The answer to the title question is, “yes, the modern nuclear attack submarine is a very effective . . . . . perhaps the quintessential weapon of maneuver warfare”. We submariners should think this statement through, to decide what it means to our warfare strategy.
First of course, we should agree upon the meaning of maneuver warfare. It is the “high speed tiptoe”, or “winning without fighting.” It is the strategy or tactic that avoids a frontal assault, or direct contact in favor of an indirect end-around to strike unexpectedly at an enemy’s vital point, looking for a mortal blow. Maneuver warfare surprises an enemy, upsetting his plan of attack and confusing his tactical picture, frightening him and robbing him of his will to win.
The German blitzkrieg campaigns of WW II were maneuver actions: rapid panzer thrusts that struck deep into the enemy’s rear, eating up miles and nibbling at the enemy’s confidence, living on captured gasoline and on the brilliance and nerve of the commander. This fluid, dangerous strategy cut through Poland, the Lowlands, and France in days, and handed Europe to Hitler.
When one thinks of maneuver one thinks of generals like Robert E. Lee, Erwin Rommel, and Douglas MacArthur.
Maneuver’s opposite is attrition warfare: toe-to-toe, slug it out frontal assault. The guy with the stronger, more numerous forces, or the stronger will, wins. U.S. Grant was an attrition general. Secure behind overwhelming numbers, equipment, and indu~trial capacity, he plodded through. Lee could win the battles; Grant won the war.
Maneuver takes a mobile force, independent command, a simple plan, and nerve. Attrition takes superior numbers and the ability to accept considerable losses.
History is instructive: attrition is easier therefore much more common — but maneuver almost always wins. The military writer Liddell Hart studied 260 campaigns in 30 wars and found that 254 were won by maneuver tactics.
A comparison of u.s. and Soviet navies is even more instructive. Our ships especially our nuclear subs — are superior, very mobile, and capabl e of extended blue water operations. Our commanders are independent as well: ready to sail in harm’s way with as little help from headquarters as possible. We are maneuver oriented by temperament, tradition, and design. The Russians, on the other hand, are apparently an attrition navy. Their fleet still emphasizes quantity over quality. Thei1• tactics stress coordinated missile strikes and saturation of defenses — attrition tactics. And their sailors and leaders are not encourage~ to be independent in action.
So if maneuver tends to always win and we can do it, and the Russians can’t, how can we insure that our war at sea is a maneuver war?
Various types o~ naval war~are may be separated into “maneuver” and “attrition.” Carrier battle group strategy is maneuver: avoid an enemy at sea and strike — at sea or ashore -a surprised and poorly de~ended target. Carrier air de~ense is, on the other hand, attrition: killing enough enemy planes and missiles ~ar enough away to protect the carrier’s deck. Convoy war~are is attrition. Amphibious assault is both: maneuver while moving to the — hopefully -unknowing and unprepared beachhead, and attrition once the ~irst troops step ashore and the ~leet becomes tied to the support across the beach. And so on.
Here’s the problem. ASW is mostly an attrition game: how many P3 ~light hours, sonobuoys, depth charges, false contacts, ~laming data, etc. equal one submarine kill? But the SSN — the best ASW weapon — is a maneuver plat~orm. She is fast, covert, independent, and lethal. She can roam, independent of resupply and on minimum communications, for months. Her skipper can avoid battle and position himself almost at will, choosing the time and place of attack. And submarine skippers are maneuver commanders by nature and tradition . . . . happiest when free of direct control.
Yet, we “maneuver” submariners tend to be bent to the attrition – ASW mold — expressing our trade in terms of exchange ratios, or how many days (weeks? months?) to sanitize an area. (A maneuver ~orce can o~ course be reduced to an attrition role. We proved that with such dismal results in VietNam.)
The solution? We — and no one else will do it — should redefine our Navy submarine role. To the extent that we can fight a maneuver war, we will punish the Soviets. To the extent that we are forced into attrition, we will tend to lose significant numbers of submarines.
Examples of submarine attrition warrare:
- The SSN in direct support of the battle group. Though the SSN will be effective; she would be much more effective elsewhere. Happily, this role seems to be going away as towed array surface ships prove capable.
- The SSN in barrier or in open ocean search is tied to the exchange ratio numbers inherent to attrition. Each U.S. sub will probably shoot more Soviet subs. but the Soviets have more subs. We have better fish to fry.
If these “traditional” submarine roles are not appropriate, what are the correct maneuver roles? They are:
- Forward Area Operations. Submarine operations forward — in the Soviet front yard -is good maneuver strategy. Our enemy is most vulnerable there. We can work on his pathological concern for the defense of his homeland and his fear of the loss of his SSBNs. If the geography is chosen carefully, we can range at will, picking our targets and our exits. Meanwhile Ivan is driven into holding much, or most, of his navy in reserve to meet this threat.
- Presence When “presence” is discussed, one thinks first of aircraft carriers and battleships. These have proved their value over the past 40 years . . . but we haven’t fought a sea war in those 40 years. The only navy that has -England’s in the Falklands — used the “presence” of her nuclear submarines to undermine Argentina’s will to fight . . . which we assumed is the ultimate goal of maneuver, earlier in this artjcle. England used a few SSNs (four? three? none?), to establish a maritime blockade of the Falklands at the war’s start. It worked. Argentina ~topped resupplying her army in the Falklands by sea. After her cruiser GENERAL BELGRANO was sunk by submarine torpedoes, Argentina tied her ships up. The Argentine Navy was neutralized by British submarines.
Our Submarine Force can do the same. The Russian Navy is more powerful but just as susceptible to a submarine threat. Submarine “presence” is more effective than a surface ship’s because the submarine can be anywhere ubiquitously. An enemy must expend enormous effort to cover all of his flanks. Witness the American ASW effort off the East Coast in World War II.
Add to this SSN “presence”, the TOMAHAWK missile. The submarine can now elude enemy defenses and shoot not only at submarine and surface ship targets, but at targets ashore. Admiral Bob Foley, recent CINCPACFLT ~ an aviator, correctly characterized the TOMAHAWKequipped SSN as tomorrow’s aircraft carrier. SSNs can launch TOMAHAWKs at an enemy’s homeland targets virtually at will. Two or more SSNs can concentrate this kind of force. A submarine’s TOMAHAWKs can neutralize air defenses for followon carrier air attacks. Submarine launched TOMAHAWKs can create a diversion far from the main point of attack.
Look at the words of the preceding paragraph. Diversion… concentration of force . . . evasion of defenses… these are all characteristics of maneuver. The SSN, especially with TOMAHAWKs aboard, has them all, if we will but wake up to it. The task remaining — begging, really — to the submarine community is to think this strategy and tactic through, and then to articulate it clearly to the nation. The results will follow.
CAPT Tom Jacobs, USN