Mr. Friedman is a noted author on naval topics. One of his books is U.S. Submarines since 1945, published by the Naval Institute in 1994.
Mr. Polmar’s assertion that U.S. Cold War submarines were inferior because the United States adopted a Stalinist design practice, compared to the open competition practiced by the Soviets, is certainly arresting- and almost certainly very wide of the mark. It has two basic flaws. One is the erroneous impression that, from NAUTILUS on, Admiral Rickover had an iron grip on U.S. submarine design and construction.
The Admiral often said that he had designed one submarine or another, but he was using the term in the sense that naval engineers (machinery designers) always did-that they had designed the ship’s machinery. That was hardly the whole submarine. In much the same way, the sound lab at New London once claimed that submarine designs had been dominated by advances in the sonars it developed (particularly the bow sphere). Even given Admiral Rickover’s role, it should be remembered that he lost some important battles. He vigorously opposed the use of rafting for silencing- and lost (he wanted to use turbo-electric drive instead; he did win to the extent that GLENARD D. LIPSCOMB was a full-size submarine instead of the proposed SKA TE derivative).
He lost a major fight to build a U.S. SSGN (Admiral Zumwalt had the Tomahawk strategic missile adapted to anti-ship operation instead). Available documentation does not make it at all clear whether he was behind the demand for increased speed that led to LOS ANGELES, although it is clear that submarine reflected his, rather than the naval architects’, approach to higher speed (he took the classic engineer’s approach, which is to add horsepower rather than to refine hydrodynamics). I always thought that LOS ANGELES approach could be traced back to a major World War II embarrassment in which the new SUMNER class destroyer failed to make anything like its predicted speed, i.e., in which it seemed that the naval architects’ approach was faulty. Nor was Admiral Rickover apparently involved in the decision to make SK.IPJACK a fast submarine by combining a more powerful reaction (vice SKA TE reactor) and ALBACORE hull form. Perhaps Admiral Rickover wished he were Stalin (many do) but he does not seem quite to have made it.
Then there are the Russians. Just how much competition was there? I have the impression that there was remarkably little, rather that different design organizations tended to specialize. After the November class, Rubin, for example, developed ballistic missile submarines and diesel submarines; Malakhit did most of the later attack submarines. You find very few parallel designs (Sierra and Akula may be the only important example). I would suspect that much of what looks like competition comes from Russian accounts designed to emphasize the competence of the firms now seeking foreign orders, and de-emphasizing the role of whatever preliminary design organization was buried in the Soviet naval staff or in its special Institutes (Nils). That ought not to be terribly surprising. You find Electric Boat claiming credit for numerous Cold War submarine designs. But you will find, if you dig deep enough, that the basic designs emerged fairly completely formed from the Preliminary Design organization in BuShips/NAVSEA. That is where the Chief Designer of SEA WOLF was to be found. Electric Boat did extremely important work bringing the sketch to the point at which the ship could be built- but, at least in the Cold War past, it did not do the basic design (it actually did preliminary designs before 1919).
No one actually operating a submarine would be foolish enough to summarize all submarine design, as Polmar and Moore virtually do, in hull performance (speed and diving depth, essentially) and armament, without reference to what is inside the sub-marine or to its reliability. The Russians did have a lot more kinds of torpedo, for example- but is that a plus or a minus? If you have a load of say thirty weapons, and only ten of them are the ones you need, is that better than having thirty multi-purpose torpedoes? Were the 650cm torpedoes effective, or does KURSK incident suggest that perhaps they were not such a good idea? Does a fleet including specialized submarines firing anti-ship missiles do better than one in which torpedoes can be mixed with, say, Sub-Harpoons? I have the distinct impression that our sonars were orders of magnitude more effective than what the Soviets had, because we had much better computers. I am not sure how one could tell. And of course we cannot say much about silencing, except that we seem to have done far, far better for a very long time.
And we got what we had for a very small fraction of our overall naval budget. The submarine program absolutely dominated the Soviet naval budget- as some ex-Soviet officers have rather clearly complained. The point in the end is not just to have excellent submarines (or destroyers, or carriers) but an effective navy which combines all of them. We were far more successful at that, I think.
One other point deserves mention. Since about 1990 there has been a flood of material from Russia, including a wonderful history of Malakhit submarines (up to 1974), a rather less complete Rubin history, and an ocean of articles. Little has been translated into English, but a few years ago you could buy adequate Russian translation software for about $I 000. Remarkably little of this literature is cited in the Polmar-Moore book, and they miss some of the more dramatic stories which have come out, such as that of the conception of the Alfa (Project 705) class. The Russian material is not as complete as we might like, in that it still gives little insight into how programs were assembled and into what overall programs were, but surely it deserves more attention. Polmar and Moore do cite some Russian sources, but they are drops in a vast ocean. For example, in recent years the magazine Tai fun has published what amount to design histories of most Cold War Soviet submarine classes (and of many surface ships, too). As for sonars, the main Russian sonar developer produced a remarkable in-house history (from which you learn, among other things, that when they decided to develop a digital sonar they had to write the operating system of its computer). There are now reputable histories, again in Russian, of the organization which developed the submarine reactors (and it was single organization, like Rickover’s, not a series of competitors) and of the submarines’ weapons. None of this seems to have been used. There still seems to be a place for a good history of the Cold War Soviet Submarine Force.