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“Melee” is defined as a confused, general hand-to-band fight, a rumble, a free-for-all. a dog fight, or a fire fight. Some tacticians and weapon system designers display little interest in the melee, since free-for-alls could be construed as tactical or technological failures. It is naive, however, to ignore the possibility of a melee in modern warfare. The history of conflict provides little basis for assuming that set-piece exchanges are more frequent or decisive than melees. Submarine warfare is not likely to provide the exception. New technology will not go uncountered in such a way as to permit our submarines to consistently detect, close, and attack an enemy submarine at secure ranges.

Naval weapon development in general, and submarine weapon development in particular, must address two, not necessarily complementary, conflict environments. The first to be considered is that of active military combat wherein the ability of the submarine to damage an opponent and survive is measured against the capabilities of the opponent. This environment will be understood by members of the Submarine League who served in World War II. The second conflict environment is characteristic of the post-World War II period; the ability of the submarine to fight and survive is measured not only against the abilities of the opponent, but also against the capabilities of other forces which compete for a share of the defense budget. This battleground lies in computer simulations; victories and defeats are judged in terms of cost effectiveness. While success in the battle for development and acquisition dollars is essential to sustain submarine force levels, the force should never lose sight of the realities of combat. Actual combat bas the nasty habit of uncovering weaknesses not identified in the structured deliberations of weapon system analysts and developers.

Nuclear submarines have faired well in the competition for development and acquisition dollars. Their fighting platforms have an acknowledged capacity to survive, relative to surface and air platforms. This attribute has allowed the submarine force to concentrate on the development of weapons which will burt the enemy rather than on weapons essential to self protection. The high point in this phase of development was the emergence of a new class of submarine, the Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarine. The nuclear attack submarine bas exploited this same avenue, but not without complications. During the early post World War II years, prior to the emergence of the Soviet Union as a balanced naval power, the attack submarine was designed with emphasis on ASW. In support of this specialization, the attack submarine became a twoweapon ship: the HK 48 torpedo and the SUBROC missile for a standoff capability. Since the MK 48 had an anti-ship capability, the anti-surface mission was preserved. With the new emphasis on anti-submarine warfare, weapon storage capacity, launch rate and fire power were deemphasized, a pattern which has been carried forward through the SSN 688 class and haunts the submarine today.

New weapon technologies have lead the attack submarine force to add to its offensive weapon inventory. This new dimension has been realized primarily through the development of the compact, submerged-launch, cruise missile. The HARPOON anti-ship missile and the TOMAHAWK anti-ship and land attack missiles have been added to the submarine weapon options. The new weapons create not only an opportunity for submarines, but also a substantial weapon traffic jam. The effective use of these weapons requires a reemphasis on fire power which the evolutionary fire control system, the HK 117, and ASW oriented storage/launcher system have difficulty supporting. Current U.S. attack submarine development efforts are concentrating on getting the attack submarine out of the firepower bind. This focus is antagonistic to serious consideration of survivability in combat. If one or more new weapons might be considered essential to platform survival in combat, they may be rejected simply because they would further aggravate the firepower bind. Yet it is not in the long term interest of submarines to discount new possibilities.

Continued emphasis on offensive weapons may be justified in those cases where the attacker is considerably less vulnerable than its targets. Our submarines have been in that position relative to shore targets, surface targets, and even submarine targets for several decades. Our ability to sustain a significant edge over opposing submarines is strictly dependent upon technology and tactics. An intelligent opponent, one that acknowledges an initial technical disadvantage, say in platform quieting, will utilize every trick available to neutralize the other’s advantage. Such an opponent is likely to work the problem backwards; for example, defeat the incoming weapon first, the supporting fire control system second, and then defeat the attacking platform.

The task of defeating an incoming weapon would also be worked backwards. In the case of an acoustic homing torpedo the logic would go as follows: defeat the warhead (tough hull), defeat the exploder, defeat the acoustic sensor (antireflective coatings), defeat the homing system (acoustic counter measures), defeat the delivery vehicle (speed and maneuver). Such measures may be effective singly or in combination. We should remember that during the early months of World War II many of our relatively unsophisticated torpedoes were self-defeating.

The technically disadvantaged opponent may also choose to operate two or more submarines in close tactical coordination. Such a measure was used by U.S. Navy fighters in actions against the Japanese Zero. Through such a step, the tactical options available to the disadvantaged players increase, while the options available to the initially advantaged player are decreased.

The objective of the disadvantaged player in working the attack problem backwards is to reduce combat to the level of a melee. When this goal appears to be gained, he will move on to select sensors and weapons that may be employed effectively within the melee environment. This logic parallels that of a street gang, typically composed of disadvantaged individuals. Such gangs thrive on rumbles and select their tactics and weapons accordingly. It should be noted that their weapons are simple, reliable, and close range. There are strong indications that our potential submarine opponent has addressed the submarine-versus-submarine combat problem in street gang fashion.

There is more than one route which would lead our submarines to engagement in a melee: the acoustic advantage enjoyed by one player might be wiped out by environmental anomalies; detection and counter-detection could take place within minutes at very short ranges; fast reaction would be required. Perhaps the most direct route to a submarine melee engagement lies in one of our “early generation” submarines meeting an opponent’s “later generation” submarine. In such a case, neither vessel might enjoy an initial detection advantage. The ultimate advantage should fall to that submarine which had best prepared to handle a melee action.

There is an urgent requirement to provide our submarines, existing and new construction, with capabilities which will permit our forces to terminate a melee action with a victory. Any pretense that the present MK 117 fire control system and the HK 48 torpedo are sufficient to meet this objective is absurd. While it has never been the intention of the submarine weapon system developer or the tactician to place our submarines in a disadvantaged position, it is time to face that possibility, so that an initial disadvantage is not reduced to a permanent disadvantage. Now is the time for a Tactical Defense Initiative, a parallel to the present Strategic Defense Initiative.

As potentially disadvantaged players, our attack submarines must begin to work the attack problem backwards. They must learn to thrive upon and win in a melee. Can we defeat the warhead or exploder carried by an inbound torpedo? Not likely with our present hull configurations. Can we reduce the effectiveness of its active acoustic homing system? Perhaps. We can undoubtedly do better. Can we maneuver to a position outside the attack envelope of the torpedo? Our own maneuvering envelope is constrained. Quickening our responses would help. Our basic tactical objective must be to survive the first weapon salvo and then move to deliver a fast, crippling attack on the opponents engaged in the melee. It is in support of this objective that a new melee weapon is required.

An acoustic homing torpedo should only be considered in melee actions as a measure of last resort. Suoh weapons are relatively slow, can be countermeasured, and may represent an equal threat to the launching submarine when used at close range with rapidly changing attack geometries.

Ideally, a melee weapon would have the properties of a gun; simply aim and fire, fire, fireĀ  . . . Fortunately, or unfortunately, underwater bullets, rockets, or lasers have a very limited range. The direct fire gun is not likely to serve as a useful option. An indirect fire scheme, however, might fulfill the melee function quite well. The indirect fire concept might utilize a short-range, SUBROC type rocket carrying a payload of distributed munitions. The munitions would be deployed in a pattern above the predicted position of the target submarine prior to water reentry. The technological key to this concept is a small munition capable of a vertical sink rate in excess of 100 knots to cripple the target submarine upon contact. The smaller the munition, the bigger the rocket’s numerical payload; the larger the attack pattern, the higher the probabilH.y of hit. The choice of indirect fire has the advantage that the vertically running munitions will always be presented with the maximum target, the full length and breadth of a horizontally running submarine. Such a weapon would have no problem with mutual interference and could not be counter measured.

One concept does not provide a solid foundation for a viable melee weapon system. There are many issues and trade-offs to be considered. For example, can current sensor and fire control technology provide an accurate target position in a melee environment? What is the trade-off between weapon range, munitions payload, and probability of crippling the target? In short, the hard work remains to be done. It is, however, important that we get on with it.

John Leonard

Naval Submarine League

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