Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


[Ed. Note: Captain Smith graduated from the Naval Academy with the Class of 1947. His father was a submariner, commanded SPERRY (AS-12) in 1942 and was killed with Admiral English in the PanAm Clipper crash in 1943.]

“I have this knowledge [of the submarine] but I shall not reveal its secret lest wicked men turn it to evil use to destroy ships and send innocent seamen to their deaths.”

Leonardo Da Vinci

Unfortunately for mankind, Leonardo’s noble discretion was  not replicated  in other men,  and over the centuries his secret got out.  Which was why in 1949, a little over 400 years after that towering genius ‘ death, I found myself as a junior officer in Key West, Florida, engaged in anti-submarine warfare tactical development and evaluation. It was a fascinating duty professionally, with operations out of Key West being the spearhead of the ASW advances of the time. All the platforms were represented in the area, including DDs, DEs, ftxed wing aviation, helicopters and lighter than air-all working closely to counter the challenge. Which challenge was, in official language of that time “…the medium speed, deep diving submarine”, a description intended essentially to express the capabilities of the German Type XXI submarine which, as was widely feared, had it come along earlier in WWII and in large numbers, could have profoundly influenced the Battle of the Atlantic.

As ASW officer of USS SARSFIELD {EDD 837), we operated against the best of our U.S. Navy’s GUPPY submarines. One remembers especially AMBERJACK, with its oversized rudder, at the service of Ned Beach’s bold and imaginative tactics. Day after day we made our attacks and had them reconstructed. For especially urgent evaluations, and where high credibility of results was sought, we fired full patterns, up to 48 hedgehogs at a crack, and afterwards tallied the actual clunks on the hull felt by our targets. There was something intriguingly graceful in those mortar patterns descending against the blue sky, almost hypnotic, not so different one imagined, from the look of stones being lobbed toward feudal castles a thousand years ago. Old fashioned-but effective.

Came the Korean War and the tempo of ASW R&D in Key West notably accelerated. The ancient Mk 32 homing torpedoes developed at the end of World War ll, and since then gathering dust at the Key West Naval Ordnance Unit, were hastily refur-bished for evaluation. And even though they moseyed about at the stupendous speed of 12(1) knots, their hit percentage was very respectable against submarines still mostly imbued with wwn evasion tactics of run silent, run deep. The Mk 43 torpedoes were themselves coming along promisingly, as were lower frequency sonars, along with the advent of the initial rudimentary SOSUS system, all adding up to a pervasive, and justified, confidence that the submarine threat was well under control. Then in the late summer of 1955, USS ALBACORE, skippered by Jon Boyes, showed up on our doorstep at Key West to provide three weeks intensive services to evaluate what the best of our destroyers could do against it. I was fortunate to be the Surface Anti-submarine Detachment Project Officer, rode ALBACORE several times, was permitted to take the joy stick control on several occasions, and overall found those weeks incomparably the most stimulating time of all the years I was in Key West. With a top submerged speed of 26 knots (1/2 hour rate), a test depth of 600 feet, and a turning circle of 113 yards, ALBACORE clearly was something new in our world. In a profound way, I was struck by a foreboding sense of the future of ASW very different from that with which I had grown comfortable. In retrospect, though with no consciousness of it at the time, the genesis of my 1966 article grew from the early experience with ALBACORE. That seed germinated further, was nurtured by several years at sea with Task Group Bravo, in the early 60s, vainly chasing some of the earlier nuclear subma-rines, including SEA WOLF, and that was followed by three years at COMOPTEVFOR headquarters where I tracked the promise, such as it was, of our newest ASW systems coming along.

In March 1966, the month the Long Shadow ofthe Submarine appeared in the Proceedin2s, I was detached from COMOPTEV-FOR with orders to WILKINSON (DL-5), then the focus of critical sea tests for the prototypal SQS-26 sonar. Enroute was circuitous, including stops at naval laboratories, a visit to the manufacturer·s facilities and fmally, a call on Vice Admiral Charles Martell . Checking the cut of my jib, easy to guess. Admiral Martell, as the first Director of ASW Programs (OP-95), having already been two years in the job, was at the height of his effectiveness. I spent 30 minutes with the distinguished gentle-man, downed the ritual cup of coffee, while the Admiral stressed the importance of Wll..KINSON’s forthcoming tests and the corollary vital importance therefore of keeping WILKINSON off the rocks and free of other mishaps that could impact a tight evaluation schedule. At the end of our meeting, almost out the door, the Admiral checked my departure: “By the way, Smith”, he said pleasantly, “I read your Naval Institute article and there was very little I agreed with”. I replied that my views were based on some experience and my convictions honestly founded. He replied that he didn’t doubt that and gave a farewell wave and wished me good luck.

At times I’ve thought back to that conversation and asked myself what it was that might have irked the Admiral most acutely. On one item I had no doubt, i.e. , the paragraph wherein I denigrated the capabilities of the ASW aircraft, relegating it to”. . .  [being] deprived of opportunities… ” and fated to” … find itself roaming over the surface of an empty ocean, barren of clues.” In this derogation of any strong future for the ASW aircraft I was, of course, exceedingly mistaken. I had foreseen neither the imminent sharp increase in the system capabilities of U.S. maritime patrol aircraft taking place during the 60s, nor was I so keenly aware of the profound tactical implications of the noisiness of the Soviet’s first and second generation nuclear submarines. By the late 1960s, while on the staff of COMASWFORP AC, I was well positioned to observe the remarkable successes of P-3 aircraft in prosecution of Soviet submarines all across the North Pacific, both in transit and in their patrol areas. Parenthetically, it is essential to pay tribute to the enormous and inseparable contribution of the SOSUS system in making those success possible. Admiral Martell had a strong role in the upgrading ofthe P-3 aircraft’s ASW capabilities, pushing the development of the DIFAR low frequency passive directional sonobuoy, and expediting the expansion of the SOSUS system, seeing clearly the enormous gains possible in the U.S. Navy’s ASW capabilities if the foregoing programs were to realize their potential. These programs were particularly close to his heart and I understand better today what had to strike him, validly, as cavalier and uninformed dismissal of an indispensable arm of ASW.

Not to stir the pot on debate on which platform is the best to counter the submarine, it is useful however, to encapsulate a few salient points, which were most pithily enunciated by the late Admiral Pete Aurand, that make the ASW aircraft inherently a formidable contender: (1) It can go fast, cover great areas, close datums in a short time; (2) by not having to operate in the same medium as its quarry, its vulnerability is greatly decreased; and a corollary of (2)1), the aircraft has gravity working for it, i.e., its weapons and sensors merely have to fall, whereas an adversary submarine to dispatch a weapon towards its tormentor must overcome gravity. In perhaps some (if still unimaginable) major ASW campaign to come, it is difficult to picture any circumstances wherein the airplane would not have a significant role.

Obedient to Admiral Martell’s injunction, I duly kept WILKIN-SON off the rocks and its paint unscratched. In the winter of 1967 I took her down to Mar da Plata for an obscure occasion known as the Argentine Naval Review. and there was given a translated copy of my article appearing in one of their publications under the title Sombra del Submarino. The Argentines, unknow-ingly prophetic, sadly were fated to feel the nuclear submarine’s first sting in war in the loss of BELGRANO some 15 years later. Though having doubts about the SQS-26 sonar from the outset, throughout the years of its technical evaluation in WILKINSON I thought positively, doing all in my power as skipper to assure that the embattled sonar might realize its maximum potential. That having been said, it remains to be recorded that many hundreds of hours spent looking over the shoulders of the operators in the dim spaces of Sonar Control, repetitively watching the representation of its pings traveling outward to the edge of glowing scopes, only reinforced my conviction that the surface ship in ASW has certain profound, and incurable, disadvantages. Operating, as WILKIN-SON did, in carefully surveyed deep locations such as Area Bravo north of the Bahamas, in essentially idealized conditions-our old faithful target submarine GROUPER at periscope depth, creeping at several knots, presenting beam aspect and towing a radar reflective miniature airship from its sail-it was true that indeed fair numbers of echoes came back to WILKINSON from beyond the horizon. However, let conditions deviate even slightly from that alerted ideal, let aspect get some degrees off the beam, let a mild afternoon breeze spring up, ruffling the sea’s surface and thus increasing reverberations, or even should WILKINSON increase speed much above steerageway-then our echoes vanished and the extreme fragility of that particular sonar equation of detection became manifest. While reasonably long range detec-tions were occasionally possible in the direct path mode when the submarine remained in the surface duct, as soon as our target descended below the layer, the SQS-26 sonar, for all its vaunted power, was no match for the refractive power of thermal gradi-ents. Detection capability then reverted back to that of the typical active sonars of decades earlier, attainable ranges not being more than the usual few thousand yards.

In 1971 I bad another article published in the Naval Institute Proceedin&s which caused some commotion. Based upon a wider database, I expressed further, and more concrete, reservations about the capabilities of surface ship ASW capabilities. Twenty more years have now passed, and surface ship ASW systems have undergone improvement. They have incorporated towed arrays, certainly an indispensable augmentation to passive detection capabilities; and they have been liberated from the otherwise inescapable tyranny of continual active transmissions, with all the well known protean counterdetection ranges they confer. Howev-er, all the advances in surface ASW in toto remain modest, with each improvement bringing forth ever more marginal gains in performance. In ASW, as in many facets of modem naval warfare, the surface ship’s dilemma is historic and profound. What has happened is that a great wave of technological advance has overtaken all vehicles that must operate on the surface of the sea. Fated to contend in the interface of the two great media, air and water, unable to go fast in one nor able to hide in the other, inevitably the surface unit bas bad to yield lasting dominance to the submarine and the aircraft and the missile.

On one matter in the article, expressing skepticism towards the future potential of various non-acoustic modes of submarine detection, I can only aver, after passage of time, a greatly deepened and abiding skepticism. Yes, the physicist may validly claim that from every submarine in the sea there will be, there has to be, some coupling of energy from that ship of steel to the water. And that energy transfer in tum translates into that present buzz word, an observable, which is then the challenge of the system designer and the signal processor to discriminate against the ambient and to present to the operator in tactically useful form. Trouble is, non-acoustic observables are incredibly faint, undetectable except at the shortest of ranges, and if you do detect them-well, you are already virtually on top of your submarine quarry, and your tactical problem is essentially solved and there is nothing left but to let go a weapon. Nice work, if you can get it! The critical question endures: How did you get to that felicitous state in the first place? Surface scars, heat, radiation, wake turbulence, ionization-these and other phenomenon keep cycling through our consciousness, returning ever and anon to intrigue young minds with a sense of discovery and the enthusiasm to tackle old problems in some fresh ways. And, no doubt, that is the way it ought to be. The weight of memory cannot be allowed to deaden the curiosity of future generations. Yet at the same time, looking back across some 45 years, to young officer days, and the excitement of all the many interesting things the Key West ASW Community was trying out-yes, even then virtually all of that same phenomenology just mentioned, and interfacing regularly with crack scientists who told how in wwn they bad tried to exploit all of the foregoing, plus visible light and radar (x-band penetrating sea water to 113 of a centimeterl)-after a while one inevitably bears a heavy load of tkja vu, waiting for the inevitable ardent resurrection, by those without memory, of some long ago discarded bit of obscure phenomenology. Prophecy is always rash but, in the resolute absence of any data coming out of all the rice bowls dedicated to the doubtful trail of all kinds of avenues of dim promise, it is difficult to withhold a pent up sense of exasperation from bursting forth in bold declaration: SORRY FELLOWS, IN PRACTICAL TERMS, THERE IS NOTHING THERE! Around the submarine in the depths is a vast cloaking mass of sea water of staggering impermeability to all forms of energy but acoustic.

When in late August of 1993 Jim Hay called me to express THE SUBMARINE REVIEW’s wish to republish my 1966 Naval Institute article, I was naturally pleased, but surprised. Living in, still contending in, the Washington, DC environment, where the half life of most words is usually measured in days, or a few weeks, it was gratifying that something written a full 28 years ago, dealing especially as it did partially in prophecy, might still carry some validity. I told Jim that I would go over the article to assess its views in the light of hindsight, focusing on what things therein seemed still to hold true, and those that have not withstood the test of time. The above I believe I’ve pretty much covered. In broad perspective, if the article has lasted it is mainly that it stressed the submarine’s one great and incomparable advantage: Its ability to hide in the sea.

As with most naval issues, the point can be carried with a sea story. In the fall of 1955, not long after reconstruction and analysis was completed on general purpose destroyer vs. ALBA-CORE tests, I was called upon to brief the results to a British admiral paying a call on the Surface Anti-Submarine Development Detachment in Key West. The results were poor in all respects, detection, holding contact and, above all, attack. From hit probabilities with hedgehogs of roughly 30 percent against the unrestricted GUPPYs, the percentage of success dropped cata-strophically, was essentially nil. At the conclusion of my brief I mentioned, speculatively, that it seemed an inevitability that the next step in submarine development would be incorporation of a nuclear power plant in an ALBACORE hull. At that the Admi-ral-he was one of Britain’s famed escort commanders in WWD– brightened with some secret mirth. “And what then!” To that I made some waffled reply for which I could sense, in the Admiral’s disappointment, a certain lowering of his estimate of his briefer. I remember bushy white eyebrows springing up in arcs that amplified his question. He regarded me for more seconds of tolerant amusement with eyes that never lost their twinkle. His voice at last dropped to a hoarse stage whisper. “Don’t you see, my boy?  It’s all over.”

And so it was, so it is. Certainly, in the 38 years since the ALBACORE tests I have seen nothing take place that would call for any serious alteration in that profoundly pessimistic, nay terminal, judgment pronounced by that grand old warrior of the Battle of the Atlantic, whose vision of defeating the submarine had encompassed so much.

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League