Jerry Holland is a retired officer who served most of Iris career in submarines and submarine-related billets. He is a frequent contributor to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW.
To be termed “articulate by a writer as skilled as Norman Polmar is high praise indeed. In his rebuttal to my assertion that a “clean sheet design will not render the smaller less expensive, but just as capable, submarine advocated by Captain Tom Jacobs, Mr. Polmar accuses me of using historical examples that are not supported by facts. His accusations stem from a reading of history that is somewhat different than mine.
The Navy’s return to smaller designs for submarines following ARGONAUT, NARWHAL and NAUTILUS stemmed not from any mission analysis or superior design initiative as intimated by Mr. Polmar but from the 1930 London Naval Treaty which limited submarines to 2,000 tons and fleet submarine tonnage to 52, 700 tons. These treaty limits forced a trade-off between numbers and individual ship size. A series of submarine classes were built, each larger than the last as the Bureau of Construction and Repair worked its way up from USS CACHALOT (SS-170) of 1170 tons laid down in 1931 to the 1939 prototype for the World War II fleet boat, USS TAMBOR (SS-198), of 2340 tons.1 The history of submarine construction during this period suggests that as operational experience is gained warships increase in size.
Using the German Type VU as a sample of an effective small submarine, Mr. Polmar cites the ships’ size as 750 tons. This was the size of VIIA, but before the Germans finished building the Type VII Fin 1943, it had grown to 1181 tons – a 57% growth! The experience of wartime operations in the broad ocean was reflected in the Type XXI, 2100 tons including “a freezer, a shower and a basin for the crew among other things… not to mention three times the battery capacity of a Type VII and a snorkel. Clay Blair’s analysis claims that after the happy days of 1940 -1941, the under powered and lightly armed Type VII fared poorly and by the end of the war, the larger submarines had accounted for as much success in a shorter period against targets that were better protected.
The SSK’s were a failure-in spite of being operated by some of the most talented officers at the time. Too slow to get to station and lacking endurance to stay there long enough, they were intended for a mission that they could not perform. TANG’s all grew: a hull extension had to be inserted so they could be re-engined. Those of us who served in them lived through the same agonies that plagued the engineers of the unreliable and under powered submarines of the nineteen twenties and thirties. Leaning the lesson about propulsion reliability a second time was a costly and unnecessary mistake driven by the goal of smaller and cheaper.
If my essay implied that LHA’ s are not a kind of aircraft carrier I regret such an implication though I cannot find it. However, I suggest that in comparing LHA’s to CVN’s, Mr. Polmar is guilty of the error of which he accuses me. Further, that the new Amphibious Assault Ship is planned to be even larger than the LHA seems to buttress my argument that warships naturally grow in size as experience is gained.
Attack aircraft carriers have grown from ESSEX Classes’ 32,000 tons to NIMITZ Follow Ships’s 110,000 tons as the airplanes they carry have grown in size and weight. Experience as well as techno-logical advances has caused this growth, not mere indulgence. There is no comparison in the missions between a CVN and an LHA. Even though a CVN can execute much of what an LHA can do, the reverse is not true. The clean sheet CVN (X) is larger than her predecessors because the naval aviators who operate these ships are unyielding in commitment to size as a function of utility.
Analyzing CYCLONE or the PG classes, again it was not my intent to try to compare them with battleships as Mr. Polmar charges. My point, obviously not well made, was that the duration of their service indicates that small ships designed for specific limited missions are very expensive no matter how well constructed or operated. Ships that can serve only in narrow functions have short lifetimes as missions evolve or turn out to be more complicated and difficult than anticipated. Jefferson’s gunboats are illustrative. Even though imagined by one of the most creative and intelligent minds in history, they were an expensive failure.
Mr. Polmar reports, “Unlike the U.S. submarine world, the surface ship world is continually producing paper designs of new surface combatants. The results of such efforts are not very encouraging. Paper ships are not deployable. The DD (X) has gone through at least ten years of expensive paper designs yet the first ship of the class is still at least six years away from the sea. The Littoral Combat Ship illustrates the problem in designing a small ship. From “Street fighter’s 1500 tons she has grown to 3500 tons yet is still limited in the missions she can undertake. Now as large as the Perry class frigates, making this class a multi-mission platform today entails modular components. Such a design acknowledges that the ship may have to leave station in the midst of a crisis to go back to load the appropriate ASW/AA W/Strike/Interdiction module.
Technology will not stand still. Cruiser construction between the two World Wars, small numbers in successive classes, illustrates how operational experience at sea leads to improvements from one class to the next. The last flight of the Arleigh Burke’s is more capable than the first and almost a thousand tons heavier. The 62 submarines of the Los Angeles class were really three different classes. Clean sheet designs often rest on the allure of technological promise that turns out to be overblown or illusory.
Among the faults of today’s budgeting/appropriation system is the bias against new programs. This leads to the predilection for continuing existing programs and improving existing classes rather than trying to justify new. In the nineteenth century, the same problem resulted in bringing ships into the shipyard, removing the name boards, constructing a new ship and then reinstalling the old stem transom. USS CONSTELLATION in Baltimore harbor is such a product: she has few of the original timbers. VIRGINIA experience demonstrates not only how hard it is to start a new class. The follow ships in this class also show that spiral improvements can be more fruitful than leaps of faith.
None of this is to suggest that it is impossible to build a good submarine smaller than what is presently operating. The step down from SEA WOLF to VIRGINIA sacrificed many capabilities. However, every design must be viewed with the understanding that these submarines will not serve for four or five years but for thirty. They will be routinely deployed in distant seas for months without support or services, with a volunteer crew, well trained, highly paid and very valuable. The ships must have room for a decent payload, for growth and modification and for ease of maintenance. There are certainly some inventions that help constrain ship size though not necessarily their cost, i.e. micro-chips. But until the next major innovation in propulsion-an all electric drive or direct conversion of fission to electricity-there is not a great promise for a small submarine that fits the mission needs of the United States.
Views of history are always slanted by the experience and position of the observer. This observer has served in or with every American attack submarine class since DARTER ( 1957). Touring PINT ADO (SSN 672) on her decommissioning and finding the ship in nearly as perfect condition as when she was commissioned 27 years before was astonishing compared to the difficulties of trying to keep SARGO class operating when they were not quite 20 years old. Operating with a sphere and towed array as the primary sensor in place of the BQR-2 and 4 dramatically influences how one of my background views the need for space to grow and modify. Husbanding battery capacity during an approach or struggling to regain depth after an error on the trim manifold adds to appreciation of nuclear power. Teaching operation of the digital fire control system warps my attitude that technological advances will live up to their publicity. In all of these regards, I can only plead bias born of experience. I regret that I am unable to articulate these views convincingly for Mr. Polmar.