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Part 2: Building the Force

[Editor’s Note: 1his is the second part of a brief history of the role of the SECNA V in building and maintaining the submarine force. Commander Tangredi currently serves as Special Assistant and Speechwriter to Secretary Dalton. 1he views expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Department of Defense.]

Roles and Stages

In playing the varying roles of translator, advocate, and shield, Secretaries of the Navy have successively nurtured the development of increasingly more powerful and effective naval weapons and platforms. Throughout the history of the Submarine Force, SECNAV support has remained relatively steady, with the predominant role being determined by the stage of development of undersea warfare and the aggressiveness of the particular Secretary in increasing the overall structure of the Department.

An excellent initial illustration of this steadiness is found in the fact that following the acceptance of the Navy’s first submarine, HOLLAND in 1900, 28 submarines were built in the ten-year period of 1900·191 0, an average of three per year. 1 In overall American naval history, this is an impressive rate for an untried and unproven weapon system. Although other factors, including continuous lobbying of Congress by the Holland Company (later Electric Boat), Simon Lake, and other potential submarine builders, were significant, SECNA V support (or at least acquiescence) was also critical.

But with shifting American political priorities, this steadiness of support has required a continuing adjustment in SECNAV roles. Role shifts occurred frequently during the stages of conventional submarine development, which can be conveniently characterized as the experimental period (roughly 1887-191 O)j the developmental period (about 191 0-1933), and the tactical weapon{feet unit period (1934-1950).

To a lesser degree, shifts from advocate to translator and back to advocate also occurred in the nuclear era.

Justifying: the Experiment

Beginning with Secretary Whitney”s initial advertisement in 1887, SECNA Vs have been uniformly positive about the development of the submarine for at least three reasons.

First, the development of such a novel invention was in keeping with the scientific and technical progress the nation craved. This was as true in the era of the New Navy (circa 1880) and the conversion from sail to steam and armor, as it was in the age of Sputnik.

Second, the initial concept of the submarine torpedo boat seemed to promise a way of neutralizing the battle strength of more powerful navies, or, as in the era of nuclear deterrence, provide a practical solution to an otherwise insolvable strategic difficulty, such as how to build an invulnerable deterrent.

Third, submarine development appeared to promise a cheaper alternative to constructing the capital ships considered to be the backbone of the fleet. While admittedly not a justification in the age of nuclear power, this cost-savings incentive was an underlying factor that prompted submarine construction between the two World Wars.

While Whitney’s unsuccessful effort at acquiring a working submarine was continued by his successors, one notable exception to early SECNAV enthusiasm for submarines was Secretary Hilary A. Herbert (1893-1897). A former Congressman from Alabama (and Chairman of the House Naval Committee), Herbert reportedly opposed submarine experimentation because of the fate of the Confederate submarine CSS HUNLEY. Secretary Herbert, who had been a Confederate Army officer, was convinced that the risk of a “horrible fate” of death underwater was something to which he could not subject sailors.

Herbert’s opposition also appears grounded in an unwillingness to dilute his efforts to obtain funding for the construction of battleships, an effort prompted by the writings of Alfred Thayer Mahan. SCENA V Herbert associated schemes for the development of torpedo boats (whether submerged or not) with a tradition-al Congressional proclivity to fund unarmored cruisers instead of armored ships. Fit only to “destroy merchant ships”, over-funding of cruisers smacked of another Confederate strategy that failed-commerce raids by the CSS ALABAMA. 2 Given Herbert’s position, it is ironic that the submarine would be the weapon to make wartime commerce raiding effective.

Fortunately for submarine proponents, later SECNAV’s were much less influenced by the history of the Confederate States Navy and more by the potential for revolutionizing naval warfare, leapfrogging potential opponents, cutting the budget, or all three. Once the first Holland submarine was accepted in 1900, the question was not whether submarines should be developed, but rather: how fast, how publicly, and towards what mission?

Interpreting a Role

As long as the concept of a submarine torpedo boat was experimental, the Secretary’s role was primarily that of public advocate. This advocacy role was not just directed towards heightening awareness of the submarine • s potential to the President and Congress; like today, the SECNA V also performed an advocacy function throughout the debate on the distribution of resources within the overall Navy budget. He had to explain to both President and Congress (as well as the Admirals and, now. the SECDEF) why funds should be spent on submarines rather than battleships or other construction.

Even with pro-Navy presidential administrations, this required some work in dispelling skepticism. President Theodore Roosevelt, although the progenitor of a naval renaissance leading to the Great White Fleet, expressed a bit of this skepticism in 1905, saying that while “a good deal can be done with these submarines … there is always the danger of people getting carried away with the idea and thinking they can be of more use than they possibly can be.”

While few SECNAV’s could stand up to the forceful personality and naval expertise of Theodore Roosevelt (hence his six SECNAY’s in eight years), their routinely positive reports on submarine progress proved helpful. Submarines were good news to report even if their role was still a bit fuzzy. As Secretary Victor H. Metcalf stated in his FY 1908 Annual Report: ” … all of the newer ones [submarines] have been employed with gratifying results. The enthusiasm and zeal displayed by the officers and men of these craft point to real efficiency and indicate that they will prove valuable auxiliaries to the service in time of need. ”

As the diesel submarine indeed developed towards the status of auxiliary unit to the battle fleet, this advocacy role changed more to translator/interpreter of Presidential preferences and shield when the inevitable developmental accidents occurred.

Questions of strategy and employment, prompting the need for translation/interpretation, increased in importance. Secretary George V. L. Meyer reported in 1911: “The submarine has been developed to a point where it may be considered as a possible fleet unit; also, owing to the Jack of proper defenses in our territorial possessions, the necessity for submarines in connection with the defense of bases from which the fleet must operate is greater than ever before.”

World War One gave great impetus to the continuing development of the submarine, but in a completely different direction. It also raised a continuing controversy and modern justification.

ASW: A Mission Too Soon

German U-Boat successes in World War One proved the worth of the submarine beyond the defense of bases. giving naval authorities an outstanding display of their strategic role as a commerce raiders. But as valuable as the submarine might appear, this success caused several quandaries for the SECNAVs of the era.

On the one hand, the continued development of what would become a valuable strategic weapon could be clearly justified on naval grounds. Submarines were now an effective weapon system. On the other, revulsion at the thought of unrestricted submarine warfare, the tool of the Hun, made the public justification of a large submarine force embarrassing. This was another factor tempering the public advocacy role, and increasing the translator/interpreter role.

It was in this context that the concept of a submarine as the best anti-submarine weapon was first discussed. Later used as an argument for our strong attack submarine program throughout the Cold War, the first official statement of this concept was by Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels (1913-1921} in 1918. Assessing naval operations in World War One, Daniels reflected.

“The principal antisubmarine efforts were at first carried on by surface craft, but it was later realized that the submarine itself is the enemy of the submarine, especially when our enemy”s submarines are forced to work on the surface …”

Whatever the effectiveness of the early diesel boats in this role-and historical analysis seems to indicate they were not very effective-Secretary Daniels’ observation was an important one to make in justifying a post-war submarine program during President Wilson’s administration. Wilson had used Germany’s declaration of unrestricted submarine operations as a prime justification for U.S. entry into World War One. He and subsequent Presidents could not publicly justify submarine construction on their role as commerce destroyers.

Wilson and his successors also had to contend with Royal Navy pressure to codify an international ban on submarines in order to lessen the danger to the capital ships of their dominant fleet. The sub versus sub-argument was useful, even if such operations were then not demonstrably productive.

Technical difficulties and the ineffectiveness of Japanese submarine strategy both precluded ASW as a dominant role for American submarines in World War Two. But the Submarine-as-the-best-ASW-Platform remained an ideal long before the SSN made it a reality.

Ban or Standardize the Submarine?

While intrigued by the submarine as a technical marvel, much of the Americans public-particularly members of the vocal and growing disarmament movement-were not necessarily disposed towards a larger submarine force. With memories of the U-Boat menace, the effort to .. ban the submarine” was one of the elusive objectives that lead to the Washington and London Naval Treaties of 1921-22 and 1930.

The result was the signing of codes and international protocols regulating submarine attacks in 1922 and 1936. Incidentally, the 1936 protocol against attack on merchant shipping is technically still in effect although it was ignored by all the belligerents in World War Two.

The result was also quieter SECNAVs. The influence of public attitude is reflected in the fact that, with the exception of the 1923 Report, which discussed the Organization and Administration of Submarines, submarines were only infrequently mentioned in the Annual Reports of the Secretary of the Navy during the 1920s and early 1930s. SECNAV advocacy had given way to translation/representation of Presidential preference, and the continuing preference was not to fan public debate about submarines.

However, SECNAVs recognized the potential for submarines as for sea control/sea denial platforms and made the practical decisions for continued development.

One of the first practical moves was to help standardize submarine design, which can be traced to Secretary Daniels’ establishment of a Submarine Standardization Board in 1917 (known as the Stirling Board). While Stirling Board recommendations were modified by subsequent boards (such as the Doddridge Board), the keel was laid for continuing design development.

At the same time, steps were taken to integrate the submarine force into the fleet. Much of this effort occurred during the administrations of SECNAV Daniels and his successor, Edwin Denby. In 1915, a flag officer was designated Commander Submarine Force, Atlantic Fleet. In 1918, a submarine section (later a division) was established in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. In 1921, submarine flotillas (redesignated divisions in December 1922) were established on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. In his 1923 Report, SECNAV Edwin Denby could declare: “Submarine affairs are now administered in the department in the same manner as those of other units of the fleet.

From Tactical to Strategic Weapon

The concept that the submarine was now a significant weapon system gained steady ground through the 1920s as their participation in fleet exercises and operations increased. Once again it was SECNAV Josephus Daniels who articulated this potential for progress most succinctly in his Annual Report for 1920:

“No nation, if it is to be prepared to engage in warfare upon the sea, can afford to neglect the submarine or to spare any pains to develop it to meet its needs. This type has come to stay as a factor in naval warfare unless outlawed by international agreements. Its abuse by the Germans in their ruthless campaign should not blind us to the fact that there is a large field for its legitimate use. Without accepting the theory of the enthusiasts, that submarines alone can be developed to meet adequately all needs of naval warfare, we must agree that the submarine can not be ignored and has a field of its own in the conduct of war upon the sea which can not be filled by any other character of the ship.”

This remained the general sentiment of subsequent Secretaries even if few stated it directly.

One positive factor that helped continue steady submarine development throughout this period was that construction of submarines was a lot cheaper than that of battleships, thus allowing Congress to view subs as a low-cost alternative to the Battle Fleet. This corresponded well with efforts of the Harding and Coolidge Administrations to reduce government spending and particularly spending on military armaments.

Another particular feature of this era was the SECNAV directed the development of naval shipyards capable of submarine construction. The result was a ten-year dry spell (1921-1931) in commercial submarine contracts that bankrupted Simon Lake’s company and left Electric Boat as the lone, struggling competitor. 10 But it also provided the naval shipyard base that could handle a wartime surge.

As noted, submarines were not prominently discussed in the SECNAV Annual Reports of that era. For example, while it became standard for the SECNAV Reports to discuss all combatant ship types under their own title headings, submarines were instead discussed only in the new construction or fleet training sections.

When discussed separately, it was usually in relation to submarine accidents, which electrified the press and caused SECNAVs to assume the shielding role (such as 0-5, rammed and sunk in 1923 with loss of five men, S4 sunk in 1927 with loss of 39 men). SCENA Vs took the heat in the press, although none actually were forced to resign. When in 1929 submarines were given their own

    Annual Report

heading, the primary impetus was the SECNAV’s need to respond to public calls for “much study and investigation” into “improving safety in the operation of submarines.

Undoubtedly the most significant move in increasing the Submarine Force was the passage by Congress of the Vinson-Trammel Act of 1934 which authorized building the Navy, including submarines, to Treaty limits. Simultaneously, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, himself a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy to Josephus Daniels, utilized National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) funds for naval shipbuilding, revitalizing America’s commercial shipyards and preparing the fleet materially for a potential future war.

Although picking enthusiastic and capable Secretaries, FDR routinely intervened in decisions regarding his Service, once openly stating that he considered himself his own SECNA V. It is interesting to speculate to what extent, as Assistant Secretary, he had participated in drafting SECNAV Daniels’ 1920 statement on submarines. His choice of Admiral Nimitz as CINCPAC demonstrated considerable in-depth knowledge of the capabilities of his flag officers, including those with service in submarines.

World War Two confirmed, once and forever, the submarine’s importance as the premier sea-denial platform, after which the increasing development of more capable submarines was never in doubt.

Naval Reactors and the SECDEF

The development of nuclear power occurred following the creation of the Department of Defense and reduction in the statutory power of the SECNAV. This adjusted, but in a very real sense, broadened and made more difficult the advocacy role of the SECNAV, since the previous audience of the President, Congress, and the public now included an official with the authority to reduce the SECNAV access to these audiences. For the first time, individual Navy and Marine Corps programs had to compete directly against Army, and subsequently, Air Force programs for funding .. 2 Thus, the SECNAV was forced to take on an internal bureaucratic role that was different and programmatically more challenging than before. He now had to make his case at least four times for Navy programs in an increasingly competitive environment.

The organization of the Department of Defense and the new internal bureaucratic role was also a factor-unacknowledged in most historical accounts-in in the rise of the power and control of Naval Reactors as the prime proponent of submarine development. While the potential dangers of nuclear power, Congressional desires on consolidating controls over atomic energy, and the forceful personality and political skills of Admiral Rickover were undoubtedly prime factors in fashioning the practical independence of Naval Reactors from the rest of the Department of the Navy, this probably would not have occurred if the SECNAV had remained a cabinet-level official with routine access to the President.

The independence of Naval Reactors not only increased the direct involvement of Congress in decision-making on naval programs but also gave the Secretary of Defense a means of maintaining a separate focus on submarine programs.

None of this significantly changed uniform SECNA V support for the development of nuclear power for submarines and advances in hull design such as the ALBACORE. The cost did not seem to be, in light of the Cold War threat, a debilitating consideration. Most of the SECNAVs’ attention during the nuclear developmental period was directed towards the more contentious issue of nuclear power for surface combatants.

Cold War and Beyond

Development of the Fleet Ballistic Missile and the SSBN force was solidly supported by successive SECNA Vs. SECNAV Charles S. Thomas (1954-1957), a strong Navy advocate, established the Special Projects Office and was persuaded by the CNO, Admiral Arleigh Burke, to give Admiral “Red” Raborn the hunting license required to make the SLBM project a success.

As the SSBN was perfected, however, its status as an element of strategic forces moved control of its future solidly within the hands of SECDEF. No longer was it considered a “naval” matter, and SECNA V influence lessened accordingly. While this may have proved an advantage in obtaining steady funding for the Polaris, Poseidon, and Trident programs, this may prove less advantageous in the post-Cold War environment when the apparent need for strategic deterrence is diminishing.

The near-termination of Soviet/Russian naval operations and subsequent reduction in the immediate need for ASW forces has had a significant impact on America’s SSN force. This in tum has resurrected the need for a strong advocacy role by SECNA V. Recent SECNAVs have concentrated on the industrial base argument for preserving submarine construction. The issue of affordability has become paramount, the irony is that after many years of selling submarines as cheaper alternatives to other naval forces, SECNA Vs are forced to justify the expenses involved in building a capable nuclear submarine.

Here we are at the realm of current policy rather than history, where the future is subject to continual change. Yet, if the past is but a prologue, current SECNAV John H. Dalton’s words should continue to ring true: “We will continue to build the most capable submarines in the world and crew them with the most capable sailors.”


1. Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen, Rickover: Controversy and Genius (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982, p. 238.
2. Harold and Margaret Sprout, The Rise of American Naval Power 1776-1918, 1966 edition (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Plus, 1990), p. 253
3. Annual Reports of the Navy Department For the Fiscal Year 1908 {Washing-ton, DC: GPO, 1908), p.7.
4. Annual Reports of the Navy Department For the Fiscal Year 1911 {Washing-ton, DC: GPO, 1912), p. 41.
5. Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy For the Fiscal Year 1918 {Washington, DC: GPO, 1918), p. 17. However, with the development of naval aviation, the anti-submarine role for submarines gradually receded in importance until the development of nuclear power. Submarines were just too valuable in anti-surface and commerce warfare and aircraft had the advantage of speed
6. Richard Dean Bums, “Regulating Submarine Warfare, 1921-41: A Case Study in Arms Control and Limited War,” Military Affairs 35 (April 1971), pp. 56-63.
7. Gary E. Weir, Building American Submarines 1914-1940 {Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1991), pp. 25-29.
8. Annual Reports of the Navy Department for the Fiscal Year 1923 {Washing-ton, DC: GPO, 1923), p. 11.
9. Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy for Fiscal Year 1920 {Washing-ton, DC: GPO, 1920), p. 8.
10. Weir, p. 54.
11. Annual Reports ofthe Navy Qepartment for Fiscal Year 1929 {Washington: GPO, 1929), p. 13.
12. Previously, Army and Navy programs were addressed by differs:nt Congressional committees. The budgets for both Departments were subject to the approval of the President and Congress at the same time as the rest of the federal budget and therefore could be compared. However, it was rare and difficult to compare competing weapons systems between Departments-with the exception of General Billy Mitchell’s prolonged aircraft versus battleships debate.
13. John H. Dalton, “A Submarine Force” … From the Sea,” The Submarine Review (July 1994), p. 12.


Established by the Secretary of the Navy in 1979, this facility in Keyport, Washington is on its way to becoming a world class institution. It is unique as the only museum in the United States wholly dedicated to undersea technology and history.

The museum’s first permanent exhibit, The Ocean Environ-ment, presents the environment of the undersea world, providing the backdrop for all subsequent exhibits. The Ocean Environment exhibit creates an aura of awe and expectancy for what is to be discovered about the ocean depths.

After many months of research, collection, restoration and creation of a first-rate design, the Undersea Weapons exhibit will open in early 1995. This collection of mines, torpedoes, and underwater tracking systems, dating from the American Revolution to the present, will fascinate and educate with a blend of history, science and technology.

When the full plan for the museum is realized, 18,000 square feet of exhibit hall and mezzanine will hold permanent exhibits that include: The History of Diving Salvage, Undersea Exploration, Saga of the Submarine, Underwater Vehicles and Anti-Submarine Warfare.
Public response to the museum has been excellent. The museum now draws some 7,000 visitors per month, from all 50 states and many foreign countries. More than 100 retired persons find meaningful work as volunteer docents. The museum’s education focus is in science and math, and has brought more than 20,000 school children to the facility for projects such as Jason. A g·rant from a local foundation enables the museum to develop its library as a center for undersea history and technology research. A 450 seat auditorium is widely used by community and military groups for meetings and conferences.

The Naval Undersea Museum Foundation supports the facilities, exhibits and programs of the museum and works with museum staff to bring the vision for the museum to completion. For more information, please write: Naval Undersea Museum, P.O. Box 408, Keyport, Washington 98345. (206) 697-1129 (area code 360 after January 1995).

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