Proposals for smaller, lighter and above all cheaper submarines abound, even in maritime publications. Recent examples include Richard Compton-Hall’s promotion of two man mini-subs in the Naval Institute Proceedings and the simplistic demands for a less-capable-than-SEA WOLF ship in the Heritage Foundation’s “Mandate for Leadership m: Policy Strategies in the 1990’s”, published in part in the December 1988 Seapower Magazine. These propositions are significant to the Submarine League because they testify to the need for more effective efforts to educate our fellow citizens on the physical and fiSCal truths involved.
Common to all these proposals for smaller, lighter and cheaper submarines is their lack of endorsement by persons who are operationally experienced and technically competent. This situation is unique among weapons systems debates. In the Army, one can find a vocal “Light Cavalry” community offering operational arguments against the Main Battle Tank. The two place heavy fighter versus the one man interceptor generates lively discussions in any Tactical Air Command Officer’s Club. In the Navy, surface warfare officers argue heatedly about the operational advantages of the nuclear powered cruisers over gas turbine driven destroyers (as well as a dozen other capabilities). But it is virtually impossible to find an officer who has served in a modern nuclear submarine who wants something smaller, lighter and cheaper than SEA WOLF or OHIO.
Submarine operators know they need room. Increased speed requires bigger engines, heavier reactors, larger beat exchanger surfaces. To become quieter, the next generation submarines require larger machinery mounts, additional weight of dampening and coatings, space to allow smooth fluid flows (not an all inclusive list). More weapons are a must The limit of any warship is magazine capacity and the more capable the ship the more serious this limit becomes. No where is this limitation more constrictive than in submarines which operate far from replenishment facilities, engaged in enemy waters (a “target rich environment”) from the first days of the war and from which targets can escape only by fleeing to port. In less-than-total war environments, the variety of weapons which will be needed argue for larger stowages.
Sensors too need more space to exploit larger bandwidths and lower frequencies because the physics of both of these parameters depend upon longer antennae or hydrophones. Even in the area of computational processing there is a need for more space and weight. Today’s computers, so densely packed they have to be refrigerated, are two to twelve times heavier per cubic foot than their analog predecessors. Even with great computing power packaged tightly, the ability to sense and use the information developed demands more and more space for sensors, fire control and navigational purposes. Shooting at a target on intermittent bearings only at ten miles demands several orders of magnitude more sensing and computing power than a periscope approach to shoot at a thousand yards. Networking a couple of PC’s is not the answer to any of these demands. The real answer requires space, weight and dollars.
Engineers and architects who design and build these ships know that you can’t have any of this technological edge without more room. Those engineers who promote smaller submarines ALWAYS acknowledge that they are promoting a force which is operationally limited, one which is Jess capable than they know can be built. First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill’s epigram about coal fired destroyers applies: the proponents of smaller, cheaper, lighter submarines are advocating breeding slower race horses.
There is an instructive analogy in submarine design. In the mid-thirties the U.S. Navy’s first construction since World War I programs made small incremental improvements to the “S” Class, a design which was 20 years old albeit a very good submarine for its time. In the third year of the building program there was a sharp departure from this incremental approach with TABOR, the immediate predecessor and prototype for the Fleet Boats. She was more than twice as big, faster, heavier, with substantially more weapons, four big diesels in the power plant and a crew which grew to twice the size of the “S” Boats. Had the choice been made to build a smaller, lighter, cheaper alternative, what would have been the effect in World War II? How much longer could the Japanese have held out against a submarine campaign spearheaded by “S” Boats?
How many more submarines would have been lost because of their lower resiliency to damage, slower getaway speed and decreased submerged endurance?
Officers who have served over the past thirty years have experience with “smaller, cheaper, lighter” submarines. Those of us who have tried to keep the TULUBEE’s main propulsion commutators operating or struggled to repair or clean outboard of the main condensers on a SKATE Class ship have fmn opinions on the need for space to clean, quiet, maintain and stow. The “594” Class began too small in almost every respect — and their crews paid for it. The last three ships of the class had to be elongated just to stay abreast of equipment requirements.
The STURGEON’s were top of the line for their time. Before the class was completed they were too small to carry all the mission essential equipment. Only a generous design and fortuitous circumstances allowed installation of the vertical launch tubes in ballast tanks on the later Los Angeles Class ships. EVERY EXPERIENCE SINCE 1905 demonstrates that submarines will have to increase in size and weight to capitalize on technological developments — they do not shrink.
Among concerns occasionally cited about these big ships is the perceived difficulty of operating them in relatively shallow water. While it is true that school boats no longer operate in the 120 foot “deeps” of Long Island Sound, STURGEON Class submarines have operated in narrower volumes in the Arctic as well as in waters even shallower close ashore in many areas of the world. The power, stability and superb handling characteristics of these big hulls more than compensate for their large size. Indeed, in this author’s experience, no submarine was as difficult to handle as DARTER, the smallest submarine in which I served. A single very large Weapons Officer, Frank Rudolph, moving about the ship was enough to make trim difficult.
Knowledgeable submarine operators appear tongue tied because of an understandable reluctance to reveal operational capabilities. Because common experience has produced common understanding of a complex matter, submarine officers are often attacked as “hidebound” or “fixated”. These allegations are made by those who are operationally inexperienced and who have no arguments to proffer other than budgetary ones. But these “ad hominum” attacks have been unusually effective in the political scenery around the defense budget, the need for the next generation submarine and the ASW threat posed by the Soviets and to the Soviets. Submariners need to repair that defect with knowledge, argument and cohesion.
The ultimate “smaller, lighter, cheaper” argument came during the Congressional testimony of the Director for the National Endowment for the Arts a few years ago. Tongue in cheek, he requested all submarines then under construction be shortened three feet. He calculated their cost relative to their length ($/foot) so that shortening each just a little would yield enough money to fund his shortfall in the arts. He was as knowledgeable as many of those who propose building smaller, lighter, cheaper submarines.
Proponents of the smaller, lighter, cheaper model always advance as their chief argument that it is numbers that count. But the model for naval warfare in general and submarine warfare in particular is not infantry battles. Nelson was outnumbered and outgunned at Trafalgar; but the issue there was never in doubt. At sea numbers count only when both sides are evenly matched technically and professionally. In the sophisticated and demanding environment of the ocean, the slower, louder, sensor-starved submarine becomes cannon fodder for the more capable ship. There is no guarantee of continuing this monopoly of capability during the life of any submarine now building. DREADNOUGHT was not the last naval development which will outmode its predecessors at a stroke. Those of us who know the requirements should vigorously advocate never building less than the best submarine that we know how to make.