Since the American Revolution, submarines have had an important role in U.S. naval warfare. In the February 1942 Proceedings, David Whittet Thomson published “David Bushnell and the First American Submarine.” Bushnell built the small, oval, oak-timbered submarine Turtle in Connecticut and undertook submerged missions during the Revolutionary War. A single occupant/operator turned and peddled vertical and horizontal propellors, aiming to attach explosive charges to British warships at anchor in East Coast harbors. While the attacks failed, the opening chapter of the silent service had been written.
In December 1912, then-Lieutenant Chester W. Nimitz published the first major Proceedings article on submarines, soon after he had qualified in submarines and had commanded the USS Snapper (SS-16), Narwhal (SS-17), and E-1 (formerly the Skipjack [SS-24]), the first diesel-powered U.S. submarine. When he published “Military Value and Tactics of Modern Submarines,” he was in command of Second Group, Atlantic Submarine Flotilla. The future fleet admiral wrote:
In estimating the military value of the submarine or submersible, as compared with the modern battleship, we find that each has a distinct and separate value. The battleship on account of its mobility . . . can operate where submarines or submersibles of the present day cannot go, due to their lack of mobility. On the other hand, leaving out the factor of mobility, which for submarine craft of the future will advance more rapidly than for surface craft, we find that submarine craft rank equally well, if not better than surface craft.
Nimitz included a detailed foldout drawing of two types of submarines, in profile, overhead, and cross sections. He discussed submarine tactics in harbor defense, coastal defense, and offensive high-seas operations.
As an illustration of the use of one or more offensive submarine groups accompanying a fleet, let it be assumed that the submarines have a surface speed capable of cruising with the fleet at any speed that may be required to keep up with the fleet. Let it also be assumed that the submerged speed and the radius of the submarines is about twelve knots for one hour, or about eight and one-half knots for four hours, or about five knots for fifteen hours. These assumptions are not excessive.
Nimitz’s long-term assessment was solid. In the short-term, the submarine fleet was young and working hard to improve capability and competence. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, U.S. submarines that deployed were mostly earlier, older boats with inexperienced crews, compared with those of the Imperial German and Royal navies. In July 1920, Naval Academy English Professor Carroll Stores Alden published the second of a two-part account of the submarines’ experiences and actions, in “American Submarine Operations in the War (Concluded).”
It was during the first patrol that Lieutenant (j.g.) G. A. Rood, USN, commanding the AL-1, had his best adventure. On 22 May 1918, when running close to the Scilly Isles . . . he again sighted near noon a German submarine on the surface in light condition. Immediately submerging he made for her, but in the maneuvering, she outdistanced him and disappeared. Then Rood submerged and, using his listening tubes, followed the sound. At 2:40 p.m. . . . he again sighted a German submarine, this time 5,000 yards distance, dead ahead. . . . Submerging again, and as he came up at intervals showing only the smallest amount of periscope, he approached to within 600 yards of the enemy, meanwhile flooding all torpedo tubes. The Hun was exposing a full broadside and evidently scented no danger, for men could be seen moving about her decks, some of them smoking. At this point, the AL-1 fired two torpedoes, one aimed at the enemy’s bow and the other at her conning tower. . . . But the AL-1, this being her first patrol, had not guarded against the sudden change of trim when two torpedoes, each weighing approximately a ton, were discharged. The bow rose. . . .
There was an instant response from the Huns. A dense black smoke shot out from their port exhaust, which had previously been clear, and they evidently backed on the starboard motor. This swung their stern toward the attacking boat, and enabled them to avoid the torpedoes, which made straight runs and probably passed within a few yards of their bow. Then the enemy opened fire on the AL-1 with their stern gun, firing four or five shells wide of the mark. The AL-1 later fired two more torpedoes, but the fleeing enemy easily dodged them. Rood then attempted to track the enemy, and not until night did he give up the pursuit.
In his September 1935 essay “International Law and the Submarine,” then-Lieutenant Hyman G. Rickover, the future “father of the nuclear Navy,” looked at the challenge posed by the new era’s warship submarines against merchant vessels—armed and unarmed—in war.
The laws of war are controlled by two basic principles: (1) “That a belligerent should be justified in applying any amount and any kind of force which is necessary for the realization of the purpose of war, namely the overpowering of the opponent,” and (2) the principle of humanity “which says that all kinds and degrees of violence as are not necessary for the overpowering of the opponent should not be permitted to a belligerent.” The most significant result of the acceptance of the principle of humanity has been the gradual evolution of a distinction between combatants and noncombatants and the protection of noncombatants against injuries not incidental to military operations against combatants. . . .
In case a merchant vessel was destroyed, international law, as it stood before the World War, imposed a clear duty on the warship to first place all persons on board in safety and to take on board all the ship’s papers and other documents which were relevant for the purpose of the validity of the capture. . . .
But let it be supposed that the submarine has stopped a vessel and has established that the vessel is liable to capture. Because of its small complement, the submarine is unable to furnish a prize crew. It must, therefore, sink the captured vessel. However, it lacks room to accommodate the crew and passengers. Thus, the submarine is faced with the alternative of permitting a guilty vessel to proceed unmolested, in other words, it is incapable of engaging in war against commerce, or of forcing crew and passengers to take to their boats. . . .
It is doubtful whether any convention requiring submarines to comply with the existing rules of international law governing commerce warfare will receive general recognition unless it is also agreed that under the “changed conditions of modern warfare” armed merchantmen are no longer entitled to the immunities of private vessels.
In his April 1941 article “Modern Submarine Versus Major Warship,” Lieutenant S. D. Willingham wrote the submarine has every advantage.
If the attack proceeds without detection to a firing point at close range, say 1,000 yards and under, with the torpedo fire-control problem properly solved, the chances of the war vessel’s escaping destruction is almost nil. The fact that the ship may be zigzagging has little bearing, for with the facility with which the submarine torpedo fire-control problem is solved on modern submarines, zigzagging to avoid submarines is now a nearly useless device. It merely makes the submarine captain think faster, and it may cause him to make one more periscope exposure than he would have had to make had the vessel not been zigzagging.
In June 1943, the USS Trigger (SS-237) glided submerged inside Tokyo harbor and fired four torpedoes at the Japanese aircraft carrier Hiyō. Captain Edward L. “Ned” Beach Jr., who was the submarine’s engineering officer on that mission, would recall the action in 1957 in “Unlucky in June: Hiyō Meets Trigger.” He included quotes from the exchanges he had after the war with former Japanese Captain Takeo Yasunobu, who had been chief of staff to the admiral commanding the Japanese carrier division. Yasunobu recalled:
“The first hit did not do much damage; it only broke the chain locker. But the last hit damaged us vitally. It broke the first boiler room and the bulkhead of the second boiler room, and killed all of the crew of the first room and half of the second. These rooms all took in water at once. The third boiler room leaked by and by. All fire was put out and all steam went out, and the ship stopped.”
Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal would award Beach the Navy Cross for deeds during these war patrols. Beach would go on to become President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s naval aide, write the best-selling novel Run Silent, Run Deep (published by the Naval Institute Press), and command the nuclear-powered submarine USS Triton (SSRN-586) on the first submerged circumnavigation of the globe.
Lieutenant Commander Lawson “Red” Ramage, commanding the USS Parche (SS-384), was in the Pacific in a wolfpack hunting Japanese ships, and in his 1975 oral history recalled the wild, close-quarter fury of a 31 July 1944 night action.
About that time, we saw what looked like two carriers. We took aim on the first and let go four torpedoes. Every one of those hit, one, two, three, four, right down the side of the ship. This happened to be a tanker, and she went straight down.
We swung around and brought the stern to bear on the second ship that happened to also be a tanker. We let three go at that and all three hit, but the ship only went down by the bow and got a small fire going. As we came up under the stern of this tanker, we cut as close as we could in order to keep out of the way of his deck gun, which was still up there but couldn’t train down. We came tight under there and crossed his stern and saw another ship, a good-sized ship. All of a sudden, he began shooting. The whole place was alight with gunfire. Everyone was shooting at everybody and everything. Nobody I felt could see us except for this rooster tail that we had laying out there, going through at 20 knots.
When they began shooting right down our wake, it began to get a little hot. We decided we had best put him out of his misery. As soon as we got enough distance, about 700 yards or so, we let go with three torpedoes out of the stern and put that tanker down. . . .
Now we had four ships sunk and one damaged, and it was beginning to get a bit light, a little too light. We decided to pull clear and get ready to dive for the day. When this whole thing started, the wolfpack commander was up there on the bridge, and there wasn’t enough room for everybody, so I said, “Clear the bridge.” I got rid of everybody up there including the lookouts. I had just one quartermaster with me, two of us on the bridge. He was more or less keeping a lookout aft, as I kept a look forward. The whole operation went by so fast it’s hard to reconstruct everything that happened in such short order.
The exploits of diesel-powered submarines continued, but with the commissioning of the nuclear-powered USS Nautilus (SSN-571) in 1954, a new era in submarine capabilities was emerging. In the June 1958 Proceedings, Rear Admiral I. J. Galantin wrote in “The Future of Nuclear-Powered Submarines”:
Through its long, painful evolution from the diving bell mentioned by Aristotle to the effective, diesel-powered craft of World War II, the submarine remained basically a surface ship capable of brief periods of submergence. The addition of the snorkel permitted most of the ship to be hidden underwater while maintaining the essential link to the surface required by chemically fueled power plants. Even the next step, the experimental use of more sophisticated, closed-cycle propulsion systems utilizing hydrogen-peroxide or other oxidants, could give only temporary freedom from the surface. Only now, through a heat source not dependent on combustion and hence independent of oxygen, has the “submersible” severed its last tenuous link with the atmosphere and become a “true submarine,” one capable of operating for unlimited periods fully submerged.
In August 1958, the Nautilus traveled north from Alaska and transited the Arctic Ocean and North Pole submerged before surfacing off Greenland. Seven months later, on her second polar cruise, the USS Skate (SSN-578) traveled submerged under the Arctic ice and broke through to the surface at the North Pole. In the September 1959 issue, the Skate’s executive officer Lieutenant Commander William H. Layman published “Skate Breakthrough at the North Pole,” in which he wrote:
On 20 March, we maneuvered under a long frozen-over crack which was approximately a hundred yards wide with pressure ridges of ice reaching down fifty feet deep into water on each side of the crack. It took us about fifty minutes to surface the ship. We found ourselves in pretty surroundings with a clear moonlit night and many stars out. A celestial fix showed that our total navigational error since entering the ice pack was almost unbelievably small.
The Navy’s first ballistic-missile submarine, the USS George Washington (SSBN-598), sailed on her first strategic operational patrol in 1960, with 16 operational, solid-fuel, nuclear-tipped Polaris missiles on board. In 1955, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke had challenged Rear Admiral William F. “Red” Raborn to realize this revolutionary submarine weapon system by 1965. Raborn and a remarkable team delivered in half the time.
In his 1972 oral history, Raborn recalled the decisive initial meeting with Burke on whether to embark on the Polaris program.
Acceptance of this program in the Navy was coming along not as well as we had hoped. Admiral Burke called all of his senior flag officers in his office and had me there, I guess as the piéce de résistance. He told them what we planned to do and sought their advice. Of course, this was typical of Admiral Burke. He didn’t try to “bull” his way through. At the end of his dissertation, he asked them what they would advise him to do. Not one of them was enthusiastic about this program.
At the end of the meeting, as sort of a finale, Admiral Burke turned to me and said, “What do you think?” And, in my youthful enthusiasm, I said, “If the Navy didn’t go ahead, it would be making the biggest mistake it had ever made.”
On 10 April 1963, the Navy lost the nuclear-powered submarine USS Thresher (SSN-593). A painting of the Thresher underway on the surface by renowned artist Charles G. Evers appeared on the cover of the March 1964 Proceedings. In his article “USS Thresher (SSN-593): 3 August 1961–10 April 1963,” Vice Admiral E. W. Grenfell, Commander, Submarine Forces, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, noted that this was “the nation’s third peacetime submarine loss since World War II and by far the greatest submarine disaster in terms of loss of life.”
Two months later, in the May 1964 issue, Captain Frank A. Andrews, Commander, Submarine Development Group Two, published a detailed report, “Searching for the Thresher,” with surface and bottom photographs and a drawing of the site where the submarine’s wreckage was discovered on the sea floor at a depth of 8,400 feet, 220 miles east of Cape Cod.
Within 20 search hours, all hope for survivors had passed, and the entire Thresher project began to change character from that of a standard search-and-rescue operation to that of an oceanographic expedition. . . .
In all, 28 naval warships and five oceanographic research, or service, vessels participated in Task Group 89.7 from 10 April 1963 until 6 September 1963, when a substantial portion of the Thresher wreckage was located by the bathyscaph Trieste.
The importance of the Navy’s ballistic-missile submarines with their nuclear-armed missiles continued to grow through the 1960s and into the 1970s. Among the nation’s land, air, and sea-based triad of strategic nuclear weapons, the SSBNs were relatively invulnerable to counterattack by the Soviet Union’s evolving land, air, and sea rocket, bomber, and submarine nuclear forces. That said, the Navy’s SSBN force required new platforms and weapon systems.
In his November 1978 Proceedings article “The Need for Trident,” Gerard Keith Burke wrote:
DoD and the Department of the Navy have determined that the replacement for the aging [SSBN] fleet should be the Trident-armed Ohio (SSBN-726) class. In every respect, this ship represents an advance upon her predecessors. However, in at least one respect, namely her great size (18,700 submerged tons contrasted to the 8,250 tons of the Lafayette class), she has been challenged as “gold-plated” and condemned as not cost-effective. This accusation, though enjoying wide acceptability, is not accurate. . . .
As the Cold War evolved into the mid-1980s, the U.S. submarine advantage over the Soviet Navy was eroding. In the July 1987 issue, Lieutenant P. Kevin Peppe wrote in “Acoustic Showdown for the SSNs”:
The U.S. submarine force no longer holds any significant acoustic advantage over a growing number of frontline Soviet nuclear-powered attack submarines. Further, the funding necessary to regain any past advantage is simply not available. . . .
Acoustic advantage, like nuclear superiority, is not easy to quantify. It involves complex measures of broadband- and spectral-radiated noise levels, the ability to process these signals (at machine and human levels), and increasingly, one’s ability to exploit the sonar environment. . . .
Beyond the expected changes acoustic parity will bring to the SSN-versus-SSN tactical arena is the impact it will have on the U.S. Maritime Strategy. To begin with, the stand-alone SSN is no longer the ultimate ASW platform. Constraints limiting the physical size of on-board detectors have resulted in effective acoustic sweep widths smaller than that required for effective search in most open-ocean areas. While submarine systems are being developed to close the gap, the advent of very large aperture arrays, deployed and operated by surface ships, has ushered in a new era of ASW search.
The submarine fleet’s value and evolving capabilities to a joint task force were the focus of Rear Admiral E. P. Giambastiani Jr.’s October 1997 article, “Silence in Our Wake.”
The submarine’s stealth enables it to operate effectively for sustained periods in areas where risk is high for less stealthy platforms or where a nonprovocative presence is required. It can provide near-real-time information to the operational commander for intelligence preparation of the battlespace and can transition quickly to a strike or antisubmarine warfare role to support follow-on forces.
As the 20th century was coming to a close, retired Captain C. A. K. McDonald published the “Real Story of the Scorpion?” in the June 1999 issue, looking back at the 1968 loss of the Skipjack-class nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Scorpion (SSN-589). There had been much speculation on the cause—including the possibility of a Soviet torpedo—when she had disappeared in the Atlantic enroute to Norfolk, Virginia. Her hull was located on the bottom at a depth of 11,000 feet, broken into three sections. Underwater photography did not suggest she had been the victim of a torpedo attack.
McDonald, who had been special assistant for submarines to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research and Development at the time of her loss, laid out the facts as they were best known.
In the November 1998 book, Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage, Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew made the stunning revelation of a disastrous test failure of a Mark 46 battery that was to power the Mark 37 torpedo. According to this book, in mid-May 1968 the Technical Director of the Weapons Quality Engineering Center, Keyport, Washington, had advised the Naval Ordnance Command that a torpedo battery had “exploded in flames during a vibration test because a tiny diaphragm had failed.” The alert further recommended the withdrawal of all similar batteries from service “at the earliest opportunity.” It went on to state that sufficient heat was generated in the test sample to “risk warhead cook-off and loss of a submarine.” . . . The engineers felt that this event could cause a Mark 37 warhead to explode, and, sequentially, blow the two hatches out of the torpedo room. It is very possible that one of these torpedo batteries was installed in one of the Mark 37 torpedoes in the Scorpion.
A new generation of attack submarines was joining the fleet. In “The Virginia SSN Right for the Times,” Vice Admiral Charles L. Munns wrote in September 2005:
The Virginia is a marvel—the confluence of three visionary elements: a design that placed prescient emphasis on littoral warfare and support of special operations forces; an innovative modular construction technique employing two partnered shipyards; and an array of flexible, commercial-off-the-shelf-based, open-architecture systems. Delivered within three months of a date selected nearly ten years before, the Virginia is poised to jump into the war on terror early. At the same time, the submarine is ready to engage in traditional naval warfare should that be required.
The modification of submarines for additional missions turned another page in the early 21st century. “The Navy’s program for the conversion of the first four of the 18 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) to a guided-missile (SSGN) configuration is on time, on budget, and meeting operational requirements,” Captain Mark Bock wrote in “On Time, On Budget, On Mission: The U.S. Navy SSGN Program Shows the Way Ahead” in June 2007: “Not only will the program result in important capabilities to support the unconventional war on terrorism and conventional warfare requirements, it has sustained and re-energized critical elements of the Navy-industry design, engineering, and construction base that will be the framework for America’s next-generation submarines.”
The debate surrounding women serving on board submarines began in earnest in the mid 1990s, not long after women were allowed to serve on all surface combatants. In the August 1995 issue, Medical Corps Captain Mark L. Dembert wrote in “Women Shouldn’t Serve on Submarines” that “an environmentally encapsulated submarine crew with both men and women would present far too much of a psychologically complex environment for a submarine officer’s training and role as commanding officer to manage.”
In December 1999, Richard Boyle wrote “Women Should Not Serve in Submarines.” Among the reasons he believed integrating crews was a bad idea, he noted:
Close contact between male and female crew members in confined spaces on board a submarine could have consequences that would degrade morale and readiness. Individual patrols can last as long as 70 days, and deployments can last six months. Civilian and military leaders must support policies that enhance morale and readiness. Placing women on submarines would be a terrible mistake and could destroy our submarine force.
In the June 2000 Proceedings, J. Michael Brower fired back in defense of allowing women to serve on submarines in his article “The Enemy [Below] . . . The Brass Above”:
What female submariners really threaten is existing power relations. While top admirals and their horse holders maintain that putting women on submarines constitutes an insurmountable logistical challenge, many women possess just those attributes submariners actively seek: sociability, high emotional development, lower aggression levels, compliant physical features (i.e., height, build, etc.), and acute common sense. It is not sexism to posit that many women possess these qualities. Ablution, bunk and watch assignments, and risks of fraternization and harassment can be managed by Navy leadership under orders to make it work. But overcoming those hurdles would be dress rehearsal for the ascension of the female into some of the most important operational positions in the Navy. The fundamental issue is less about managing privacy in the head and more about keeping everyone at the top male.
In 2010, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates lifted the ban on women serving on board submarines. A year later the first female submarine warfare officers began reporting to Ohio-class guided- and ballistic-missile submarines. In 2016, the submarine force integrated its first boat with female enlisted sailors. By 2020, all submarine homeports had at least one integrated crew. By 2030, the Navy plans to have 33 integrated crews across all platforms. The new Columbia- and Virginia-class submarines are being constructed with facilities for integrated crews.
In the June 2012 issue, Commander, Submarine Forces, Vice Admiral John Richardson and Lieutenant Commander Joel Holwitt published “In Preparing for Today’s Undersea Warfare,” in which they traced the evolution of U.S. submarines from the early 20th century, through the World War II fleet boats, the coming of nuclear power and fleet ballistic-missile submarines, to the demands facing today’s fourth-generation fleet.
The implications for undersea warfare are far-reaching. Just as in World War II, our missions in the A2/AD [antiaccess/area-denial] environment will pertain to operating in increasingly large areas of the maritime domain where non-stealthy forces are more vulnerable to attack. While many forces will fight from the “outside in,” underseas forces will fight from the “inside out,” working closely with other low-profile forces (such as stealth aircraft and special operations forces) within the A2/AD radius, to create chaos and disruption for the enemy and opportunities for our joint force.
Finally, in October 2020’s article “Sustaining the Submarine Force’s Competitive Edge,” Commander, Submarine Forces, Vice Admiral Daryl Caudle built on the 2012 article, looking at shaping superior crews in maintaining the U.S advantage over adversaries such as Russia and China.
The submarine force recently conducted a holistic review of its ability to prevail in battle. This led to numerous improvements, such as reframing our tactical readiness evaluation to focus on combat, renewing our emphasis on innovative tactical development exercises, and instituting “Fight Clubs” to pit submarine crews against each other in competitive warfighting scenarios. . . .
Another aspect of retaining the best people is highlighting their best ideas and putting them to work. To this end, I urge submariners at all ranks to become members of professional organizations and to “read, think, speak, and write” to make our force and our Navy better.
Submarine warfare has featured prominently in the pages of Proceedings for many decades and undoubtedly will be debated in depth for many more.