Editor’s Note: lieutenant Adams’ paper won The Naval Submarine League Essay Contest for Submarine Officers’ Advanced Class 98-020 in June of 1998.
Since John P. Holland’s invention of the practical military submersible in the late 1800s, nations have often had a muddled conception of the strategic utility of submarine forces. Few statesmen imagined the coming nature of Germany’s unrestricted submarine campaign against allied merchants during the First World War. Even fewer military strategists expected the United States to follow the German example, commencing unrestricted attacks on Japanese commerce at the onset of the Second World War. All but ignored before these wars, submarines were, by themselves, nearly decisive during them. In fact, several historians have concluded that “the American submarine campaign against Japanese seaborne commerce was a principal factor, perhaps the principal factor, in victory. 111 Since that time, submarines have become highly process-improved; possessing dramatically enhanced sensors and firepower as well as nuclear reactors that give unlimited submerged endurance. It seems hard to deny that submarines are currently the ultimate instruments of sea power. Nevertheless, critics argue that the U.S. Submarine Force is little more than a Cold War relic. They have chosen to ignore, however, the clearest lesson or 20 111 century naval history: a nation that does not heed the leverage or submarine power, does so at great peril. (Editor’s Note: Emphasis added.)
Any confusion today about the role of American submarines stems from the fact that the Cold War Soviet submarine threat presented an overwhelming danger to U.S. security, driving the U.S. Submarine Force to focus on antisubmarine warfare (ASW) at the expense of clearly demonstrating its wider strategic relevance. A recently diminished Soviet/Russian submarine threat means the ability of the Submarine Force to act as a wider instrument of American sea power must be reestablished in the public mind. To most American submariners, their boat’s continued contribution to our national security is intuitive. Unfortunately, submariners who must cope every day with shrinking budgets, reduced benefits, and intense operating tempos have little time for strategic assessments. Nevertheless, there are reasons for optimism. Explaining the enduring strategic utility of the Submarine Force can foster a renewed sense of purpose, that-when coupled to rediscovered wartighting values-can offer hope for a revitalized U.S. Submarine Force and the secure nation that follows.
A Renewed Sense or Purpose
Some military analysts claim “the U.S . Navy’s attack submarine fleet has no potential blue water adversary that justifies its maintenance at the same level. “l But this argument misses the strategic point. Despite the end of the Cold War, the United States remains a maritime nation and command of the sea-a mission to which our submarines are uniquely indispensable-is a basic foundation for our national survival. Our security, economic and military, depends upon our (and all other nations’) unhindered ability to conduct peaceful international trade across the world’s oceans. At the same time, America’s forward-deployed naval forces are increasingly being called upon to act as a premier stabilizing influence on international relations.
As the most recent crisis with Iraq demonstrated, there is no substitute for naval forward presence, available at the onset of any crisis, to stabilize international disputes, engage or deter regional powers, halt aggression, and ultimately to enable joint victory should deterrence fail. The United States Navy must maintain a global stabilizing presence-underpinned by undersea superiority or political instability will facilitate the slow erosion of peace. New threats to democratic capitalism will emerge, regional power rivalries will spiral out of control, and American airmen, soldiers, sailors, and marines will be called upon to pay an untold price in blood and human suffering to protect American lives, property and interests. Therefore, the outdated threat-based thinking that ties the Submarine Force exclusively to a blue water naval threat simply trivializes the wider strategic importance of American sea power, of which submarines are a critical part.
If naval forward presence is a linchpin of American strategic success in the coming century, then the Submarine Force is a vital, though not normally visible, element of that presence. During every recent international crisis, U.S. carriers and surface ships have captured the media spotlight, showcasing their ability to project American power .. From the Sea. In the media age, it is easy to forget that the U.S. Submarine Force, lurking sight unseen, ultimately holds many of the keys to any successful naval operation. It is the presence of our strategic submarines that deter the use of weapons of mass destruction against our forces, whether air, land, or sea. It is the presence of our SSNs that guarantees the safe passage of our carrier battlegroups to the scenes of distant crises. Possibly most important, it is U.S. attack submarines-normally arriving days before a carrier takes station-that must pave the way, prepare the battle space, and establish the local undersea superiority that prohibits a devastating submerged attack on our precious surface assets.
The Falkland’s Conflict, the only significant naval battle since World War II, demonstrated that submarines are needed to enable effective naval power projection.> While the British surface fleet fell prey to deadly attacks from the air, a submarine, operating with impunity, sank the Argentine Navy’s largest surface ship, GENERAL BELGRANO. Fear of further submarine attacks bottled up the Argentine carrier and her entire escort fleet in harbor. Argentina, of course, had no sophisticated ASW capabilities, but even the most modern surface fleet finds it difficult to detect and track submarines in the littorals. The South Atlantic War simply confirmed what submarines have long known-submarines are now the predominant weapon of power at sea.
Twenty-five hundred years ago, Themistocles proclaimed “he who has command of the sea, has command of everything.” Today, American submariners should gain a renewed sense of purpose from the knowledge that only a nation that commands the undersea can expect to project its naval power and global influence across it. Since America’s worldwide naval presence acts as a stabilizing influence, fostering a global trading economy that directly benefits the United States and our allies, it follows that American strategic success depends first and foremost upon the ability of the U.S. Submarine Force to blunt any challenge, large or small, to our nation’s command of the sea.
No Time to Rest
While the current strategic circumstances point to the increasing relevance of naval forward presence, sea control, and submarines, the U.S. Submarine Force has no time to rest on its laurels. The claim that the United States lacks a true naval peer competitor offers little comfort because as the study of Mahan reminds us, “sea control must be asserted not assumed” .4 In the wake of the Gulf War, most nations realize that inviting a head-to-head confrontation with the U.S. fleet would be a foolhardy endeavor. Instead, they are rapidly developing asymmetric means of inhibiting American and allied access to and from the sea.
Today’s Submarine Force faces additional challenges that constitute a real and present danger to global military and economic security. Modern conventional submarines are being built or purchased by many of the United States’ likely regional competitors. Iran, for instance, has never forgotten how the U.S. thwarted their attempts to close the Straits of Hormuz during the Iran-Iraq War. Thus, they have subsequently amassed thousands of mines and purchased several Russian Kilo class submarines in an attempt to mitigate American naval influence in the Arabian Gulf. These acquisitions have set the precedent for the naval build-ups being pursued by almost every potential U.S. adversary. This unabated proliferation of cheap, lethal sea mines and conventional submarines makes it easier for even marginal powers to close critical choke points, inhibit international trade, and deny American access from the sea.
America’s Submarine Force, to its credit, has been quick to contemplate innovative tactics and strategies to keep on top of these asymmetric undersea threats. But as the U.S. Submarine Force concentrates on littoral challenges, it cannot afford to ignore the Russian Navy’s still significant capacity to field a number of formidable modern submarines. Deployments of their newest classes of nuclear boats have made acoustic parity the new norm of many U.S.-Russian undersea encounters.
To make matters worse, the Russians, apparently thirsty for capital, seem to be exporting more than just their advanced Kilo class diesel-electric submarines to the highest Third World bidder. Technological upgrades, developed in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere, are now available on the open market, providing even older submarines with enhanced quieting, sensors, and weapons that can markedly improve their stealth, submerged endurance, and combat effectiveness. Additionally, Russia’s recent transfer of submarine technology to China and India suggests that the United States cannot rule out the possibility that a cash strapped Russia might sell off even its most sophisticated technologies, maybe even an entire modem nuclear submarine. Since submarines are, first and foremost, America’s primary sea control assets, the Submarine Force has no choice but to keep one eye on Russia’s increasingly sophisticated submarines and the other on the diverse and difficult asymmetric challenges that come with forward operations in coastal waters and shallow seas.
Today, U.S. national security demands that the Submarine Force dominate the littoral undersea environment without diminishing its open-ocean warfighting skills. At the same time, the Force is being called upon to conduct a wide array of additional littoral mission: strike, surveillance, and special operations among others. None of these missions are completely new to the Submarine Force. Submarines, for instance, have long been one of the United States’ most important intelligence and surveillance assets. It is important to admit, however, that current SSNs can only offer a group of niche capabilities to help accomplish these collateral mission. While converting several Trident submarines to submerged arsenal ships may provide the Force with increased mission capabilities in these areas, the bulk of our early 21″ century attack submarine fleet will still be capability-constrained to the hull of the Los Angeles (688) class. Taken together, however, the 688’s robust undersea warfighting prowess and niche strike, surveillance, and special operations capabilities can contribute significantly to the littoral campaign.
Innovative thinking and new operational concepts are needed to take full advantage of today’s attack submarine in the littorals. One suggestion made by Commander Kevin Peppe, former Commanding Office of USS ATLANTA, is that “a better employment concept may be to get the submarine in early, to do what it can do to enable the introduction of the heavy hitters.”‘ This might include initial intelligence preparation of the battlefield, surveillance of enemy forces, and the use of unmanned undersea vehicles to map and neutralize enemy minefields. If the crisis escalates, the submarines could deploy special operations forces, either SEAL teams or Marine recon platoons, to perform targeting and tagging of key facilities like the enemy’s coastal and mobile missile batteries. When ordered, submarines would be in position to neutralize any enemy diesel submarines and launch their Tomahawk missile at essential targets-previously tagged by its special operations forces . Having established local maritime superiority and neutralized many of the most potent enemy threats to the battlegroup, SSNs will have significantly reduced the operational risks to U.S. forces and truly paved the way for American power projection from the sea.
Rediscovering Warfighting values
The success or failure of the American Submarine Fore whether enabling forward presence or contributing to the littoral campaign-will depend less on technology and tactics than on the institutional attitudes and professional values of everyday submariners. Despite its strategic relevance, the Submarine Force is struggling through what seems to be a continual downsizing. Many submarine officers are resigning because they see only increased family hardship coupled with a reduced opportunity for selection to promotion and command. Sometimes the best way to weather adversity is to look to those who served and sacrificed before you. Thus, Admirals Bowman, Mies and Ellis have called for a renewed commitment to our submarine history and tradition. Placed in a historical context, our troubles seem minuscule when compared to those faced by World War II submariners. Studying their exploits inspires us to professional excellence and calls us to strive to make a real difference today-instead of just to pass a promotion or screening board tomorrow. But as we remember the courageous wartime patrols of boats like WAHOO, BARB and GATO and as we look with admiration to our past heroic submarine commanders-men like Fluckey, O’Kane, Gilmore, Dealey, Cromwell, Street, and Ramage for inspiration, we must also never forget the lessons that come from learning the rest of the story.
It is important to remember that the peacetime Submarine Force that entered the Pacific War in 1941 was hardly prepared for a fight.’ Artificial and unrealistic peacetime naval exercises had led many submarine skippers to conclude that their boats were exceedingly vulnerable to attack by aircraft and to depth charging by sonar equipped surface ships. 1 Making matters worse, bold, innovative, risk-taking warriors were often reprimanded. Conversely, conservative by-the-book officers, known for their harsh discipline and impeccable paperwork, rose to command.’ When the war struck, the Submarine Force found itself with a number of risk-averse officers in command positions. The results were predictable. Many submarine commanders placed a premium on caution and were more interested in bringing back their boats safely than in engaging the enemy. As a result, submarine skippers had to be relieved for Jack of aggressiveness and replaced by the “men of audacity, unflinching courage, and instinctive tactical judgement” that today’s submariners have grown to admire.
There are signs that peace may have taken a similar toll on today’s Submarine Force. Many current submarine officers have succumbed to zero-defects standards, management-by-inspection,’° and cautious careerism that are all too reminiscent of the Submarine Force that entered the Second World War. To ensure that our early wartime history does not repeat itself, we must avoid gaming inspections, adhering mindlessly to Naval Warfare Publications, or concerning ourselves with the maintenance of a pristine, politically correct personal image. Instead, we must cultivate a submarine institutional climate where all submariners are trained to fight, encouraged for innovative tactical thought, and valued-above all else-for emulating the aggressive warfighting spirit that characterized all our truly great submarine heroes.
Breaking the Silence
Renewing our sense of purpose and rediscovering our aggressive warfighting values will help to improve Submarine Force morale while ensuring that our remaining submarines are prepared to fight. These moves alone, however, will not stop the perpetual downsizing of the Force. As one leading Congressman recently pointed out, “not even a minimum QDR Submarine Force structure can be maintained unless we get about building the new attack submarine (NSSN). 11 Simple math reveals that even building one NSSN per year will not be enough. Our only hope is that submariners will break their traditional silence and clearly articulate the indispensable value of leveraging submarine power in the 21st century.
Armed with a renewed sense of purpose and commitment to warfighting values, we stand the best chance of convincing our fellow military officers, the public, and Congress that the strategic success of U.S. foreign policy in the coming century depends upon naval power in general and submarine power in particular. This argument must be made not for the good of the Submarine Force or the Navy, but for the good of the nation. I suggest we begin with these three points:
Submarines enable naval forward presence. History has shown that today only submarines can truly command the sea. Securing uninhibited access to and from the sea, submarines enable forward deployed naval forces to conduct the full range of stabilizing military operations including preventive presence, protecting international commerce, providing humanitarian assistance, and conducting punitive military strikes against violent rogue dictators.
This stabilizing naval presence-enabled by submarines-directly impacts the daily Jives of average Americans. The benefits of naval forward presence are difficult to quantify, but are nevertheless tangible. Free markets abhor uncertainty; forward-deployed naval forces boost global economic activity by deterring war and by reassuring markets that conflict will be contained. A forward deployed U.S. Navy and Marine Corps also fosters the political and economic stability needed by states transitioning to democracy and free market economies. American taxpayers finally have their peace dividend, not in the form of defense cuts (which are paltry in comparison to the U.S. gross national product), but in the form of high economic growth rates fostered by a booming world trading economy.
A modernized Submarine Force, then, is a linchpin or American strategic success in the coming century. Submarines directly protect our vital international commerce, deter war, and enable naval forward presence to promote peace, stability, and economic growth. In this light, investing in submarine power, and naval power in general, is a small premium to pay considering the alternative-an increasingly unstable world economy, the slow erosion of peace, and the inevitable cost of wars that will be difficult to win in the first place without America’s Submarine Force to ensure undisputed control of the sea.