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Ever since the first large-scale appearance of submarines in naval warfare, the commanders of surface forces have experienced great uncertainties as to the potential of this combat system – with its deadly weapons and inherent stealth. How the submarine might change the outcome of fleet engagements has been very much in doubt. Hence the commanders often were inhibited from pressing for a decision in surface battles by fear of the consequences from possible submarine attacks. The submarine’s capability to attack with a high element of surprise has placed into the equation of sea battles an element not well understood, but so worrisome that command decisions frequently have been flawed by an overregard for “the submarine menace.

Today, because of high speed electronic actions and reactions, the value of attack-surprise is given an even higher premium in naval warfare. When surprise is added to a submarine’s capability to control the tempo of operations, the combination enhances the submarine’s battle effects and minimizes enemy counteractions. These two qualities of submarines place them in the forefront of all naval warmaking systems. But of first importance is the submarine’s quality of being able to generate a high degree of surprise in its operations.

Use of the denser, more-difficult-to-penetrate medium of seawater by a submarine, coupled with a submarine commander’s skills to utilize the many vagaries inherent to the ocean environment, reduce significantly the detectibility of the submarine until after its weapon has been launched. The most sophisticated electronics possessed by antisubmarine forces -including satellites and bottom acoustic systems — have yet to provide a capability to deny the submarine’s offensive operations in virtually any and all areas of the world ocean, and its highly valuable asset of attack-surprise.

The similarity of submarine warfare to guerrilla warfare and terrorist actions certainly is marked. The military, political and psychological effects from the use of small numbers of men in surprise attacks, carefully timed to produce results out of all proportion to the resources used, seems to be the trend in the nature of today’s warfare. This is mainly due to the dominating and widely proliferated, sophisticated electronics available to all military forces, which are so effective in equalizing offense and defense, but which can be bypassed by submarines, guerrilla forces and terrorists. All three have the same covert approach to battle and a similar control of the timing for their actions. They are viewed as a difficult-to-define type of menacing threat, depend on surprise for the maximizing of their results, and have an ubiquity which greatly magnifies the threat they actually pose. Moreover, all three cause devastation and fear for a relatively low cost.

Unlike guerrilla warfare and terrorist actions, which can produce decisiveness only after many engagements over an extended period of time, the submarine can produce military results which could be decisive within a short span of time. The war in Vietnam is a good example of these points. The guerrilla warfare waged by the Viet Cong throughout the ’60’s showed only small increments of military success, while decisive psychological effects and adverse political effects were being generated which eventually would prove the undoing of the U.S. war effort, terminating with the U.S. withdrawal from that war. Similarly, U.S. submarines in World War II in guerrillalike operations gradually seized control of the Pacific Ocean from the Japanese over a period of three years of warfare.

Today, on a far grander scale, submarines through their stealth and use of great weapon power can prove effective in causing a war to be quickly terminated on terms favorable to those who best husband them and employ them — thus causing them to be an unacceptable threat to an enemy if conflict is continued. But the success of their weapon use is evidently their potential for employing surprise in their attacks.

Does the modern employment of surprise in submarine attacks represent a greatly improved submarine capability?

Since the first large-scale appearance of submarines in naval warfare, submarines have relied heavily on catching an enemy unaware at the time of launching its torpedoes. Submerged approaches, utilizing the opaque nature of the underseas, provided the ideal environment for gaining an undetected firing position. Only the active sonars of antisubmarine forces or detection of raised periscopes or electronic masts by their radar or visual means proved to be sporadic ways for disclosing the submarine’s presence and reducing the submarine’s possibility of capitalizing on surprise to achieve attack success. But then, in World Wars I and II, the use of convoys, the submarine’s lack of submerged mobility, and disclosure of the submarine’s position by the presence of torpedo wakes as well as the direction from which torpedo hits were obtained, tended to prevent the submarine from enjoying multiple attack opportunities.

Thus, in World War II, German U-boat wolf packs — to increase their attack mobility — initiated night surface attacks against Allied convoys, using the cloak of darkness to avoid escorts and generate a reduced element of surprise at the launching of their torpedoes. The Allied convoy forces were aware that submarines were a nearby potential attack threat, but their exact location and timing for torpedo fire could only be guessed at. Surfaced mobility and low level of surprise caused the U-boats to exact, in the spring of 1943, a heavy toll of Allied shipping — about 140,000 tons per week.

Winston Churchill, as related by John Keegan in his book “The Price of Admiralty” grimly summed up his shipping losses in this fashion: “How willingly would I have exchanged a fullscale attempt at invasion (of the British Isles) for this shapeless, measureless peril …. ”

By the summer of 1943, with Allied radar-equipped aircraft, from both land bases and jeep carriers, providing coverage of the entire North Atlantic convoy routes from America to Europe and with significantly augmented surface escorts, both the submarine’s capability to achieve surprise and its mobility were seriously curtailed — resulting in few Allied ships being sunk while U-boat losses rose catastrophically.

Though World War II demonstrated how “the submarine menace• could be brought under control, the technology of the intervening years has so revolutionalized the character of the submarine, its operations and its weapons as to re-establish the submarine as the dominant naval unit of the world’s ocean. The introduction of the nuclear-powered submarine in 1954, assured a high-speed, covert, fully submerged, long endurance sea weapon system with a high degree of surprise capable of initiating multiple attacks with torpedoes or missiles over a short span of time. This formidable system insured a decisive effect as a likely outcome from the ship damage caused. And too, design and power developments greatly improved modem diesel-electric submarines giving them far higher submerged mobility and endurance than their World War ll predecessors.

It is nuclear-powered submarines and the high-speed deepdiving diesel submarines and the surprise-attack effectiveness of their undersea weapons that have regained an ascendancy in naval matters.

Surprise and mobility place the offensive capabilities of today’s submarine far ahead of the current limited defenses of air and surface antisubmarine forces. Its mobility, moreover, allows the submarine to control the tempo of its operations. This results in the ability to conduct deliberate, unhurried submarine attacks to ensure surprise; to avoid enemy ASW efforts without losing attack opportunities; and, to maximize attack success by careful submarine positioning at the time of firing.

Catching the Enemy Unaware
The modern submarine, particularly the nuclear submarine, capitalizes on factors unique to its underseas environment which allow attacks with almost total surprise. To illustrate this, a basic scenario is outlined here:

A submarine quietly patrols in a vast ocean containing: magnetic and infrared anomalies; shielding-noise from sea life, ship traffic and water disturbances; thermal layers; ocean currents; and all sorts of ocean phenomena which create “false contacts.” Virtually invisible to enemy observers, the attacker submarine is imagined by the enemy to be anywhere or everywhere. Hence, any detected anomaly– a radar contact on a piece of flotsam, a satellite contact on a streak of heated water, a sighted wake from a big fiSh — calls forth a cry of “wolf.” These “wolf” contacts then grow in number – another and then another — until enemy antisubmarine forces, saturated with false contacts, falter and begin to lose their enthusiasm for pursuing every “possible” submarine contact.

In the midst of this growing frustration, the undetected attacker submarine makes a passive sonar detection on an enemy ship and over a period of time determines that it is a submarine, a merchantman or a surface warship. And, not infrequently, the attacker submarine is provided intelligence by one-way communications which helps to localize the enemy target. All the while there is no alerting of the enemy as to the location or even the presence of the attacker submarine. At the right moment, using high “quiet speed”, and running in an advantageous sound strata, the attacker closes the localized target and identifies it passively by its sound signature. On the way, the submarine generates a tracking solution by a passive sonar-bearings-only technique.

Passive tracking of the target can involve hours, and during the tracking, the submarine, as necessary within its undersea envelope, can minimize chances of being detected by in-area ASW forces. These might include not only ships and aircraft but also fiXed sonar arrays, towed linear arrays, air-dropped sonobuoys and surveillance satellites — all integrated, and data processed to sort out submarines.

The undetected attacker slides through this large arrangement of detecting devices to reach its firing position with the latitude, due to the submarine’s considerable mobility, to steer to a best firing position for the weapon to be employed. The submarine commander gauges where his enemy is least prepared to react to his attack.

If in this scenario the attack is on a grouping of surface ships, the submarine commander could expend his “surprise” by using a missile-salvo against enemy screening escorts. Then, with surprise gone, but using the submarine’s mobility and diversity of weapons, the attacker submarine moves to fire on the escorted targets.

In this scenario, unlike naval surface or air forces, the submarine tends to arrive at a firing point unhindered by electronic measures and early recognition of intent to fire. The attacker submarine retains its favored situation because the one-way communications to the submarine are difficult to jam; the ASW forces emit noises which can be tracked and are difficult to disguise, false target decoys are difficult to place so as to confuse the submarine, and other active ASW measures often allow the submarine commander to use avoiding tactics.

Importantly, though the submarine itself can today generate total surprise for the launching of its weapons, the effect of this surprise may be of little value if the weapon in use is noisily launched or is overt in its trajectory, disclosing its presence to the enemy well before arrival at its target. Unfortunately, current submarine weapons take a long time to get to their targets. Torpedo runs and missile flights of more than four minutes, for the most part, are expected With this long detectable time available, the enemy, if alerted, can bring into play a host of high-speed electronic defensive measures to prevent the weapon from hitting. Thus, to ensure the benefits from attack surprise, the submarine must have weapons which are virtually undetectable in launching and in trajectory — with active terminal homing employed in the final seconds before arrival — giving inadequate time for the target’s defenses to take effective countering measures.

Suprise Through Quickly-Developing Operations
In addition to gaining a distinct advantage by catching an enemy unaware, a similar effect can be generated by quickly developing operations which capitalize on a suddenly presented attack opportunity and which are so rapidly carried out that the enemy cannot organize a satisfactory counter defense to the submarine attack.

This type of surprise assumes that, while the use of high speed may cause an enemy to be alerted, the enemy will be incapable of catching up to the high tempo of operations which the submarine system produces.

The ingredients for this kind of surprise are: rapidity of staff planning (computer-aided) to quickly put in motion a submarine response to a suddenly disclosed opportunity; very high submarine speed to shorten the approach time; a high speed weapon covertly launched at the first firing opportunity; and, programming the weapon to mask it until shortly before hitting the target.

This type of surprise was demonstrated by the British nuclear submarine CONQUEROR during the Falkland Islands war of 1982. CONQUEROR was apprised of a suddenlydisclosed attack opportunity on the Argentine cruiser, GENERAL BELGRANO, with its two destroyer escorts shortly before that surface group was to move out of the established exclusion zone south of the main Falkland Island. The cruiser had to be sunk before it reached its sanctuary for political reasons, and, so, the CONQUEROR was selected to attack BELGRANO. Staff planning was short-cut. CONQUEROR proceeded at maximum submerged speed, in excess of 25 knots, to intercept, while remaining covert during its approach. Although the torpedoes used by CONQUEROR were wavemaking steam torpedoes, but used for reliability, the attack was carried out undetected at a range of less than 1,000 yards. BELGRANO’s defenses were never mobilized for counteraction. Strategic Surprise

It is generally thought that a major naval engagement between the leading sea powers will not be without a considerable amount of strategic warning time. In World War I the deployment of a large number of German submarines to a barrier line off the east coast of England on May 6, 1916 — prior to the Battle of Jutland – gave the British Admiralty five days of warning that the German High Seas Fleet would sortie from port to challenge the British Grand Fleet. This was an adequate amount of time for the British to prepare for the engagement.

Today, it is taken for granted that a similar pre-conflict deployment of submarines to sea in large numbers would signal the imminent start of a war, and that at least three days of warning time are assured before a sea war is joined. Hence actual strategic surprise, as generated by submarines, is considered highly unlikely. Yet, in a navy mainly dependent upon submarines for their offensive operations at sea, a surprise initiation of a war without strategic warning is a distinct possibility, particularly as Soviet submarines become increasingly quieter.

The Soviets, who see success in their military operations as requiring a high degree of attack surprise, also believe in a massive “first salvo” at the initiation of hostilities, which would provide a decisive result in the opening moments of war.

To produce a decisive “first salvo” while not producing any strategic warning suggests the setting up of Pearl Harbor-types of surprise attacks — several simultaneous Pearl Harbors in widely separated locations. Is this possible? Could the U.S., with its close monitoring of Soviet submarine movements out from their bases, be made to believe that deployments of considerable numbers of Soviet submarines into the high seas of the world was not worthy of “ringing the bell” of strategic warning? Interestingly, it would appear that this is possible. Only five years ago, after the Soviets announced that over forty of their submarines would take part in a North Atlantic fleet exercise, it was discovered — several months later in the press of the West – that close to a hundred Soviet submarines had been at sea simultaneously with no U.S. strategic warning bell being tolled. How did this happen? Simply, the Soviets told those of the West who monitor such exercises that halfway through the exercise more than forty additional submarines would sortie into the North Atlantic to relieve on station the first forty submarines taking part in the exercise.

Not only is it possible to lull an enemy’s mindset into a complacency that believes that submarines at sea are not threatening ones, but also it is possible to so carefully deploy submarines that they can, for the most part, avoid being detected in transit. Minelaying conventional submarines, for example, could, in peacetime, hug coastlines, covertly lay a field of time-delayed mines to be activated at the time of the “first salvo”, and then clear the area. The tempo for carrying out this sort of mission could be leisurely and circuitous to minimize noise in transit. (It should be noted that mines have the same inherent stealth and surprise characteristics of the submarine but that their immobility greatly limits their effectiveness and makes them far easier to countermeasure).

Later, a few nuclear submarines, having launched some midget submarines earlier, could wing cruise missiles into a battle group holed up in a port area, and with the combined effects of cruise missile, midget-submarine torpedoes and mine damage make the sortieing warships both disorganized and susceptible to mop-up operations by other nuclear attack submarines using torpedoes.

The same sort of “first salvo” attack on enemy fleets are just as plausible. Heavy warhead cruise missiles “from a modest number of submarine platforms” – possibly augmented by landbased cruise missile-carrying aircraft and directed at a battle group’s defensive alignment, might create such shock and disruption of a battle group’s defenses as to make the battle group equally susceptible to mop-up by submarine launched torpedoes

Surprise With Midget Submarines.
Midget submarines launched from the decks of mother submarines standing well offshore and beyond harbor ASW defenses now can close a harbor fully submerged, neutralize harbor-bottom defenses and accurately inertially navigate without exposing a mast, to anchored ships or ships alongside piers. So total and so valuable can be the element of surprise in such attacks that the first intimation of danger to targeted ships is likely to be the explosion of the weapon used — either a torpedo or a limpet mine. The devastating effect of submarines of a few tons using their quality of surprise against anchored warships of many thousands of tons, was well illustrated by the attacks in World War II by the Italian midgets, SLC 221 and SLC 223, known as “maialis”, launched from the decks of the diesel submarine SCIRE. The two “maialis” crept into Alexandria, Egypt, harbor and scored hits on the 32,000-ton British battleships QUEEN ELIZABETH and VALIANT, sinking both.

Like a terrorist’s bomb placed aboard an airliner which results in the deaths of more than a hundred passengers (as Pan Am’s flight 103 was destroyed over Scotland with the loss of 270 lives), the controlled timing of a midget’s attack– along with the use of surprise — results in greatly magnified military, psychological and political effects.

In today’s environment of high speed electronics, without surprise:
– a massing of weapon platforms and weapons are likely to produce only inconclusive results;
– the attrition of offensive forces before weapon launch is likely to be considerable;
– electronic warfare is likely to neutralize much of the effectiveness of an attack;
– battle results are likely to be unpredictable; the offense will hold little, if any, advantage over the defense; and,
– sea battle will tend to lead to a protracted war with risk of nuclear war greatly increased.

With surprise, however, (and submarines, particularly nuclear submarines, guarantee this quality in their attacks):

rapid and decisive actions are likely (with a sea war fought primarily by submarines having a good chance of being of short duration);

there can be an economy in the use of force so that a relatively few firing platforms can achieve decisive results in fleet battles;

enemy commanders will be frustrated and mentally tormented into choosing inadequate and unsatisfactory strategies for dealing with their antagonist’s offensives (the “submarine menace” being greatly magnified);

offensive units are best prepared for countering actions and evasion; and,

the offense holds a large advantage over the defense.


Dr. Jon L. Boyes
Wdlitun J, Ruhe 

Naval Submarine League

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