Does the title of this article make any sense? Have new technologies such as: nuclear power in submarines; nuclear warheads; “smart” long range missilery; satellite surveillance, navigation, and communications; computers; and other sophisticated electronics, actually thrust nuclear submarines into the preeminent position of being the “battleships” — the capital ships — of their modern navies?
The answer is “Yes, nuclear submarines are truly today’s capital ships, both in a traditional sense and in the role that they should play in present sea wars.” Like the capital ships of the past – the ships-of-the-line of Nelson’s day, the dreadnoughts of World War I, and the aircraft carriers of World War II — nuclear submarines project far greater firepower to far longer ranges than any other naval units including aircraft carriers with their sea based aircraft. They have the survivable toughness of “battleships.” And they can deliver their weapons on-target against the concerted efforts of an enemy. But perhaps of first importance in establishing the nuclear submarines’ dominance in modem naval warfare is their very good control of the tempo of operations at sea. This ensures that their attacks — initiated invariably with surprise — will produce a new high-degree of attack effectiveness against the enemy. Moreover, under certain circumstances, they should achieve decisiveness in battle in a relatively short period of time — similar to the outcomes at Trafalgar, Midway and Pearl Harbor.
Unfortunately, some of the generalities described above are not evident, nor are they easy to comprehend. Hence, there is a need for further explanations.
The Capital Ships of Strategic Nuclear War
Nuclear submarines carrying long range nuclear ballistic missiles — SSBNs – are generally accepted as today’s “battleships” for strategic nuclear war. The nuclear weapon power they can project against virtually all of an enemy homeland’s assets is measured in megatons — a million times the explosive force of World War II conventional bombs. Moreover, the ranges of this projected power approximate ten times that of carrier based aircraft and at least 250 times that of a battleship’s 16-inch guns.
Importantly, SSBNs are extremely survivable, particularly up to the time of their firing of SLBMs. Then, with missile speeds of over 7 mach and with their payload splitting into multiple, independently maneuvering reentry vehicles — in their terminal phase of flight, and carrying individual nuclear warheads of fractional megaton weapon power — their arrival on target is well assured even if nuclear war is in progress. It should be noted that nuclear submarines are least affected in their operations by the environment of a nucJear war – their electronics are little exposed to EMP effects, the radius of destruction of nuclear bursts is less for underseas vessels, and submarine communications of very low frequencies are likely to remain usable. Hence, the superpowers opted in 1981 for an anti-ballistic missile treaty which eliminated a defense against such a weapon system.
So assured has been the potential for vast destruction of an enemy’s homeland population and war-making activities by a fleet of SSBNs — even the relatively small SSBN fleets of France and Great Britain — that a World War III has been successfully deterred for nearly half a century. Though only a part of a Triad of U.S. strategic nuclear weapon delivery systems, because of their stealth and precise control of their tempo of operations at sea, U.S. SSBNs provide a political leverage unmatched by the ICBMs and B-52s of the Triad. Significantly, SSBNs are not affected by the use-them-or-losethem consideration. This alone has placed this form of maritime power in the forefront of national security. A carefully timed, measured response by SSBNs to enemy nuclear weapon initiatives is a truly valuable political option, since such a response allows for political dialogue between warring countries prior to counter-action being taken. For example, if a single nuclear ballistic missile was inadvertently fired at the U.S., with ready U.S. SSBNs at sea there would be no need for the U.S. to quickly unleash a massive ballistic missile response on the assumption that a nuclear war had commenced. Thus, if the enemy admitted their error, an unpressured and clearly defined token, fitting response could be used by the U.S. which would not tend to force an escalation to war and particularly to nuclear war.
If SSBNs were conserved as a fleet-in-being during a conventional war, the SSBNs continuing threat of colossal destruction if their weapons were fired, provides a blackmailing threat for concluding a conflict on favorable terms. SSBNs are also a viable threat for preventing escalation of a major war to a level of conflict where nuclear weapons might be brought into use by an antagonist, to compensate for a radical imbalance in sea power caused by loss of a decisive battle at sea.
Note that, as of now, it is the mere presence of these modem underseas “battleships” — the SSBNs — which amplify the political advantages stemming from a nation having dominant maritime power.
The Capital Ships of Theater Nuclear War
With the introduction of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles into attack submarines, it would appear that attack nuclear submarines — designated SSGNs — might be classed as the capital ships, the battleships, of their navies for theater nuclear war. Then, with the arming of attack submarines with nuclear land attack cruise missiles, launchable from standard size torpedo tubes, practically any submarine, diesel-electrics included, could now possess a viable shore bombardment capability which exceeded in range that of attack carrier aircraft.
Submarine launched cruise missiles with nuclear warheads, for example, the Soviet’s SS-N-21 and the U.S. TOMAHAWK, have attack ranges of 1500 miles or more and can be launched covertly from a submarine close to an enemy’s coast to destroy major theater targets far inland. But to effectively carry out a nuclear land attack mission against the shore objectives of a major power requires the use of nuclear submarines. Their attack flexibility plus their good control of the tempo of operations ensures that deep inland theater targets can be hit with surprise and at a time when the enemy is most susceptible to nuclear weapon destruction. This means targets such as airfields loaded with grounded aircraft, massed troops being held in reserve, congested railroad yards, communication centers in operation, exposed shipbuilding yards, harbors filled with ships, etc. Significantly, conventional submarines operating in a sea area like the Baltic Sea could play a similar “battleship” role against the shore targets of their enemy. By comparison, carrier aircraft would necessarily be launched at greater distances offshore, with little surprise, and would be able to attack critical enemy theater targets at only about half the distance inland, while their carriers should have a low probability of survival in the nuclear war environment. Battleships like the WISCONSIN when configured with several dozen nuclear land-attack cruise missiles might be thought of as capital ships for theater nuclear war. But their questionable survivability in the nuclear environment, lack of surprise and control of the tempo of operations seriously degrade them as capital ships.
Most importantly, like the tough survivable battleships of old, the nuclear submarine armed with cruise missiles can function offensively in nuclear war with little degradation of its weapons while enjoying a marked decrease in enemy ASW efforts. The shock effects caused by nuclear explosions on the men who man units in a nuclear battle, is almost impossible to evaluate. But it is safe to say that the submariner, who is far less exposed to blast, radiation and the heat of nuclear bursts is likely to function more efficiently than the man who is on the surface of the oceans or operating in the air above the seas. Hence it is also possible to postulate that in fleetagainst-fleet engagements in nuclear war, the SSN, even if armed only with conventional weapons, would play the role of the battleship against the enemy’s fleet. The impairment of battle group defenses from the effects of only a single nuclear weapon-burst close to a major unit of the battle group, or an exoatmosphere nuclear burst’s effect on the entire defensive alignment of the surface fleet should give the SSN considerable attack advantages which could lead to decisive results — of the sort indicated by Mahan for gaining control of the seas for a short period of time.
A Capital Ship for Fleet Engagements in Non-Nuclear Sea Wars
The “battleships’ of the past have been designed to provide the conventional fire power and battle toughness to win fleet actions. In Nelson’s day, his capital ships — the so called ships-of-the-line — focussed on destroying the enemy’s flag ships, their major capital ships. In World War I, British battleships at Jutland maneuvered to pour their gunfire on the heavy ships of the Germans. In World War II, U.S. aircraft carriers sought to destroy the opposing Japanese carriers hundreds of miles away. Today, , because of the advent of nuclear submarines armed with long range anti-ship missiles, a fleet-against-fleet action has a battlefield several times greater than that for carrier engagements, due to the 36()0 nature of a missile attack by several nuclear submarines firing from diverse positions. Carrier aircraft, on the other hand, have attacked an enemy fleet down relatively narrow threat corridors.
The Soviet Navy is structured around its nuclear submarines and will definitely use them as their “battleshipslt for a fleet engagement. In Soviet terms this involves “the concentration of weapons from a relatively modest number of platforms (nuclear submarines) for a single massive missile-strike action against the enemy, the platforms dispersed over a considerable area.”
Thus it is safe to assume that a fleet action between the Soviets and the U.S. would pit a U.S. battle group (with nuclear submarines in a far-out screening role) against a group of Soviet cruise missile armed nuclear submarines – assisted possibly by cruise missile carrying land-based aircraft The Soviets, by taking the offensive, count on attacking with surprise and directing over 100 of their missiles at an enemy tleet. In this type of engagement, the Soviets use their nuclear submarines as offensive capital ships, while the US. employs its nuclear submarines in a distant screening role — which hopefully will intercept some of the Soviet submarines before they can launch their missiles, thus diluting the numbers of missiles fired at the U.S. battle group.
However, the U.S. has chosen a strategy for destroying Soviet missile-armed submarines well before they can be assembled for a major strike against a U.S. tleet. The U.S. forward submarine-barrier defense strategy is expected to altrite most of the enemy’s submarines before they can move into the broad areas of the world’s oceans, and is consistent with the recently established U.S. Maritime Strategy. In this mission U.S. nuclear submarines in effect are acting as battleships going head-to-head against the enemy’s battleships.
Nuclear Submarines as Capital Ships in Raidine Operations?
The capital ship of the 16th century, a square-rigged, strongly constructed sailing ship of over 100 guns — the galleon — was a single-ship task force which preyed on sea commerce, bombarded forts protecting harbors, landed small parties of men to set fire to port installations and ships in port, and sacked coastal towns, while retaining sufficient fire power to destroy lesser ships of an enemy sent out to eliminate this threat. Then, using a capital ship for raiding operations was the consummate form of employment for such a vessel. In World War II the Germans designed a “pocket battleship” for much the same purpose — a raider for remote ocean areas of the world. The GRAF SPEE was one such raider. Today, the SSN might serve as a “pocket battleship,” spreading havoc against shipping in the southern parts of the Pacific Ocean and other ocean areas far from the military forces of the northern hemisphere. The new OSCAR-class, Soviet missile submarine appears to be a single-ship task force of great weapon power — well adapted for raiding operations worldwide, including destruction of advance bases and enemy supply depots. In fact, nuclear submarines configured to carry large numbers of weapons, supplies for many days at sea, commando units, and SEAL teams, would be properly configured to carry out the “raider” function in wartime in the traditional manner of certain types of capital ships of the past.
In summary, though it seems that only dyed-in-the-wool submariners will agree that today’s nuclear submarines are the capital ships of their navies, it would also appear that those navies which believe this to be true are likely to build enough nuclear submarines to assure maritime dominance — in the fashion of the “battleships” of the past.