Owen Cote is Assistant Director of the International Security Program at Harvard University’s Center for Science and International Affairs. Harvey Sapolsky is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Security Studies Program at M.I. T.
Military organizations are always accused of preparing to fight the last war, and often there is some basis for this claim. It is difficult for military organizations to change in response to the demands of a new security environment, and it is therefore important to understand the causes of such change when it does occur. One organization that certainly could not be accused of fighting the last war was the U.S. Navy’s undersea warfare community after World War II.
During World War D, U.S. Navy submarines strangled the Japanese war economy by sinking its merchant ships and interdicting its sea lines of communication, while in the Atlantic, U.S. Navy ships and aircraft helped prevent German Navy submarines from cutting Allied sea lines of communication. Yet early in the Cold War, the United States faced a new threat to its sea lanes which threatened all of these undersea warfare platforms with obsolescence. Using advanced submarine technologies developed by the Germans at the end of World War II, the Soviet Union threatened Allied ASW forces with defeat in a third Battle of the Atlantic. Furthermore, as a continental power whose lines of communication did not span oceans, the Soviet Union was immune to the formidable commerce raiding capabilities of U.S. submarines.
But by 1950, a radical shift in the U.S. Navy’s approach to ASW was well underway, with submarines becoming the preeminent ASW platform, and passive acoustics becoming the primary sensor. In this new paradigm American submarines hunted Soviet submarines, using the sounds they emitted as a signature, and Soviet submarines designed to evade existing air and surface ASW platforms employing radar and active sonar met their match. The early days of the Third Battle of the Atlantic, if it had occurred, would not have resembled the early days of World War I and II, which were happy times for enemy submarines. Instead, Soviet submarines would have been thrown on the defensive by an integrated, combined arms, ASW force led by U.S. submarines. The story of how the U.S. Navy met this early Cold War ASW challenge and maintained its edge over the Soviet submarine fleet for the balance of the Cold War is important for at least three reasons.
First, this story is a largely untold success, and the technical, operational, and organizational ingredients of success need to be understood and communicated. Americans largely take for granted the historic fact that they have been able to gain wealth and project power from the sea, just as they take for granted that they will dominate the air. But unlike air forces, whose activities and successes are easy to see and widely celebrated, ASW forces wage a silent, unseen war. Victory in this war gives Americans largely untrammeled access to the sea, and it is important to understand the tools used in this struggle, the changing nature of the threat, and the fact that success does not come as a birthright.
Second, this is a case of rapid, radical change by a military organization. Such innovations are rare, and it is important to understand their causes. This particular example of innovation gains further importance because it appears not to be explicable by any existing theories of how military organizations change. These theories explain innovation as the result either of intervention by outside high level political leaders, protracted struggles for control within a service among its branches, or inter-service competition between independent military services in areas of mission overlap. It is difficult to explain the post-war ASW revolution in any of these terms: high level political leaders seem largely absent from the story at the outset: the changes appear too quickly and decisively to be the result of the normal pulling and hauling between internal Navy platform communities; and ASW was a mission area that the Navy had largely to itself, unlike carrier aviation and missiles, which did become major bones of inter-service contention. Identifying the factors which caused both the submarine community and the Navy as a whole to so quickly recast their entire mode of ASW operation in the immediate aftermath of a great victory will help to develop better theories about the sources of military innovation. Such theories, in turn, can help U.S. political and military leaders with the practical task of adjusting to the demands of a radically new, post Cold War security environment.
Third, the U.S. submarine community, the larger undersea warfare community, and the Navy as a whole may be able to learn more specific lessons from a retrospective look at the last time their main adversaries changed and their main platforms were forced to change their mission orientations. This might help speed and smooth the process of adding new missions for U.S. submarines, developing new, combined arms ASW techniques against increasingly capable diesel submarines, and discovering or rediscovering organizational structures for the Navy as a whole that help spur innovation in response to a challenging new security environment.
With these goals in mind, we are beginning a retrospective study of the Third Battle of the Atlantic, sponsored by the Navy, and managed by the Applied Physics Laboratory of The Johns Hopkins University. This study will begin the process of understanding and explaining the organizational, technical, and operational underpinnings of the Navy’s success in its Cold War ASW competition with the Soviet submarine force. Of course, many readers of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW and members of the Submarine League were a part of this story, and we would welcome their suggestions.