Captain Marquet is currently serving as a Military Fellow to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He Commanded USS SANTA FE from 1999-2001.
With the cryptic message “Underway on Nuclear Power,” the Captain of USS NAUTILUS, Commander Eugene P. Wilkinson, USN heralded a new age in submarine warfare. 1 Freed of the need to periodically come to the surface or periscope depth to run diesel engines and recharge their batteries, submarines could now remain submerged indefinitely, creating a true submarine, rather than a part-time submersible.
The period of the next two decades were ones of dramatic technological achievements for the Submarine Force-starting with the nuclear power plant, and later extending to submarine launched ballistic missiles, advanced torpedoes and acoustic quieting. Together, these revolutionized submarine warfare and created a discontinuity in the history of the force.
At the time, this technological transition was combined with a cultural transition. Admiral Rickover hand-picked men to attend his nuclear power training programs, and inculcated them with a belief in disciplined and deliberate operations based upon intimate technical knowledge. There were shifts in training and in responses to monitoring and reporting problems (today we’ d call it transparency). Combined, these changes resulted in tension as the cultural transition was made to a nuclear-powered Submarine Force.
Despite the technological rift and initial cultural divide, submarine operations today strongly resemble the operations of our World War II predecessors. World War II submarine commanders like Dick O’Kane and Gene Fluckey would quickly feel at home on board and in the control room of a modern fast attack submarine. More significantly, the spirit that drove them to victory is infused in today’s Submarine Force. This connection with our predecessors is an important link for our heritage that has not been decoupled by the shift to nuclear power.
Return to Shallow Water
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the first Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm, our nuclear-powered submarines shifted operational emphasis from the deep water contest with the Soviet Navy to operating in the littorals. This coincided with a new naval strategy, ” … From the Sea,” published in September 1992.
While it is true that this was a new role for the nuclear-powered Submarine Force, viewed in the longer lens of history, it was a return to our diesel boat roots. In a broader sense, the deep water missions of the Cold War were a departure from a norm that we have now returned to.
On board nuclear-powered submarines operating in the Western Pacific, one will find charts of World War II war patrols and Plan of the Day notes commenting on how the ship will be operating near a certain submarine’s war patrol area.
The modern nuclear-powered submarine is significantly heavier than the World War II submarine. However, the current 688-class submarine at 360 feet long is only 15 percent longer than the 312-foot long World War II fleet boat. Place the silhouettes side by side, and the difference looks trivial. Just as our predecessors learned to handle a 300-plus foot long submarine in shallow water, we are doing the same.
As I would practice photo-reconnaissance around the Hawaiian Islands, I would remind my photo team that this was born of a legacy starting with USS NAUTILUS (SS 168) in September 1943, during the Gilbert Island campaign.
NAUTILUS conducted the first full-scale submarine photo-reconnaissance mission in support of the amphibious landings at Tarawa and the Gilbert Islands. During this first photo-reconnaissance mission, the team aboard NAUTILUS found the two navy supplied cameras to be wanting and ended up success-fully using a Primart1ex single-lens reflex camera volunteered by one of the officers. Today’s photo-reconnaissance teams would find this excerpt from her patrol report quite familiar:
The method used in photographing the beaches was to take a group of pictures at one time. One officer turned the periscope between each exposure. Another took the pictures. The average time to take a roll of twelve pictures was a little under two minutes. The time required could be shortened some by special equipment. The greatest cause of delay was spray on the lens, vibration, or rolling of the ship. Unfortunately No. 2 periscope, which was used because of its larger field, turned with great difficulty and was occasionally responsible for some delay between exposures.
Throughout the remainder of the war in the Pacific, submarines were called upon to conduct photo-reconnaissance missions prior to the amphibious landings. In all, submarines completed 13 missions. (The last mission, tasked to USS SWORDFISH against Okinawa was not completed as SWORDFISH was lost.) These missions reconnoitered landing sites including Saipan, Palau, and lwo Jima-saving the lives of Marines going ashore.
Today’s Submarine Force is armed with long range and highly accurate ballistic and cruise missiles. In fact, the first weapon launched in Operation Iraqi Freedom was a submarine launched Tomahawk cruise missile from USS CHEYENNE.3 These Toma-hawk missiles provide an important stealthy striking force and submarine carried missiles can comprise a third of a carrier strike group’s Tomahawk missiles. Accurate and secure submarine-launched ballistic missiles have formed a vital leg of our strategic nuclear deterrence capability.
Launching missiles from submarines is a continuation of trends in weapon systems inaugurated by our World War II predecessors. Indeed, at 0150 on the 22nd of June, 1945, the word was first passed aboard an American submarine to “Man Battle Stations Rockets”. This was Gene Fluckey’s BARB. They launched rockets with a 5000 yard range and 9.6 pound warheads against industrial targets in Hokkaido and Karafuto (the southern half of Sakhalin island). The procedure for Fluckey was cumbersome. First, he needed to be on the surface. Then, after announcing battle stations, the rocket launcher was brought on deck and loaded. The only control on the rockets was the range. Hence, aiming needed to be done by pointing the bow of the ship in the direction of the target, accounting for its deflection. In all, would take about 30 minutes to get the salve off.
Today’s submariners had significant advantages-being able to launch submerged and on any course, the missiles having their own steering and guidance systems.
During World War II, the U.S. Submarine Force sank 55% of Japanese merchant tonnage although they comprised only 2% of the U.S. Navy’s personnel.’ One of the key reasons the Submarine Force was so effective was the effectiveness of their torpedoes. It was not always so, however. The initial Mk 14 torpedoes were plagued by run depth and exploder problems. The new Mk 6 combination magnetic and contact exploder-introduced in the summer of 1941-was temperamental and unreliable. Sometimes the torpedoes would explode prematurely, sometimes they passed under the target without exploding, and sometimes they would even hit the target, but not explode.
It was not until the Rear Admiral Charles Lockwood, then COMSUBPAC, and Captain (later Vice Admiral) “Swede” Momsen, conducted their own testing in 1942-firing torpedoes into nets to accurately measure their run depth-was the Submarine Force able to convince the Bureau of Ordnance that there were serious problems with the torpedoes. Eventually, these problems were solved, with the more reliable Mk 18 torpedo introduced in September 1943 .6 The Submarine Force learned the hard way that realistic test firing was the only way to ensure our torpedoes would work.
We have not forgotten that lesson and today’s Submarine Force shoots hundreds of exercise torpedoes in realistic scenarios against other submarines and surface targets each year. These exercise torpedoes are equipped with data-gathering capabilities that can be thoroughly analyzed. Additionally, we shoot unaltered warshot torpedoes against hulks, testing the torpedoes entire capability up to and including detonation. Some of these torpedoes arc tested in locations most likely subjected to potential conflicts. We have fired our exercise torpedoes in each of the 5th 6th, and 7th Fleet Areas of Responsibility (AORs).
Operating with Battle Groups
Following the demise of the Soviet Union, today’s nuclear-powered Submarine Force has emphasized a shift toward operations with Carrier Battle Groups. Just as the 688-class submarine was designed with the speed to keep up with today’s fast carriers, escorts, and resupply ships, the World War II diesel submarines were called fleet boats because they were originally designed to operate with the fleet. Although the majority of submarine operations in World War II were conducted independently, submarines did operate with battlegroups on several occasions.
One such occasion occurred during Commander Dick O’Kane’s second patrol with TANG in March and April of 1944. He was assigned to Admiral Marc Mitscher’s Task Force 58 in support of Operation Desecrate. This operation was designed to damage Japanese shipping in the Palau Islands as much as possible. The operational plan was for the carrier-based airplanes to strike ships in the harbor, and those that fled would run into submarines stationed at the outlets of the main channels.
TANG was assigned a position 60 miles from the outlet of one such channel, Toagel Mlungui. This required a transit of 3500 miles from her previous operation for a position that O’Kane felt did not optimize the strengths of his ship. To make matters worse, O’Kane later discovered that the channel he was guarding was mined on the first days of the operation. Needless to say, TANG did not sink a single target during this time.
At the end of any operation, in the enduring legacy of the post-deployment debrief, submarine skippers tell all to their operational commanders, including the good, bad and ugly. Following this operation, O’Kane reported to Rear Admiral Lockwood that” .. .if a senior submariner had been ordered to Admiral Mitscher’s staff, and if operational control of the submarines had passed to the task force commander for the strike on PALAU, TANG and TRIGGER would not have been left guarding mined channels.
We have learned these lessons and are now detailing senior leaders to the battle group staffs. Operational Control is being passed to the battle group commanders more and more. During my 1999 deployment in SANT A FE, operational control of my ship was assigned to three different carrier battle groups: CONSTELLATION; THEODORE ROOSEVELT; and KITTY HAWK.
The Spirit is Alive
More important than these operational parallels, today’s Submarine Force continues traditions that keep the spirit of our World War II predecessors alive.
On modern submarines, one will find World War II Presidential Unit Commendations and Medal of Honor citations being read when dolphins are awarded to our newly qualified submariners. On my ship we altered the language when shooting torpedoes, replacing the suggested language with the ” hot, straight, and normal” of our predecessors. Instead of “night steaming boxes,” we had areas designated “Wahoo” and Tang.” For my crew, these were more than mere words, but served as a tangible reminder every time we fired a torpedo that we were continuing an important legacy from our predecessors.
Operating out of Pearl Harbor allows one to develop a special connection with our submarine forefathers. Departing from the Pearl Harbor Sierra piers, and passing the USS ARIZONA, now a memorial, gave me and my crew a sense of comradeship knowing that these were the same piers and sights our World War 11 predecessors saw as they turned their bows west, heading for uncertain times. Yet, thanks to the actions of those men, we now pass the battleship MISSOURI as well, upon whose decks the surrender of Japan was signed.
And we know that it is with the Sailors that the spirit is strongest. Men like 0 ‘Kane and Fluckey were able to operate independently thousands of miles from home port because of the ability of their crews to persevere, and the innovation they used to keep their ships operational. The same is true today, and we would not be able to operate for 6-, 7-, 8-, and recently almost 9-months from home port without the untiring efforts of the Sailors who make up our crews.
More than the equipment and the operations, the men of today’ s Submarine Force are acutely aware of the awesome legacy we have inherited. We are keeping the spirit alive-that heritage of:
And relentless pursuit of the enemy until he is on the bottom.