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Fortunately, wars at sea are few and far between. As a result, the capital that is invested in warships, especially submarines, is commonly amortized without the fleet ever having to demonstrate its war-fighting capabilities. This may be the proof-in-the-pudding of a wise investment; the idea of a national investment in a general naval insurance policy sounds reasonable enough. But the matter is not that simple. The investors, i.e. the nation’s taxpayers, have the unfortunate tendency to renew their premium with only the greatest reluc-tance if the insurance company’s board of directors, in this case the naval leadership, fail to convince them that, even without disaster (war) their investment will be amortized at a peacetime profit.

This is precisely the dilemma that confronts the U.S. Navy’s Submarine Force. The end of the Cold War superpower standoff means that the chances that the American underwater fleet will be used for the purpose it was built for is more remote than ever. It also signifies Navy-wide force and budget cuts. But in the fight for post-Cold War procurement dollars the surface fleet will have one important advantage: practice and popular perception have created an image of the surface navy aircraft carriers, cruisers, amphibious ships — as a profitable investment short of outright war; that, unlike submarines, surface combatants are a usable force in peacetime. At hand is, of course, that bundle of naval activities that are variously called presence, showing-the-flag, crisis response, or naval diplomacy.

Why Submarines Wont Do.

Three arguments are typically advanced to declare the submarine inherently unsuitable for presence purpose. First, the submarine cannot be seen. Traditional treatments of naval diplomacy maintain that the craft’s most striking feature, stealth, conflicts with the very essence of naval crisis management, namely visible presence. The evident reasoning is that for a threat to be credible it must be communicated and that, if naval forces are used, this communication must come in a form that is for all to behold.

The second objection concerns the submarine’s design as a war-making platform. It is said to be an aU-or-nothing weapon without the ability to engage in proportional violence. Eric Grove put the problem this way:

“. . .  the kind of damage they can inflict with their primary torpedo or missile weapons is almost always fatal and catastrophic. This rules them out as weapons of much utility in operations at the lower levels of intensity–if they are unleashed then it usually marks a major escalation of the conflict.”

The  third  reason  marshalled  against  the  submarine  as  a military-diplomatic instrument relates to the first. When students of naval diplomacy speak of presence they mean warships that impress, i.e. ships with a physical appearance that exudes power. Submarines are said to fall short on this count for, unlike surface combatants, they do not sprout gun barrels or missile launchers. Worse even than the submarine’s clean lines, the knowledge that hidden within is an awesome killing machine is said to project the wrong image. “Even when surfaced,” writes Grove, “submarines have the appearance of stealthy, silent killers which alienates rather than attracts.”

There are good practical and theoretical grounds for reassessing this common wisdom about the submarine’s short-comings as a presence force.

Deterrence, Crisis Stability, and Presence

Perhaps the most basic rule of deterrence holds that for a threat to be credible and hence successfully deter, it must be communicated. Theorists and practitioners are less certain, however, on how a threat should be communicated and how much information should be contained in the communication. The question is this: should a threat leave no doubt in the adversary’s mind about what the threatener intends and is capable of doing, or is deterrence better served by leaving room for uncertainty? And related is the question of how one packages the threat in a way that accommodates the political need on the one hand to prevent escalation but that, at the same time, prepares the military for the failure of deterrence?

Deterrence theorists and practitioners have long discovered that there are no hard and fast answers — with one exception: for reasons that are not obvious in either theory or practice it has become dogma that the communication of threats by seagoing forces must be overt, certain, and for the whole world to see! The very translation of the idea of naval suasion into the word presence implies that it cannot be otherwise.

The notion that naval forces impress only when they are visible and that crises can be mant~ged from the seas only by the overt deployment of naval forces, can be taken to task on a number of grounds.

The reclama that comes to mind first concerns the invisible nature of the centerpiece of strategic deterrence and strategic crisis management, the SSBN fleet But this is arguably a special case that operates by different rules than conventional deterrence. It is not clear that this is so, but be that as it may, there are other compelling reasons to test the insistence that naval suasion be visible and is therefore the monopoly of surface fleets.

How Visible Is Visible?

If it is true that visibility is a critical ingredient in the business of naval presence, then the case can be made that, practically speaking, surface navies too fall short Presence conveys the image of a stately procession of warships in full view of those that are intended to receive-the-message. The reality is very different for the simple reason that fleet move-ments, especially during a crisis, do not take place in full view of observers on the beach. The straightforward explanation is that international law would hardly permit the commander of a carrier battle group or say other crisis management force to deploy within a nation’s 12-nautical miles territorial sea and claim innocent passage.

In sum, for surface fleets too, presence is little more than a metaphor – a left-over perhaps from the days when naval blockades were close and sea battles were witnessed by crowds on the beach.

Crisis Stability and the Value of Invisibilty

Deterrence theory offers further grounds for questioning that naval presence must be visible. At hand in particular is the concept of crisis stability. This says that international crisis managers must take care that their actions, especially the packaging of particular military forces, do not trigger inadver· tent escalation.

Measures to ensure crisis stability have a political and a military component. At the political level, decision-makers are cautioned to avoid steps, especially public steps, that comer an opponent. Thus, Blechman and Kaplan found in their book Forces Without War (p. 524) that, “national leaders will resist demands for policy modifications most strenuously when such demands are made publicly, which is usually unavoidable when military power is used.”

H it is true, that depending on the circumstances, crisis stability is served by more or less publicity of the deterrer’s actions, and if it is also granted that the dispatch of high-profile naval forces is, by definition, a very public signal, then it follows that there may be occasions that a covert display of force is called for. This at least has long been recognized at the strategic nuclear level of crisis management. The question is, why have naval crisis managers failed to take advantage of the ability to engage in the low-visibility signaling that is inherent in the submarine!

As noted, crisis stability has a military component as well. Military capabilities promote crisis stability if both sides perceive them as able to survive -a surprise attack-and retaliate. Deter-rence theory has mostly been preoccupied with the stability of strategic nuclear forces, but the concept is equally applicable to conventional forces.

Again, the answer to the question whether a particular military force posture is stable or not depends on both sides perceiving it as such. For the deterrer, it depends on his confidence that be can ride out a surprise attack and retaliate, and his confidence that the opponent knows this. For the other side it depends on his estimate that the opposing force is indeed survivable and is therefore under no pressure to launch a preemptive surprise attack. The anathema of crisis stabllity then Is force vulnerability.

Are surface presence forces more wlnerable to surprise attack and therefore potentially more crisis-destabilizing than submarines? One answer is that it depends on the situation, in particular the military capabilities of the opponent at hand. Thus, an adversary who is highly qualified in anti-submarine warfare (ASW) could make a stable submarine presence untenable. However, the most likely targets of future naval crisis deployments will be ASW-poor countries in the Third World. Yet, those same countries will also likely possess relatively more advanced anti-surface capabilities in the form of aircraft and missiles. This intimates that, aU things being equal (which they admittedly usually are not), a surface presence offers an inherently better target-of-opportunity than the unknown whereabouts of a submarine flotilla.

The other answer is that the practice of U.S. naval crisis management has already demonstrated that, because of vulnera-bility, a surface presence can be de-stabilizing. The prominent case in point is the VINCENNES incident. Here, wlnerability, or at least perceived vulnerability, compelled the ship’s Com-manding Officer to launch a preemptive defense strike. The Navy’s long-standing reluctance to deploy its most visible weapon, the aircraft carrier, inside constricted waters offers another clue.

In sum, one can readily envisage circumstances in which, politically or militarily, a carrier battlegroup or surface action force may not be the presence-of-choice; that, depending on the opponent, his record of accommodation to the threat of force, and his military capabilities, a quiet underwater presence should be resorted to.

The Proportionality Issue

The second major argument that is held up against the submarine as a political weapon is that it lacks proportionality it cannot fire a weapon without meaning to kill and thereby commit the act of war that crisis management is supposed to prevent. More important, so the argument goes, the party whose behavior the submarine is supposed to influence knows this and will therefore not likely be impressed unless war itself is expected.

The proposition that the credibility of a warship as a tool of crisis management rests on its ability to threaten and, if necessary, inflict proportionate violence, can be tested on the following grounds.

The debate during the 1950s over how to make a nuclear threat credible led to two schools of thought. The finality of dete”ence school held that successful deterrence hinges on the threatener’s resolve to inflict punishment in-excess-of-the-crime. According to this view, a threat that is sufficiently terrifying never needs implementing. By contrast, the credibility of deterrence school maintained that for a threat to deter it must be believed. Accordingly, credibility is largely in the eye of the threatened beholder, notably his perception of the relationship between the threatened punishment and the offense. If the two are asymmetrical, deterrence will probably fail, so that successful deterrence at all levels of provocation depends on an arsenal of graduated or proportionate threats.

Related to these two approaches are two different perspec-tives on the use of controlled escalation as a crisis management technique. One holds that escalatory measu’ s to show resolve must be gradual and moderate in order to reassure the oppo-nent that outright warfare is not intended. The other rejects the gradual approach for prolonging the risk that is inherent in a crisis and for tempting the opponent to match every move.

The point to all of this is there is a legitimate difference of opinion on the merits of proportionality that critics of the submarine as a political tool have basically chosen to ignore.

There is a related question: What is the measure of propor-tionality? Should it be measured by its immediate results or its long-term effect? A c’lSe in point is the sinking of the Argentine cruiser BELGRANO by the British submarine CONQUEROR during the Falklands war. Critics condemned the act as disproportionate; the Argentines had received no direct warning and BELGRANO posed no immediate danger to the advancing British task force. At a minimum, CONQUEROR should have fired a warning shot first.. Defend-ers, on the other hand, have argued that the submarine’s action was entirely appropriate and proportional to the broader issue at hand. The loss of BELGRANO sent a message that com-pelled the Argentine fleet to stay in port and thereby saved many lives, British and Argentine.

Proportionality Depends on the Crime

Proportionality says that the threat of punishment must be commensurate with the crime. It does not say that only minor crimes count. What is striking however about the indictment of the submarine as lacking in proportionality is that it rests on its shortcomings in a very small and relatively benign portion of the overall crisis spectrum. In other words, critics have generalized from the submarine’s inability to point a gun, fire a shot-across-the-bow, and force a ship to heave to short of sinking it.

It is true that the modem submarine cannot fire a demon-strative shot-across-the-bow. It is certainly technically feasible to launch a torpedo that is deliberately fuzed short of the target, but at some one million dollars each, wasting a warsbot is difficult to justify. The alternative is to prepare the subma-rine for surface action and reintroduce the gun mount that vanished when undeiWater bunting-and-killing of enemy submarines became the craft’s first priority. Before this can happen however, submariners must first be persuaded that there is life after stealth.

But it is narrow-sighted to insist that the value of the submarine as a tool of naval diplomacy stands or falls on the ability to enforce a blockade of seagoing traffic short of an act of war. The recent war in the Persian Gulf has highlighted the value of naval forces to enforce an embargo, but most of the international crises in recent memory that involved the dispatch of naval forces did not involve warnings to shipping to heave to or be sunk. Instead, most of the episodes involved latent presence without the firing of a gunor missile. In those cases where latent violence did become active it was mostly done with the intent to kill.

The submarine may not be the platform-of-choice to enforce an embargo, but this does not automatically exclude it from the whole spectrum of naval suasive tasks. Would the threat of a salvo of submarine-fired Tomahawk missiles have been less proportional than the Sixth Fleet’s carrier strike against Libya in 1986?

Warship Aesthetics and Politics

The tendency of skeptics of the submarine as a weapon-of-presence to generalize from the particular is evident also in the claim that the craft’s physical appearance makes it unsuitable for representational purposes. Most observers of the naval scene agree that some ships look better than others. The visual impressiveness of the Soviet Navy’s cruisers and destroyers compared with Western ships has often been commented on favorably. But the aesthetics of a warship only matter at the bottom of the naval presence ladder: the friendly port call. Even then, there are exceptions.

Foreign port calls are made for a variety of reasons. Some are designed to show political support for a friend or ally in trouble; others are a routine reminder of a military link; and still others are operational visits for the purpose of crew rest and recreation and logistics. An important corollary purpose in any event is to gamer the goodwill of the local populace.

The submarine is not a practical platform for popular goodwill visits, if for no other reason than that it cannot accommodate the hundreds, sometimes thousands of visitors that want to set foot on their first ship. But, depending on the message that wants getting across, the submarine can still be the political platform of choice. A prominent case in point is a visit by the Polaris submarine SAM HOUSTON to the Turkish port of Izmir in April 1963. Had this been a routine representation-al call the visitor would have been one of the Sixth Fleet’s carriers or cruisers normally on duty in the area. At hand, however, was a distinct political signal — as weighty as the one conveyed by the battleship MISSOURI 17 years earlier. The intent was to reassure Turkey and at the same time remind the Soviet Union that the recent removal of Jupiter missiles from Turkish soil did not signify a lessening of America’s strategic nuclear guarantee. Some analysts have argued that the tempo-rary visit of U.S. seabased missiles could not be an adequate substitute for the permanency of the ground·based Jupiters. But be that as it may, the point is that at this particular moment U.S. decision makers believed that only a submarine could send the appropriate signal.

Warship Capability and Appearance in the Third World Implicit in the claim that foreign port calls to impress must be the business of awe.inspiring ships is the suggestion that foreigners, especially the citizens of the developing nations, cannot appreciate a warship that does not show its power by way of deck mounted guns and missile launchers. This may be true for the average viewer, but the claim grossly underesti-mates the sophistication of the audience that ultimately matters: the host country’s political and military elite. Developed and developing nations transact business in the same global arms market; between Jane’s Fi~htin& Ships and other professional publications, and the proliferation of regional hardware shows, the modem Third World leader is fully aware of the submarine’s hidden capacity for violence. If proof is needed, one has to only consider the submarine’s popularity among Third World navies.


Today, the U.S. Navy confronts the necessity of finding innovative ways of doing more-with-less. Overall fleet levels are declining; the goal of a 600-ship navy with 15 aircraft carriers has already been down-sized to a 450-ship fleet centered around one dozen carriers. Even these numbers are not sacrosanct. At the same time, national policy dictates that forward presence remain one of the “pillars” of the Nation’s security. The implication for the Navy and the Nation is obvious: neither will long be able to afford for presence to be the privilege of visible warships alone. Naval officers will need to tum their thoughts to new ways of efficiently amortizing all of their assets.

This observation matters especially for the submarine community. Given that the curtain has fallen on the Cold War, submariners will need to persuade the body politic that, even without the specter of another Atlantic tonnage war, the underwater platform is a capital investment in war and in peace.

[Ed. Note: A longer version of this article appears in the October edition of the Naval Institute Proceedings.]

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