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Editor’s Note: VADM George Steele was the first Commanding Officer of USS SEADRAGON (SSN 584) when he wrote this article for the PROCEEDINGS in 1960. At the time we had 110 more than a half-dozen nuclear submarines. but ii was already obvious that ASW practices honed in World War II would not do/or the future. This was a clarion call for action within the Navy. Six years later, a surface warfare Commander was awarded the USN! Annual Prize/or sounding the same call (see THE SUBMARINE REVIEW of April 1994 for a reprint). As our Navy now re-awakens to the need for Navy-wide ASW efforts after a post-Cold War step down and a recognition of world wide AIP implication, these original warnings can be reread with benefit.

Reprinted from PROCEEDINGS with permission; copy-right®. November 1960 US Naval Institute

Enough is now known about the performance of the nuclear-powered submarine at sea to indicate a review of the changes that must come about in the navies of the world as they seek to defeat it. It would be too much to ask that all established concepts pre-dating the SSN should stand unchallenged; or to expect that any basic challenge will be popular. But professional naval officers can normally be expected to take the objective, practical approach to the novel, which is characteristic of seamen. The present and future threat to our control of the sea which is posed by the modern submarine is of such magnitude that our national policy is in jeopardy. Our duty is serious indeed.

After six years of operating nuclear submarines, we still do not have at sea a weapon system able to cope with even one of them. There are rare, lucky hits; the submarine captain might make a gross error and expose himself. But we cannot, with any degree of assurance, prevent him from working his will. The SSN can destroy our cities or our ships. Let us examine the present capability from the air and sea surface against this predator.

Passive sonar detection of a nuclear submarine is possible during those fleeting moments when she is making high speed and is therefore relatively noisy. Still, control of speed belongs to the submarine’s commander. He will use it when he needs it to close a target or to evade imminent attack.

The sonobuoys in use today are of little value since the SSN normally puts out too little of the necessary noise. The fixed-wing aircraft is thus reduced to other detection means such as magnetic anomaly detection (MAD), radar, radar intercept, and visual. But these also are ineffectual.

MAD has value in localizing a moderately shallow, slow submarine; however, its small search radius renders it nearly useless for the initial detection.

The nuclear submarine could be detected if she surfaced, snorkeled, transmitted by radio or radar, or exposed her radar intercept antenna or periscope. She does not have to do any of these things. The sea is so vast that as a practical matter the SSN can often prudently use periscope or radar intercept antenna with entire safety. It has been shown that the odds are good that a submarine can even surface briefly without detection in areas of heavy air/sea surveil-lance. And the Regulus II missile program that the Navy abandoned so reluctantly is full recognition of that fact.

The nuclear submarine is as detectable by active sonar as is any other submarine, but her great sustained speed and depth can be used to pass through today’s detection zone in a very brief period. Sometimes good thermal conditions enable surface ships or helicopters to detect the SSN penetrating the screen, but fully aware of sonar conditions itself, the submarine will use the speed advantage she possesses over most formations to approach from astern. The wakes, noise, and sonar blind spots are excellent cover. Sea exercises do not always show this point fully-they may be so short that the SSN cannot use the proper tactics. But then the detection problem of a submarine penetrating from other quarters must be solved first.

In fact, surface and air ASW forces today normally detect a nuclear submarine only when she attacks-and often the detection consists of sighting the submarine’s flare firing signal, or of hearing his announcement by sonar. The Navy’s number one priority program, Polaris-loaded nuclear submarines, is based on the premise that such submarines are nearly impossible to find at sea.

It would be only fair if the SSN were similarly in doubt as to the location of her foes. As it happens, only the aircraft is invisible. The nuclear submarine is a good sonar platform. She can hear an enemy ship’s propellers long before coming within active sonar detection ranges prevalent; a hovering helicopter can sometimes sound like a destroyer to a submarine. Modern active sonars can be heard great distances by the quarry.

When the nuclear submarine makes high speed, she tends to become like a destroyer of comparable speed and can receive information from her active sonar only. But even then the submarine can hear surface ship propellers a few thousand yards away and she can home on surface ship echo ranging from many miles away. Thus the SSN has a very appreciable detection advantage over the surface and air ASW forces and will keep her distance if she chooses.

But if the nuclear undersea ship decides to force action and a contact is made on her, the difficulties have just begun. Instantly the deadly question of identity is posed. A significant percentage of sonar contacts made by surface and air ASW units are non-submarine. Classification remains one of the most difficult of the unsolved problems. A crafty submarine will add to the confusion of the opposition by various tricks, and when these are used in conjunction with the speed, depth, and maneuverability available to the SSN, the puzzle is very complex-just long enough, perhaps, to decide the issue.

The blinding speed with which a nuclear submarine can burst into a formation worn out by days of fruitless pinging, fire torpedoes, shift position while reloading, fire again, and pull clear, leaving a trail full of tricks and booby traps {a circling steam torpedo, for instance), must be seen to be fully understood.

Tracking by MAD, sonobuoy, or sonar has proved uncertain and generally unreliable. Occasionally there will be an instance when, in fine weather and sonar conditions, tracking is successful for a time.

But even the slow SSN can nearly always make her escape by heading into a sea that surface ships cannot weather at high speed or by getting under a deep thermal layer. Whether the nuclear submarine would not prefer to stay and fight it out is a question sometimes missed in sea operations of the canned type.

For the submarine the classification and tracking of surface ships is much simpler. A formation is heard many miles away and the various light and fast, or heavy and slow screw beats, the echo ranging, and perhaps the radars are studied. Continuous bearings are available. A single ship can be an enigma requiring some time to identify if she does not echo range. And so, far from being blind and deaf in the opaqueness of the depths as the layman might suppose, the submarine actually has a great advantage in classification and tracking over the enemies above. The trained submarine captain is able, through his long apprenticeship, to extract tactical information from the sonar in the same fashion that the American Indian followed a fresh trail. The SSN captain may use his detection advantage to pick the time of the attack-after he has carefully observed the situation. General Braddock would have understood.

Such circumstances demand a deadly weapon for the ASW forces of air and surface with which to club the submarine quickly. We do not have it in usable form.

Conventional depth charges and ahead-thrown weapons are totally inadequate against such a high-speed, deep diving enemy. Service torpedoes are not sophisticated enough. The ability to localize the nuclear submarine is not good enough. Nuclear depth-bombs would do the trick, but the submarine seems always to be too near friendly ships to use one, or at large in an area of uncertainty too great to bomb. And one must be just a little uneasy about pinning everything on the nuclear blast.

The other side of the picture is also dark. The submarine has weapons effective against surface ships. Fitted with the nuclear warhead, perhaps in retaliation, the submarine torpedo can destroy the strongest and largest ship in a single hit or near miss. It would be a grave mistake to judge our own rate of progress in this area as equivalent to that of the Soviet Bloc. We must be prepared to see tactical missiles rise out of the sea and attack. Under these depressing circumstances of detection, classification, tracking, and kill capability, the nuclear submarine is a deadly and effective enemy to any surface formation. It is a genie that we could wish back inside the bottle but for our fleet ballistic missile submarines.

The first successes of the Confederate iron-clad VIRGINIA against the Union fleet one hundred years ago should be a haunting memory today. Yet VIRGINIA met her match-USS MONITOR. The Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Arleigh Burke, recently wrote “These (nuclear) subs are one of the best systems in our ASW arsenal.”* This idea will seem strange to many. The landsman imagines the surface ship and aircraft up in the bright sunshine where they can “see” what they are doing as far better off than the groping, sightless submarine below. The naval officer knows that he can save his pity, for beneath the sea there is excitement and high hope. To understand just why, one must appreciate the differences that exist between the problem presented to a surface ship and to a cannibalistic submarine.

The submarine is down out of the weather. Her speed is unhampered by the most mountainous waves. The submarine’s sonar dome does not plunge noisily through the seas. There is no question of the length of the variable depth sonar cable or the weight of the transducer. The undersea ship takes her sonar with her above or below any thermal layer within her operating range.

The SSN does not need to make the noise of all kinds that the surface ship must make. She does not have to protect herself by using radar. There are no frequent radio conversations.

The propeller of a surface ship normally cavitates heavily. The deeper the submarine goes, the greater the sea pressure and the faster she can go without making cavitation noise. The SSN can go deep enough to avoid cavitation completely, even at top speed.

Searching surface ship sonars practically “boil” the water around their transducers by the terrific power output of their ping. Some are not unlike the trademark of the British J. Arthur Rank film which shows a giant striking a huge gong. A submarine may, and often does, carry the very same sonar set; but she normally does not search actively with it.

Submarines use the only ASW weapon of any effectiveness that a surface ship has today-the homing torpedo. These torpedoes the submarine can fire at a significantly greater range than can the surface ship, due to the superior ability of the submarine to detect another submarine.

Only one nuclear submarine makes up a complete attack team that is fully capable of detection, tracking, and killing a conventional submarine without support. This is significant. A surface and air team would be using a division of destroyers, carrier aircraft, the carrier (and her destroyer screen), and the tankers, and other logistic ships needed to stay at sea.

The SSN can carry out her submarine hunting mission anywhere an enemy submarine operates. Not so the air/sea team which is endangered by moving very close to enemy territory. The surface team is increasingly subject to being tracked and reported to enemy submarines, or to attack from sea or air, as she nears the very bases and focal points where hunting is best.

Because of the eerie nature of underwater combat, people are inclined to imagine that it is nearly impossible, or too unconventional to be taken seriously. Let there be no mistake, there is no enemy that the submarine captain fears more than another submarine.

A hunting submarine runs silent, listening. The detection advantage belongs to the most quiet, most alert undersea ship-assuming sonars of equal capability. Then starts a stalking approach to within weapon range. Ever so carefully-then a salvo!

Nuclear submarines have had quite good luck at sea against conventional submarines. It has been found that a snorkeling target can be destroyed with relative ease. If the target stops snorkeling before the attack can be consummated, the problem is more difficult.

Although submarines running on their batteries have been followed quite successfully by nuclear submarines without the use of active sonar, the odds are that the SSN will not be close enough to hear the low noises of the target after she secures her diesels. The SSN now has the option of taking the most likely direction, hoping to parallel the enemy course, and wait for him to snorkel again some hours later (as he must); or alerting the other submarine by using active sonar. The unprecedented endurance of the nuclear submarine enables her to hunt the conventional submarine to exhaustion, re-attacking until her enemy is destroyed.

Nuclear submarines have proven their deadlines many times against conventional submarines by actually hitting them with practice torpedoes. But what can they do against one another? So far we have not had enough nuclear submarines to gain much experience. There are some tentative conclusions to record.

The SSN conflict of today is a fight of bushwhackers. If the target is alerted, our weapons are not good enough to make a hit likely. A slow running SSN must pass fairly close or he will not be detected at all; that is, the target must pass within what is reckoned today as a destroyer’s assured sonar range. However promising the future may be, our existing SSN’s do not have adequate sonar or weapons to do the sure job that must be done. Lest there be any discouragement, it is reassuring to recall that MONITOR could not sink VIRGINIA, either.

Such is the outline of the problem faced today in trying to kill the new U-boats-if indeed that name describes any longer an underwater ship five times larger than the U-boats of World War II. Security veils more detail, but not the essentials. So the future may now be considered.

The natural laws do not favor the surface ship in antisubmarine roles. As the hunting surface ship gets more powerful active sonar, it can only transmit its awesome warning ever farther into the sea. As it unconsciously tries to get under water with the submarine by running awash, or by lowering its sonar transducer on a cable, it still must put up with the weather and the deep thermal layers that the cable cannot reach. The surface ship cavitates thunderously making even moderate speed. It dares not eliminate the use of telltale radar completely.

The surface ship will not obtain a detection advantage. Nor does there appear to be any chance that a single surface ship will prove a match for a single SSN.

But improved sonars and weapons, quieter ships, and many other improvements can and are being made to fit the nuclear submarine to do battle with her own kind. The classic struggle of two ships at sea has been resolved by that ship with the best combination of strength factors, no mortal weakness discovered by the foe, and the smile of Providence. A more skillful and daring captain, a more reliable and effective weapon, and a hundred other things add up to superiority. An unreliable engine, a blind spot, a tactical misconception, and all may be lost if the enemy can find and exploit his advantage.

Inside the sea the natural laws deal impartially with both sides. One SSN may fully expect to do battle with another unaided and be successful. Of course a “wingman” SSN would be a comfort, but the high command would have a dreadful time distributing the medals in case of a kill so it might be best to remain alone.

Nor is this all-the submarine will become ever more deadly to the surface forces. In a few years our submarines will have tactical as well as ballistic missiles. In the tactical missile field submarines of the U.S.S.R. may be ahead. It will not be long before the surface ship will find that she can be brought under attack by a homing missile. The detection advantage thus takes on added significance.

The aircraft, at the moment ineffectual, is by no means without hope of improvement. If expendable, directional sonobuoys or improved magnetic detection could localize a submarine sufficiently for a nuclear depth-bomb kill, and do so with acceptable reliability, we could all breathe more easily. An X-ray machine for the ocean mounted in an airplane could yet result from some quirk of physics. So far, the process of aircraft capability improvement has been slowly frustrated by the curious anomalies of the sea. Meanwhile, the race is being won by the steadily improving design of submarines and the end appears to be far off.

The submarine may have an unpleasant surprise for the aircraft as missile development enables them to shoot back. But this ability will not come very soon, either, unless forced by aircraft success. The helicopter would be particularly vulnerable to this form of attack. But it must be taught to fly in all weather and at night, and be given better weapons and detection equipment before becoming a serious threat to the SSN.

Some people question whether the nuclear submarine threat is real. In this era of the massive deterrent, do we really have to be able to beat a mere warship to save our skins? The answer is that the submarine, particularly the nuclear-powered submarine, may be the vehicle for the next serious challenge to our ability to guard our widespread interests abroad.

The Navy believes that the United States must still be able to project its authority overseas. That ability has kept Formosa whole, Korea at least half-whole, and our other outer bastions from being overthrown at a dozen dangerous moments in recent history.

We know of only one basic way to project this authority in sufficient strength without the use of nuclear weapons full-scale. Armed men must be landed at the affected point. This is done by using quantities of ships and aircraft. The effort can be sustained only by the frequent arrival of more ships with all kinds of supplies.

If an aggressor thought himself capable of beating us in such an effort at small cost, and perhaps without even being positively identified, he might well give it a try. A communist probing effort at Quemoy by artillery fire and air attack has failed. On land they have found us resolute and able to stand our ground.

Another bloody probe by sea is likely. The submarine is the perfect agent for this effort. Enough submarines have now appeared in unfriendly, non-Soviet hands to make it impossible for us to identify an attacker except by capture or recovery of personnel or debris. Such identification is highly unlikely before the outcome of the probe is foreseen.

Now if a probe succeeded in inflicting major, crippling damage upon our forces in an objective area, we could only brace for the quick series of powerful thrusts throughout the world that our demonstrated weakness would invite. If the Communists had a small force of nuclear submarines today we could expect such a result. Even the conventional submarines arrayed against us could put the issue in doubt.

In the event of such a challenge we would surround our vital forces with every ship and aircraft available. Our few nuclear submarines, together with conventional types, would try to bar access to our operating areas. With more nuclear submarines we could station one beneath each important formation-a defense which would chill the blood of the attacking submariners. In this fashion the Navy would fight a battle of attrition getting through to the beaches. The bulk of the antisubmarine forces of our fleet, including submarines, could be absorbed in short order.

If the enemy wished, we might have to fight off attacks from the air at the same time. In this effort against aircraft and missiles, the U.S. Navy’s submarine of today would be of no help. The decks of all surface ships and the territory under our control would be the platforms from which our defense would face the sky. This keystone in our defense structure must be strengthened.

It seems evident that the state that controls the air over the sea can prevent movement upon it. The state controlling the sub.surface of the sea can also deny movement upon it. And if a state can control both the air above and the sea beneath the surface, it may use the surface of the sea as it wills and deny it to its enemy. Perhaps only for the time being, combat between nuclear submarine and aircraft is impractical.

Our reaction to the news of the success of the SSN has been correct. A substantial building program is being pushed for nuclear submarines with ballistic missiles and for those intended to do battle against naval forces and particularly other submarines. Increasing attention is being paid to development of the weapons and equipment for these two basic types of ship. Now, as the Soviet nuclear submarine is about to show itself, our efforts must be redoubled. Ideas, long cherished, should be reexamined.

Tactically, a new force has been born, and it should be used as such. In the early days of aviation, the first thought of the old timers naturally was to use the airplane as a sort of auxiliary to the fleet. It could chase down game and then spot the fall of shot. The idea that is should be anything very much more was often the subject of ridicule. But this role chained the highly mobile airplane to a big gun on a slow platform. It was not to last, however. The aviators saw carrier warfare in the future, dimly at first but with enough pre-science to get an aircraft carrier into operation and then a few more in time to save the day in World War II. Now the aircraft itself delivered the principal blow.

Today, as we all grope for knowledge, there are efforts to treat the first nuclear submarines as the first naval aircraft were treated. Why should the SSN be sent out hunting in company with a noisy, radiating, echo ranging, conventional hunter/killer group? Why degrade the performance of the submarine by making it spend time at the interface of sea and air in communication with the HUK group? It should be in a place close to the enemy windpipe, stalking the enemy submarine at the best depth for its sonar. Why should the SSN train to get other forces into contact? It can kill by itself.

The best help that the nuclear submarine can get in the hunt for submarines is from friendly submarines in order to cover an area or to box in a detected enemy. Long-range patrol aircraft can help at present by forcing enemy conventional submarines to snorkel (making more noise); air reconnaissance can help by looking into enemy harbors.

The SSN is unique in her ability to carry our attack on enemy submarines to the enemy front porch. Since she need not expose herself at all to enemy air opposition, it is much more effective off the enemy base of nearby focal points than the conventional submarine which must snorkel; the present HUK group could not survive there. The nuclear submariner is the only ship that can pursue a submarine under the polar ice.

Used as single units or in groups, nuclear submarines will be the only effective hunter/killer groups of the future against their own kind. They will form the only practicable screen about today’s battleship-the fleet ballistic missile submarine.

Expensive as the first SSNs have been to build and maintain, they do not suffer when compared with the large force that each one replaces, or when it is seen that the job cannot be done by the surface/air group. In fact the nuclear-powered submarine is far cheaper on a replacement cost basis.

Attractive as this kind of reasoning might be to the ever poorer taxpayer, the destroyer types of today are going to have to be replaced with surface ships much like them. Once again their function is changing. These work-horses of the Fleet, lately torpedo boats designed to attack the big ships, now jacks-of-all-trades, will carry the awesome burden of defense against air attack and the many other tasks that can only be handled by a surface ship. It may comfort harried destroyerment to be relieved of the principal role in antisubmarine warfare. And concentration on proper armament for air defense is sorely needed if we expect to get ships through determined attack. No, no one is going to be put out of a job by the SSN .

The aircraft carrier is still indispensable to our landings in limited war or to conduct operations to enforce the peace. The SSN joins the long list of enemies that the carrier must face; at the same time the carrier gains a potent protector in the undersea ship. While it is the fashion to write off the carrier as an obsolete weapon of war, a viable substitute to perform its functions has not been found. It would be nice to find something smaller, less vulnerable, and less expensive. But until we do, we must set ourselves to defend the carrier with a force of anti-air escorts and antisubmarine submarines.

The lesson of six years of operations of nuclear submarines is twofold. First, because of the ineffectiveness of present anti submarine measures, the nuclear submarine armed with the ballistic missile is an outstanding deterrent weapon system. Second, because of the advantages of operating in the same medium with her enemy, the nuclear submarine must now be assigned the primary role as an antisubmarine ship.

The lesson indicates the need for a heavy effort. Programs to improve our submarines must be strengthened. They must be kept ahead of the Communist versions in every respect: in speed, in quietness at a given speed, in weapon effectiveness, in operating depths, and in quality of that most important item, the crews. The organization of the Navy Department and of the operating forces must be stronger in order to stimulate and control the submarine’s progress. There is grave danger in underestimating these requirements or in failing to follow through. Our present lead may be precarious.

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