In Thunder Below! Rear Admiral Gene Fluckey describes a wolf pack engagement involving his BARB, PICUDA, and QUEENFISH against a Japanese convoy, designated Mo-Ta 30 (Moji to Takao) (Figure 1). At 1724 hours on January 8, 1944, after a long end-around to place herself between the convoy and China’s cout, BARB fired three torpedoes and began an engagement which lasted nearly five hours’. Fluckey’s description of the battle highlights the tactical communication between the three submarines and how they rotated individual engagements to assure continuous pressure, while permitting the boat which had just fired to reposition for successive shots.
Interestingly, U.S. Army Field Manual 1-112, Tactics. Techniques. and Procedures for the Attack Helicopter Battalion, describes a similar tactic: the continuous employment technique (Figure 2). The continuous attack is intended to .. exert constant pressure on the enemy force” and ensures “that at least one company [of three in an attack helicopter battalion] will be in the battle.”
Apart from the obvious differences in terrain and logistics support required for the attack helicopter battalion, each of these forces utilize a third dimension for maneuver, engaging a target constrained to two dimensions. Enroute, each is required to finetune intelligence regarding target location through reconnaissance, before maneuvering elements toward firing positions (a term used by both forces) from which an attack is commenced with the
Apart from the obvious differences in terrain and logistics support required for the attack helicopter battalion, each of these forces utilize a third dimension for maneuver, engaging a target constrained to two dimensions. Enroute, each is required to finetune intelligence regarding target location through reconnaissance, before maneuvering elements toward firing positions (a term used by both forces) from which an attack is commenced with the primary weapon, an onboard missile system. The attack helicopter force, owing to its limited fuel endurance, will often handover an engagement to another attack helicopter element, a practice Clay Blair, Jr. describes in Silent Victory as sometimes conducted between American wolf packs.
This similarity was recently explored in a US Army Command and General Staff College thesis, which sought to answer the question: Is there a parallel in the tactical employment of World War H wolf packs and modem attack helicopters? The study proposed a set of four battlefield mechanics (force, action, target, and counterforce) as a comparative framework. Each force, submarine wolf packs and attack helicopter battalions, were then explored in detail using these mechanics before making the comparison. The study’s conclusions are too lengthy to outline here, but while there are certainly differences between the two experiences (owing to their unique battlefield environments), there appears a definite parallel in what these two forces are tasked to do and how they do it.’
Of course, submarines don’t fight that way anymore. It is true that the author drew conclusions regarding the similarity of a 50 year old submarine force to modem attack helicopters. However, with that point of comparison, further work was intended to explore the submarine’s evolution since World War II to determine if that development, in concert with an evaluation of future conflict, might describe the route attack helicopter forces should take in their own evolution into the next century. In other words, what can Army Aviation learn from the Navy? After all, why reinvent the wheel?
An admitted weakness in drawing the comparison was the author’s lack of naval experience: none vs. 14 years as an Army Aviation officer. Therefore, a submariner was solicited to serve on the thesis committee, Dr. James J. Tritten and submarine officers assigned to Naval Doctrine Command periodically reviewed the work, and the · author made a one week cruise onboard USS AUGUSTA (SSN 710) to gain some first-hand submarine experience. During this naval liaison, contacts began asking: “What can the Silent Service learn from the Army attack aviation experience?”
Recognizing how presumptuous it is for someone in the Army to offer the Navy insight, particularly one with so limited experience with submarines, it is best to confine the response to something the author knows a little about: the similarity of World War II wolf packs to modem attack helicopters. Phrasing the Navy’s question a different way: “Within the framework of a tactical engagement, what does the helicopter force do better than their submarine counterparts?” The answer is twofold: helicopters maneuver more freely and offer the commander greater tactical flexibility.
What Attack Helicopters Do Better
Maneuver. Among four definitions Joint Publication 1-02 offers for maneuver are “a movement to place ships or aircraft in a position of advantage over the enemy”.11 For the World War II wolf pack, as well as for the modem attack helicopter battalion, that positional advantage is offered in an optimal torpedo/anti-tank missile firing positions with respect to the enemy formation.
In their respective World War II histories. Clay Blair, Jr. (Silent Victory), Gene Fluckey (Thunder Below!), and Dick O’Kane (Clear the Bridge) offer examples of the endurance race involved with a submarine, hence wolf pack, closing on the target. The attack helicopter, in contrast, spends an order of magnitude less time in the approach than her submarine counterpart due to the speed advantage of the force over the target.
The wolf pack moves in the same fluid medium as her prey, while the helicopter does not. Numerous technical histories show that World War II submarines were only a few knots faster than slow convoys, and were often unable to overhaul faster formations. Any advantage enjoyed on the surface was lost when forced to submerge.
Helicopters, on the other band, although operating in the ground environment, are unconstrained by it. While flying at napof-the-earth altitudes and slower airspeeds in the vicinity of the target, helicopters will also employ higher speed low-level and contour terrain flight techniques further from the threat. Table 1 compares both forces to their corresponding target rates of movement. AH-64A velocities are maximum speeds, and would not reflect airspeeds used in the target’s vicinity. However, the table does highlight the order of magnitude associated with these forces’ speed advantage, a characteristic inextricably tied to maneuver.
Source: US Army, TM 55-1520-238-10, Operator’s Manual for Army AH-64A Helicopter (thru Change 28). Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 1993, Chapter 6; US Army, FM 100-2- 1, The Soviet Army: Operations and Tactics. Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 1984, 5-2; David Westwood, The Type VU U-Boat. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1984, 12; Norman Friedman, U.S. Submarines through 1945. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1995, p. 311; and Stephen Roskill, The War at Sea. 1939-1945, 3 vols. London: H.M. Stationery Office, 1954, p. 345.
This does not suggest, however, that wolf packs were incapable of maneuver; the end-around maneuver’ employed successfully by Pacific theater wolf packs is an important example to this issue. Operational maneuver may alleviate this speed disadvantage, but the technological advances of 50 years still find the submarine and her prey traveling at speeds on the same order of magnitude.
Tactical Flexibility. With the possible exception of airborne envelopment, helicopter forces offer the ground commander the fastest maneuver capability on any modern battlefield: the speed advantage. Those weight-restricted aircraft, however, are constrained by the ordnance and fuel they can lift. Fortunately, sophisticated refuel and rearm systems are in place which often move with the helicopter force to increase its range and tactical endurance in terms of both fuel and ammunition.
In comparison, World War II Gato class submarines bad a s
Within an attack helicopter company, organized with eight AH64 helicopters, the commander might mix weapons loads, depending on the type target expected in the vicinity of an engagement area. One element may carry 16 Hellfire anti-tank missiles (Figure 3), while another might swap the inboard Hellfire launchers for 2.75 inch rocket pods. Still others might carry an external fuel tank to extend their range. Regardless of the weapons mix a unit launches with, in about two hours, they have an opportunity to change their mind. Admittedly, choices are not that easy to make, but the modularity of modern attack helicopter weapon systems allows commanders this tactical flexibility.
Surface endurance of 11,000 nautical miles at ten knots, and the modem submarine force is restricted only by crew provisions. True, but the helicopter’s advantage is tactical, rather than operational or strategic flexibility. In effect, helicopter forces can change their minds every two hours (roughly the fuel endurance for a combat-loaded AH-64). Fifteen hundred miles from Midway is a terrible time to determine the crew should have loaded Mark 14 (compressed air propulsion, 45 knots, maximum 4,572 meters) instead of Mark 18 (electric propulsion, 29 knots, 3,658 meters) torpedoes’.
What Does It All Mean?
It is no revelation that the post Cold War world is more confusing, dangerous, and busy for folks wearing uniforms. Professional military journals offer nearly as many insights about that confusion, danger, and OPTEMPO as there are readers. A general point of agreement, however, is that conflict will confine itself to regional (vice global) boundaries. Naval prognosticators see this trend as a shift from blue to brown-water maritime engagements, with littoral the naval buzzword of the ’90s.
Commander Frank C. Borik recently published a thought piece Proceedings entitled Sub and the Art Submarine Warfare. In that article, he describes the fictitious ascendancy of a low technology force to successfully wage a guerrilla war at sea against the United States. Whether in agreement or disagreement with Borik, readers should have recognized the stronger regional (read .. littoral”) flavor of the article, and mirrored in the Navy’s own strategic vision, Forward…From the Sea. Interestingly, Figure 1 of that article presents a regional map with .. fatal terrain” ovals covering portions of the South China Sea and the Formosa Strait, a region the American Submarine Force has some wartime experience, and success, in.
Commander Paul Murdock and Lieutenant Commander James E. Wright have individually published thoughts in Proceedings on the submarine design required for this type of warfighting. Murdock returned to 1944 in describing the aggressive nature these new boats should adopt, and uses the German’s World War II Type XVIII (Walter) U-boat in describing peroxide-based propulsion systems he thinks are appropriate to these missions.
Wright looks to the Netherlands and Australia for .. modular submarine shipbuilding” he feels is suited for the littorals. He goes on to describe the multi-mission requirements for such a vehicle and the ultimate need for versatility in weapon systems. History might suggest the 20 knot speed he advocates for the vessel insufficient in the anti-shipping mission; the World War II Gato class had a maximum surface speed of 21 knots with associated difficulties in maneuver described by Blair, Fluckey, O’Kane, and Theodore Roscoe, among others.
These thoughts combine to suggest future submarine warfare may take on many of the same characteristics it bad in the 1940s. The trend toward regional contingencies and warfare in the littorals, combined with forward presence advocated by the Navy’s strategic vision, imply a move away from operational or strategic focus to the tactical. Tactical maneuver and flexibility; whether garnered through increased submarine speeds, proposed NSSN modular weapons mixes, or integration of existing Los Angeles and Seawolf class boats with national intelligence assets to improve reaction time and weapon selection; are characteristics that point the contemporary attack submarine toward, rather than away from, its World War II roots.
The previous section offered two advantages modem attack helicopters enjoy over World War II wolf packs. The thesis comparing these two forces discovered a number of issues where wolf packs and attack helicopter battalions were decidedly similar: tactical communication, selection of tiring positions, and their offensive orientation, to name a few. Whether the Navy needs to improve the tactical maneuver and flexibility of its Submarine Force is an issue for the Navy, not this author, to determine. However, the apparent trend toward what once was (the World War II submarine force), and the similarity of that force to modem attack helicopters, suggests the prudent military professional take a look.
Those so inclined can suggest a hundred reasons why such a similarity is invalid, and are invited to do so. This author, however, finds great excitement in the grander “vicarious experience” Hart describes in the opening to this discussion, which both the helicopter and submarine history offers.
Despite the confusion, danger, and OPTEMPO America’s victory in the Cold War helped produce, the Department of Defense is tasked to continue doing more with less. The thesis comparing these two experiences was written with hopes the submarine’s evolution might prevent the helicopter force from making similar mistakes. The “stumbles and tumbles of our forerunners” are avoidable.