In the December issue of the Proceedings, Commander John Byron in his article “Diesel Boats
Forever” indicates that “the Reformers” are way off base, because the conventional wisdom of the
naval establishment shows that nuclear boats are superior in all respects to diesel boats. Any
deviations by members of the Naval Submarine League, as to what might be an improvement in the
submarine picture, could thus be construed as an attempt at “reform.” Thus, some thoughts on the
historical dynamics of innovation in the navies of the world and the U.S. Navy in particular, seem applicable.
For the past century and a half each major innovation in the U.S. Navy has been the product
of a small group of naval officers fighting the naval establishment. Success has come, almost
without exception, when these groups of “reformers” have gained support in Congress.
Congress has had a good track record in their battles with the naval establishment on matters of
system innovation. Their support was critical in the cases of Admiral Isherwood on steam
propulsion, Admirals Fiske and Sims on fire control, Admiral Dewey and others on submarines,
Admirals Tower and Moffit on aircraft carriers, and Admiral Rickover on nuclear propulsion.
This political support of the “reformers” was not a matter of the politicians being interested
in gadgets. It was generated by frustration with the Navy’s inability to support emerging changes
in national policy with compatible strategic innovations.
It appears that the Russians do not have the same problems in getting their Navy to innovate. Innovations in Russian weapon systems (such as the Alpha class submarine) suggests that these changes are in response to changes in strategies as dictated by changes in national policies.
To argue that the nuclear attack submarine is the best weapon for sea control is as irrelevant as the pre-WWII arguments for the battleship. The Russians are as unlikely to refight the Battle of the Atlantic as the Germans were to refight the Battle of Jutland. Changes in political objectives demand changes in strategies and tactics.
Congress is challenging the military establishment to become more strategically innovative. This challenge is apparently not recognized when attempts are made to prove that today’ s submarine is superior to those of forty years ago.