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An elite organization … Great historical record … An asymmetrical threat … Expensive to maintain … Dated weapons systems … Superior mobility … Huge infrastructure. .. Romantic attachment … Entrenched bureaucracy … Searching for a mission. Sound familiar? It should; this was the status of the horse cavalry (in the United States and elsewhere) in the 1930s, but it is equally applicable to the United States Submarine Force (the boats) entering the 21st century.


Edward L . Katzenbach’s The Horse Cavalry in the Twentieth Century: A Study in Policy Response provides a good point of departure for a perspective on the future of the Submarine Force. The cavalry metaphor is not far fetched and has been artfully employed by others to describe the Submarine Force. For example, Captain Jim Patton has made the point that the submarine (in particular, the nuclear submarine) is akin to the cavalry owing to its self-containment and other characteristics. Patton opines that submarines assumed the mantle from the cruisers at some point around the middle of the 20th century, when air power eliminated the cruiser’s forte of being fast enough to get away from retribution following a shipping or coastal attack.

Katzenbach ‘s thesis is that the lag time-that lapsed period between innovation and a successful institutional or social response to it-is probably on the increase in military matters. He posits that there is not the urgency that there should be in the military to make major institutional adjustments in the face of the challenge of new weapons systems, if for no other reason than the problem of testing is so difficult. And that the absence of any final testing mechanism of the military’s institutional adequacy, short of war, has tended to keep the pace of change to a creep in time of peace, and, conversely has whipped it into a gallop in time of war. He makes the insightful remark that the military history of the first half of the 20th century was studded with institutions that have managed to dodge the challenge of the obvious. As an example, he cites the Coast Artillery, which in the United States persisted, with little or no justification, until the middle of the Second World War. Today, this issue is relevant to the Submarine Force; it is dodging the challenge of the obvious.

The Challenges

At Sea. What is the challenge at sea? The bipolar threat of the Russian Navy, especially its enormous submarine force, is gone and not likely to reappear for the foreseeable future. If the building (or non-building) rates of the Severodvinsk class SSN and the Boray class SSBN, coupled with the serious deterioration of the Russian operating forces are any indicators, then what is on the horizon? Is the threat the Kilos and other Third World submarines; the conventional and nuclear submarines of China; the Sango class submarines of North Korea; the high speed semi submersible special operations force (SOF) raiding craft? Or is it a combination of all of them?

Certainly, against all types of submarines in the open ocean, the nuclear submarine is, and will remain, the foremost option to track, and destroy, if ordered. If the threat is the conventional diesel powered (or air independent propulsion) submarine operating close to the battlegroup, based on the Royal Navy’s 1983 experience in the Falklands, the nuclear submarine is a potential problem not a solution, e.g., “Sounded sub, Sank same!” In this case, the nuclear submarine can provide the outer ring of defense, and with air/surface-launched torpedoes and other ordnance being used in the ASW.


So where all does this lead? Katzenbach in his conclusions writes:

The military profession, dealing as it does with life and death should be utterly realistic, ruthless in discarding the old for the new. forward-thinking in the adaptation of new means of violence. But equally needed is a romanticism which, while perhaps stultifying realistic thought, gives a man that belief in the value of the weapons system he is operating that is so necessary to his willingness to use it in battle … Whether a man rides a horse, a plane or a battleship into war, he cannot be expected to operate without faith in his weapon system. But faith breeds distrust of change … Finally, change is expensive, and some part of the civilian population has to agree that the change is worth the expense before it can take place.

For the Submarine Force, as it should have been for the horse cavalry, the answer would appear to be obvious. While keeping faith with the submarine achievements of World War Two and Cold War, the Navy hierarchy (not an ad hoc Think Tank group or Defense committee) must make a pragmatic appraisal of what submarines (in consort with other joint forces) can meaningfully contribute to national security in the 21″ century. And after that soul searching, the Navy must get a jump on the lag time described at the beginning of this paper through implementation of innovative concepts and technology insertion. It is equally obvious, that approach must be taken and embraced by the Executive and the Legislative Branches (the civilian population alluded to by Katzenbach), and they have a sense of ownership.

To keep the Submarine Force from pricing itself out of business, an important criterion must be: How much is enough? This applies to civilian and military infrastructure, OPTEMPO, as well as the submarine themselves. Likewise, does each and every submarine have to be all things to all people? For starters, the series production of a somewhat smaller, albeit almost as expensive, version of SEA WOLF (i.e., the NSSN) 5 may not be the most cost effective way to proceed. What may be required is a blend of submersible platforms, not every one a super submarine, to cover the span of anticipated missions, while at the same time ensuring a sufficient number of submarines and qualified, motivated personnel to do the job. It may be heretical to say, but unless major institutional changes are made, the boats as we know them today may follow the course of the horse cavalry.


LT Gene L. Albert, USN(Ret.)
CDR H. Collins Embry, USN(Ret.)
COL Albert R. Haney, USA(Ret.)
RADM(sel) John. P. Jarabalc, USN
CAPT James P. Keane, USN(Ret.)
CAPT Thomas C. Maloney, USN(Ret.)

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