational security demands that the deterrent fleet spend much of its operational time far from friendly and foreign forces. Patrolling in areas of low maritime traffic, SSBNs undoubtedly have limited opportunities to hone their skills using periscopes and sonar and exploiting radio frequency signals, at least compared to SSNs conducting ISR and other operations in forward locations. Although SSBN crews enjoy excellent tactical training simulations both at sea and in port, they also must dedicate a tremendous amount of time to practicing nuclear weapons safety, command and control, and launch procedures.

Sharpen the Spear

Hopefully, the United States never again will need to conduct major fleet-on-fleet combat operations. If the U.S. Navy does, however, find itself at war with a near-peer competitor, many analysts suggest that submarines will play a vital role in confronting and dismantling antiaccess/area denial (A2/AD) strategies. Although each day under way helps crews develop basic submarine skills—such as diving, surfacing, maintaining depth, propulsion plant operations, and underway maintenance—the U.S. Navy should consider ways to provide more realistic and complex training for conventional war at sea. A good start would be to:

• Increase submarine combat training through greater participation in major naval exercises.

• Raise the number of exercise torpedo firings conducted in complex environments where several ASW platforms are “hunting the hunter.”

• Split the officer corps into SSBN and SSN “specialists.” Although this would greatly complicate manning and detailing, a significant amount of time on SSBNs dilutes tactical skills and experience needed to prevail in naval combat.

Lengthen the duration of prospective commanding officer (PCO) tactical training. For most officers, PCO operations are the most realistic and complex wartime training they will receive in their careers. 4  The training also is effective for submarine crews and other naval forces that participate in these fast-paced combat exercises.

Expand the ISR capabilities on warships and aircraft to take some pressure off submarines.

Submarine employment will nevertheless largely remain a zero-sum game. Raising wartime preparedness will require combatant commanders to sacrifice some peacetime ISR missions in favor of realistic naval combat exercises and training. Extensive cooperation of surface warships and antisubmarine warfare aircraft will be required. The good news is that more interaction will be symbiotic because the U.S. Navy has now begun to reconstitute its antisubmarine warfare capabilities, which had degraded since the end of the Cold War as a result of inadequate funding and more pressing naval operations such as strike, presence, and humanitarian assistance.

Adapt for War

There is no doubt that today’s submariners are professional, courageous, and committed. The United States, however, has not fired a submarine torpedo in anger in many decades. The lessons of World War II in the Pacific remind us of the devastating cost of excessive loyalty to incorrect orthodoxy in peacetime. The combatant commanders’ demands for ISR, indications-and-warning, and other peacetime submarine missions are important and often vital to our nation’s security. But so is wartime readiness. Failure to shift the mindset and an appropriate level of resources and training away from peacetime missions and toward combat training and exercises will leave the submarine force unprepared to fight naval battles against near-peer naval competitors such as China or Russia.

Today’s submariners—just like their World War II predecessors—undoubtedly would transition successfully from peacetime to wartime realities. The pace of modern military operations, however, would require them to adapt in weeks or months rather than years, and after the potential loss of dozens of submarines. As threats to U.S. naval supremacy ascend to levels not seen since the 1980s, it is time to strike a new balance between excellence in peacetime missions and preparation for large-scale naval war. A famous military adage asserts that “the more you sweat in peacetime, the less you bleed in war.” Victory depends on sweating over the right stuff.

1. Commanders Mark Gorenflo and Michael Poirier, U.S. Navy, “The Case for More Submarines,” Undersea Warfare vol. 2, no. 6 (Winter 1999), .

2. Congressional Budget Office, “Increasing the Mission Capability of the U.S. Submarine Force,” March 2002, 1, .

3. Ibid, xi.

4. Captain Arnie Lotring and Captain Jeff Fowler, U.S. Navy, “PCO Training: Making the Best Better,” Undersea Warfare vol. 2, no. 6 (Fall 1999), .


Commander Dobbs  served 22 years in submarines and commanded the USS Pennsylvania (SSBN-735 Blue). He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and was an Olmsted scholar at the University of Grenoble, France. He teaches political science and national security at universities in San Diego.



Prior to World War II, Navy leaders made several key assumptions that proved tragically incorrect. The dominant “Gun Club” of battleship captains and admirals viewed submarines as a mere adjunct to surface fleets fighting epic Mahanian battles to sweep the enemy from the oceans. Inflexibly embracing the black letters of international law, the submarine force never developed doctrine for unrestricted submarine warfare against merchantmen in the interwar period, despite the German U-boats’ pushing Britain to the brink of resource insufficiency in World War I and their similar impact in the two years preceding Pearl Harbor.

Although submarine equipment mostly proved adequate for the realities of World War II, submariners, doctrine, and training did not. Perhaps the greatest handicap discovered in 1942 was that the interwar period produced submarine crews and commanding officers who were too timid to exploit opportunities once unrestricted submarine warfare was authorized. Their experiences in fleet training exercises conditioned them to believe that even a minor deviation from highly stealthy operations would lead to sure destruction. Crews were trained to operate mostly without the benefit of their periscope, instead overly relying on sonar equipment. Operating on the surface during attacks, despite its many advantages, was a heretical idea. In 1941 gunnery exercises, common wisdom held that a submarine only had a one in four chance of evading detection during a torpedo attack and then a one in seven chance of surviving a depth charge attack once detected. 1  In a similar vein, submariners were taught that a depth charge exploding within a half-mile would likely result in a lost submarine, when the reality was that the kill radius of most depth charges proved to be well inside 100 feet. At the same time, they assumed that a spotter antisubmarine aircraft with depth bombs was always lurking just over the visual horizon. The typical submarine officer’s perspective as he sailed off to war in early 1942 was that he was literally crewing a “death trap” or “iron coffin.”

Extensive acclimation to these flawed pre-war truths resulted in a significant percentage of submarine commanding officers who would not approach to effective attack distances of 1,000 to 3,000 yards. Thirty percent of the submarine commanding officers who led their boats on initial war patrols were fired for poor wartime performance, despite their predilection to write patrol reports that glossed over their poor tactical acumen and frequent lapses in courage. More than one executive officer, such as Lieutenant Paul Schratz on the USS Sterlet (SS-392), faced a Solomon-like dilemma either to relieve his commanding officer for incompetence and cowardice or watch his submarine remain impotent in the frantic U.S. Navy effort to gain the initiative in the Pacific. 2

Charged in 1941 with unrestricted submarine warfare to sever Japan’s sea lines of communication, the submarine force exercised innate caution and got off to a very slow start. In fact, the cumulative loss of Japanese merchantmen from 1941 to 1943 barely equaled the eventual losses in the single year of 1944. Although much of this failure was attributed, not completely incorrectly, to faulty torpedoes and other equipment deficiencies, successful war patrols became the norm only after dramatic changes in operational doctrine and behavior.

Submariners first abandoned sound-only attacks; only 31 of 4,783 attacks in World War II were directed by sonar equipment. 3  They also stopped spending most of their patrols at periscope depth, where the probability of detecting merchant ships in the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean was low. Instead, they embraced the advantages of speed and deck gun firepower inherent in surface attacks, despite the increased risk of being detected and attacked.

Still, the lessons of more risky tactics, discovered by a small avant-garde of intrepid submarine skippers in the first half of 1942, were slow to disseminate throughout the force despite the advent of Tactical Bulletins and official patrol report endorsements that exhorted commanding officers to adopt more aggressive operational doctrine. It primarily was the replacement of timid commanding officers with younger and more aggressive submariner warriors that turned the tide and forged the “Silent Service’s” lethal legacy as embodied by Dick O’Kane, “Red” Ramage, “Mush” Morton, and others who fought the war in Bermuda shorts and on a first-name basis. 4

1. Stephen Rosen, Winning the Next War: Innovation and the Modern Military (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994), 135.

2. Paul R. Schratz, Submarine Commander (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2000), 116–18.

3. Rosen, Winning the Next War, 136.

4. Ibid.



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