No weapon system in modern warfare has given such consistent, devastating performance in combat
and yet been so inadequately factored into Naval planning than the submarine.
A spectacular inauguration of submarine warfare occurred in August 1914. Then a 1 one U-boat
shocked the world’s Naval community by sinking the British Cruisers Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy in a
single action that lasted less than an hour and took the lives of 1459 seamen. Shortly thereafter
HMS Goliath was destroyed by a lone Turkish submarine in the Aegean Sea–precipitating a
timidity on the part of the Royal Navy which led ultimately to loss of initiative in the Dardanelles campaign. Victory there would have shortened the war by years and prevented the loss of a million troops in the trenches of Western Europe. German U-boats went on to reach a pinnacle of 875,576 tons of bottomed merchant ships in one month. They also took a toll of British warships that outperformed the Kaiser’s Imperial Battle Fleet in every respect.
It was not the successes of the U-boat arm but rather the humiliations suffered at Jutland which
influenced subsequent deliberations by Nazi Navy planners. They wasted a lion’s share of available
production resources on battleships, pocket battleships and cruisers–whose contributions in
WWII proved of no consequence. For the most part, the German capital ships passed their careers
bottled up in port where they required substantial antiair and harbor defenses.
By the eve of World War II, then Capt. Karl Doenitz was able to acquire only 56 of a requested
300 U-boat force level. This was fortunate for the Allied Nations since, from this austere beginning, German U-boats destroyed 13.5 million tons of merchant shipping and 175 Naval vessels.
Consider the consequences had Doenitz’s 300-submarine force been available at the start–with 100 in port, 100 enroute and 100 dispersed about sea lanes in the North Atlantic.
The impact of WWI submarine warfare results was not apparent in U.S. Naval planning before WWII.
Naval warfare continued to be regarded as a surface force activity. Despite the great ship losses sustained, the popular British notion that submarines were weapons of a second rate sea power
apparently had caught on. There was little realization that regardless of a ship’s size and
armament, a big hole in its side will cause it to sink.
The U.S. entered WWII with only 50 “fleet” boats. Seven “Os”, 18 “Rs” and 32 “S” boats rounded out the remainder of the U.S. submarine force. These latter relics were totally inadequate however to deal with the wide expanses of the Western pacific. But two strokes of good fortune helped the Americans. There was a readiness to produce more fleet boats and the Japanese failed to concentrate on U.S. submarines and their facilities during the initial phases of the war. At Pearl Harbor, the submarine base was overflown by Japanese airmen who were only eager to attack a row of obsolete battleships. Thereby, they achieved little more than the fulfillment of Admiral Yamamoto’s prophecy of “awakening a sleeping giant and filling him with a terrible resolve.” Moreover, the overlooked submarine base helped sustain an effort that cost Hirohito eight carriers, 43 destroyers, 23 submarines, nine cruisers, a battleship and 189 assorted combat vessels of lesser capability. Before war’s end, submarines had lined the Pacific sea bed with 63 percent of Japan’s Merchant Marine.
Armed with lessons from two major wars and the fact that submariners had destroyed about twice as
many ships as all other naval forces, one would think that submarine warfare had finally “emerged
from the closet.” But had it?
Submarines were not an issue in the “Revolt of the Admirals” 1948-49, during the so-called “Louis
Johnson Era” of defense cutbacks. The Admirals who resigned were frustrated over their failure to
get a super carrier. No careers moreover were sacrificed on the altar of greater submarine
emphasis. The “Silent Service” seemed content to subsist upon the fallout from the vicious in-fighting over appropriations for the more traditional heavy combatants. Submarine fleet modernization meant only the adding of snorkels, increasing battery capacity and streamlining of the old fleet boats. Post-WWII construction of diesel-electric submarines in the u.s. resulted in a questionable product that did not approach the reliability or efficiency of Germany’s Type XXI, which was in mass production at the c~ose of the War. The incorporation of modular assembly, perfected in German Shipyards by 1943, for mass production, was not implemented in the U.S. until TRIDENT. It is ironic that the introduction of nuclear propulsion and ballistic Missiles into submarines drew their principal impetus from a maverick submariner who never commanded a submarine, and a Naval aviator.
What does all this mean to the Naval Submarine League? Isn’t our rallying cry “The Silent Service should remain silent no longer?” Do U. S. Navy planners better understand the full impact of
submarine warfare in relation to the many tasks which must be undertaken in the projection of sea
power? What evidence is there that suitable portions of available resources are being directed
into exploring the advantages of submarines?
Apparently, funding for U.S. submarines is much less than that of our principal competitor. Soviet submarines outnumber the U.S. three to one. They dive deeper, run faster and are tougher boats
than ours. Soviets give priority to a strong submarine arm–ahead of all other Naval Forces–yet the USSR is far from being a second-rate sea power. While U.s. submariners dallied in the Arctic, wrote books about it and presented slide shows, Soviet Admiral Gorshkov developed the Artie as a sanctuary for SSBNs. There, inaccessible to most U.S. ASW forces, the Soviet Deltas and Typhoons now enjoy all the advantages of TRIDENT for only a fraction of the cost. Although u.s. SSN Arctic experiments date from the late fifties, no substantive ASW capability has yet been produced. Fortunately the diligent efforts of Dr. Waldo K. Lyon, of NOSC San Diego, have given continuity to our SSN Arctic program. With a miniscule budget but tremendous determination, Dr. Lyon has kept u.s. interest in Arctic submarine matters alive. When an effective U.S. Arctic ASW capability is achieved, it will be due in large part to his dogged persistence.
The League can be an important factor in turning these circumstances around. Its membership
includes a vast reservoir of experience, insight, and most importantly, creativity in the discipline
of submarine warfare–a true “submarine resource. ·•The task then is to apply this resource in a
manner that will permit our country to best exploit submarines in its defense.
“Breaking of silence” is not merely important; it is necessary to meet the naval challenges which
confront our country. Communications to all decision making levels, ranging from the general
public to those individuals who make final resolution in defense procurement matters, must be
initiated. This can be done only through a well-conceived plan formulated by media
specialists among the league membership. Piecemeal, sporadic pronouncements by individuals
wishing to “air a beef” makes entertaining reading but will not produce a desired result. In effect,
the League, in “breaking the silence” must talk to other than just itself and with a strong voice.
Credibility is important. Those who listen to the League’s messages will be influenced in direct
relation to the confidence they have that such messages are a product of the “submarine resource”
and not a reverberation of “City Hall’s” submarine party lines. Therefore, ties with the active duty
community will best consist of channels for exchange of information and social amenities. Today’s submariner is heavily preoccupied with other matters. He must be free to concentrate on ways and means of fighting wars which may occur in the near term–wars in which he is out-numbered
three to one by an enemy with an excellent repertoire of weapons. Additionally, the regular Navy is bound by a myriad of directives and policies from which League members are able to enjoy complete freedom. Most League members have completed their runs through gauntlets of selections boards, plucking boards and flag officer assignment boards and need no longer permit such boards to be a factor. Additionally, today’s service politics may drive submariners to options less than optimum for the best interests of our country. Recognizably then, the League’s position could run contrary to that currently expressed by the Navy. In view of the amassed experience, accrued under “Government”
circumstances, exercise of the right to inform government decision makers on submarine matters is
a League responsibility.
So then, whither the Submarine League? More than a year since commissioning, has a course been
well charted? Do its achievements reach beyond attainment of membership goals, meetings and
publication of quarterly bulletins? Have its resources been drawn upon in the course of resolving issues of national defense relating to submarine warfare? If so, what has been the outcome? Is the League prepared to own up to submarine mistakes of the past so that the wisdom gained from hard-earned experience can light the way ahead for those who follow? Has its Review contained articles which increase public awareness as to the significance of submarines in today’s warfare? Can the League draw from 1 ts “submarine resource” and develop unbiased positions on current and prospective issues relating to u.s. seapower?
The League is certainly “able” but is it “ready and willing” to initiate and advance alternatives
which will provide American Taxpayers with greater Naval protection for their investment? Or has the
Silent Service broken its silence only to hear itself talk?
Capt. D. M. Ulmer, USN (Ret.)