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Innovation in the U.S. Navy’s Silent Cold War Struggle with Soviet Submarine

Newport Paper 16, Newport, R.I. Naval War College Press, 2003 reviewed by Captain Sam Tangredi, U.S.N

Editor’s Note: The subject of this War College Paper is considered important enough to the readership of this magazine to include here as a Feature. instead of with other Book Reviews. these knowledge-able and thought provoking comments by Captain Sam Tangredi, a frequent contributor to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW and himself a holder of a PhD in International Relations. Dr. Cote is Deputy Director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for International Studies.

It is not the richness of detail that makes The Third Battle the best short, unclassified summary of the anti-submarine efforts of the United States throughout the Cold War struggle against the Soviet submarine fleet. The details themselves still remain classified. Rather, it is the analytical framework that this monograph provides, first by dividing the history of submarine and anti-submarine warfare into three battles, and then by analyzing the Cold War anti-submarine struggle in terms of four phases. In short, this book makes historical sense of the operational nature of anti-submarine warfare, and, in doing so, points to the spirit of innovation that was a constant feature of U.S. submarine/anti-submarine operations.

Dr. Cote is well known to readers of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW as one of the premier outside-of-the-Navy scholars of submarine operations as an element of national strategy. [Editor’s Note: In fact, he provided (with Dr. Harvey Sapolsky) a short summary of his overall, larger project on naval innovation in the July 1997 NSR.] And he does provide rudimentary descriptions of the systems and techniques of anti-submarine warfare. But the book is not a catalog of systems, submarine classes, or operational tactics. Nor is it by any means a history of the technical development of the Submarine Force. Unfortunately, there is no index, so I cannot easily verify the fact, but I don’t recall encountering the name Rickover even once in the text But what the reader does encounter is the logic behind the decisions on how ASW was conducted-such as why the submarine replaced the surface ship as prime ASW asset, why the U.S. had considerable early success in tracking Soviet submarines, why the U.S. issued a declaratory strategy that implied we would crack the Soviet SSBN bastions, and why the Walker spy ring’s treachery and the sale of the Toshiba nine-axes milling machine were major blows to our efforts.

The first battle of the analysis is the submarine campaign of the First World War. Cote briefly identifies the features of nascent anti-submarine warfare and what worked: convoys, the mass production of convoy escorts, initial efforts at sonar (ASDIC), and HF direction finding-which the author characterizes as brute force techniques. The Allies literally could flood the datums with surface ships. Yet, if the size of the German submarine fleet could have kept pace with the Anglo-American ASW effort, the Reichsmarine just might have won.

What was needed for the second battle was a coherent anti-submarine warfare doctrine that moved beyond mere attrition and allowed the submarine to maximize its potential as the ultimate sea control platform. As Cote points out, German Admiral Karl Doenitz–starting from the loser’s vantage point studied this problem during the interwar period and developed a doctrinal solution that could be implemented by a numerically inferior submarine force: wolf-pack operations. In contrast, the British put their faith in technological improvements in ASDIC, but did not develop an innovative or comprehensive doctrine for ASW. Since wolf-pacts were intended to conduct attacks while surfaced, improvements in ASDIC were not the optimal counter. Thus, by 1942, losses of Allied merchant vessels exceeded their speed of production. It was the additional weight of American assets, combined with improvements in patrol aircraft radar, and a little help from Ultra, that suppressed the wolf-pack threat, not a sound initial ASW doctrine.

From these examples, Cote makes two conclusions: (I) that doctrine, rather than technology alone, is the key to ASW success, and (2) that winners do not have the incentive to develop innovative doctrines. But when Cote gets to his analysis of the third battle-the Cold War submarine war-he is struck by the fact that the Second World War winner(the U.S. Navy) did indeed work hard to develop an ASW doctrine. He notes that even before the Soviet Navy embarked on an expansive submarine building program, then CNO Admiral Chester W. Nimitz had already identified ASW as a mission area for the Navy “equal in importance to dealing with the threat of atomic attack.” Cote attributes this to the U.S. Navy’s realization that the Gennan Type: XXI diesel-electric submarine would have invalidated much of the Allied ASW doctrine had it appeared at sea in great numbers. With the Type: XXI now in the hands of the Soviets as well as the Americans and British, the potential submarine threat appeared poised to outpace ASW capabilities.

How the U.S. proceeded to tackle this threat, continually working to improve both technology and doctrine is the main focus of Cote’s monograph. In breaking the third battle into four phases-roughly corresponding to “four major steps forward in Soviet submarine design,” Cote gives the struggle a logical evolution that even its participants might find hard to articulate.

The first phase (1945-1950), which was initiated by the expectation of Soviet adoption of the Type :XXI, marked the development of both a new sensor and a new platform: passive acoustic sonar arrays and the ASW submarine (SSK). This was truly a turning point in the history of the submarine force because it is then that the submarine first became the primary ASW platform. Sonar became the primary detection method because post-war exercises indicated that the Type :XXI was very noisy while snorkeling. The Hartwell Report concluded that aircraft radar detection, the previous prime method, would eventually lose the “radar-vs.-submarine contest.” At the same time, the discovery of low frequency propagation in the deep sound channel prompted the initial development of SOSUS.

The second phase (1950-1960) consisted of the two nuclear revolutions for the sub force: weapons and propulsion. Trials by USS Nautilus indicated a monumental change in the ASW equations-subs were now very fast and effectively undetectable by radar. Passive acoustics now became the dominant tool, along with an effective doctrine that combined submarines, air-and surface-deployed sonobuoys and SOSUS into an effective ASW triad. Meanwhile, sub hulls were being optimi7.ed for ASW, both for strategic and tactical purposes. Cote concluded that the U.S. Navy had “effectively preempted” the Soviet submarine threat.

This preemption continued into the third phase, the happy time of ASW (1960-1980), when the entirety of the U.S. fleet held corresponding responsibilities in the joint ASW mission. A wealth of ASW assets was developed to complement the submerged ASW force, such as HS squadrons, LAMPS, and ASW frigates. Submarine ASW capabilities improved while the U.S. maintained its lead in quieting. ASW was naval job one.

But the happy time was followed by a fourth phase, in which Soviet subs achieved acoustic parity ( 1980-1990). According to Cote, the Maritime Strategy was the doctrinal counter to the increasing ASW threat.

Of course, the Soviet Union collapsed amidst the fourth phase which leads Cote to speculate on the nature of the future post-Cold War fourth battle. Cote identifies new ASW systems even as he acknowledges that ASW was no longer job number one for U.S. naval forces. Will that lead to an upcoming ASW failure in the next global conflict? Cote makes no conclusion, but emphasizes the absolute need for current strategists to study how the U.S. stayed the course of revolutionary ASW development following its past (Second World War) victory.

The Third Battle is an excellent study for the re-launch of the Naval War College’s Newport Papers series. Without overloading the reader with technical detail, it helps operational ASW make historical and strategic sense. If the Naval Submarine League is not ensuring its further distribution to decision-makers and the academic world, it is surely missing the boat.

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