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Rear Admiral Holland is a retired submarine officer who writes extensively on National Security issues.

Current concerns about the inadequate size of the Submarine Force parallel similar problems in almost all components of the nation’s armed services. The situation has precedents in the last inter-war period between 1918 and 1939.

General Gordon Sullivan, then Chief of Staff of the Army, discussing the lessons of that earlier period observed, “Looking back into the twenties and thirties, those who kept their heads during the depression were those who were best prepared for war … The Army abandoned the tank because of cost. .. the Navy and Marines pursued amphibious warfare, keeping their head in the game. The scale of activity is less important than the paradigm. “2 His observation remains pertinent as the Navy faces heavy demands on existing forces in a period of rapid technological change requiring new equipment, techniques and organizational arrangements.

Modernization, which includes the development of doctrine and the adjustment of organizational relationships, relies on acquisition of new equipment and extensive experimentation in the field. These tasks, the purview of the services, have fallen on hard times as budgets constrain force size, restrict acquisition and reduce research and development. Major exercises focus on readiness for deployment or pursue the grail of “jointness”; exploration of long term improvements in service-related equipment, processes, and tactics is the loser in this equation.

One of the unplanned effects of the Goldwater-Nichols legislation is the dominance of the theater Commanders-in Chief (CINCs) in shaping the country’s armed forces. By the nature of their office, the theater CINCs are totally concerned with the immediate needs in their areas of responsibility. Conservative by nature and
cautious by doctrine, the CINCs try to foresee every possible conflict in their theater and prepare to win any potential combat. Experience demonstrates that the CINCs’ requirements for forces are insatiable. On the other hand, these commands have little personal or institutional stability, even in the theater, and their focus on the near term minimizes concerns regarding future technical improvements, new tactical processes or realignment of component organizations.

Today’s perception that force size is inadequate, that more SSNs are needed now is based upon operational overload stemming from the demands of the theater Commanders-in-Chief as well as tasking from national authority. These demands reportedly are documented in a study by the Joint Chiefs of Staff which indicates a need for 20 percent more attack submarines than have been planned in the last Quadrennial Defense Review. This increase in force size, while close to the cockles of the heart of the CINCs-and through them the Fleet and Force Commanders-does not address the long term issue of the future design and use of submarines. As General Sullivan points out, money used to retain old submarines for current missions does not advance the operational art.

This conflict between force size and modernization is not unique to the Submarine Force. The current efforts of the Army to transform itself into a more agile force, Jeffrey Barnett reports, have “Two solutions … The first is to ask Congress for more money. That option has already run into resistance on Capital Hill …. A second option is to increase the ‘share’ of the Defense budget that goes to the Army … .If the Army tries to tax the other services to solve Army problems, an inter service fight is inevitable. “3 This condition is common throughout the Department of Defense. What Barnett describes is the reality facing all services and their component forces. Myriad high priority needs exist while the national defense budget, though increased markedly in this election year, will not provide significantly more money for defense. 4 Competition for resources between ships and planes, artillery and attack helicopters, missile defense and Ospreys, is fierce now and will grow.

At the same time, the NCA (National Command Authority) and the CINCs seem likely to continue to demand more than existing forces can reasonably provide and modernization efforts-acquisition, tactical development and command processes-will be short-changed unless the individual components maneuver to maintain headway in this area.

The last period of prolonged peace, between the First and Second World Wars, offers some lessons for the present era. In the period from 1922 through 1935, naval forces were capped by a series of arms limitation treaties. Battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers and submarines were limited in size and number. In addition to these constraints, though the country was economically prosperous through most of the twenties, expenditures for military purposes were niggardly at best. President Coolidge exemplified the general attitude when he suggested that the Army buy one airplane and the pilots take turns flying it.

Though dominated by Battleship Admirals, the Navy made substantial changes through this period in every category of ship and tactics except for the battle line. Ordnance sub-specialty was the aim of ambitious young officers and tales of how the Gun Club ran the Navy lasted well into the fifties. Yet this same period saw development of naval aircraft and their carriers, emergence of cruisers as main line surface warships and the creation of the submarine equipment that would be employed in the coming war. The activity of naval aviation holds easy-to-recognize lessons that do not carry emotional baggage for submariners.

Admiral Billy Goal Reeves, a surface warfare officer, as Commander, Naval Air Forces, developed the techniques for handling large numbers of aircraft on small decks as well as the tactical employment of air wings as integrated groups. His long tenure in fleet commands and that of Admiral William Moffet-Chief of the Bureau of Aviation from its inception in 1921 to his death in 1933-led to continuing improvements in both technical capability and tactics. With only three carriers, the twenty years between wars saw the development of the principles of high deck loads, rapid strike launching, and multi-carrier task force dispositions-fundamentals of the naval air war of 1942- 1945. Expensive failures were tolerated as these pioneers sought to determine the technologies and processes that could be useful, e.g ., rigid airships, seaplanes designed for high level bombing, coordinated torpedo attacks by seaplanes and destroyers.

With battleship modernization stymied by treaty. the existing fleet left no room for new construction without dismantling existing first line assets, and surface warship design concentrated on cruisers. Though limited by treaty in both the size of individual ships and their armament, cruiser development was otherwise unhampered because the United States had so few at the end of World War I and the treaty limits-comparability with Great Britain-permitted many to be built. Funding limited construction; the numbers of cruisers allowed by treaty would never be authorized by Congress. Planners, designers and operators adopted a methodology of building successive classes of cruisers, each small in number, four or fewer ships. Each design sought to improve on the last while the steady construction rate-even though small-kept designers and yards functioning. This resulted in the existence of proven designs in hand by 1936 when expansion for World War II began, as well as a work establishment and procurement system in place to support the new construction.

Submarine design and construction followed a somewhat similar course. At the end of World War I, submarines were universally small, less than 1,000 tons, under-powered and lightly and small tubes and few reloads. Missions were limited to coastal defense and scouting. based on World War I Royal Navy experience. The German model of commerce raiding was rejected by policymakers, analysts and naval officers alike. An offensive role for submarines was not considered seriously even though as early as 1919 then Captain (later Admiral and Commander, Asiatic Fleet, 1941) Thomas Hart told senior admirals that Japan-the expected potential enemy-was the Great Britain of the Pacific and vulnerable to a submarine blockade. This reluctance to interdict shipping stemmed partly from the limitations of the machine and partly from the distaste for the U-boat campaigns of the First World War.

The 1916 building program-which also produced the inter-war fleet of battleships-included construction of the S-class of about 850 tons surfaced. When Captain Hart led a force of these submarines from New London to Manila in 1921, the propulsion systems were a constant problem. U.S. manufacturers could not produce engines that were up to the German standards of World War I much less than required for a trans-Pacific War. Powerful and reliable diesel engines remained a source of difficulty up to the beginning of the Second World War, coloring the debate between those favoring the smaller coastal boats and those in favor of 2000 toneless boats. The first post-World War I construction in 1924 produced the first three Vboats of 2,000 tons. Later renamed USS BARRACUDA (SF-4 then SS-163), USS BASS (SF-5 then SS-164), and USS BONITA (SF-6 then SS-168), these under-powered ships were armed with six 21-inch torpedo tubes. However, their endurance-even when the engines worked-translated to a short operational radius.

The next try produced a minelayer, USS ARGONAUT (SM-1) and then two submarine cruisers, USS NARWHAL (SS-167) and USS NAUTILUS (SS-168). With a surface displacement of 2,710 tons, these ships were armed with two six-inch deck guns: armament for commerce raiding where the submarine would surface, allow the threatened ship’s crew to take to their lifeboats and then sink the merchantman by gunfire. All had a design range of 8,000 miles-enough for a Pacific campaign. Their design surface speed was 15 to 17 knots – enough to stay with the fleet in transit though with diesels that suffered from crankcase explosions, they could not be counted on to do so. Specifically exempt from the 1930 London Naval Treaty’s limit of 2,000 tons maximum displacement, these ships continued in service into World War II. ARGONAUT was converted into the first special forces transport, APS-1, for the raid on Makin Island. As in the cruiser design, each class carried new ideas-not all successful, e.g., torpedo tubes mounted external to the hull.

Exercises demonstrated these very large submarines were too slow to submerge, a liability even then recognized as a fatal flaw when threatened from the air. The most serious reservation was that at 2,700 tons not enough submarine cruisers could be produced to be an effective weapon against the Japanese Fleet or commerce because of arms-limitation treaty limits.8 The London Naval Treaty of 1930 reduced the total submarine tonnage allowed to the United States, Great Britain and Japan to 52, 700 tons each while prohibiting construction of submarines over 2,000 tons.9 By the thirties, the proponents of small submarines had been quashed. While both operators and designers favored a ship of about 2500 to 3000 tons, treaty limits meant that some compromise between size and numbers had to be made in order to build enough submarines to perform the scouting functions foreseen in the pre-war plans for fleet movements in the Pacific.

These arms limitation treaties actually promoted innovation by forcing the reduction of the force size-in this case submarines too small and antiquated to see future service.
The advent of the longer range submarine was accompanied in 1928 by challenges to the submarine’s role as a harbor defense and scout vehicle in direct support of the fleet. Commander Thomas Withers, first as Commander Submarine Division Four and then at the Naval War College, opened the debate on submarine missions by questioning design requirements for new submarines. Arguing that the stealth characteristics of a submarine were better employed in independent operations, Withers wanted the Submarine Force cut loose from the battle line. The scouting role could be maintained but at a distance and without the direct supervision of what we now term Battle Group Commanders. Withers’ arguments set the tone for an offensive role for the Submarine Force.

Withers argument for independent operations meant reliability, improved habitability and endurance (range) were more useful than speed. Subsequent war games at the Naval War College emphasized these qualities as well as opening the door to considering attacks on merchant shipping. This lesson first came home to officers playing RED and ORANGE who either planned an offensive campaign against BLUE’s lines of communication or prepared to defend themselves against such a campaign by BLUE. Over time in the games, the Rules of Engagement for BLUE evolved slowly from severe restrictions on attacking commercial shipping to encouraging operations against enemy convoys.

Designers complained that the submariners could not agree on the characteristics they wanted for the submarine. The argument over ship size persisted, but the last of the V boats, USS DOLPlllN (SS-169)- a ship of 1560 tons, a four-inch deck gun and six 21- inch tubes-indicates that by 1932 the size, speed, and armament trade-offs had been made. The last evidence of the quantity over quality argument, getting a maximum number of submarines under the treaty limits, was construction of two more small submarines, USS CACHELOT (SS-170) at Portsmouth and USS CUTTLEFISH (SS-171) at Electric Boat. These 1100 ton ships represent the smallest inter-war construction. After 1933 submarines grew. The PORPOISE class, begun in 1933 displaced 1300 tons with the standard six tubes but the design speed was now up to 19 knots. The next class, SALMON, built three years later, was 1450 tons with eight tubes. In 1939, USS TAMBOR (SS-198) established the specifications for the wartime boats: 1476 tons, ten tubes, 20 knots surfaced and 8. 75 submerged.

In his book on this period, Dr. Gary Weir cites three vital ingredients of the naval-industrial complex during the inter-war period that allowed the expansion and operation of the World War II Submarine Force: the commitment to a continual building program, a capable industrial base and an infrastructure dedicated to improving the capabilities of each class. The industrial base, then as now, included not just building yards but hundreds of subcontractors needed to fit the submarines with everything from engines to galley ranges. The longest pole in this tent was not the design or the hull but reliable and powerful diesel engines. This was not a case of a commercial-off-the-shelf procurement: arrangements, whereby the engines for boats built by Electric Boat were manufactured by a wholly owned subsidiary, became so onerous that the Navy arranged to manufacture engines itself under license from a German firm. Dissatisfaction with the civilian contractors led the government to create its own design and building yards, Portsmouth and Mare Island Naval Shipyards. None of these prescriptions sounds new; however today’s climate of budgetary constraint lends importance to the recognition that these ship construction efforts, not the maintenance of force sizes, permitted the Submarine Force of 1942 to fight the Pacific War with Gato class ships not S-Boats.

In the realm of tactical employment, the inter-war sailors did not do as well as their material counterparts. Submarines were operated timidly during exercises, often having to surface and show lights at night. As late as 1940 in Fleet Exercise 21, Charles Lockwood lamented that the submarines were scattered along a scouting line rather than being used in independent offensive operations against the opposing fleet. 14 Exercises were structured such that the threats submariners thought they would face in a Pacific war turned out to be exaggerated:

1. In clear Pacific waters, at periscope depth the submarine was visible to aircraft;
2. Active sonar was a great threat;
3. Diesel engine noise made surface attack at night impractical;
4. Depth charges were accurate and lethal.

As a result, submarine tactics were wrong and most submarine commanders were unprepared at the start of World War II. They did not grasp how stealthy they were, even when surfaced.

In addition to continued equipment improvement, the tactical employment of that equipment needs to be tested in as real an environment as possible. Actual limitations need to be discovered and processes developed to use new equipment most effectively. This effort cannot be limited to the Operational Development and Test Force tests but requires years of effort and experimentation for any significant device. There must be room for failure-some designs are doomed from the stan-CACHELOT and TULLIBEE for example. Many will be poor seconds-usually because of conservative or timid approaches-like BARRACUDA, MARLIN and SKATE. Except in unusual cases, limitations are unrealized until the ship or the equipment goes to sea: no vendor has a viewgraph listing possible failures.

What is important is that innovation is encouraged and failure tolerated. Also important is retiring the ship or discarding the equipment as soon as its inadequacy is recognized so that error is not perpetuated by throwing good operational money (OM&N) after poorly spent shipbuilding (SCN) funds.

Today the nuclear attack submarine has doomed surface fleets. Warships are not being built to combat other warships except submarines. Surface and aviation assets are aimed only at targets on the land-they expect no opposition at sea. ASW capabilities are purposely absent from new warship designs. No potential peer enemy exists. However this happy situation is not guaranteed to last. Even today the Navy’s surface ships and Marines face problems gaining access to a growing number of places. Unless access can be obtained, these forces will be frustrated in executing the missions for which they have designed and provided. The only reliable method of penetrating the littoral where access is contested will be with stealth vehicles. While undersea stealth has a permanency other forms envy, its characteristics are not immutable.

Submarine stealth will have to continue to be improved. Such improvement is a function of modernization and not of force size. Continued construction of ever more advanced submarines is a keystone to maintaining American superiority at sea and gaining access to defended littorals; time does not stand still and today’s Virginia class is the mid-21th century’s S-boat.

In summary, the circumstances of the day and lessons of the last inter-war period suggest that:

  • There is some minimum force size necessary to maintain operational proficiency and to develop tactics appropriate to the time, the equipment, and the potential enemies.
  • The CINCs’ numbers do not reflect this minimum force size but rather their desire for an overwhelming superiority against any potential and imagined threat within their theater. To the CINC, every day is December 6, 1941.
  • Modernization cannot be limited to research and development but must include fielding and failure; not only to find out how the technology works and what training is required to support it, but how service components ought to be organized and commanded to best use it.
  • The services’ view ought to be that it is 12 November 1918: the war has ended and no enemy is in sight. Now is the window for designing new classes of ships, putting new equipment to sea to be tried, improved and if justified, replicated.

The reality is that there is not going to be more money, or a shift in the division of resources by the Congress, or some overhaul of the Defense Department that will make more money available for submarines. The organization of the Navy for allocation of resources makes it difficult to shift significant sums across major program or warfare sponsorship. For example, recognition that SSGNs are strike assets, not substitutes for SSNs, and so should compete for funds programmed for the Land Attack Destroyer and the Joint Strike Fighter, require a direction and commitment not seen since Admiral Arleigh Burke directed a ten per cent reduction in all Navy programs to pay for the initial increment of the Polaris program.

In this somewhat bleak forecast, the Submarine Force should be large enough to:

1. meet the needs of strategic deterrence. This is a political judgment, not a military one.

2. discourage the construction of warships by other powers.

3. be an effective ASW force in the event another state attempts to interdict our sea lanes.

4. develop tactics and maintain operational proficiency.

5. test new equipment and to then develop procedures to exploit new devices and to demonstrate the limitations of equipment, processes and organizations.

The force size outlined above only marginally deals with the needs as perceived by the CINCs. Letting ” … a thousand flowers bloom … ” to determine the value of and create supporting processes for new technology is the opposite of the CINCs’ needs. The CINC wants structure and fighting strength today-not experiments for tomorrow. Somehow the demands from national tasking and requirements for deployments must be contained so that the necessary long term development can take place. The enemy that matters is not a Balkan warlord or a Middle Eastern potentate but the undetected unforeseen threat to major national interests vital to the United States or its allies ten to twenty years in the future. This is an in-house problem: the tactical employment of submarines and their long-term potential are not likely to be recognized outside of the Navy, probably not even outside of the Submarine Force.

There is no formula that will instantaneously shift forces from high tempo operations to explore the potential for new equipment, new tactics or new organizations. But some of the lessons from the last interwar period-when there were few if any national tasking or emergency deployments-are still germane:

1. Capitalize on stealth: it will become more and more important as sensors improve and proliferate. Expect surface and aviation officers to misuse or fail to use submarines in operations, war games and exercises. They have no experience in stealth as a feature of operations and generally do not learn how to employ stealthy vehicles before their time in command of them is over.

2. Continue to prepare to operate offensively. Withers was right. This does not equate to accepting unnecessary losses. See 1. above.

3. Examine lessons from operations and organizational designs carefully. Stealth vehicles operate best independently-by their very nature they require little direction and no escort or company. Organizing so that stealth vehicles are hamstrung or wasted by seniors unversed and uninterested in their advantages and limitations should be avoided where possible.

4. Sacrifice numbers for capability. Modernization, not force size. is the key to continued supremacy.

5. Don’t compromise on reliability.

6. Invest time and resources in tactical development. Conduct exercises under real conditions and do not whitewash results.

7. Invest in knowledgeable and experienced people who are competent in the technologies they are supposed to employ. People who know how things work make the best commanders and tacticians. Nimitz was the one of the most respected authorities on diesel engines in the early twenties because of his experiences in submarines.

The modernization challenge facing the Submarine Force’s leaders today is greater than in the lifetime of any submariner. But he future probably looked grim in the twenties when Han, Nimitz and Withers looked ahead. Today as then, as General Sullivan instructed, “The paradigm is more important than the activity.


1 Dr. Thomas Hone of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces was instrumental in inspiring this essay. ensuring historical accuracy and providing references. Judgments and propositions are those of the listed author.
2 General Gordon Sullivan, US Army, Remarks to AFCEA, Washington Chapter, 13 December 1993.
3 Jeffery R. Barnett, “Funding Two Armies, Armed Forces Journal International, May 2000, page 15.
4 Daniel Goure, “The Resource Gap”, Armed Forces Journal International, May 2000, page 39.
5 J.E. Talbott, “Weapons Development, War Planning and Policy: The U.S. Navy and the Submarine, 1917-1941 “, Naval War College Review, May/June 1984, pp. 53-71 and Ernest Andrade, Jr. “Submarine Policy in the United States Navy, 1919-1941 “, Military Affairs, April 1971, pp. 50-56.
6 Gary E. Weir, Building American Submarines 1914 -1940, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C., 1991, page 23. The 51 S Class submarines consisted of three types, “Holland’s” of 854 tons, “Lake’s” of 800 tons and “Government” (Portsmouth) of 876 tons surface displacement. Dictionary of American Fighting Ships Online, at
7 Thomas C. Hone, “A Navy Second to None”, The Navy, (Naval Historical Foundation, Washington D.C. and Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, Southport, Ct., 2000).
8 Ibid.
9 A.D.Baker III, “Battleships and Diplomacy: Naval Disarmament Between the Two World Wars”, Warship International No. 3, 1989.
10 Hone and Weir, op.cit.
11 Weir, p. 123.
12 Weir, p. 117.
13 Dictionary of American Fighting Ships Online, TAMBOR.
14 Lockwood letter to Francis Low cited in Weir, page 115.
15 Alec Hudson, Up Periscope and Other Stories, (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1992)
16 Clay Blair, Jr., Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan_(Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1975) and VADM “Red” Ramage USN (Ret) remarks to Submarine Commanding Officers Luncheon, San Diego, California, October, 1984.
17 Exhibition, Submarines and the Cold War, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

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