The implications and importance of the “tactical surprise” that can be generated by a nuclear submarine, needs to be recognized and emphasized. Surprise in attack has been the hallmark of the submarine since its inception. But until the nuclear submarine arrived on the scene, the opportunities for a surprise ambushing of enemy targets were severely limited by the low submerged mobility of a submarine.
In World War II, the diesel-electric submarine, with good handling, could usually be submerged before discovery by air or surface forces. It could then covertly prosecute attacks against surface targets. Yet the chances of getting into a good ambushing position — where destruction of unalerted targets appeared to be assured — were low. This necessitated salvos of three or more torpedoes against a single ship, while the chances of hitting were lowered by the possible sighting of the periscope or the wakes of the torpedoes — with enemy evasive action then taken. The element of surprise was too often compromised by the limited submerged speed of the submarine, the scarcely adequate fire control system in use, and the overtness of the torpedoes used. Since mobility seemed more important to attack success than “surprise,” the diesel boats went to night surface attacks against merchant shipping. This sacrificed the good probability of catching an enemy target unaware, but by attacking in a rapid fashion this form of attack usually denied the enemy sufficient time to adequately respond to the submarine’s attack. It should be noted that this also constituted a kind of “tactical surprise,” but its effects were less predictable because they depended more on a general unpreparedness of the enemy~s defensive systems.
Traditionally, the submarine could conduct its attacks with a good deal of surprise because of its ubiquitous quality — i.e. giving the illusion that the sub might be anywhere or everywhere at the same time. This quality has caused the enemy to cry “wolf” so often when a submarine’s presence seems possible, that the enemy’s alertness to react to an attack has usually been greatly degraded. Not only has the submarine’s ubiquitousness improved its chances of doing the unexpected, but it has also tended to inhibit the movements of surface ships by creating a fear of the consequences if a submarine happened to be actually close at hand.
In WW I, at the Battle of Jutland, the fear that German U-boats were in the path of the main battle line of the British Grand Fleet, caused Admiral Jellicoe to order a course change away from the German High Seas Fleet. This saved Admiral Scheer’s forces from a costly defeat. In the reconstruction of this battle, it was evident that no German subs were in positions to attack the British battleships — had they stayed on course towards the German’s battle line. But the psychological effect of the U-boats’ possible presence during the battle was apparently enough to prevent a decisive action in this major sea battle.
The two best qualities of submarines in WW II, their ability to attack with surprise and the psychological effect they produced because of their ubiquitous quality, are so greatly improved by nuclear attack submarines as to produce a whole new dimension of “tactical surprise” by attack submarines. As might be observed, the improvements appear to be revolutionary in character. The nuclear sub can now move to an optimum position — in any possible underwater location within the oceans of the world where everywhere is a good hiding place to lie in wait for enemy targets. Significantly, the oceans comprise about 72J of the earth’s surface. So the vastness of the ocean areas make excellent hiding places which virtually assure surprise — if the opaqueness of the oceans is properly capitalized on. The nuclear sub’s great endurance and mobility not only permit this virtually absolute ambushing capability, but also ensure a credible ubiquitous effect in the total areas of the world’s oceans. It is not like the German surface raider which, during WW I operated in the Indian Ocean — the raider EMDEN. It seemed to threaten shipping in large areas of the ocean, causing a significant dislocation of merchant ship traffic. But, its ubiquitous quality developed only from the time it had sunk a merchant ship, when its position was broadcast along with the merchant ship’s SOS — until the raider’s location was once more determined by another engagement or a replenishment stop at some island in the Indian Ocean. There were then no aircraft to locate the EMDEN and she could easily remain clear of searching warships. And communications were poor.
How then, basically, has the nuclear attack submarine affected the element of tactical surprise? First, it has produced a capability to develop a deliberate and optimum ambush position for most of its attacks. (Recognize that a submarine moves covertly to an ambush position where it opens fire — unlike a party of concealed guerrillas that lie quietly and motionless in wait for an enemy force to come by.) Then, if using a stealthy weapon, which compliments its own platform stealth, it can catch an enemy totally unaware. Because of an enemy’s increasingly probable use of electronic counter-measures which have almost instant activation, it seems far more necessary than in the past to have weapons which in themselves create a high element of surprise -so as not to give the enemy a chance to effectively respond to the weapon’s attack. The attack submarine also retains the option of not having to make an attack from its ambush position, particularly if a more decisive action, later, is suggested by developments on the surface of the ocean. Delay in attack might be seen as being more profitable. Re-setting the ambush in some other location should then be readily feasible.
“Surprise,” for a nuclear submarine, is an inherent capability and can be exercised to a degree unmatched by any other type or naval system — other than, perhaps, the mine. But the mine tends to be a one-time thing, limited in area of threat and producing an unexpected result only on a first-target which encounters a minefield. Similarly, the mine is ubiquitous, but this quality is exerted over a considerably smaller area of the world’s oceans — the shallow water areas which comprise only a fraction of the 72J ocean areas cited earlier. With the advent of mines like Captor, the ocean areas of mine threat increase somewhat, but not significantly.
The racility to produce “surprise” gives the submarine the advantage or going into an attack with a minimum of uncertainty about how the attack is likely to develop. At the same time, the actions taken after the ambush is sprung, can be preplanned with a high probability or their being carried out. Moreover, the enemy is likely to be confused in his counteractions, tending to lose the timing necessary for his countermeasures to produce an effective response. Psychologically, the submariners involved in such a surprise attack do not tend to be resigned to their rate when going into action — as is the case in most military engagements. This is not a situation where individuals are likely to feel, fatalistically, that “this is it — come what may.” (“And the torpedoes be damned,” in the words or Admiral Farragut.) Although the feargenerating, adrenalin-pumping errect of going into an action where there are many unknowns has, at times, produced resounding success, it bas also, all too rrequently, caused mistakes and confusion as the attack was played out. But most importantly in such actions, the possibilities for achieving a decisive result have been left too much to chance. Thus, the submarine of the past has rarely been directly responsible for decisive naval action except in an incremental way over a long period of time. Yet today with the mobility and covertness of the submarine weapon system and with its support by a highly capable computeraided fire control system, a well planned attack can now produce decisive action with a high order of predictability of success. Lethal attacks and reattacks on a grouping of high value ships now become likely rather than remote. And the possibility of surprise massing of weapon power against key objectives by only one or a few submarines should become a fundamental strategy for the use of the nuclear attack submarine.
The high degree of an attack submarine’s capability to generate “tactical surprise” when combined with the principle of “massing” while using an “economy of force” against a clearly defined “objective” — is a high probability route to decisive naval action. Admiral Gorshkov, Head of the Soviet Navy, pictures this decisive use of submarines in a “first salvo” strategy. In effect, he sees a few widely-dispersed submarines making a coordinated surprise, massive missile attack against key elements of an enemy’s navy -with numerous high explosive weapons arriving at their targets near-simultaneously, causing enemy defenses to be overwhelmed and creating such havoc as to make mop-up operations with torpedoes possible. This then is expected to produce an overall decisive action. For many, this strategy is only considered to be wishful thinking since it is felt that the communications and coordination required are considered to be too difficult for submarines to employ practically. Yet with today’s excellent navigation systems aboard submarines as well as the capability to receive long-range, low-frequency radio broadcasts at considerable depths in the ocean, a commander, remote from the scene of action might effect this sort or strategy.
What might be inferred from this possible combining of the four principles of war in submarine attack situations, is that this capability for effecting total surprise should also be used with sufficient power to create decisive actions. The addition of big warhead missiles to the strike power of submarines and the addition of more launch tubes as well as bigger magazines for many weapons, are steps in the right direction to realize the power necessary for decisiveness in attack.
In anti-submarine warfare, with enemy submarines becoming more quiet and with a dependence on acoustics for locating the enemy, it becomes increasingly probable that disclosure of an enemy submarine might be so sudden and at such close range that the submarine with the noise advantage is likely to have only a few moments to assess the situation. The quieter sub should still be able to exert a measure of tactical surprise. But the attack can only be planned for in a doctrinal manner — with reaction to the enemy’s countering actions even more doctrineoriented in the tactics used and as produced by a computer. The more an ASW engagement tends to result in a melee, the less advantage is seemingly gained by using tactical surprise.
In summary, the nuclear attack submarine holds tactical advantages at sea — mainly through its capability to attack with surprise — that should be given more emphasis through the development of naval strategies which capitalize on the offensive potential for producing decisive results in sea warfare.