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On april first 1927 the General Board of the u.s. Navy made a decision which bas determined the characteristics of u.s. submarines for the past 55 years. It was then that the mission for the submarine was determined to be that of “operating independently for extended periods in seas which are dominated by the enemy.”

This mission, which is now considered to be so obvious as to be a “self-evident truth”, was a radical departure from the operational concepts for submarines which had existed until that time.

In 1972 the General Board of the Navy was deeply involved in determining the characteristics of the new post WW-1 fleet. As can be seen from the partial transcript of this meeting, there were more important things than submarines on the agenda.

[-General Board meeting, 1 April, 1927-]

Admiral WILEY {Chairman)-“We are here this aoring with the idea of getting some light on the question of submarines. The General Board is at present up to its neck in work and in the interest of saving time without getting into long discussions on the subject, I am going to ask definite questions of certain officers and invite anyone present to make any statement that they may wish.”

“I will first ask Admiral Schofield, are you head of the War Plans Division of Naval Operations?”


WILEY-“As such are you responsible for the recommendations for their {submarines) assignment to the Chief of Naval Operations?”

SCHOFIELD–“I am responsible for the recommendations for their {submarines) assignment to the Chief of Naval Operations.”

WILEY-·In what plans are suburines assigned aissions sufficiently definite to . . . . ?”

SCHOFIELD–“War plans, as presently drawn, assign submarines to various commands that will be operating in war. The mission of submarines within those commands are not assigned by war plans. ”

WILEY–“Can you define the mission of a ‘fleet submarine’?”

SCHOFIELD–“That demands a definition of a fleet subaarine which I have tried to find. I would like to read a definition from the report of the CinC, u.s. Fleet ‘Fleet submarines; the “B” type is, as yet, a failure; the “V” type characteristics have yet to be tried out. A satisfactory fleet sub.arine aust have a cruising radius equal to that of battleships at the same speeds and must be capable of gaining and maintaining a position around the flanks of the deployment clear of the light forces in the battle line. This requires a surface speed equal to that of the light cruisers.’ We have no fleet submarines corresponding to that definition.·

WILEY–“Well, have we, in your opinion, based on your knowledge of sub~~&rines, any that may be depended upon to carry out the .tssion of a fleet submarine?”

SCHOFIELD–“Not as defined by the Commander in Chief. I do not think we have a submarine capable of acting as a tactical unit of the fleet.”

WILEY–“Will you please give your idea of the essential .tlitary characteristics of a fleet submarine?”

SCHOFIELD-“Personnally I aa opposed to t?- · development of a type of fleet submarine at present state of the art of building submarines in this country. I believe that a fleet submarine should be substituted for by a cruiser submarine type which is of materially less speed, of equal radius, of much greater reliability and lessened requirement for machinery installations.”

WILEY–“Well then, your idea of a submarine to take the place of what is called a fleet submarine is the cruiser type and that it should have no tactical relations with the battle line?”

SCHOFIELD–“It should have no relations with the battle line.”

WILEY–“Do you consider high speed as subordinate to other characteristics?

SCHOFIELD–“Yes sir, distinctly subordinate to other characteristics, and distinctly subordinate to the characteristic of reliability. I consider that a prime requisite.”

WILEY–“Based on our specific problems, could you give your opinions as to the nuaber of cruiser submarines we should maintain?” I will withdraw that question.”

SCHOFIELD–“We never have too many. I should say we should aim toward a ainimum of twelve.”

WILEY–“Giving due consideration to present war plans, what military characteristics should be embodied in our next submarines?”

SCHOFIELD–“I think the next submarine type to be developed should be capable of wide ocean movements with an objective toward using them as is indicated by the Commander in Chief in the employment of submarines in wartime (which states) –for the observation and reconnaissance from bases;

–for commerce destruction and protection;

–for the protection of our own bases;

–for covering sortie and entry of the fleet from and to bases;

–and for the protection and transit of convoys at slow speeds.

That last function I do not consider important. I do not think submarines are suited for that purpose. Regarding characteristics, I would say a cruising radius of 12,000 miles, a sustained speed of 12 knots, with a maximua surface speed of 15 knots, habitability which would permit operations away from all sources of supply for 60 days, submerged speed and endurance the same as present at a speed of 8 to 10 knots for a brief period of tiae; a radio with a range of 2000 miles and greater if dependable. And in cruiser submarines I would have two types–one for carrying mines at the stern instead of torpedoes, and the other fitted entirely with torpedoes.”

[end of transcript]

Admiral Schofield testified that he was “opposed to the development of a ‘fleet’ type submarine” and recommended it be replaced by a ‘cruiser’ type. It is ironical that the characteristics of the ‘cruiser’ type which he recommended were but marginally different from those of the next generation submarine which was to be called (incorrectly) the ‘Fleet Boat’.

Nonetheless, at the outbreak of war the ‘Fleet Boat’ was assigned the role of a cruiser, operating independently in those areas assumed to be dominated by enemy forces.

The elegance of Admiral Schofield’s argument is in contrast to the involved process which determines the characterostocs pf today’s submarines. There was no ‘threat’ to be contained. There were no ‘scenarios’ drafted by script writers to provide what the dictionary defines as “an imagined sequence of future events.”

The basic operational requireaent was that of providing the Co-.ander in Chief with an instrument, a tool, which he could use to perfora his task. Whatever script which might be needed was provided by the CinC ‘s war plana. ne CinC was the playwright and the weapon systems were but part of the scenery which he moved about the stage as he put on his production.

This, indeed, is a far cry from today’s weapon system planning where the operator is seen as an actor following out the script in a scenario written by some faceless group who have neither the skills to perform as the actors, nor the responsibilities inherent in putting on a good show.

Perhaps the most significant difference between the General Board approach to the deteraination of a ship 1 s characteristics, and that used today, lies in the role of technology.

In the General Board approach it was determined what the needs of the operational commander were, and then goals were set for technology. Today it is first deteraained what the technology has to offer, and then scenarios are developed to make best use of this technology.

The process for the determination of the ship’s characteristics can be debated, in fact it MUST be debated. Should a ship’s characteristics be a means to sell technology, or should they be a means to provide the operator with a more useful instrlllllent to accomplish assigned missions? The ‘Pleet Boat’ provides a good argument for the General Board approach.

F.C. Lynch, Jr.

(Ed. Note: The following letter serves to explain the Navy’s present position, relative to the “new class of attack submarines. ” It serves as a comparison in thinking about attack submarines–56 years later than the General Board transcript examined in the previous article.)

October 18, 1983
The Honorable Charles E. Bennett
Chairman, Subcommittee on Seapower and Strategy and Critical Materials
House of Representatives Washington, D.C. 20510
Dear Mr. Chairman:

The purpose of this letter is to put the need to start a new class of attack submarines in perspective.

In a shooting war at sea, attack submarines on both sides, with their covertness, mobility, endurance and fire power, will be a key factor in determining victory or defeat. The attack submarine is one of the most survivable offensive naval platforms. Relative invulnerability of submarines is well understood in the strategic world where the SSBN is recognized as the most secure leg of our triad.

The importance of attack submarines in naval warfare has not been lost on the Soviets. From a post WW II position of naval inferior! ty, they have built a formidable Navy around their submarine force. In the past 15 years they have developed 12 new classes of nuclear and diesel powered submarines compared to our two classes. Today, they have 286 attack submarines, 109 of which are nuclear powered. We have 91 nuclear attack submarines, This disparity is expected to continue in the future as their nuclear submarine shipbuilding capacity far exceeds ours.

While we have watched their force grow, we have enjoyed the security of knowing that our fewer submarines were more capable due to our advanced technology, particularly our ,acoustic advantage which is so essential to submarine survivability. We can no longer be comfortable on the basis of technological superior! ty. Soviet submarines are becoming quieter at an alarming rate, much faster than previously predicted. In addition, they have put to sea the fastest submarine and the deepest diving submarine, developed the cruise missile firing submarine concept, and effect! vely converted their SALT-excess strategic submarines to other missions, so11e of which are not yet fully understood.

The U.S. Navy last commissioned a new class of attack submarine in 1976 with essentially 1960’s technology. Although they are excellent submarines, the 688 class was originally conceived as a battle group escort. Some degradation of multi-aission capability was accepted to enhance this mission. Steps have been taken to add capability in later ships of the class, but, in the process available space and weight 11argins have been exhausted. To make the improvements in quieting, platform and combat system capability, required to meet the Soviet submarine threat, a new class is necessary. The required improvements simply will not fit in a 688 hull.

Current and future cost constraints and the need for a balanced Navy are well recognized. The Navy is working hard to reduce cost and size–there is no gold plating. Of significance, most Soviet nuclear submarine classes are as large or larger than equivalent u.s. classes.

If we do not act now, we face the certainty of losing by inaction the submarine force superiority that we have for so long enjoyed. The loss of this edge will have the gravest consequences in deciding the outcome of any future war with the Soviets. The concept of air superiority has long been recognized as the SINE QUA NON of victory. That same principle must be applied to submarine warfare. Sustained operations of surface combatants, transports and even strategic submarines will be possible only for a Navy which can gain and hold undersea superior! ty. Our attack submarines will be among the first to fight, and they must be able to do so independently, anywhere in the world. These initial battles may well determine the outcome of the war.

Now is the time to start a new class of attack submarine. This is a critical issue of utmost importance to the defense of our country. I request your support on this vital issue.

John Lehman
Secretary of the Navy

Naval Submarine League

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