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The nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) of the United States Navy is designed primarily for naval combat with the fleet of another superpower. During the 1980s the U.S. Navy carried out a number of naval air strikes, amphibious landings, and supporting actions. In these cases the U.S. Navy fought not the forces of another superpower, but rather the forces of Soviet client states and Third World nations. Although designed for confrontations with high-technology forces, the SSN has many capabilities which make it a flexible and valuable platform in these lower intensity operations.

The SSN’s usefulness does not start with the outbreak of hostilities, however. It is best to deploy the submarine to the area in question while the situation is still at a level of diplomatic crisis. This action gives the U.S. two assets if the situation deteriorates: a potent naval platform unknown to the enemy, and the ability to gather first-hand intelligence. The British made use of this tactic by deploying SSNs to the South Atlantic before war broke out in the Falklands.

The SSN is well-suited for early deployments to crisis areas for seve~al reasons. First, the anti-submarine warfare (ASW) assets of most smaller nations are usually low in quantity and quality. Therefore, SSNs deployed near such nations have little chance of being detected. When coupled with the secrecy which surrounds submarine movements, this allows the U.S. to avoid increased diplomatic tension which would result if a surface ship were deployed. In addition, remote destinations pose no problems for the SSN, and actually give it an edge over conventional vessels. Although an extreme example, the British diesel submarine (SS) ONYX arrived in the Falklands three weeks after her simultaneously deployed nuclear-powered counterparts. The SSN’s nuclear propulsion allows it to travel anywhere in the world submerged and at top speed. Once the SSN arrives on station, it can remain there indefinitely. Also important is the SSN’s operational independence, which is useful in “come as you are” conflicts. Such early deployments could be made by surface platforms, but with greater complexity and diplomatic tensions.

Intelligence is key to the success of any naval operation. The submarine’s stealth allows it to operate in close proximity to the enemy. This capability, combined with the wide array of sensors possessed by the SSN, makes the submarine a good platform for intelligence gathering. The SSN also presents little target for the enemy, which is a boon in times of high tension or combat The British Navy used such tactics to compensate for its lack of airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft during the Falklands War. The Soviets also use their submarines for intelligence gathering, as exposed by the grounding of the Soviet submarine U-137 near Karlskrona Harbor, Sweden.

Should the decision to take military action be made, the SSN can pursue a broad spectrum of operations which can be carried out with little or no support from other platforms. Continued intelligence-gathering close to shore allows the surface task force to remain distanced and make use of the over-the-horizon capabilities of its air-cushion landing-craft, helicopters, and carrier aviation assets. A second mission is the insertion of special operations forces. Special forces are capable of conducting missions relevant to various naval operations, but notably to amphibious assaults. The Sea, Air, and Land Teams (SEALS) performed such tasks in the Grenada invasions, and the British Special Air Service (SAS) and Special Boats Service (SBS) troops performed similar missions in both the South Georgia and the Falklands operations.

Special operations forces, because of their small unit size, rely on the element of surprise to achieve success, making the method of insertion critical. The submarine is a good means of transporting such units to their target, when stealth is required. There are limiting factors involved, but when conditions are favorable, the submarine has proven itself a viable platform. HMS CONQUEROR inserted special forces during the campaign for South Georgia, and North Korean submarines inserted scores of troops into South Korea between 1967 and 1968.

The submarine’s ability to approach the enemy undetected coupled with the limited ASW capability of most Third World nations enhances the SSN’s potential for anti-surface warfare (ASuW) operations. Destroying enemy ships is the classic mission of the submarine, and British SSNs performed this mission by enforcing the Maritime Exclusion Zone during the Falkland Islands War. The material and psychological damage which can be inflicted by submarines has not diminished over time. After the sinking of the GENERAL BELGRANO by the British SSN CONQUEROR, the Argentine Fleet stayed within its territorial waters for the duration of the conflict.

Against the smaller navies with which the U.S. has most often clashed, the ASu W mission may not necessitate roaming the high seas for the enemy. It seems that smaller enemy warships, with poor sea-keeping ability, will often remain in port or close to shore until the time of attack. This was the case with the Libyan warships encountered by the 6th Fleet in March 1986. The proliferation of land-based surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) lends further credence to such tactics, making it difficult for U.S. warships or aircraft to close with these forces before they sortie. The submarine, however, incurs little increased risk when operating close to the home ports of these vessels, and can be employed as a first line of defense (or offense) against such forces.

The weapons load of the submarine now includes not only torpedoes but also submarine-launched HARPOON (and in some cases TOMAHAWK) anti-ship missiles. HARPOONs have proven effective against the corvettes and guided-missile patrol boats which constitute the bulk of most small navies. If the submarine has already been detailed close to shore for other missions, ASu W can be performed by the same platform. The ability of some SSNs to launch TOMAHAWK landattack missiles (TLAMs) allows them to strike static targets inland. Such a mission can be performed either in conjunction with or in lieu of air strikes. The submarine may not always be the optimal platform for this purpose, but the TI..AM equipped SSN gives the Task Force Commander one more platform with which to strike inland targets.

A final offensive mission which the submarine can carry out is that of mining. The United States has not made use of this option frequently, and public opinion on such tactics is frequently negative. However, SSNs have this capability, and mines are an effective and cost efficient weapon for damaging or bottling up an enemy’s fleet. While the use of mines may have declined, it should not be forgotten that the option exists.

The SSN can also perform a vital role defensively. Many nations now possess diesel submarines. Syria and Cuba each possess three, Libya owns six, and approximately 19 are operated by North Korea. These boats have proven themselves to be potentially lethal to even the best navies, as the Argentine submarine demonstrated when she launched several torpedo attacks against British warships during the Falklands War. American carrier and amplubious task forces provide enticing targets for these submarines. While U.S. surface forces possess a wide array of ASW tools, the best sub-hunter is often another submarine. The presence of an SSN gives the Task Force Commander a precious ASW asset if a diesel submarine threat exists.

The American SSN is capable of taking the battle to Soviet strategic and conventional naval forces. Yet, our submarines can also perform tasks valuable to the types of combat operations that the U.S. Navy undertook during the 1980s. While keeping the SSN ready for war with another superpower, its potential for participating in the more frequent conflicts America fights with smaller nations should be utilized.


NSL is trying to develop a mailing list of Associations (formal or otherwise) representing past and present crewmembers of our various submarines (e.g. USS JOHN C. CALHOUN (SSBN-630) Veterans Association, NAUTILUS Alumni Association, etc.). Any members belonging to such associations are encouraged to provide us with name(s) and address(es). Having this information will allow us to develop a dialogue to explore areas of cooperation and mutual interest.

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