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For centuries men have tried to construct special vehicles to sustain them in the hostile environment beneath the sea. Of these most were tethered, or merely suspended like the early diving bells. A few were mobile, but there was no power for submerged locomotion other than human muscle. Hence such craft were tiny, and extremely limited in speed, range, and endurance. Even more than the air above, the undersea has been fraught with difficulty and danger.

A century ago, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, U.S. Navy, professor at the U.S. Naval War College, electrified Europe by publishing his lectures in a book entitled “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History.” Never had the historical importance of England’s centuries old navy been so clearly articulated. Neither had Germany’s opportunity at the beginning of the twentieth century ever been stated so well. Kaiser Wilhelm II, seeing a powerful navy as exactly what he needed to consummate his long felt rivalry with his cousin George V of England, required Mahan’s book to be read by the entire German naval officer corps. Sea Power was the key, and Control of the Sea the means. A fleet of powerful battleships would be the instrument. This was Mahan’s lesson, as the Kaiser understood it.

Through’ a whole sequence of fortuitous circumstances, beginning with his ability to state complex considerations in simple language, Mahan became the naval guru of his age. He greatly influenced Theodore Roosevelt, who was already very navy-minded, and most of the crowned heads of Europe as well. Moreover, Germany’s interpretation of his thesis was accurate enough for the time, and Mahan may therefore be held at least partly responsible for the naval rivalry that presaged the first World War.

The central message of Mahan’s work was that during the previous three centuries, command of the sea had historically determined the outcome of international war. What sea power could accomplish, how to attain it, how it had been exercised by the sailing navies of the past particularly that of Great Britain, constituted his theme. Control of the sea was essential, he held, attainable only by possession of a more powerful fleet than that of an opponent and using it to destroy the enemy’s fleeL Ideally, this would take place in a titanic naval battle, like Trafalgar, but it could also be done in a series of smaller battles. Elimination of an enemy’s ability to contest use of the sea in support of the war was the objective – precisely what England had done as she built her empire.

The epitome of sea power in the early days was a fleet of wooden sailing battleships, the most powerful and best protected warships that could be builL The effect of the industrial revolution was to convert the “ )line,” into a steam-powered warship mounting the heaviest possible armament and the strongest most impenetrable armor that could be devised. Appropriately, this new ship was also called a “battleship.” In the Kaiser’s day, the size and power of a navy was estimated simply by counting its battleships.

Beginning with the ironclads of the U.S. Civil War period, by 1913 the battleship had developed into an awesome steel monster, possessed of a certain austere majesty that enthralled men of the sea (who, despite military training and touted practicality, were largely romanticists at heart). Some of the “cult of the battleship” that so heavily influenced naval thinking during the years before WWII was undoubtedly due to this deep-seated sentiment for ships.

During the two decades between World Wars I and IT, however, the potential of sea-based aircraft was becoming evident to fmward-looking naval officers of Japan and the United States. The debacle of Pearl Harbor solidified the change, and the result was ascendancy of an entirely new class of warship. Rifled cannon of huge size, able to shoot twenty miles, were supplanted by aircraft, carrying bombs ten times as far — and with greater accuracy. The aircraft carrier became the battleships’ direct descendant for sea combat, and as it turned out, did much more fighting than battleships ever did. For World War Two and afterward it held — and still holds – undisputed sway as the premier vehicle by which American policy can be projected anywhere in the world.

Carriers with their air wings represent however, only half of the naval three-dimensional revolution. As with the battleship before them, their prospects depend on the developments of science. But, like the battleship, and in a comparable number of years, they see an unthought of rival in the wings. Today, the most likely scenario is that the future of navies rests with the submarine, which can use both sides of the sea-surface membrane from what has been so far a safe underwater sanctuary.

Mahan was familiar with the concept and design of the submarine that fought the two world wars. He did not live to address its success at commerce raiding, however, because his death, in 1914, took place prior to full development of Germany’s U-boat threat to England. His thesis about control of the sea did indeed hold true during both World Wars but with great difficulty, and only then because of the great logistic support of the undamaged United States, combined with the extraordinary naval and air effort she was able to bring to bear against a relatively small group of men, the German U-boaters.

Submarines have always seemed attractive to the weaker naval power. In the early days, U.S. inventors built three operationally successful underwater craft: Bushnell’s TURTLE in 1776, Fulton’s NAUTILUS in 1801, and Hunley’s diving boat, in 1864. Fulton tried for years to interest France in his “diving boat,” and it can be said that a badly advised Napoleon lost one of his big opportunities when he turned Fulton down. All three boats were hand-driven by propellers, (only FULTON provided a mast and sails for surface propulsion), and all three worked. The TURTLE nearly succeeded in sinking a British warship, and 88 years later the HUNLEY actually sank the blockading Union HOUSATONIC. For this feat HUNLEY will live in history even though she sank also, with all hands.

All nations with navies had experimented with submarines by the time of World War I. All had created small submarine forces with crude boats and minimum crews. At the very outset of that war, the giant capabilities of underwater combat vessels burst upon a startled world when the tiny 500-ton German U-9, with a crew of 29, sank three British armored cruisers totalling 36,000 tons in a couple of hours, suffering no damage and with very little danger to herself. British casualties in the three big ships were about 1,500 men –some 50 times the U-9’s whole crew.

In the aftermath of World War I, it was clear that an extraordinarily small group of dedicated German submariners had very nearly defeated Great Britain and her navy. But what this meant to naval warfare was not fully appreciated. Britain still held control of the sea in the sense envisaged by Mahan, and that was all that mattered to that beleaguered nation. Almost entirely lost was the understanding that traditional sea power, in this emergency, had not been enough. England had been saved only by timely all-out industrial assistance from her erstwhile colony, the United States.

Twenty years later, in World War IT, there were essentially three submarine campaigns with three very different outcomes. The German submarines, manned as before by only a handful of men (some 50,000 overall, an inconsequential number compared with the size of the rest of the Nazi war machine), nearly beat England again. For the second time in about twenty years, the massive intervention of America’s industrial power was all that allowed England to survive.

On the other side of the world, however, and in spite of brilliant early successes, Japan’s submarines made no significant impact in their campaign against the United States. They could not have changed the outcome of the war, but they could have been far better employed than they were. The assessment today is that their overall ineffectiveness was largely due to poor strategic management by the Japanese high command, not to any deficiency in weapons or their tactical use.

The third submarine campaign was that waged by the United States against Japan — and it must be stated flatly that U.S. submariners were initially the least effective of the three undersea services. This was partly because of years of the wrong kind of training, but mostly because of their defective torpedoes. Total loss of the Philippines was directly attributable to this unfortunate situation. The U.S. subs were ‘better designed than those of the other navies, however, and they were, at least, properly utilized. When U.S. weapon difficulties were finally resolved, Japanese maritime and naval losses began to mount. In contrast to England, Japan had no powerful industrial ally to make up her losses, and American submarines thereby became one of the primary decisive factors that forced Japan to surrender.

Today we simplistically divide submarines into “pre-nuke” (before nuclear propulsion) and “post-nuke” classes — with concentration on the present nuclear-power era. To the dedicated submariner this somewhat neglects the period before nuclear powert when submarines demonstrated so conclusively what they could do. The pre-nuke periodt slightly longer than the first half of the twentieth centuryt was the growing timet and also the testing time of war. Massive improvements in diesel enginest electric storage batteriest electric motorst hydraulic systemst and all sorts of important internal mechanisms finally produced the outstandingly successful Fleet submarine of World War n — and similar boats in the other navies, friendly or not.

Twice in the first half of this centuryt submarines conclusively demonstrated the new element of sea power that nations are wrestling with today. Prior to outbreak of war in 1939t Hitler promised his subordinates they would have adequate time to prepare the forces they would need. To Admiral Doenitz, this meant 300 to 400 operational submarine boats and the necessary well-trained crews. What would it have meant to England had this been the force with which Doenitz began the war, instead of the 39 or so he actually had? In the Pacific, U.S. subs share major credit for victory over Japan. The enormous damage inflicted by submarines on both sides, roughly between a quarter to a half of all the maritime damage, was done by less than one percent of the forces under arms; this, against opposition specifically directed at them that amounted to about half the total naval strength of the opposing side. And it should be noted that the submarines of all the nations involved incurred the highest percentage of losses of any engaged force.

With the second half of the century came the nuclear power plant, permitting submarines to remain submerged indefinitely by removing their dependence on air, and simultaneously greatly increasing their power and thereby their speed. To these “true submarines” have been grafted the world’s most sophisticated missile systems, with guidance, range and destructive power undreamed of during the first half of the century. These ships (they are no longer “boats”) inhabit the trackJess fluid covering most of the globe, but little has been thought about them because, except when in harbor, they cannot be seen.

We should think about them. At this very moment U.S. nuclear submarines carrying more than 100 ballistic missiles meticulously serviced by a few hundred highly trained young men, are on submerged station. Another hundred ballistic missiles (the numbers are symbolic) in Soviet submarines are likewise hidden in the ocean. These are essential elements of today’s sea power, to which the events of the first half of the twentieth century have led.

World War Two was the greatest conflict yet waged by man. Unfortunately, we are still preoccupied by the mode of thought bred by that titanic conflict and have not yet separated its lessons from its dramatic story. In a sense, the nuclear submarine came too soon — opening new horizons of capabilities before there had been adequate contemplation of how the world reached the point where we now stand.

Nor has the human mind been able to focus rigorously on the fantastic capabilities of the nuclear submarine. We go into lengthy technical descriptions, but such considerations quickly become classified. On the public affairs level we say, “picture a submarine, the tiny underwater boats of the first two World Wars, suddenly grown to the size of the battleships sunk at Pearl Harbor!” But few individuals, even if they grasp its technological points, will understand what may be the most important thing of all. Eminent British historian John Keegan, for example, predicts in his newest book, The Price of Admiralty, that future Battles of Jutland will be fought underwater. On the contrary, in spite of the greatly increased importance of nuclear submarines there will be no submerged battle even remotely similar to that or any other great sea fight of days of yore. The onrush of sophisticated technology negates any prospect of repetition, even by analogy, of naval battles of ages past, anymore than jet aircraft armed with heatseeking missiles would wish to reproduce the aerial dogfights between the Spads and Fokkers of World War I. The new battleship-sized strategic submarines carrying weapons tens of thousands of times the destructive power of the old “battlewagons: are not intended to fight other submerged battleships. Their targets are whole nations. Submarine destroyers will of course be sent to find them, and other submarine destroyers (“attack” submarines) will protect the submerged weapons-carriers. Finding the latter will be the principal problem, even before attack can be contemplated. This is not easily done — their invisibility exists until the moment when their rockets fly out of a peaceful sea.

One OHIO-class SSBN can shoot in a single salvo 24 missiles carrying in all about 200 “MIRVed” atom bombs -each bomb far more powerful than the one that obliterated Hiroshima. We have to assume that the USSR’s TYPHOONand DELTA-class subs can launch approximately the equivalent. No country on earth can recover from even one of these dreadful salvoes. Yet, these “obliterator-ships” — to coin a term intended to infer much more than “battleship” -have one twentieth the crew of the greatest battleship ever built, a fortieth that of a new aircraft carrier.

No one has yet dealt with the fundamental question: “does all this change sea power as we have thought of it during the past hundred years?” More specifically, what is sea power today?

As the twentieth century nears its end, the submarine has come of age. In a very few years it has become one of the most absolutely terrifying ocean-going vehicles of all time, armed with the most fearsome, most easily concealable, most readily usable weapons ever conceived by an uneasy mankind.

The submarine, nuclear power and the nuclear weapon were combined to form this remarkable weapons system. Its immediate predecessor, a relatively tiny boat with only pinpricks for weapons, nevertheless possessed lethality out of all proportion to its cost in lives and money. To neutralize the conventional submarine took an effort on the order of 100 to one, and despite optimistic predictions, research since has done more for submarines than against them. The result of it all is that subs are today much harder to detect and counterattack than ever before. How much greater than ever before, then, is the dimension of the submarine threat!

We need to think of sea power in an entirely new way, for the world ocean is now a haven for surprise attack. Sea power has gone the other way from Mahan’s early concept. It is less controllable than ever before. Recent history shows that formulas for the use of arms are dividing into two types. The first amounts to implementation of national policy, and the means employed may range from simple visible presence, in itself expressive of the national will, to direct use of conventional arms in a “limited war.” The other use of arms amounts to instant destruction, visited upon huge areas of an enemy heartland in retaliation for (or perhaps in anticipation ot) a similar attack by the enemy. Actual use of such destructive capability by either side is manifestly unacceptable, even though the threat of it, under the name of deterrence, has been in place for years.

It follows that the ultimate warship, the missile-firing submarine, by its very impregnability and tremendous destructive power is right now helping to make unlimited, allout war a thing of the past. Disagreements will not disappear overnight, but the first thing to go will be nuclear weapons. When it comes time to retire the extraordinary submarines we have developed to carry the outlaw nuclear weapons, the boast will be that they were never used.

So be it. Sea Power now refers to the possibility of irresistible onslaught from the deep of the sea, capable of producing the effect of a whole war in a single day, and visiting unimaginable destruction upon innocent people (whatever the sins of their leaders). From this the world recoils. World War ll is likely to be the last all-out general war. World War m will probably never take place, though “limited” wars, carefully circumscribed as to purpose and means employed may, for a time. Even the meaning of the word “war” will become more carefully defined. The world is going through one if its most significant changes, for one of the instinctive purposes of man is to avoid the final demonstration of the cataclysmic capabilities of the doomsday weapon he has made.

The influence of the submarine on sea power has been, from the deep of the sea, to give new meanings to “war” and “peace,” and man has entered a new age.

Naval Submarine League

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