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A Cold War Beneath a Frozen Sea

On January 5, 1968, this nation’s leadership faced a sobering reality. A Soviet November Class attack submarine was observed doing what it was she wasn’t supposed to be capable of Sent by the Soviet government to monitor the activities of USS ENTERPRISE and her battlegroup, the November reached a top speed far greater than any U.S. intelligence estimates had predicted.

The Soviet attack submarine had been the subject of an intense U.S. ASW effort for some time. Tracking this noisy submarine didn’t present the battle group any real tactical challenges. The problem surfaced when ENTERPRISE, taking advantage of the situation, began to slowly step up her speed to test the top speed of this older November. The shocking result of this secret trial was this. The November was fast. Very fast. So fast in fact that she could not be shaken by ENTERPRISE. The centerpiece of American naval might, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, was vulnerable to a repeated torpedo attack by what were even then old Soviet attack submarines.

And this troubling episode was by no means the end of American undersea worries. There was the nagging concern that the Soviet ballistic missile submarines, each capable of devastating first strikes against the U.S. mainland, had taken to conducting patrols near or even under the Arctic ice. This routine made these vessels invulnerable to all but one U.S. asset: the attack submarine.

For at least 30 years, from 1959 to 1989 the U.S. Submarine Force fought a secret war the likes of which mankind had never known. Centered on forces capable of destroying entire civilizations in the course of 20 minutes, this war beneath the sea consumed much of both nations’ industrial might and much of the activity of both the U.S. and USSR submarine forces. For nearly 30 years the U.S . attack submarine force provided some measure of positive insurance against thermonuclear attacks from the tremendous threat resident in Soviet ballistic missile submarines. The force became the premier antisubmarine warfare instrument the world had known. Attack submarines were soon conducting extremely sensitive strategic operations in the most remote reaches of the globe, going where and doing what no one else could.

In the end, the superiority of U.S. undersea forces proved a bridge too far for the Soviets. The enormous demand made on that nation’s military-industrial complex, although understood by very few in this nation, will in time take its place as a principal cause in the sudden Soviet collapse.

The Winners?

In an ironic twist of fate, the U.S. Submarine Force today suffers from its own success. An entire generation of naval professionals, both civilian and military, was raised during this period. This new generation came to believe that bastion-busting was what the U.S. attack submarines did. Period. What the force had done, because no other could, has become an albatross after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In the short span of seven years the most powerful attack Submarine Force the world has ever known will shrink from ten squadrons to six. By most measures still dominant, the force will nonetheless be faced with meeting worldwide crisis and commitments with a force 40 percent smaller, smaller in fact than any Submarine Force this nation has fielded since well before the Second World War. If we simply continue as we are we’ll be faced with this: there will be too few submarines trying to do too many things. What is more, due to the peculiar nature of submarine missions, some of them too few submarines will not be equipped to do some of the too many missions, further exacerbating an already unsatisfactory condition. If we take as a given that fiscal pressures will not allow for more resources, what options are available in affecting this dramatic downsizing without unduly putting our nation’s security at risk?

Reduced Requirements

First and most obviously. we could reduce the requirements imposed on the remaining attack squadrons. This, after all, is the presumption of untold stacks of studies extant within the halls of the Pentagon, studies where analysts have determined proper force levels. Simple arithmetic shows that were the nation able to make do with about half the submarines currently in use, there would be little to no issue. Things would move along pretty much as they have in the past, with submarines spending about half their operating time in port and half at sea.

Unfortunately, things aren’t quite so simple. The fact is that today, nearly five years after the fall of the Soviet Union, nearly five years after the next best submarine force suddenly became a lot less threatening, this nation, on a day in-day out basis, continues to require the services of about eight attack submarine squadrons. What’s more, it is not at all clear that requirements aren’t going to grow even larger in the near future.

It certainly isn’t as if those leading the Submarine Force are making these demands on the ships. It’s also not as if we can unilaterally act to lessen the requirement. These submarines are out there doing the nation’s business; some required by the Unified Commanders, some by the National Command Authority or NCA, some fulfilling international treaty and alliance commitments. These customers are the ones who must begin to make difficult decisions. Those at the highest levels must make the difficult choices of where not to go, of what not to do.

Roles and Missions; A Historic Perspective

In order to understand how it is that so many submarines continued to be called on after having lost what many naively perceive as the force’s principal reason for being, it is necessary to examine just what it is this nation has required in the past and will require in the future of these particular ships. The following, taken from a letter written on September 4, 1861, shows just how enduring submarine roles and missions really are.

To His Excellency, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States
I wish to propose to you a new arm of war, as formidable as it is economical. With a submarine boat, well constructed and properly equipped, it becomes an easy matter to:

  • Carry explosive bombs under the very keels of
  • Landmen, ammunition, etc. at any given point
  • Enter harbors
  • Reconnaissance the enemy’s coast

I have the honor to be with distinguished consideration
Your Excellency’s most obedient servant
De Villeroy, 4 September 1861

Throughout their relatively short history as an instrument of war, submarines have generally fulfilled these four basic taskings, or in today’s vernacular, roles and missions. The first, that is most commonly associated with the heroes of the Pacific submarine campaign of World War II, is the sinking of enemy surface ships and shipping. The ability of a well-armed man-of-war who, through the advantage of near-complete invisibility or stealth, was able to engage nearly at will is apparent. How early in the history of the vessel this enduring mission became obvious is illustrated in the following.’

Sinking Ships and Shipping

Sergeant Ezra Lee was spent. The TURTLE stank, her air was tepid and foul. It was the devil’s work, self-propelling this machine towards its intended victim, and he hadn’t the energy to curse as he would’ve liked. After some 40 minutes in New York Harbor, he found himself less than halfway to his intended target, HMS EAGLE. Worse, he had TURTLE completely spun askew and was pointed back to whence he came.

It was, as he had supposed nearly a month ago when first convinced to give Bushnell’s idiot machine a chance, the stupidest thing he’d ever done. And yet here he was, an Army sergeant floundering at sea on this warm September night in the year of Our Lord 1776 in something called a diving bell trying to surreptitiously attach a time bomb to the bottom of the British man’s war.

And as If that wasn’t enough, supposing he did get the wretched TURTLE turned back around and out to the EAGLE. Suppose he could actually submerge below the ship. Supposing he could actually work this bore and attach the bomb. Supposing after all this he was then faced with the near-impossible mission of getting himself far enough away from the supposed victim so as not to get himself blown up. It all seemed a bit much to ask of this one-man crew, an Army sergeant at that.

In the event, which none other than George Washington in a letter to Thomas Jefferson called “an effort of genius”, Sergeant Lee was foiled. Although he did eventually make it to EAGLE and really did get himself into position below the waterline to attach the time bomb, a cruel twist of fate saw him trying to drill not through the wooden hull but through one of many steel bands that held EAGLE together. After all, he had been through this simply proved too much.

Lee escaped unharmed. History has taken little note of his failure and forever recorded the effort. While it remained for the submersible HUNLEY to draw first blood in· combat nearly 90 years later, TURTLE had opened the minds of the Fultons and the Hunleys to the possibilities. Submarine warfare, and in particular the potential for these ships to wreak havoc among surface vessels, was indeed born on that warm night over 200 years ago.

While few question the historic pre-eminence of the submarine in the ship sinking role, some today have a difficult time envisioning just where and when submarines might be again called upon to perform this vital mission, just where and when submarines might be asked to cripple a nation as the U.S. submarines of World War II were able to do in the Pacific. It seems we, as a nation, need to take the time to look back over the history of man, to decide for ourselves just how long one nation remained unchallenged, to muse over just how likely restricted war at sea really is when a nation is not clearly strong enough to deter it.

Enabling Strikes Against Targets Ashore

In typically British fashion, lieutenant Commander Cochrane just couldn’t leave it alone. It seemed enough that he had somehow managed to run E-7, his submarine, hard aground on the beach at Constantinople. Alone in the Marmora Sea, deep behind enemy lines, his little 800 ton, 181) foot submarine was high and dry, in broad daylight, well within the range of the Turkish shore guns. What’s more, he had run the ship aground at nearly 10 knots and now found the bow of his ship almost completely out of the water and pointed directly ashore.

A lesser man might not have spied the opportunity. Cochrane did. After having directed the engineer, in so many words, to get the ship off the beach (micro-management does not seem to have been one of his faults), he turned his attention to the Turkish Imperial Arsenal, a principal storage site for enemy weapons. As luck would have it this building was hard against a quay, the warm May waters of the Dardanelles lapping at its foundation. Further, E-7 was pointing directly at it.

Two bow tubes were made ready and, as the engineer struggled to get the ship off the rocks the Captain engaged. A single torpedo was launched against the building. Yes, against the building. There was a violent explosion. Not possessing the sophisticated tools required to conduct conclusive BDA, Cochrane left without knowing the extent of the damage he had inflicted against his key target ashore.

Such was not the case that evening. In making his way clear of the beach into the Bosphorous, Cochrane had sighted the Zeitun powder mills in the western suburbs of Constantinople. He immediately bottomed E-7, waiting for the cover of darkness. Just before midnight on May 15, 1915, Lieutenant Commander Cochrane took his ship to the surface. His gun crew raced along the narrow deck and began bombarding the explosive factory. Her tiny six-pound shells caused little material damage but they tore Turkish morale to shreds.

Wild rumors spread through the city that British surface units had forced the Dardanelles, all work stopped, and many of the panic-stricken inhabitants fled into the countryside. Such was the impact a single submarine had in the conduct of a primitive but extremely effective enabling strike ashore.

The further exploits of the British submarine force in the First World War would lead Sir Winston Churchill to write:

“The Naval History of Britain contains no page more wonderful than that which records the prowess of her submarines at the Dardanelles.”

Today the ability of submarines to conduct precision enabling strikes ashore is near without equal. Combine the reach and lethality of submarine-launched Tomahawks with the virtual invulnerability of the ship and you have a weapons system that is invaluable in minimizing the risk to U.S. forces. Before manned airstrikes, before amphibious operations, before the enemy knows what hit him, submarine-launched Tomahawks can destroy entire command and control networks, knock out key power generating stations, render impotent surface-to-air and · surface-to-surface missile defense sites. Having completed this key enabling strike it now becomes possible to introduce manned aircraft, Marines, and soldiers without subjecting them to unnecessary risk. Used just so, the submarine is a key element in modem warfare.

Support Amphibious Operations

NAUTILUS had been here before. In support of the long-awaited Operation Galvanic, the first truly planned amphibious offensive in the Pacific, Commander Irvin and NAUTILUS had recently completed a critical reconnaissance mission off the islands of Tarawa, Makin, and Alemana. The information she had passed back to commanders ashore provided the direct warfighting support the best American charts could not.

But here, now, late on the night of 20 November 1943 the furthest thing from Irvin’s mind were those pictures. He was thankful to be alive. His mission was to land 78 Marines on Abemana in the Gilberts just ahead of the first assault echelons. The Marines were to support the landing with vital reconnaissance information. He and his Marines almost didn’t make it.

NAUTILUS had just survived a battering at the hands of one of her own, the American destroyer RINGGOLD. Mistaking NAUTILUS for a Japanese submarine, RINGGOLD had done everything in her power to put NAUTILUS on the bottom. She failed, the Marines were landed, and Operation Galvanic was off and running.

While it can hardly be argued that the landing of 78 Marines by NAUTILUS on Abemana led to the successful conduct of Operation Galvanic, it is just as wrong to discount the role submarines have played and will play in supporting amphibious operations. The covert nature of submarines and the acknowledged leverage a few highly placed troops can have if they can get where they need to be when they need to be there are key to minimizing the risk to amphibious assault forces.

As important as putting special forces ashore ahead of the main body is, there are a number of other unique ways in which submarines contribute. If the Amphibious Commander wants to track the movement and activities of enemy mine laying forces without tipping his hand, he will employ an expeditionary submarine. If the Commander wants to conduct offensive mining operations in an enemy harbor proximate to a planned landing location, he will employ an expeditionary attack submarine. If the Commander wants to decide where minefields are and, as important, where they are not, he will again employ the expeditionary submarine. Finally, if the Commander wants to disable mines that block his approach he will, with the fielding of covert, submarine-launched advanced unmanned underwater vehicles, employ an expeditionary submarine. As was the case with submarines employed in conducting enabling strikes ashore, the proper utilization of expeditionary submarines in support of amphibious operations will minimize the risk to American troops.

Battlefield Preparation

For years now U.S. and allied submarines have been preparing tomorrow’s battlefields. While discussions of specific tasks and accomplishments remain classified, the utility of the submarine in this role is well understood by both civilian and military officials.

Submarines stationed off distant coasts have consistently provided military planners with the information required to formulate necessary contingency plans. They have provided locating data on key communication facilities, they have covertly monitored, recorded, and they have sent to the commanders real-time status of both military and commercial shipping. They have monitored embargo compliance, examined the status of military forces, and in general kept the NCA apprised of the dynamic and unfolding situation in troubled parts of the world. In short, they have provided a wide range of information and observations considered key to preparing the battlefield.

Why submarines? Wouldn’t it be easier to do the same thing with men on the ground, with airplanes or satellites, with surface ships or remote intercept sites? The answer is simple. No. It’s not possible to get what the submarines get, here, today, with any of those other things. And the reasons, although relatively straightforward, are often overlooked.

First, submarines, by their very nature, do not disturb the environment in which they work. The antagonist has no idea that he is the subject of this preparation effort. He has no idea that just off his coast a submarine is and has been stationed for months or even years, collecting valuable data.

On the other hand, this same leader does know when an aircraft or surface ship attempts the same mission. He does know or at least has some idea when most satellites are in a position to collect. He does know and this knowledge affects his actions. It, therefore, affects the collection.

Second, the nuclear submarine has the strength of endurance. Today’s nuclear-powered attack submarine can remain on station, watching and listening 24 hours a day for a long, long time. Most other assets are limited in their staying power. For instance, valuable as overhead collection assets might be, they are not always overhead. If they happen to be out of position during that one communique that gives the enemies game away they will have been of no value.

In general, this mission, preparing potential battlefields for possible military action, makes the greatest demands on submarines during peace. By their very nature, such operations are extremely sensitive and therefore do not lend themselves to a great deal of public debate. The need, however, is no less real.

One has only to look around this rapidly changing world to understand the wide variety of potential trouble spots where this nation might employ a submarine, might begin an early collection effort in anticipation of future troubles. Such potentialities, by most measures, have grown over the last couple of years. It is just possible this growth will continue in the future.

Perhaps then, the analysts and staffers who have so carefully studied and written on this question of requirements have erred. Perhaps, despite all the rigorous analysis and mathematics and general hocus pocus, the reality is that the world is still a dangerous place, one characterized by innumerable trouble spots, each demanding some of what submarines bring. If we suppose, for the sake of argument, the need for U.S. attack submarines does not diminish in any real way, then what? How do we proceed so as to do best with what we have?

Multi-Mission Flexibility

The nation neither needs nor wants a submarine, alone and on station at some distant outpost, telling it that while thus-and-such a task has been ordered, this-and-that platform limitation makes carrying out that order impossible.

It is axiomatic that the Submarine Force of the future must consist of ships and crews able to engage and succeed in the full range of missions. The fact is that today’s Los Angeles class multi-mission submarine does not have the room for improvement required to satisfy this need. The next generation of attack submarines must be designed so as to recognize the particular requirements of each of the enduring mission areas and be fully able to accommodate them. This may mean that during construction certain hulls will be fitted with certain equipment uniquely suited to a particular mission. By its very nature, this fitting of an articular piece of mission-specific equipment must add to a specific mission without detracting from the fundamental multi-mission requirement.

Tailored Capabilities

There is, on the other hand, the matter of money. Perhaps the time is coming when our submarines cannot or should not be expected to do it all. For years we have relied on the multi-mission flexibility of each unit of the force to meet a wide range of requirements. From sinking ships to preparing the battlefield, one unit was every bit as good as the next. While this flexibility seems a necessity rather than a luxury, fiscal pressures might dictate a re-examination of this fundamental precept.

The specific and particular requirements for a submarine engaged in anti-submarine warfare differs markedly from that of a submarine engaged in amphibious support. Whereas the ASW or strategic attack submarine might be outfitted with the very best in passive sonar systems and sail with a room full of advanced capability heavyweight torpedoes, the amphibious support submarine might go to sea with the most advanced active mine detection and avoidance sonars and a full load of offensive mines. There also exist significant differences between those submarines tasked with conducting operations against enemy shipping and those conducting precision enabling strikes ashore. If we were able to tailor specific platforms to specific missions then perhaps we can provide a more cost-effective force.

Unfortunately, today’s Los Angeles class submarines have nowhere near the mission flexibility left to tailor them to meet the full range of options required. Besides, there exist a fundamental, bedrock set of skills and capabilities each and every attack submarine and her crew must possess in order to survive in the harsh undersea environment. If we were to embrace in pure form this tailored alternative we would be doing the Navy and the nation a great disservice.

We are left with this. We recognize the difficulties a smaller, general-purpose Submarine Force will face in trying to accommodate all that will be asked of them in the future. Further, it is recognized that tailoring specific submarines and their crews to specific roles and missions just don’t pass any sort of reasonableness check. The solution, as is so often the case, appears to be a compromise.

Submarine Squadrons-By Functions

In the Submarine Force of the future, all these pressures may mean that the remaining submarine squadrons will become functionalized. The squadrons, their supporting doctrinal, tactical, and maintenance teams will focus their energies and skills in a particular mission area. For instance, there might someday exist a Strategic Attack Squadron on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, dedicated to satisfying those particular national needs as determined by the NCA. There might be a Battlegroup Attack Squadron. Submarines in this squadron would be outfitted for and be experts at putting SEALs ashore, at conducting offensive and defensive mining, at providing the long lead time indication and warning product the Amphibious Assault Group requires in support of battlefield preparation.

The need for multi-mission submarines would remain. The individual units, although formally assigned to one of the functional squadrons, would have the inherent capacity to shuttle from function to function. The submarine squadrons would act as the proofing filter, ensuring that each ship and her crew were fully certified to perform the particular mission.

The benefits of such an arrangement are many. This scheme would allow the force to retain its historic multi-mission flexibility. It would sharpen particular skills in particular areas. It would provide a tighter link between the customer, be it the Battlegroup Commander, the Amphibious Ready Group Commander, or the NCA, and the submarine. It would allow submarine squadron staff to support the battlegroup in a fashion analogous to the support provided by Destroyer Squadron staff.

Finally, the functional squadron option may make the best use of what in the near future will become an over-taxed asset. The nation and the Navy must soon decide when, where, and how these increasingly scarce resources will be put to use. By tailoring the Submarine Force of the future within the functional framework described we may be in a position to provide the nation the most cost-effective return on its defense dollar.


The U.S. attack Submarine Force was, by necessity, a principle and motive element in winning the Cold War. Relied on to conduct a wide range of taskings, the force was able to succeed in regions, roles, and missions others found impossible.

With the end of the Cold War came growing fiscal pressures which forced a critical re-examination of all elements of U.S. defense posture. As it affects attack submarines, this analysis has suffered in that decision-makers, in some cases, have overlooked the unique and extraordinary contributions submarines have made in the past and will make in the future in support of the nation’s defense. These traditional roles and missions-sinking ships, conducting enabling strikes ashore, supporting amphibious assault, and preparing future battlefields-are the more important today as our focus shifts from blue water, open ocean threats to coastal missions. Despite the analysts’ rosy projections about decreased requirements, the Submarine Force must, of necessity, find a way to do more with less.

It must do so while retaining both the multi-mission flexibility such an independent instrument of war requires while honing its skills in the traditional mission areas. Such contrary requirements in an era of declining budgets require new and innovative solutions.

One possible solution, that offered above, has two critical elements. First, the nation must provide the force with a future submarine possessing the size and weight required to accommodate true multi-mission tasking. Such is not the case with America’s current frontline SSN, the Los Angeles and improved Los Angeles class attack submarines. Finally, today’s Submarine Force should consider realigning the remaining attack squadrons along functional lines, providing the institutional expertise tomorrow’s battlefield will require.

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