Nuclear submarines, both strategic and attack, by complementing their long range weapons of great destructive power, have become the essence of a nation’s sea power. Their excellent mobility and their stealth provide a fine control of the tempo of their operations and an assured element of surprise in their attacks. This insures a high level of efficiency in weapons delivery. Their guarantee of accurate and great firepower thus offers greater dimensions of military and political effects than realized in the past.
Moreover, the prime role of sea power is now to project power against the shore rather than to control the seas, as in the past. And, the nuclear submarine has apparently become the “capital ship” of major navies — the major and essential element of a country’s sea power.
Sea Power Today
The military aspect of sea power has changed radically since that identified in World War II. Then, sea power’s basic role was to control the air over the seas and thereby through air power control the surface of the oceans as well. This also included a control of the threat posed by submarines, which in WW II were fundamentally submersible surface ships which had to operate for the most part on the surface or very close to the surface of the oceans. This was evident in the Atlantic campaign against the German U-boats. When sea based air was able to cover the mid-ocean portion of convoy transits, the U-boat campaign against merchant shipping became unprofitable and U-boat losses soared. In the Pacific, U.S. submarines, operating well offshore, were little bothered by the threat of Japanese aircraft and hence control of the air over the oceans was generally lacking. Only the ASW aircraft over convoys contested the control of the seas near the protected shipping. Thus, the essence of sea power’s potential was demonstrated by a control of the seas through the use of naval air power.
But with the advent of nuclear weapons, long range missiles carrying either nuclear or high explosive warheads, nuclear power in submarines, computers and satellites for communications, navigation and surveillance, the primary role of military sea power was changed. The projection of power from the seas against enemy shore objectives had become the true essence of naval sea power — for realizing vital national political objectives. While control of the seas had become only a secondary function – which because of today’s technology was necessarily reduced in scope, i.e., control of a limited area of the oceans for only a limited period of time, sufficient to carry out a mission successfully.
Shortly after WW II and with the advent of nuclear weapons, the Navy shifted the prime role of the attack aircraft carrier to one of threatening the use of nuclear weapons to destroy an enemy’s homeland assets. The carrier’s attack aircraft, carrying nuclear bombs, became part of the U.S. Strategic Integrated Operations Plan, the SlOP, along with U.S. ICBMs and land based B-52s carrying atomic bombs. Clearly, deterrence of nuclear war had become sea power’s prime political objective. But the range of sea based aircraftdelivery of strategic weapons was so limited that only a small portion of an enemy’s homeland was likely to be covered by sea based aircraft. Then, with the advent of the nuclear powered submarine and its marriage to the long range nuclearwarhead ballistic missile, not only was greater assured naval delivery of strategic weapons achieved, but also the coverage of strategic objectives was increased, until today SSBNs can provide blanket coverage of the total economk base of an enemy as well as its civilian population. This capability has made the sea based leg of the strategic TRIAD the most important element in the U.S. deterrence posture -particularly because of the system’s survivability against an enemy surprise nuclear strike and its assured, discretely timed response.
In addition, the nuclear submarine’s use of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles of long ranges, promises a theater land-target interdiction capability which tends to deter an escalation in the use of nuclear weapons in a ground war – another increased dimension to sea power resulting from new and recent technologies.
Still another expansion of a nation’s sea power used against the shore comes from the nuclear submarine’s excellent capability for interdiction of shipping used in support of shore economies, war-making industries and supply of ground armies. In fact, the interdiction of ships on and under the entire area of the World Ocean, because of the virtually unlimited endurance of the nuclear submarine, has extended the haute ground for the use of sea power worldwide, including the new sea area of the Arctic Ocean.
How nuclear submarines respond to the changed character of sea power can be illustrated by how their capabilities are utilized in the pursuit of national interests.
Submarines in the Protection or Nuclear Power
The greatest change in the character of sea power has been the achievement of naval capabilities for projecting vast amounts of weapon power — measured in many megatons -from the seas against all of an enemy’s homeland assets. Today the ranges of this projected power approximate at least ten times that for carrier based aircraft, and more than 200 times that for a battleship’s 16-inch guns. Nuclear submarines (SSBNs) with very quiet, deep, and low speed operations, tend to remain extremely covert until the time of actually firing their missiles. Since SSBNs, operating in a deterrence mode, need not take any overt actions, they are extremely survivable while waiting for a firing order from a National Command Authority. Then, with an order to use all or some of their missiles, SSBNs can produce a controlled time of weapon release which is unpressured, well clear of threatening enemy ASW operations, and likely to be unopposed at least for the duration of missile launch. With ballistic missile mid-course speeds of over 7 mach and with the payload of each missile splitting — in the terminal phase of flight — into many independently maneuvering reentry vehicles (MIRVs) carrying individual warheads of fractional megaton weapon power, the SSBN’s strategic weapons are virtually assured of an arrival on target. This is such a foregone conclusion that the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. signed an anti-ballistic missile treaty in 1981 which eliminated possible defenses against such a weapon system. Significantly, the inevitability of ballistic missile success is virtually assured, even in the environment of nuclear bursts in an ongoing war.
Strategic ASW, which some believe would compromise the SSBN as a viable strategic system, has become a mission for mainly nuclear submarines. This mission is against SSBNs in bastions particularly under the Arctic ice cap or against very quiet SSBNs patrolling in the vast reaches of the oceans. In the first case, the protection of SSBNs in their bastions using perimeter defenses of mines, diesel-electric submarines and air ASW systems plus in-bastion protection by SSNs, seemingly makes the prosecution of strategic ASW by friendly SSNs too lethally costly for the number of enemy SSBNs that might be destroyed. Similarly, very quiet SSBNs operating in large areas of the oceans should be too difficult for enemy ASW forces to detect and attrite as to make the great numbers of ASW units needed for such a campaign — to get only marginal results -virtually out of the question.
With the deployment of torpedo tube launched, nucleartipped land attack cruise missiles of long range, every nuclear attack submarine (SSN) becomes a potential strategic as well as theater weapon system. Specifically, the U.S. has the nuclear land attack TOMAHAWK. and the Soviets have the SS-N-21. These submarine-launched nuclear land-attack cruise missiles are under 2,000 miles in range, as for example, the nuclear version of TOMAHAWK (the TLAM-N) with its 1500 n.mi. range, Tercom navigation and scene-matching terminal guidance. SSNs are armed with this type of weapon for use against theater targets which support a major ground battle and also have the reach to attack many enemy homeland targets as well. For example, in the Kola Gulf area of the USSR, the TLAM:-N might be used against Soviet shipyards, submarine bases, and airfields used by ASW aircraft, while theater targets would comprise battlefield concentrations of men and materiel, command and control and communication centers, arteries for resupply of embattled forces, etc.
In effect, nuclear attack submarines, armed with nuclear land-attack cruise missiles, add an important form of projected power to theater warfare. Significantly, SSNs are as likely to be as survivable and capable of using nuclear weapons with a high degree of surprise as SSBNs.
Deterrence of Nuclear War
So assured has been the SSBN’s potential for vast destruction of an enemy’s homeland population and warmaking activities — and this would include the small SSBN fleets of France and Great Britain –that a World War III has been successfully deterred for nearly half a century.
If SSBNs are conserved as a fleet-in-being during a conventional war, their threat of colossal destruction serves not only as a means for concluding a conflict on favorable terms but also tends to deter the escalation of a major war to one using nuclear weapons. It is the mere presence of these modem-day undersea “battleships”, the SSBNs, which amplify the political advantages accruing to a nation having this fonn of dominant naval power. They pose a constant threat to an aggressor who must realize that nuclear retaliation from nuclear submarines at sea is so certain as to cause an enemy to refrain from fighting a nuclear war.
Interdiction of Shipping, Globally
Large numbers of nuclear attack submarines are available to the major sea powers for preventing the flow of sea traffic on the oceans. Whereas shipping interdiction in World War II was confined for the most part to the North Atlantic and North Pacific, today a global dimension of submarine sea power is required to win a shipping attrition war — and nuclear submarines with their virtually unlimited endurance provide this.
In World War II, “there were 25 Allied ships and 100 aircraft for each German submarine” — Admiral Gorshkov’s oft repeated statistic. On this basis, today’s stealthy nuclear submarines, which are far more difficult for enemy ASW forces to combat than the diesel boats of WW II, and which would operate in considerably greater areas of the oceans, should easily exhaust all enemy ASW resources mustered to destroy them. Only friendly SSNs deployed against anti-shipping SSNs are likely to significantly reduce shipping losses. Moreover, the traditional concept of convoying ships is less viable today because of the submarine launched cruise missile and the longrange “smart” torpedo. A Soviet strategist notes that “nuclear submarines using cruise missiles can deliver attacks against strong screening ships without entering the zone of effective anti-submarine defense” — thus achieving a temporary and limited measure of sea control over the waters close to a convoy, in order to successfully carry out the anti-shipping mission.
Think about it. The limited radius of action of sea based ASW aircraft, the short range of ASW warship efforts, and the greatly decreased ranges of detection on stealthy nuclear submarines now make the maintenance of a viable sea commerce most unlikely unless friendly SSNs can attrite large numbers of enemy SSNs before they arrive at the shipping lanes — and this is the major strategy for U.S. attack submarines in war.
Might nuclear weapons be used in an antishipping war? Probably not, since the Soviets see the use of their tactical nuclear weapons as only against major targets, while the U.S. limited stockpile of similar weapons appears to dictate a discreet usage.
Today the West has many thousands of merchant ships to support their economies and war making efforts while the Soviets have a tlag tleet of merchant ships which is second in the world in total number of ships.
The likelihood, then, that decisive results, good or bad, might come early in an antishipping campaign conducted by nuclear submarines seems much better than in the past. Enemy SSNs are either attrited at the beginning of a war successfully, or the great damage they would do to shipping should be in itself decisive.
Fleets (identified by the U.S. as battle groups) have traditionally done battle with similar fleets to contest control of the seas. But this would not be the case today. U.S. battle groups are faced by mainly a Soviet “fleet” of nuclear submarines and land based naval aircraft. The changes in the character of sea power which this dichotomy of fleets suggests have not yet been demonstrated. But the Soviets evidently believe that their nuclear submarines will prove to be the dominant offensive force at sea — their capital ships for destroying enemy aircraft carriers and submarines. General Sokolovskii, writing on Soviet military strategy, notes that “Before attaining completely the political and military strategic aims of the war, the striking forces of the carrier fleet and enemy submarines must be defeated. ”
But rather than delaying a major decisive fleet-against-fleet action – like the Battle of Midway — until well into a war, the Soviets have indicated that the best time to achieve a decisive fleet victory is at the very start of the war — like at Pearl Harbor. To that end, they have espoused a “first salvo” strategy – a simultaneous initiating of a big war with an allout massive use of weapons against an enemy’s fleets, wherever, using mainly submarines assisted by land based cruise missile carrying aircraft. As keen students of the lessons to be learned from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, their use of mainly attack submarines to ensure a high degree of surprise and their doctrine to follow up massive missile strikes with mop-up torpedo operations, show their appreciation of how decisiveness against an enemy’s carrier-oriented surface fleet could be achieved. More than severe damage of major fleet elements is indicated. (At Pearl Harbor only the Arizona proved unsalvageable after the single initial massive aircraft attack. A follow-up second strike, taking advantage of the shock and damage produced by the first waves of planes would have produced far more disastrous results). AJso, technological innovation in the form of shallow-diving aerial torpedoes played an important part, while Japanese midget submarines proved innocuous. But the Soviets’ “first salvo” today should see some forms of technological innovation – like homing guidance of their missiles which would insure hits against carriers tied up alongside piers. The use of mines should also be expected for interdicting U.S. fleet units sortieing from ports, and competent midget submarines (well proved by their testing in Swedish waters) should be on hand for the mop-up operations.
The “first salvo” is, from Soviet writings, designed for attack on more than a single fleet — in port or at sea. Several Pearl Harbors simultaneously!
But can Soviet nuclear submarines prove that they have supplanted attack aircraft carriers as the dominant element in a nation’s sea power for non-nuclear war? Only a major war between the superpowers can resolve this question.
However, the U.S. counter to this “first salvo” strategy might be — with warning of the imminence of a war due to large deployments of submarines — to trigger sea war with mainly nuclear submarines fighting nuclear submarines, to forestall any concentration of submarine weapon power against U.S. carrier fleets.
Today there is a recognition that the enemy’s nuclear submarines must be decimated if a significant degree of sea control is to be enjoyed either in the underseas or on the seas, and that sea control is still required for the successful accomplishment of most naval missions. The path for gaining this control is through nuclear submarines combatting nuclear submarines.
In summary, nuclear submarines are today’s major ingredient in a nation’s sea power for deterring war, for deterring the use of nuclear weapons in a non-nuclear war and finally in deterring a strategic nuclear war. As a fleet-in-being, the threat posed by SSBNs should help terminate a war on favorable terms. In contesting control of the seas, SSNs are the major elements for achieving sufficient sea control to successfully carry out essential naval missions or deny an enemy his mission success. Sinking enemy shipping is best accomplished by nuclear submarines which can first assure a measure of sea control in the area of antiship operations before canying out the basic mission of shipping interdiction.
No mention has been made of the role nuclear submarines might play in third power wars or against terrorism. Unfortunately, nuclear submarines are currently limited as to what they can offer since their weapons are ill fitted for such situations. But, if cruise missiles with conventional warheads had mid-course navigation provided by satellites and with accurate terminal homing from scene-matching devices, they would prove very useful for such low level military situations.