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Submarine warfare today holds little resemblance to that experienced in the past two major wars of the twentieth century– i.e., World Wars I and II. This is startlingly evident when the impact of nuclear powered submarines and nuclear warhead weapons are added to the character of sea wars. In addition, present submarine technologies and submarine weapons along with the new technology for supporting activities — communications, navigation, airborne surveillance, command and control, etc. — have developed such radically improved efficiencies for submarine operations as to preclude any simple comparisons with past sub-marine strategies and tactics in conflicts.

The use of conventional submarines in war today, as carried out by the diesel electrios differs from that experienced in World War II in considerable ways. Present conventional submarines can use far higher speed submerged, can stay fully submerged for many days, can operate very quietly for prolonged periods of time and can use long range “smart” weapons (both cruise missiles and torpedoes) to make accurate attacks on both surface ships and submarines.

On  the other band,nuclear submarines, whether strategic submarines (SSBNs) or attack submarines (which now encompass both SSNs and SSGNs, since all can now utilize guided missiles and should be classified under the one designation or SSN) have created a revolution in submarine warfare. Nuclear strategic submarines have produced a new role for submarines — that or projecting a tremendous magnitude or weapon power from the seas against objectives in the enemy’s homeland. While at the same time, nuclear attack submarines have achieved a uniquely high potential for effective submarine operations — which should make them the dominant force in sea warfare. At the same time, nuclear submarines have caused antisubmarine operations to be a primary mission with very quiet nuclears independently fighting noisy nuclears and the noisy nuclears combating the quiet ones by using coordinated operations with surface, air and other supporting units.

In general, even the smallest navies with a few conventional submarines now have a strike capability that can destroy the warships or a greater naval power — while avoiding air antisubmarine efforts by remaining covertly submerged. They can thus effectively gain a degree or sea control over a limited area or the oceans for a short period or time — sufficient to carry out limited missions. Such conventional submarines as well as the large sophisticated ones of major navies relying on passive acoustics tor detecting enemy ships can conduct covert operations until a surprise attack is consummated. However, with ships becoming significantly quieter, the use of active sonar for fire control can be expected in some tactical situations. Additionally, reliance on external sources for targeting information is increasingly employed.

Fortunately, since World War II there have been several examples of submarine operations which illuminate the character or the submarine warfare which might be seen today.

The sinking of the Argentine cruiser GENERAL BELGRANO by the British nuclear submarine CONQUEROR — using pre-WW II Hk VIII torpedoes — in the Falkland Islands War of 1982, demonstrated new dimension   to sea warfare  created   by   the advent of the nuclear powered submarine.Though the GENERAL BELGRANO was well escorted by two destroyers and was about to exit an exclusion zone, the CONQUEROR was able with the assistance of external targeting sources to rapidly close the Argentine warships and carry out a surprise, optimum-positioned attack with three torpedoes which sank the BELGRANO.The great mobility and covertness of the nuclear submarine in a sea war and its capability to capitalize quickly on a suddenly disclosed opportunity while starting at a considerable distance from its target, showed totally new submarine capabilities for antisurface-ship engagements. Earlier, the five British nuclear submarines which were in the Falkland Islands war-area at virtually the commencement of the conflict, had arrived undetected by the Argentines from North Atlantic stations over 6,000 miles away. This demonstration of the great high-speed submerged endurance of nuclear submarines and their ability to quickly respond to very distant war objectives, not only established the practicality of submarine warfare on a world-wide basis but also established the ubiquitous threat of submarines early in a conflict. The third of these sparse examples of submarines in war were the unsuccessful attacks by the Argentine diesel-electric type 209 submarine against British warships off the Falkland Islands. They illustrated two important points for today’s sea war-fare, i.e., that diesel-electric submarines with their improved quiet submerged endurance can ubiquitously make a large force of enemy surface and air ASW units expend an inordinate amount of ordnance on false contacts. This showed the con-tinued viability of the conventional submarine in war despite the great advances made in ASW technology since WV1 II.

There have also been peacetime submarine activities which resemble wartime operations and give a good indication of how submarine special operations should fit into actual conflict. The strategic submarine deterrence patrols are in ocean areas where their ballistic missiles can threaten an enemy’s homeland and their present mode of operations are likely to be duplicated in war. Similarly, the continuing forward-area intelligence gathering submarine patrols reveal the way this mission can be conducted in wartime. Finally, the considerable activity of midget sub-marines in Swedish territorial waters during this decade presage an increased activity of minisubmarines in conflicts.

There are, today, 955 submarines (not including the small midget submarines) in the fleets of   or more countries  —  over  60%  of which  are  nonnuclears. But all submarines should play a dominant role in conflicts between the major powers of the world as well as between third power countries. Significantly, the largest submarine fleet worldwide, that of the Soviets — with more than one third of all the submarines in the world — is structured on the premise that submarines are the first line warships of today’s navies, with ballistic missile submarines felt to be the controlling factor in favorably influencing the outcome of major land wars.


Strategic nuclear-armed submarines provide the major threat to an enemy and the antisubmarine warfare efforts against them — best carried out by attack submarines –comprise a new kind of submarine warfare, strategic ASW. This involves two widely differing modes of strategic submarine operations. On the one hand, the Allies strategic submarines (including SSNs with very long range nuclear-armed cruise missiles) will operate independently in the vast reaches of the oceans, depending on their great covertness and external sources intelligence to minimize enemy strategic ASW efforts. With launches of less than a full load of strategic missiles likely, and their detection as these rise above the sea expected, the firing of a half salvo in only a few minutes plus high speed evasion should take an SSBN clear of the firing area before an effective counter attack by an enemy can be realized.

On the other hand, the Soviet’s force of noisier strategic submarines (particularly their SSBNs) are expected to be operated in “bastions” close to the Soviet homeland. The more than 4000 n.mi. range of their ballistic missiles permit Soviet submarines to effectively target strategic objectives within the United States from these havens. The protection of Soviet SSBNs which operate in close to home bastions, is provided by first an escort from their bases, of warships using active sonar. Then a perimeter of ASW defense around the bastions is likely, consisting of diesel-electric submarines, mines, ocean-bed detection systems, ASW aircraft and possibly ASW warships — making · it difficult for an enemy attack submarine to penetrate into the bastion plus the probability that such havens might be on the edge of the polar ice cap or even under it. Finally, — if the bastion was penetrated by an enemy antisubmarine unit, it would find the strategic submarine closely supported by an attack submarine, with both operating at quiet low speeds.

This elaborate protection of strategic submarines is consistent with the priorities set by the Soviets for their naval forces. Of first priority is the assurance of carrying out the strategic nuclear-weapon mission. Of next priority is the ensuring of the survival — during all levels of sea warfare from conventional war to all-out nuclear war — of the Soviet strategic submarines.

Strategic ASW is not considered to be destabilizing, causing an escalation to strategic nuclear war. Nor is it believed that such ASW actions promise much success for either side in a big war. The inherent survivability or u.s. strategic submarines due to their undetectability by acoustic or non-acoustic enemy sensors should result in few losses over a long period of war — even if nuclear weapons are being used at sea. Similarly, the heavy protection accorded the Soviet strategic submarines should make their attrition very costly for enemy SSNs. However, strategic ASW frees all submarines from the constraint of having to identify enemy submarines before an attack. It also reduces the black-mailing threat which such a force-in-being exerts over an enemy and offers some degree of damage limiting. But still, the cost of a major offensive against the enemy’s strategic submarines appears to be high for what may be gained.

SSNs carrying 1600-mile nuclear-tipped land attack cruise missiles must also be considered as a part of strategic submarine warfare. Although the range or such missiles limit enemy strategic objectives to mainly coastal areas — naval bases, port installations, airfields etc. — their destruction is useful both to aid in ensuring control of the seas as well as to deter the escalation of war to massive strategic nuclear exchange.


The latent capability of nuclear attack submarines for winning battles at sea — against even the strongest combination of warships — needs only a major conflict to prove itself. The covert, highly maneuverable nuclear submarine, using long-range, large-warhead, programmed missiles and torpedoes with accurate terminal homing, can use ~ offensive to attack with a maximum element of surprise, with weapons which can maneuver in their trajectories to provide a concentration ~ force on a well-defended clearly defined objective — a target or group or targets. (The underlined words comprise the well agreed upon “principles of war”, which nuclear submarines enjoy with a high level of competence.) Additional “principles of war” are embodied in the nuclear submarine’s capability to control the temo of operations, to ~ the battle efforts of group of submarines without having to be in close proximity to each other, to use a calculable level of weapon power to accomplish a mission with an economy ~ force while producing a bonus shook or disorienting effect on enemy defenses — under all-weather conditions.And, with a high likelihood of achieving decisive results in naval engagements.

Today  the  “offensive”  is greatly favored  over a strong defense for winning battles. Taking the offensive along with the surprise which modern nuclear submarines can generate promises the gaining of attack positions against merchant ships, warships and submarines without alerting their targets until shortly before weapon arrival. SSNs can also be massed for a surprise attack on a grouping of targets — a unique new quality in sea warfare.

Additionally, in using long range “smart” weapons, SSNs have little need to “maneuver” to produce a concentration of weapon power against enemy ships. Their programmed weapons supply the tactical element of “maneuver” for effective penetration of enemy defenses. (SSBNs emphasize maneuver of their MIRVs — rather than platform maneuver– for mission success).

The great “concentration of force” achievable by several nuclear submarines acting in concert, provides a new level of destruction never contemplated for sea battles. This concentrating of weapon force may also be seen in coordinated submerged wolfpacks of submarines using long-range “smart” torpedoes.

Consider the “shock effect” produced by nuclear submarine attacks. A battle group or other grouping of ships, if hit by a considerable number or missiles or torpedoes over a short period or time, are likely to have their defenses disintegrate and their command element disoriented.Effective mop-up operations are then likely to follow, producing a level of decisive action never before experienced in sea wars.

A new kind of submarine warfare evolves from nuclear submarines (and possibly long-submerged endurance conventionals) being able to fight under the ice. Strategic submarines operating under the ice cap and underwater transits from the Pacific and Atlantic, including moves from Soviet Arctic bases over to the Pacific will be subject to submarine attacks. Submarines have shown the capability to maneuver under the dangerous downward projecting ice ridges and have proved the operability of torpedoes under the ice. Hence, submarine warfare in this environment is a reality with new strategies probably involving the use of mines expected for fighting this type of war.


Conventional submarines (excluding the mid-gets) comprising nearly two thirds of the total submarines in the world’s navies, have considerable submerged mobility. Still, technological advances in acoustic and non-acoustic detection systems, greatly limit the conventional submarine’s usefulness in major sea wars. They are useful in barriers where patrol area coverage need not be great, in shallow waters where coastal features limit their target’s freedom of movement and in areas close to forward bases where their transits to station are of short duration. Their long-range, terminal-homing weapons (cruise missiles and torpedoes) and their increased submerged endurance make them far more effective than WW II submarines in attacks against merchant convoys, independent ships and enemy submarines. Their quietness may even cause nuclear submarines to blunder into a conventional’s field of fire.

The appearance of short-range anti-air missiles on the bridges of conventional submarines presage a capability to drive ASW aircraft away from close-in attacks.

Conventional submarines are expected to be used extensively in the mining of· ocean areas. Laying mines in restricted passages which enemy submarines may transit, and mining of shallow waters and entrances to overseas ports just ahead of large movements of ships in or out of a port — to counter minesweeping efforts — are an effec-tive use of today’s conventional submarines. Additionally, their attacks on ships in port areas with standoff cruise missiles adds a new dimension to the threat they pose in sea warfare.

Of first importance for today’s conventional submarines is their utilization in third power conflicts. As evidenced by the Argentine 209 1 s experience with British ASW forces, the conventional submarine continues to have a distinct advantage over today’s technologically improved surface and air ASW forces. Hence, in third power wars of revolution, civil war, etc., conventional submarines are likely to be used in interdiction of enemy shipping and enemy warships, along with mining of enemy port areas. And, because of the clandestine nature of submarine warfare, it is likely that the submarines of other navies which have an interest in the outcome of such a war may be covertly interjected into the conflict –remaining unidentified, as were the foreign submarines which were used in the Spanish Civil War in 1936.

Midget (or mini-submarine) operations are being emphasized — at least by the Soviets — who are using them for underwater delivery or Spetznaz teams (teams used for sabotage, destruction of shore facilities, intelligence gathering, etc.) to enemy coasts. Navies have developed means for delivery by their big submarines or mini-subs to shallow water areas. Accurate navigation in these midgets allows them to move efficiently to their target areas and carry out missions which in the past have been fraught with great uncertainty and high risk.

There are additional submarine activities which should play important roles in submarine warfare. First is surveillance. Submarines will collect information on potential enemy targets for other submarines and fleet units. They will do beach reconnaissance for amphibious operations. And they will be active in covert intelligence gathering missions. Submarines   will  also be active in electronic warfare, using their elec-ronic equipment to: jam enemy radio transmissions; input spurious information into an enemy’s communications; countermeasure enemy weapons in their trajectories; provide false targets; etc . .  This form or submarine warfare may possibly become more intense and important than other better recognized submarine activities. Making an enemy uncertain of his communications to his strategic submarines, for example, may be or critical importance to political decisions involving escalation to nuclear war. Similarly, the use or submarines in anti-satellite warfare any appear in near-term wars. Control of sea areas where satellites can be destroyed at launch or in their initial pass around the earth may become a nuclear submarine mission.

The potential or submarines  in sea wars  seems only partially recognized. After the start or a conflict, however, there should be an expanded and dominating use of submarines — much as with the aircraft carriers in World War II.

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