For mankind the destructive powers of a submarine fleet are but a fragmented patch of memory. Few can recall the unleashing of unrestricted submarine warfare in World War I. More can remember the submarine inflicted terror of the Battle of the Atlantic in the second World War. These negative memories for the Allies were somewhat compensated for when the submarine contributed to a win in the Battle of the Pacific. In the 1950’s, prior to the SPUTNIK distraction, the submarine became a source of optimism. With knowledge of submarine fleet potential fresh in their minds, Americans had the desire and opportunity to raise this potential to new heights. Submarine technology took a giant leap on two fronts: the platform and its weapons. The nuclear-powered NAUTILUS gave the submarine high submerged endurance and the ALBACORE optimized the submarine bull. The REGULUS and POLARIS missiles gave the submarine a capability to attack at great range. The foundations were quickly laid for a brilliant future, This brilliant future, however, slipped from the American’s grasp.
Is is to be regained?
It has been a long time from the positive early-fifties to the uncertain late-eighties. Should we expect anyone under fifty, other than an unusually good student, to have an appreciation for the potential of a submarine fleet? The sinking of the BELGRANO during the Falklands War simply provided a mini-refresher course for those beyond middle-age and a mini-introductory course for others. If the positive benefits of the submarine are to be enjoyed, the meaning of the words SUBMARINE FLEET POTENTIAL must be reestablished.
The chosen meaning of “fleet potential” is most easily understood within the context of a game. For our purposes, we will define a fleet potential as a capacity for scoring; that is, the capacity for scoring hits or kills. This measure equates to the practice of awarding medals with citations for tonnage sunk by individual submarines and submarine squadrons. The potential of surface and air arms can be measured within the same context. Just as in football, points may be scored for the ground game and the passing game. One will recognize that this definition is a measure of offensive power; it contributes to victory, but by itself does not assure it. Victory is a product of force against force including both offensive and defensive components. The submarine is seen as a brilliant offensive instrument, particularly when it is “in the open ocean” — it is hard “to defense.” For these reasons, its offensive fleet potential excites. But games go both ways. Excitement can be turned to terror with the threat of defeat. Before closing we should look beyond submarine fleet potential to submarine force potential. This brings with it the capacity to defend against the submarine.
The potential of a submarine fleet is dependent upon its ability to get into the open ocean. Thus a requisite of its potential is a secure basing structure. Such a structure must provide the facilities for readying the submarine for combat patrol and the secure access routes which permit the submarine safely to enter and leave its base or system of bases. During World War II the Russians had a large submarine fleet but failed to provide a secure basing structure. This failure negated most of the potential the fleet might have possessed. In contrast, the Germans in WW II quickly moved to increase the security of their submarine basing structure by adding heavily protected bases in occupied Norway and France. In so doing the potential of their submarine fleet was greatly enhanced.
There is little doubt that the Russians have learned this lesson. Americans have also been attentive to base security in their design of the POLARIS and TRIDENT strategic submarine fleet. It is less obvious that a secure basing structure is consciously considered in Western designs of nonstrategic submarine fleets.
This requisite is doubly important. Not only is the provision of a secure basing structure an essential step in the development of submarine fleet potential, but should one try to negate the submarine fleet potential of an opponent, he should concentrate on rendering the supporting base structure insecure. In the case of a prudent and well-situated opponent, this task will not be trivial.
If a secure basing structure requisite is met, submarine fleet potential is defined by its offensive capacity to threaten and destroy: a. surface shipping, b. surface combatants, and c. shore facilities — ports, bases. These are the primary offensive targets of the submarine over which it will hold a significant advantage.
Submarine fleets were and are created to take on such targets. This is also the prime measure of submarine fleet potential. As to the matter of submarines targeting other submarines, this is a “defensive” activity within which the submarine must seek out an advantage through its inherent design. Attriting enemy submarines in forward areas is a defensive mission preventing enemy subs from their offensive missions. Strategic ASW is a defense against the enemy’s projection of strategic weapon power. Associated support of a battle group is a defensive screening-measure mission.
With this background in place, the task of developing a fleet concept which maximizes submarine fleet potential is almost trivial. The basic building block is the quiet nuclear-powered submarine. Its high speed and great operating depth are nice but not essential. The key decision to be made for the nuclear submarine is the choice of payload. There is little doubt that when it comes to targeting surface shipping, surface combatants, and shore targets with conventional warheads, the weapon with the greatest potential is the torpedo-tube launched cruise missile. A nuclear submarine is capable of carrying twenty-five or more such weapons; the more weapons and weapon launchers per ship the greater the potential. The torpedo, no matter how modern, has been supplanted as a primary offensive weapon.
The basic submarine fleet is thus one of submarine “cruisers” (in the Mahan sense), capable of a large volume of fire at long standoff ranges. Submarine potential has been, and will continue to be realized in the form of cruiser warfare. The number of submarines will also contribute to submarine fleet potential, but there will exist clear limits as to useful fleet size. The modern target is fatter and the modern submarine is far more powerful. It might be found, after careful consideration, that a submarine “cruiser” fleet of, say, in the order of thirty (twice as many as carrier groups) is an optimum force. But, there exists no submarine in Western navies which is tailored to meeting the tactical potential as here defined.
Current naval practice, East and West, has focussed on the submarine’s newly developed capability for attacking shore targets with nuclear warheads delivered by ballistic missiles. This strategic mission is sufficiently unique to justify a dedicated submarine fleet. The existence of a secure basing structure remains a requisite. A quiet nuclear-powered submarine again serves as the basic building block. Very high speed and great operating depth do not have strong positive effects on this fleet potential. It is the weapon choice which is special — a long range missile capable of penetrating defenses and delivering nuclear warheads accurately. Today the ballistic missile fulfills this need. Again, very large weapon loads equate directly to fleet potential. Also, since the number of strategic targets is Jimited and the strike capabilities of an individual fleet ballistic missile submarine are great, the size of the offensive strategic submarine fleet can be modest.
In a straight forward fashion, two, and only two submarine types have been defined which contribute directly to a submarine fleet potential — stated in terms of a capacity to perform offensive submarine warfare tasks. The provisions for quieting, submerged endurance, and large payloads, are basic. Naval super powers could readily justify two such offensive submarine fleets composed of a total force level in the order of sixty submarines. Larger sized fleets could be justified should the capabilities of the individual submarines fall short on potential.
Most of us know that the naval super powers already have substantially more than sixty submarines, and it is not just because these craft fall below their potential as we have defined it. The justification lies in the fact that submarines have an important role to play in defensive as well as offensive submarine warfare. It is obvious that a submarine has no superiority over another submarine, unless it is through its design characteristics. Thus, the submarine has found another niche, a defensive role seeking to reduce the potential of an opponent’s submarine fleet. The submarine can most effectively accomplish this goal by undercutting the security of the opponent’s basing structure — particularly by threatening any movements to, from, and within the basing area.
The design of a defense-oriented submarine force, unlike an offensive one, involves no quick and ready answers. Unit capabilities and numbers come into play. Historically, the offensive submarine fleet potential provides little comfort to those who wish to set a modest ceiling on ASW force levels whether air, surface, or submarine. For this reason, the question of affordability becomes an equal, if not dominant, factor in the conceptual development of ASW forces, especially submarines. Anti-submarine warfare requires the development of force multipliers which will yield the desired defensive effect while recognizing the realities of budget constraints.
It is not the least bit clear that the building blocks exist for a submarine force capable of denying an opponent the security of his submarine basing structure or one classified as an affordable ASW specialist. It is easier to rationalize that existing designs are multipurpose — both offense and defense capable. Yet, when such craft are assigned to defensive missions, they will not exist in sufficient numbers and hence their potential for offense will become both unavailable and at risk. Today, it is very difficult to speculate as to what could be accomplished in the design of a defensive submarine force dedicated to the denial of base st~cture security. What weapons would be used? Is its stealth of prime importance? Can it perform in the shallow water environment? Can such submarines win in a melee situation? Are there effective submarine laid mines available? Without answers to such questions and/or positive weapon system solutions in hand, little can be said about the defensive components of a submarine’s force and its possible contribution to winning.
Returning to the lessons which may be derived from the consideration of games, it is quickly noted that, if the rules do not prohibit, players tend to become specialists. This has a dual advantage: their physical capabilities and training can be better focussed upon specific tasks. This pattern is permissible and highly developed in football. In baseball, when the option of using a designated hitter is offered, it is seldom refused. In the realm of submarine fleets and forces, the options are open. Both of the superpowers have chosen to develop a fleet of dedicated strategic missile submarines. Beyond this option the United States has declined to pursue any further development of specialized submarines. It has displayed enthusiasm neither for maximizing its offensive submarine fleet potential, which embodies a capacity for scoring, nor for minimizing defensively the opponent’s potential for scoring. Has the goal of winning slipped from the agenda?
The above neglect of further submarine specialization by Americans can be explained; it cannot be justified. In the brief interlude between the Battle of the Pacific and the peacetime Battle of the Budget, American submariners actively pursued the concept of specialization and seriously began the development of an antisubmarine submarine involving all the critical technologies. At that time the U.S. had more than an adequate offensive fleet potential across the board — submarine, surface and air. The only standing naval threat, Russian, was a force of more than three hundred submarines. The U.S. priority for ASW defense was obvious. Interest in the dedicated ASW submarine was, however, not long lived. Americans have the bad habit, in peacetime, of self-imposing force ceilings rather than budget ceilings. The idea of the force-multiplying austerity of the ASW specialized killer submarine was abandoned in favor of the general purpose attack submarine. The attack submarine, as it has evolved, mocks the notion that any benefit, cost, or effectiveness, can result from self-imposed force ceilings. The attack submarine has never been configured to realize a true fleet potential for offensive submarine warfare. With respect to weapons, it is a hermaphrodite; its cruise missile installation is not primary, it is an afterthought. Moreover, the urgency of creating a solid, submarine-based ASW defense has never diminished. Force ceilings, not budget ceilings have out the rug out from under any further serious American effort to fill this need.
The concept of submarine fleet potential is readily recognized when one reflects upon the capabilities of a fleet of ballistic missile submarines, or a fleet of cruise missile armed submarine cruisers. Such craft, in the open, h~ve a capacity for scoring. Their very presence creates a demand for defense. A winning force must have balance between offense and defense. Of the two, the burden of achieving a satisfactory defense is heavier, it should not be put off by self-defeating policies.
John s. Leonard