Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


Two questions that are implicit in the submarine debates of 1992 and  1993 are:   (a) Why build submarines now that the Soviet threat is gone? and (b) What possible use could a platform designed to counter a Soviet nuclear powered attack submarine have in a multi-polar world? In today’s austere fiscal climate, these are valid questions. Regardless of the end strength of the submarine force, they will have to be addressed. Ignoring political concerns, the answers must be based on how well the platforms fulfill current and projected military requirements. Submarines have historically satisfied enduring roles and have adapted their unique characteristics to satisfy emerging military needs as well. However, the common perception frequently supported by the media portrays the submarine as a cold war weapon of very limited modem utility. If the submarine is to remain a viable military platform in a competitive public arena, the community cannot rest on its laurels but must continue to innovatively support the demands of the national military strategy across the spectrum of conflict.


To establish the enduring nature of submarine roles, one need only examine past and present. On 24 June 1943, Commander, Submarines Pacific Fleet (COMSUBPAC) defined submarine precepts and missions in Operation Plan 1-43. They were:

  1. Inflict maximum damage to enemy ships and shipping by offensive patrol at focal points.
  2. Plant offensive mine fields in suitable enemy waters to destroy enemy ships and to force the enemy to adopt counter measures.
  3. Other tasks as may be required from time to time by the strategic situation, or based on intelligence which may come to hand. Such special tasks include supporting naval or land forces by attacks on shipping in threatened areas; reconnaissance; transport of troops for raids on enemy bases or installations; landing of agents for intelligence purposes in enemy held territory; evacuation of armed forces or civilians from enemy held territory; delivery of supplies to armed United States or Allied Forces; or to agents in enemy held territory as may be necessary or desirable.

On 18 January 1992, the Assistant Chief of Naval Operations for Undersea Warfare (QP-()2) described future submarine roles across the spectrum of conflict.2 That paper was presented in condensed form as the lead article in the April 1992 issue of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW. Comparison of the future roles with the precepts developed during World War ll reveals missions which are, for the most part, identical. Peacetime engagement is obviously not present in both documents because of the wartime nature of the 1943 operation plan. Strategic deterrence and precision strike capabilities did not exist in 1943. Regional sea denial as stated in 1992 includes offensive mining. The bottom line is that submarine roles are enduring. They successfully contributed to the victory in World War D, the Cold War, and numerous operations in between.

The force has also been innovative. As previously mentioned, deterrence and precision strike did not exist in 1943. They also did not develop by accident. Instead, they were opportunities in which the Submarine Force employed its unique characteristics to satisfy military needs. In the case of strategic deterrence, it was the requirement to create a survivable second strike capability in order to improve the deterrent value of nuclear weapons. As a result, the nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine was conceived. In the case of precision strike, it was the need to inexpensively (measured in lives) roll back enemy defenses in support of follow-on attack. The result was the USS LOUIS-Vll..LE (SSN-724) launching Tomahawk cruise missiles in support of the Desert Storm air operation.3 These examples emphasize what has been a consistent force strength- innovation in support of national military needs.

The Submarine Force cannot rest on its laurels, however. One might question, not being privy to classified operations or recognizing the current value of deterrence, the need to spend billions of dollars on submarines that had not fired a shot in support of U.S. operations for 45 years4-and then it was a cruise missile equally capable of being launched by a surface combatant or aircraft. Resting on past community achievements is a recipe for disaster. The submarine capability is based on a firm founda-tion of enduring roles but it must convince the doubters that it continually exercises its second strength-innovation. The force must be seen to continue its evolution in support of the National  Military Strategy. With the current fiscal climate, it must do so without requiring significant increases in funding. One area ripe for improvement through innovative and flexible application of existing submarine capabilities is mine warfare.


“If, in the pre-war or early war days, anyone had the temerity to suggest that the way to determine whether an area had been mined by the enemy was to send a submerged submarine on an exploratory trip through the waters concerned, he would have undoubtedly have been referred to a psychiatrist for observa-tion.” COMSUBPAC, 1947.

Today, as in the days prior to World War n, one might encounter a similar reaction when discussing mine warfare and submarines in the same sentence. Yet, by the end of World War ll, seven submarines (BONERSH, CREVALE, REDFIN, RUNNER ll, SEAHORSE, TINOSA, TUNNY) had mapped Japanese minefields using high frequency sonar in support of Third Fleet operations.6 Today, submarines have the same ability to detect mines and a significant potential to clear them as well. This is another area in which the Submarine Force could use innovation and existing capabilities to shore up a neglected but vital aspect of crisis response.

Mine detection and clearance capability rests primarily on high frequency sonar for detection and divers or remote platforms for neutralization. 7 An ideal mine detection and clearance platform could be the follow-on replacements to the USS JOHN MAR-SHALL (SSN-611) or USS SAM HOUSTON (SSN-609). These are special operations submarines capable of carrying a detachment of SEALS and two Swimmer Delivery Vehicles (SDV). Fitted with a high frequency sonar, they would have the ability to covertly map a minefield and then employ divers to clear them. (Australian divers cleared mines in the Persian Gulf in water less than 170 feet deep.’) If it was desired for the submarine to stay clear of the field, a remotely piloted vehicle, such as the AN/SLQ-

Mine Neutralization System (MNS) installed in the old commu-nications buoy location (after modifications-the MNS is 12 feet long), could be used to allow the submarine to map and eliminate the field at distances up to a half a mile away. 11 It should be noted that, although not ideal because of space constraints, any attack submarine would have the ability to carry a detachment of SEALS, to locate mines, and, while submerged, to deploy the divers to neutralize the mines.

The ability to map and clear mines from a submarine would have a number of advantages. First, a submarine would be covert. It would not require escorts to provide protection while engaging in mine clearance operations. This would allow escort vessels to perform some other function and would also minimize the possibility of escorts inadvertently standing into danger as occurred to both the USS TRIPOLI and the USS PRINCETON during Desert Storm. 10 Also, by being covert, there would be a high probability that the enemy would not know that the field or a lane had been cleared. This would allow maximum time before he would try to reseed it, and it would also provide maximum security with respect to the intended location of an amphibious operation.

Another advantage would be the availability of the components to support the mission. Attack submarines are trained in both minehunting and in deploying divers submerged. All boats are fitted with highly accurate navigation systems. The AN/SLQ-48 is an off-the-shelf system. The SDV capability of specialized submarines is an operationally tested and deployable system. The net result is a capability awaiting the pieces to be put together through training.

Other submarine advantages are numerous. They are self-deployable at relatively high speeds and have long endurance on station. They operate in the environment such that, even without a remotely piloted vehicle, they are closer to the bottom than other platforms and are therefore less affected by thermal layers and are more likely to get a stronger return from camouflaged mines.11 Submarines are constructed to be quiet and therefore are as safe as currently possible against acoustic mines. Finally, submarine equipment is shock mounted and submarines have a very robust hull by modem standards. They have been shock tested by driving (at a specified distance) by exploding mines. (The LOS ANGELES class SSN is the last class to have been tested.) Therefore, if a mine should detonate, although severe damage might be done to the superstructure, a submarine would be far more likely to survive the experience in circumstances where another vessel would not.

There are also disadvantages to this proposal. The biggest, of course, is the possible loss of a submarine. The next biggest would be the environmental impact of a nuclear vessel being sunk close to land. Although data exists addressing the minimal release of radioactive contamination from sunken nuclear submarines (USS THRESHER and USS SCORPION}, recent nuclear disasters and the parallel that would be drawn to them would be sure to generate concern from informed world opinion. Other than the minefield (which could be mapped and neutralized from a safe distance), the threat would probably be from the air by means of a visual sighting (a black submarine contrasted against a light, sandy bottom). With respect to this threat, the only immediate options would be to evaluate the enemy anti-submarine capability and live with the risk or to restrict submarine operations. A long term solution could be a long-range unmanned undersea vehicle (UUV) operated from an SSN. The UUV could then accept the risk and perform the mission with no radioactive contamination repercussions. In the final analysis, a submarine which stays covert would circumvent this disadvantage.

Another seeming disadvantage could be the operation of nuclear submarines in shallow water. Although submarines do suffer a significant lack of maneuverability at low speeds, an inability to operate in shallow water is strictly apparent. Submarines are capable of submerged operations in water less than 100 feet deep. This has been admitted by RADM Holland as having been there1z and is recorded in the account of the USS NAUTILUS arctic experience. In several instances, the NAUTILUS was recorded as having 25 feet or less clearance to the ocean floor while having 25 feet or less clearance from the sail to ice keels:3 Submarines operate where they need to operate. However, the ability to operate in shallow water would still restrict a submarine’s mine clearance effectiveness to around the 100 foot curve depending on the ocean floor gradient, the endurance of the embarked divers, and the anti-submarine threat.

When comparing the advantages to the disadvantages, the ability to covertly clear a minefield or a lane is too attractive to ignore. The availability of components to support the mission, the inherent advantages of submarines in applications greater than 100 feet, and the need of the power projection mission for this type of support make it advantageous for the submarine community to take it on.


The necessity of the Submarine Force and its capabilities are based on enduring roles. However, in today’s fiscal climate, that is not good enough. The Force must continue to provide innova-tive and flexible solutions to emerging needs if it is to continue to justify its existence. In the past, solutions of basing nuclear missiles on deployed submarines and of developing precision strike cruise missiles filled voids in the strategic deterrence and crisis response missions and will undoubtedly continue to do so. However, the community must look to the future if it is to continue to support the national military needs across the spectrum of conflict. Mine warfare support is an option which could do so. The bottom line is, in the existing multi-polar world, the subma-rine community must stay engaged through innovation and flexible application of existing capabilities if it is to remain a viable, necessary force.

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League