Between the world wars arms control treaties contained clauses restricting the use of the submarine against merchant vessels. In the Atlantic. the revolutionary submarine was expected to play at best an auxiliary role in the grand actions between battle fleets.
In the Pacific, the U.S. faced a different set of circumstances, and as early as the end of the First World War, submariners pushed for a submarine built to meet them.
The Navy committed itself to producing such a submarine. But not until the mid-1930s did a submarine capable of the performance the developers had in mind actually put to sea.
By 1919 the attention of naval officers in Washington had turned to the Pacific, where they expected sooner or later to be required to defend American interests against a military challenge from a restless and ambitious Japan. Captain Thomas C. Hart, head of the Navy’s newly created Submarine Section, argued that in the event of a Pacific war, “the submarine will be an extremely valuable weapon for . . . . operations against Japanese commerce. There is no quicker or more effective method of defeating Japan than the cutting of her sea communications.”
But in 1919, u.s. submarines could not have performed such a mission. The American submarines of the First World War — small, cramped and unseaworthy — bad barely been up to operating in the narrow seas around England. The postwar s-class submarine marked something of an improve-ment, but it was slow, limited in range, and alarmingly susceptible to accidents.
Indeed, an expedition meant to demonstrate the utility of the submarine in the defense of the Philippines wound up exposing the inadequacies of the Navy’s most advanced operational vessel. On 31 May, 1921, Captain Hart put to sea from New London,Connecticut in the submarine tender BEAVER, bound for Manila in the company of 10 S-boats, a voyage he had proposed as chief of the Submarine Section 18 months earlier.Struggling after the BEAVER in a manner of ducklings pursuing their mother, strung out for a hundred miles on the surface of the sea in which no enemy lurked, bedeviled by frequent breakdowns, the 8-boats barely passed a test far less severe than what they could expect to meet in wartime. Hart’s voyage made clear that any submarine capable of finding employment in the Western Pacific had first to be capable of getting there.
Since before the First World War, younger submarine officers had urged the building of a fleet submarine — a powerfully armed boat of great range, excellent seakeeping qualities and fast enough to act in concert with the battleship squadrons that composed the main striking power of the fleet. As Lieutenant Chester w.Nimitz had confidently predicted in a 1912 article: “The steady development of the torpedo together with the gradual improvement in the size, motive power, and speed of submarine craft of the near future will result in a most dangerous offensive weapon, and one which will have a large part in deciding fleet actions.”
The fleet submarine had been conceived with Atlantic operations in mind. But in 1920 the Navy’s Director of Plans advised the Chief of Naval Operations that “the design of our (submarine) craft should be such as to meet the conditions that will exist in a Pacific campaign.”
The vast expanse of an ocean nearly empty of repair facilities demanded that an American submarine be designed with an eye to self- sufficiency . Japanese control of the Western Pacific would in all likelihood preclude an early challenge from the U.S. fleet. But a submarine capable of operating alone would have a good chance of eluding enemy naval forces and bringing the war to Japan’s home waters. Such a weapon, a young submariner explained to the General Board, would be “able to lie off the enemy’s ports and sink what shipping we could . . . . whether merchantmen or men-of-war.” Indeed, the War Plans Division already envisaged for the submarine a vital strategic role in the event of a war with Japan. “Such an economic blockade,” its 1920 memorandum concluded, echoing Hart’s views, “would probably be the only way in which we could exert decisive pressure upon the enemy . . .”
A speed of at least 21 knots on the surface had been regarded as the essential requirement of a genuine “fleet” submarine. But independent operations in the Pacific would require such qualities as long cruising radius,ruggedly designed machinery, ample stowage for ammunition and supplies, and habitability;but speed would need to be sacrificed to get them.Reducing the rate at which a submarine burned fuel, for instance, would increase its cruising radius. In fact, an ability to cover the great distances of the Pacific mattered less than an ability to keep the sea for long stretches of time.(In terms of fuel consumption, these qualities amounted to the same thing). Forhe longer a submarine kept station near an enemy’s lines of communication, the more likely it was to encounter targets of opportunity in the shape of enemy merchant vessels.
How fast did the submarine in question need to be? According to experts in the Bureau of Steam Engineering, it required only “sufficient speed to overhaul the average merchantman or to escape from a heavily armed naval auxiliary.” Sixteen to 18 knots, instead of the suggested fleet submarine’s 21, were enough.
Trading three knots in favor of other qualities had immensely important implications. Conceived as an auxiliary to the battleship, the fast fleet submarine conformed to the ideas of Alfred Thayer Mahan, the strenuous advocate of concentrating force with a view to decisive engagement with the enemy fleet. Submarines made self-sufficient at the expense of speed, however, could be pressed into service of an entirely different strategy; the dispersal of force, characteristic of commerce-raiding, the “guerra de course” that Mahan had disdained.
A submarine capable of operating against Japanese seaborne commerce in the manner that submariners prescribed, remained a submarine of the imagination well into the 1930s. Important technological problems had to be resolved before such a vessel actually put to sea. Resolving these problems was complicated when the General Board recommended in 1921 that the development of naval aviation, a far more glamorous and open pursuit than the secret and furtive-seeming work of the submariners, be given priority over the submarine. And in a navy that continued to be dominated by battleship sailors, whatever the pretensions of aviators, guerre de course exerted considerably less appeal than the grand fleet actions dear to Mahan. Finally, national policy came to exclude the strategy advanced by Hart and other students of a Pacific war from the uses submarines could be put to.
The 1921 Washington Naval Conference had consequences that seemed to enhance the potential strategic value to the United States of conducting restricted submarine warfare in a Pacific campaign. The United States and Great Britain agreed not to improve the fortifications of their naval bases in the Western Pacific. As none of the American bases in the Philippine Islands, Guam or the Aleutians were adequately fortified, Japan’s position in the Pacific region was greatly strengthened. The threat of an early American fleet intervention in the event of war with Japan was virtually removed. For all its firepower and mobility, the battle fleet at sea required massive logistical support from the shore, from bases relatively close at hand. But after 1922 the one major fortified naval base allowed the United States in the Pacific was Pearl Harbor, ~.850 miles from Manila and 3,~00 miles from Tokyo Bay.
But the long-range submarine was meant to be free both of such impediments as encumbered the movements of the fleet and the circumstances that, in the wake of the Washington Conference, vastly complicated the making of war plans. Free of dependence on heavily fortified naval bases, able to avoid detection in enemy-controlled waters, the long-range submarine would be able, without delay, to take the war to Japan.
Designers and builders of warships have not always paid much heed to the opinions of the men who sail and fight them. Between the wars, however, submarine officers themselves exerted a considerable influence on the design and construction of the fleet submarine. That the most experienced submarine officers continued after 1922 to advocate building a long-range submarine does not mean that they set out deliberately to build a weapon incompatible with the rules or submarine warfare, or to circumvent the war plans or their own navy, which conformed to these same rules. Such considerations as naval professionalism, the challenge of problem-solving and a concern for their own safety, were all more likely to have influenced the submariners’ recommendations on submarine design than an urge to meddle in policymaking.
The first of the new submarines completed sea trials and joined a Navy still committed to War Plan Orange as its strategy for war in the pacific. A 1934 memorandum on implementing the Plan instructed the Blue .(U.S.) commander in chief “to operate submarines in accordance with the same international laws as are applicable to surface vessels.” Submarines were to act in support of fleet operations, especially against larger enemy warships, to watch the harbors of the Japanese Mandated Islands in order to be able to report enemy fleet movements, and to defend Pearl Harbor duties that all appeared to conform to the rules on submarine warfare. The 1936 version of Plan Orange continued to prescribe for submarines the roles of watching enemy harbors, operating against the enemy fleet, and defending Pearl Harbor.The submarine force carried out these missions in tactical exercises with the fleet.
By 1939 the Navy was able to put to sea essentially the submarine that most submariners had advocated since 1919. “The radical increase in performance characteristics built into submarines now reporting to the Fleet,” Rear Admiral H. G. Bowen, chief or the Bureau of Engineering, assured the CNO in January, 1939, “represents an advance over anything previously attempted That these vessels have successfully passed trials and performed long shakedown cruises without serious derangement is a tribute to the inherent correctness of their design.” Such submarines were easily capable of mastering the conditions that bad nearly defeated Hart’s arduous expedition of 1921.
This history of submarine development between the world wars suggests that when the authorities find in their hands a weapon system that promises to make the waging of war more efficient, they will use it accordingly.[ This article was digested from Professor John E. Talbott’s prize-winning historical article, Weapons Development. War Planning and Policy; The U.S. Navy and the Submarine. 1917-1941 in the Naval War College Review, May-June, 1984. ]