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Dan van der Vat New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1994 374 pages, $30.00, ISBN 0-395-65242-1

Commander Tangredi is a Surface Warfare Officer currently enroute to command. He holds a PhD in international relations and was most recently speechwriter for the Secretary of the Navy. He is a frequent contributor to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW.

A much more accurate title for this book would be: Submersibles at Sea: A History of Diesel Submarine Operations in the World Wars. The trouble is that, despite the title, it makes no effort to discuss what constitutes stealth in modem warfare, and its account of history after World War Two can only be described as cursory.

That is not to say that Stealth at Sea is a bad history. Actually, it has one of the best accounts of Royal Navy submarine operations to be found on this side of the Atlantic, particularly about those “private wars”, as the author calls them, conducted by the commanding officers of British submarines trapped behind the lines in peripheral theaters, such as the Baltic. It also provides a coherent account, from a British perspective, of the inter-war naval treaty negotiations that threatened to outlaw the submarine.

There is a very apparent bias against nuclear submarines. Despite the fact that only one out of the book’s eleven chapters discusses nuclear powered submarines, certainly a lack of balance for a book advertised as “The History of the Submarine”, the author spares no opportunity in taking swipes at nuclear power. Dan van der Vat is obviously unhappy that the Royal Navy invested so much money on the Trident SSBN program, particularly after the Cold War ended. The decision to continue this program irks him because it indicates that the British government “would rather sacrifice an item of public expenditure in its unprecedented debt crisis than this totem of status”.

But not content to slam Her Majesty’s choice in this matter, van der Vat is ready to assign all SSBNs and SSNs to the ash heap of history. In his view, nukes are irrelevant now that the Soviets are gone, and “few in the west seem prepared to ask such embarrassing questions” as whether “these amazing but staggeringly costly nuclear weapons systems” are to be more than mere “underwater missile-silos against an unidentified enemy, reactor powered picket boats” or “billion dollar dinghies for commandos”.

The result of the author’s perspective is a history that effectively ends in 1945. The reader could devour this whole book without ever encountering the fact that nuclear submarin~ are qualitatively different than diesel boats. It is not until the very last paragraph of the book that van der Vat admits that nuclear boats are “true submarines” {as opposed to submersibles) that embody “real stealth at sea”.

The book’s polemic side would be more effective if he: (1) simply stuck to his skeptic’s hypothesis that “diesel boats with the latest electronics, electronic countermeasures, stealth technology and submarine weaponry cost half as much and could carry out the majority of these tasks without the added risks of reliance of nuclear power”, and (2) provided comparative cost calculations.

Since the historical portions of the text make it obvious that aircraft were the Allies greatest asset in fighting the U-Boat, it is surprising that van der Vat forgets to deal with the problem of a diesel boat’s need to come to the surface periodically. Or maybe it is understandable, since the separate-service RAF effectively dismantled British naval aviation at the same time as other nations were developing their naval air capabilities.

Good grades must be given to the seven-eighths of the book that is an operational history of submarines in World Wars One and Two. The British perspective ensures that the focus remains on the Royal Navy, which means that the book contains interesting facts not known to American readers. Also, the opening chapter is one of the more complete accounts of early attempts at building submarines. Most American books on the subject neglect the European would-be inventors.

His account of German submarine operations is also good, though there are more thorough histories to be found elsewhere. His treatment of U.S. and Japanese submarine operations are comparatively brief, but also steady. But while acknowledging the importance of Ultra, Magic and other intelligence efforts in defeating Axis submarines, the relationship between the “stealth weapon.. and operational intelligence and counter-intelligence is not extensively developed.

There is yet another off-setting aspect to the book. Throughout selected chapters, van der Vat adopts what Americans have come to think of as the British journalist’s typically snide tone concerning military matters: a sort of there’s something wrong with our bloody Admirals today attitude. This approach seems to make the coordination of relentless undersea warfare campaigns seem somewhat less heroic and important than the bold, but strategically-less-than-significant “private wars” of individual submarine commanders. It also makes tactical naval combat seem more dashing, but also less technically difficult than in reality. From that perspective, the book has color but not depth. Quite frankly, the author seems quick to sniff incompetence in those situations where too tough for human beings is a more likely explanation.

Despite these faults, Stealth at Sea does deserve a place in the libraries of readers who already know much about sub capabilities and want a non-American perspective. But I don’t recommend it for general readers until the publisher changes that tempting, but entirely misleading title. In purchasing this book, you are just not getting a full history of the submarine.

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