The Navy’s Maritime Strategy, published during the mid 1980’s, tasked the U.S. Navy to use an early, forceful, global, forward deployment of maritime power both to deter war with the Soviet Union and to achieve U.S. war aims should deterrence fail. Secretary of the Navy Lehman proposed that a 600 ship Navy was required to fulfill the Navy’s mission as prescribed in the Maritime Strategy. With this well defined strategic mission, the Navy was highly successful in obtaining funding from Congress to purchase ships, planes and submarines. The threat of a global war with the Soviet Union has diminished, and the funding for a 600 ship Navy has deteriorated. Thus, the Navy has abandoned the Maritime Strategy of the Reagan era and a new naval strategy must be defined.
A shift in strategic planning focus from a global war to a low intensity conflict has occurred within the Navy. Along with this shift in naval strategy, the strategic missions of the U.S. submarine force have also changed. This essay addresses some of these changes and raises some questions about the use of submarines in the future.
The U.S. ballistic missile submarine’s (SSBNs) mission in the Maritime Strategy was to conduct strategic deterrent patrols while remaining undetected and, in the event of a global nuclear war, accurately launch its nuclear missiles. While the Soviet Union retains the ability to launch a nuclear strike at the United States, the role of the SSBNs must remain the same. The ‘IRIDENT class submarines are capable of performing this mission for the foreseeable future. While the TRIDENTs major defense lies in its ability to remain quiet and undetected, it must retain its ability for self defense if it is detected and attacked. Officers serving on these SSBNs must continuously enhance their tactical capabilities to effectively fight any opponent.
U.S. fast attack classes of submarines (SSNs), under the Maritime Strategy, were tasked with the mission of destroying the Soviet submarine fleet, including both SSNs and SSBNs, in Soviet home waters. The main reason behind destroying the Soviet SSNs was to protect the U.S. sea lines of communication (SLOCs) across the Atlantic. The Soviets still possess more submarines than the United States and they are continuing to build more. The United States must retain the ability to effectively combat the Soviet submarine force in case of a resurgent Soviet intention to globally employ its submarine fleet The Navy is currently projecting a 25% reduction in the SSN force to about 80 submarines by 1995. The ability to perform an offensive campaign to destroy the Soviet submarines will be hindered and if cuts in funding continue this ability will be lost Some say that a defensive strategy would protect our SLOCs and that fewer submarines would subsequently be needed. It appears that as the number of U.S. SSNs decrease the Navy must adopt a defensive maritime strategy to protect its SLOCs. But, as the number of U.S. SSNs decreases, the ability to keep the Soviet SSNs in their own waters, away from our SLOCs, declines. The Navy must maintain a powerful SSN force not only to protect our SLOCs, but also to deter the Soviet SSNs from leaving their home waters. The likelihood of a global war is minimal, but it is wise to keep enough SSNs on hand to deter the Soviets from any malicious activities.
The Navy must decide on the strategy of the ’90s with regard to the mission of the U.S. SSN force. With a well defined mission, the Navy can direct its funding and training programs to better meet the requirements of the mission. The U.S. SSN force is presently capable of fulfilling numerous missions including anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, intelligence gathering, convoy escort, carrier task force escort, cruise missile launching, harbor penetration, mine placement and more. The U.S. SSN force will continue to be capable of performing these missions, but without a well defined strategic mission it may be hindered in its ability to carry out some of them due to Jack of training or Jack of funding in particular areas. A well defined mission can assist in the proper allocation of funds and training in the areas needed to carry out that mission.
The emphasis in maritime strategy has shifted toward a low intensity conflict in a local area of the world with a minimum likelihood of an open ocean fleet battle. With this in mind, there are still many questions that must be answered. What will the mission of submarines be in the next conflict? How many and of which type of submarines does the U.S. need to fulfill this mission? Should the U.S. build smaller, cheaper diesel submarines? Should the U.S. sonarmen and sonar systems be geared toward the detection of quiet diesel submarines or nuclear submarines? What should submarine commanders emphasize in their training programs? There are many more questions which need to be answered to effectively plan the submarine strategy of the future.
The next submarine engagement could very well occur in shallow waters close to enemy land. There are many countries throughout the world which possess capable navies, some of which contain SSNs. The threat of modem diesel submarines, which many of these countries possess, is lethal. I propose that U.S. SSN training programs should concentrate on seeking out and destroying these navies in a shallow water environment U.S. SSNs must be able to enter enemy waters, perhaps penetrating through minefields, then detect and destroy the enemy Navy without being counter-detected along the way. It is clear that the U.S. must maintain the technological advantage in sound silencing and underwater acoustics over all potential enemies because the dominant advantage of a submarine is in its stealth. Without proper funding from Congress, the technological advantage will deteriorate and the submarine will become a less potent weapon.
For most officers aboard submarines, the responsibility for strategic thought belongs to the Admirals in Washington, D.C., but it is these officers aboard present submarines who have the frrst hand knowledge of the capabilities and limitations of their own submarine. These are the men who should be thinking about how the U.S. can best use submarines in future conflicts. The wardrooms aboard U.S. submarines should allocate time on a regular basis to discuss the strategic use of submarines in future conflicts and answer the questions raised here.
With the current projected cuts in funding for all branches of the military, the Submarine Force must have a well defmcd strategy so that it may receive its fair share of the funding. It is up to the officers who wear dolphins to establish this submarine strategy so that the U.S. submarine force may remain the most lethal weapon in the U.S. military.