Recently I was asked by a person new to the town if I knew of a good dentist. I told him of a dentist that we had been using for twenty-five years. “Well”, he replied, is he any good.?”
I was surprised that he would think that I used a dentist I considered to be “no good “.
But, on reflection, I realised that he was asking if this was the best dentist in the area. I then
admitted to myself that I really didn’t know. I had been satisifed with him: in fact I had become
committed to him. It was my POLICY. I had no reason to find out if he was, indeed, the best.
The debate over nuclear vs. non-nuclear submarines reminded me or this story. For some
twenty five years Naval Policy has dictated a preferrence for the nuclear submarine. Its
performance has been satisfactory. Indeed, it has been spectacular. Tasks and missions have
been developed to make best use of its characteristics and technology has been focused
on making improvements which were found to be needed by those tasks and missions. And, again,
the reported results have been spectacular.
Advocates of the nuclear submarine, mindful or this POLICY and its spectacular success, are
committed to POLICY. They argue that the nuclear submarine is the best that technology can produce
for the performance of the tasks and missions assigned to it.
However this argument seems unconcerned with these obvious caveats: — its performance is
measured while performing those tasks which were designed to take advantage of that peformance.
the performance of competing systems is based on an outdated technological base.
There is nothing wrong in being committed to a POLICY. In fact if the members of an organization are not committed to its POLICY of that organization, the organization becomes sterile. But, on the other hand, if that POLICY is not continuously questioned and tested it, too, becomes sterile along with the organization.
Stephan Roskill, in his Naval Policy Between the Wars, observed that “not one exercise in the protection of a slow convoy took place between 1929 and 1939”. He was describing the British
experience, but the American experience was the same.
“The reason for this astonishing omission”, Roskill explains. “May be found in the obsession
with fleet action in the belief that the Asdic (i.e. , active sonar) had mastered the submarine
. . . ” Again, the American obsessions were the same. POLICY dictated the war at sea would be won
or lost in battleship actions. Therefore it was POLICY that all other forces (including carriers
and submarines) be designed and trained for that purpose.
Unfortunately, our enemies in WW II did not operate with the same POLICIES. Nor, in fact, did
we. It was not only policy, but also a national commitment secured by treaties, that we would not
conduct unrestricted submarine warfare. Less than 24 hours after Pearl Harbor that policy was
changed. And with it went all the scenarios upon which were based the training and preparations of
our submarines for war.
It was obvious that active sonar was superior to passive in the noisy background of battleship
action, hence technology was focused on improving it. Practically no effort was made to improve
passive sonar. What did it matter if our submarines were noisy? If active sonar was the best for us, why wouldn’t it be used by our enemy?
Noisy submarines! It was a memorable experience to be in a boat that was heavy overall and each time the pump was started, or the speed of the boat increased, a depth charge attack could be expected. It was made even more memorable if depth charging followed an attack in which the
torpedoes had not been particularly cooperative.
For someone who has lived through – sweated out is more descriptive – fighting with noisy
submarines and poor torpedoes, the arguments supporting the nuclear submarines are disturbing.
There is a touch of arrogance in those arguments which is not unlike the arrogance in the
battleship and ordnance debates before WW II.
Peacetime POLICIES are the first casualties in war. In peacetime, POLICIES determine operational
PRACTICES. But when the guns start firing operational PRACTICES are forged in the heat of
combat. Advantage in combat lies in the hands of he who has the fewer changes to make in his
The combat environment is determined by the aggressor. This demands of the non-aggressor an
awareness of the enemies’ POLICIES so that he might be better prepared to counter his PRACTICES
Non-nuclear submarines may not be needed by the u.s. Navy, but are we equally confident that
the Soviets have no need for them? And if they do have a need, do we have the capability to counter whatever it might be that they have in mind?
Could it be that Soviet technology has not been completely dedicated to nuclear submarines,
thus permitting them to get beyond the 1940’s in their non-nuclear submarine technology?
Do we have any experimental data which would indicate that we have a capability to defeat an
advanced Soviet non-nuclear submarine while it is performing the wartime mission for which it was
A forum such as the SUBMARINE REVIEW is of value insofar as it can “combat test” POLICIES through reflection and debate. There are many of us who regret that there was no such forum in the