Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


As even any occasionally observant couch potato can attest, ..f-\..the world has changed dramatically in just the last two years. The results of these changes are readily apparent by perusal of the Budget Request submitted to Congress by the Department of Defense. The specific world changes, or the synergism of one upon the other, are not as important as the whole.

There are very obvious results, however, which will continue to have major impact: the shifting balance of power; the Middle East and its instability; the deteriorating Soviet economy; the movement of third world countries to raise terrorism to an art form; and the U.S. national debt with the concomitant domestic problems.

Because of these results, or in spite of them, the U.S. defense establishment will be vastly changed five years from now — from its present levels of resources and people. Even more starkly obvious will be the prompt drop from the force structure levels which had been predicted during the first five years of the 80’s. As each of the questions of cause and effect is debated ad nauseam, and the U.S. force level is markedly reduced, it is incumbent on those of us most familiar with the inherent capabilities of the submarine to ensure that the force structure debate of levels and mix is an informed one based on facts.

We must be convincingly articulate with the historic success of our force as well as with the inherent capabilities — those present now and those planned and possible. Although I can hardly be perceived as impartial, I am convinced that the nuclear submarine force must be at the heart of the basic Navy structure. The Submarine Force must be sized and prepared to be effective in its role as the nation’s pre-eminent strategic deterrent as well as in its multi-faceted tactical role. This latter must include both the highly successful independent operations of our SSNs as well as the operations which will integrate the vast capabilities into the Battle Force (land strike, ASUW and ASW).

Recently an article by Paul Wrobel, Director of Design, Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering, Ltd., led off with the statement:

“For over 100 years submarines have demonstrated their military effectiveness. From early perceptions of being largely irrelevant or even unfair in naval warfare, submarines have progressed to becoming the key units in all the world’s major navies.”

Whether each of you agree fully is not important, but being knowledgeable of several basic facts is mandatory. Many countries, today, view the submarine as the most valuable naval warship. The Soviet Union not only has said it in various fora, it has backed up that opinion by actions. In 1990 the Soviet Union launched ten submarines, six of which were high performance, state-of-the-art modern nuclear submarines, both the largest number and the greatest tonnage of submarine construction seen in many years. Those submarines may not represent the major threat today; they do certainly establish the greatest potential threat. To be properly prepared we must deal with capabilities.

Let there be no doubt, both the British and French governments very strongly support their submarine forces as the premier arm of their Navy — not to mention the role as their primary strategic deterrent.

Several other countries have programs for building new submarines and for modernizing existing forces: Germany is presently designing and building diesel units for several countries. Many others are either buying overseas, building their own, or being boot-strapped into their own submarine production capability. Some specific countries which are these players to varying degrees are India, Pakistan, Cuba, Brazil, Japan, Italy, South Korea, Israel, Egypt, China, Taiwan, Libya, Australia, The Netherlands and Norway. Obviously, these governments and others see some strong potential benefit in a pre-eminent submarine force.

A former Assistant CNO for Air Warfare wrote recently in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings:

“One of the most serious problems confronting planners today is the real and growing threat of Third World submarines…. Missiles and topedoes launched from those submarines will undoubtedly be the principal threat to the Navy’s forces at sea.”

The U.S. nuclear submarine force, as it has evolved over the last three decades, has certain capabilities that are not present in any other single platform:

  • Stealth to an extent unknown anywhere — allowing the U.S. submarines to operate covertly in areas, or in numbers, which no other air or naval platform can match;
  • Mobility which has been tested frequently — the ability to get underway rapidly, deploy fully ready at a high sustained speed and arrive at its destination prepared to operate;
  • Endurance, which is limited only by the food carried and which translates to operating months at a time on station or moving from place to place – covertly; and
  • Firepower, which now includes the D5 missile of strategic submarines and the tactical anti-ship and land-attack Tomahawk missiles, the strike version of which has been battle tested satisfacton1y during Operation Desert Storm.

This tactical missile must be understood for the effect it can have. It can not deliver the weapon tonnage of DESERT STORM. It can operate covertly and therefore launch down an unexpected (and unprotected) axis. The Tomahawk accuracy and surprise are extremely important. Secondly, the SLCM exposes no human pilot to endangerment. If you desire a clean no human cost, non-attributal strike, this is it. Mines and the most sophisticated torpedoes in the world today round out the arsenal carried in our submarines.

Over the history of modem military submarining, a dichotomy in employment philosophy has been perceived by some to place primary emphasis on either independent operations or close coordination with the Battle Fleet. We must be quite clear in this age of change and enforced efficiencies to emphasize to those not as familiar with these capabilities as we, that modem USN submarines are quite capable of doing both. Indeed, that is one of the major benefits to having a large competent nuclear attack submarine force.

The Navy will continue to fulfill the historic tasks of peacetime presence, forward deployment, protection of the sea lines of communication, blockade and major fleet engagement. The United States Navy will always be required to guarantee freedom of the seas, and we have to be recognized as a primary player in that effort.

The major differences between tomorrow as now perceived, and what we had all come to expect during the mid-eighties for the Navy to execute those missions are: the Navy will be smaller (25% smaller?); many of the foreign ports which historically have always been accessible will no longer be available to us; the affordability issue will predominate; and the threat will be continuously re-defined and expressed in the light best suited to the goals of the proponent du jour.

As the Navy gets smaller, it is mandatory that each weapons system which supports its operations be capable of many missions as well as equipped to work with other naval forces. Interestingly, because of the very impressive submarines we now have, as well as the building program maintained during the eighties, we have an SSN level which should not decrease below seventy to eighty attack submarines over the next ten to fifteen years. A primary point to remember is that, once built and fielded, the nuclear attack submarine costs less to operate than almost any other navy ship; its range of capabilities is unmatched.

The ultimate top level of SSBNs will be determined by the ever fluid discussions of the Strategic Triad, START (I & ll), the 05 building and backfit programs, and the resources allocated to “Strategic.” A very major factor in the discussion of numbers will certainly be the expected reorganization of CINCSAC to CINCSTRAT as per the presently rather illdefined JCS Unified Command Plan now being developed.

Our Submarine Force today is fully capable of missions it could not have fulfilled 15 years ago. It is much more capable and ready to work closely with Battle Forces in support of an ASW role or in coordination of anti-ship and land-strike missions. Today, the Tomahawk strike mission allows the landbased enemy to be hit from directions in which he has no forewarning of danger. Further, SLCM land strikes preclude potential loss of American air crews. Similarly, the Dry-Deck Shelters and close operational tie with the Special Forces give the submarine operational value no other platform can emulate (the ability to insert and extract those special forces). Continuing enhancements in interoperability will only increase the submarine’s value to the Navy.

Today, the U.S. nuclear Submarine Force has the full range of capabilities necessary to operate in peacetime or wartime, in a global war or in a Third World low intensity conflict, in the open ocean or in shallow water. It can operate in our waters or theirs — no matter who they are.

It is incumbent on each of us to fully understand these capabilities and where each one can fit into the National Maritime Strategy. In today’s atmosphere of reduced resources and strong emphasis on efficiency and economy of forces we must ensure all the decision makers duly recognize the range of capabilities of the submarine and the strong position it must maintain in the Navy’s force structure of tomorrow.

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League