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Mr. Thompson is a senior fellow with the Lexington Institute, a public-policy research foundation in Arlington, Virginia.

During World War II, the threat of enemy submarines blocking a harbor conjured up images of lurking, blood-thirsty sharks, intent on attacking innocent passersby.

The image wasn’t far off the mark, and it even prompted several nations to defend themselves against subs in a manner similar to the way beaches are protected from sharks-with nets.

The method only proved partially successful, in part because, in many cases, submarines didn’t venture quite so close to an enemy’s shoreline. But the fact that the mere threat of a submarine crouching near the coast caused a nation to take preemptive actions speaks volumes about the impact that a submarine, even one, has on maritime warfare.

That is still the case. While it is in vogue to argue that without a Soviet threat there is no need for a robust submarine fleet, that argument takes a short look at a long history. The United States had a Submarine Force long before the Cold War. It will need one long after the Cold War. Pundits who declare the sub irrelevant fail to acknowledge the submarine community’s long-proven ability to evolve along with technology and national security requirements.

That evolution began even before World War I, when the United States’ submarine capability was limited to the mission of harbor protection or warship escort. During World War II, advances in technology enabled the Navy to build subs with quieter, lighter engines, which gave the Navy a far greater reach. Moreover, with the capability to rig submarines for silent running, the Navy had a stealth platform long before the phrase became fashionable.

Added to longer legs was greater sight. Improved periscopes and the addition of radar allowed subs to be used for the first time as tactical sensors, looking for the enemy. This sight gave commanders both above and below the sea a greater command of the battlespace around them, so much so that American subs-2 percent of the personnel of the Navy-accounted for 55 percent of all enemy shipping sunk.

Post World War II Transformation

During the Cold War, the submarine community transformed itself from a hunter of surface ships to a hunter of other submarines. American attack submarines hunted, located, and tracked Soviet boomers, the ballistic missile subs, while America’s own nearly invisible missile boats proved to be the nation’s one truly survivable platform of nuclear deterrence. The submarine community also built upon its World War II successes as a tactical sensor platform. Quantum leaps in submarine technology allowed sub commanders to gather information that could be distilled into what was then called indications and warnings about U.S. adversaries.

During those days, the submarine community was truly the Silent Service, both above and below the surface of the ocean. Much of what American submarines did, they did in secret. And the crews didn’t talk much about their jobs either. Only in the thaw following the collapse of the Soviet Union are we learning about the high-tension, super-secret and highly dangerous role American subs played in the Cold War. One of the most secret-and most dangerous-was the submarine’s nascent mission as an intelligence platform.

In the later years of the Cold War, even the nuclear mission evolved, a reflection of technological advances. By the late 1970s, the attack submarine was no longer a pure hunter-killer. It had become a strategic nuclear-deterrence platform.

Meanwhile, technology made sneaking up on the enemy much more difficult, even for the ultra-quiet American subs. Aerial photography, satellites, electronic surveillance, and the like made traditional air and sea patrols risky and ineffective. But subs aren’t affected by satellite photography, and their ability to become absolutely silent makes them undetectable by sonar or radar.

Indeed, Navy leaders realized such attributes are exactly what is needed in today’s battlespace. Thus comes the latest evolution of America’s Submarine Force into a strategic intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platform.

An Underwater Satellites

Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance ISR in Navy parlance-has long been an area shrouded in secrecy, thus making it extremely difficult to tell the American public just what it is submarines are doing at the bottom of the sea.

For the most part, the Navy is still tight-lipped about its ISR mission, regardless of what authors such as Chris Drew and Susan Sonntag, co-authors of Blind Man’s Bluff, write about the underwater Navy.

One good way to think of the Navy’s ISR mission is to consider what a satellite does. American military satellites orbit the earth with an unblinking eye, snapping high resolution photos, spying on suspected terrorists, and providing real-time information to commanders and political leaders. Satellites can be used to verify the presences-or absence-of nuclear missile sites, troop movements, ship movements and a variety of other activities.

Subs can do the same thing. But the real difference, and a significant one, is that satellites can be fooled. A scene in the movie Patriot Games demonstrates this shortcoming perfectly, when a group of terrorists, training in the North African desert, ducks inside tents when they know an American satellite is overhead.

But how does one know what a sub-which, unlike a satellite, possesses enormous combat power-lurks off the coast? One cannot. Once a sub leaves port, the saying goes, only two people know its location: God and the skipper. Unpredictability is a powerful force in warfare because it causes the enemy to hesitate or to guess or to act rashly. And those missteps lead to access, a keystone of naval warfare in this century.

Access Equals Time + Stealth

“Access is the name of the game in ISR missions, and it consists of two key factors: time and stealth”, said Denis Bovin, a vice chairman at Bear Stearns and a key Pentagon advisor on a range of policy issues. “In today’s warfare environment, in which area-denial capabilities are becoming the norm. nuclear submarines can more often than not guarantee access.”

A B-52 bomber, for example, is capable of gaining access, but cannot remain on station very long (time), nor is it especially covert (stealth). A B-2, however, has the advantage of stealth, but not necessarily time, as it is unable to remain on station for lengthy periods.

Satellites, by comparison, have exceptionally good dwell times or time on station. Thanks to geosynchronous orbits, satellites can remain overhead indefinitely. And while there is an element of covertness to the positioning of satellites, most determined enemies know that most satellites orbit the earth in regular patterns, traveling east to west. Thus, they can learn ways to void or deceive the satellite’s gaze.

A nuclear submarine, however, makes the most of both time and stealth. Because it is impossible to deny access to the high seas, subs can move almost at will, usually undetected. And once in place, subs can remain on station indefinitely-without ever revealing their location.

The full exploitation of time and stealth produces information superiority, a modern version of Sun Tzu’s tenet of “know your enemy”. Once access is assured, subs are capable of bringing to bear a dizzying variety of sensors, electronics, vehicles, even human elements for information gathering, a capability being fully realized aboard JIMMY CARTER, a Sea wolf class attack sub.

JIMMY CARTER was reconfigured with an ocean interface hull insert, a space shuttle-like payload compartment amidships. This hourglass-shaped payload section will be capable of opening to the sea, mainly to facilitate multi-mission capabilities-classified research, development, test and evaluation for special-warfare missions. And with the integration of modular technology into submarines, the payload may be tailored to fit the mission. For example, modules of communications equipment can be removed and quickly replaced with surveillance equipment or special-warfare equipment to be used by SEALs. This type of flexibility, which in no way decreases the combat power of the sub, gives fleet and unified commanders an exceptionally powerful asset when assigned any number of missions.

Evolutionary, Not Revolutionary

Innovations such as JIMMY CARTER should not be viewed as radical; instead, they should be seen as the most recent in the continuing evolution of the submarine as a national defense platform. Unlike many other defense platforms that become outmoded or obsolete, the submarine possesses an extraordinary ability to adapt to the changing U.S. strategic posture.

And while critics could be right that much of the submarine’s Cold War mission is not currently applicable, the submarine itself is not outdated.


Complementing the new exhibit “Fast Attacks and Boomers: Submarines in the Cold War”, opening on April 12 at The Smithsonian National Museum of American History, the Smithsonian Resident Associates is sponsoring a Reception and Seminar:

Reception: Friday, April 28, 6:30 to 8:30 PM

All Day Seminar: Saturday, April 29, 10 AM to 4 PM The informal reception on Friday evening hosted by Admiral Frank B. Kelso II, USN(Ret.), former CNO, provides an opportunity to meet Saturday’s panelists and mingle with submariners who developed and operated submarines in the Cold War.

The story of the evolution of the U.S. Navy’s Submarine Force from WWII diesel boats into today’s modern nuclear SSNs and SSBNs is one of vision, determination, controversy, and political intrigue. In this seminar featuring panel discussions, individuals who played key roles in building the complex machines share their stories of this extraordinary accomplishment.

Ordering Tickets: CODE IX0-824; $80 for NSL Members and Active Duty; call (202) 357-3030 or by mail: The Smithsonian Associates, Smithsonian Institution, Dept. 0603, Washington, DC 20073-0603.


USS BECUNA (SS 319) 15-17 October 2000, Penn’s Landing, Philadelphia, PA; 17-20 October 2000, Atlantic City, New Jersey. Contact: Dick Geiler, RM3/SS 59-60, 28 Billings Lake Lake Road, North Stonington, CT 06359; (860) 889-2846; e-mail:

USS BUMPER (SS 333) ASSOCIATION 15-18 November 2000, Quality Inn & Suites, San Diego, CA. Contact: Edward W. Stone, Secretary, 308 Merritt Avenue, Syracuse, NY 13207-2713; (315) 469-3825; e-mail: ews _

USS DIABLO (SS 479) 3-4 November 2000, Kingsland, GA. Contact: Tom Lambertson, P.O. Box 86, Port Aransas, TX 78363: (361) 749-4598; e-mail:

USS ETHAN ALLEN (SSBN 608) 6-8 October 2000, Groton CT. Contact: Dick Geiler, RM3/SS 59-60, 28 Billings Lake Lake Road, North Stonington, CT 06359; (860) 889-2846; e-mail:

USS GEORGE WASHINGTON (SSBN 598) 17-20 October 2000, Atlantic City, New Jersey. Contact: Walt Liss MMC/SS 71-740 , 55 Miller Road, Preston, CT 06365; (860) 886-9268(h), (800) 269-9994 ext. 4690(w); e-mail: or; website:

USS GROWLER (SSG 577) 13-16 October 2000, New London, CT. Contact: Bob Harmuth, 2000 Ivanhoe St., Oxnard, CA 93030-4728; (805) 985-8718; e-mail:

USS SEA ROBIN (SS 407) 16-20 October 2000, Atlantic City, NJ. Contact: Paul Roggemann ET2/XX 63-67, 42 Hemlock Drive, Hopewell Jct., NY 12533; (914) 226-5636; e-mail:; website:

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