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LETTERS – Follow on to The Submarine 1886-1918

Follow On to The Submarine 1886-1918

Thanks also for republishing my piece from the Naval War College Review in the company of all those interesting and usefully informative articles which make up the rest of the issue (see July 2004 issue). It is, indeed, an honor to have my work appear in the company of the work of those other authors.

My knowledge about what submarines did in the Cold War wouldn’t fill a thimble, but the quality of the people I know who served in our submarines during that period says to me that whatever they did would have been (a) important and (b) well done.

Nowadays, however, it looks to me as if the whole USN is in trouble, and has been so since the end of the Cold War. Currently, there is no serious issue of command of the sea. Neither is there one in the foreseeable future. When that issue does reappear, it may do so in fashion quite different from anything we have experienced. That is, we might not recognize it when it appears, and thus be unprepared to meet the challenge. In the meantime the navy does what it did through much of the 19’h Century: it goes to far-distant places and, when fighting develops ashore it acts, as Sir Julian Corbett once wrote, “as an adjunct to the army.”

The August 2004 issue of Naval Hist01y carries a very good piece by Admiral J. L. Holloway about a raid made by a small number of surface ships under orders from the JCS against some not-so-important targets near Haiphong in 1972. At the time Holloway was Commander Seventh Fleet, and he thought his presence on the main firing ship, the heavy cruiser Newport News, might be useful.

Holloway was concerned that one of our ships might be sunk in the shallow waters off Haiphong: “The bombardment force would be making its run on a seven-mile leg in water 40 to 50 feet deep. A destroyer sunk at this depth would be salvageable but unfortunately not by friendly forces. The compromise would be very damaging .. ”

That episode came to mind as I read one of the articles in your July issue which discussed the use of SSNs in shallow, restricted waters in support of, say, an information gathering expedition or a raid by SEALs. In an effort to do a little harm to the enemy we might be presenting the enemy an opportunity to do great harm to us by disabling or sinking a ship whose people, unlike those in Adm. Holloway’s destroyer case, we probably could not rescue, and which itself would be a treasure house for the enemy of hitherto unavailable classified information.

In such cases will the trade-offs always be in our favor?

Let me quote another flag officer, one from long ago, Chester W. Nimitz. In his final instructions to Frank Jack Fletcher and Raymond Spruance, his tactical commanders at Midway, he told them that “you will be governed by the principle of calculated risk, which you will interpret to mean the avoidance of exposure of your force to attack by superior enemy forces without prospect of inflicting, as a result of such exposure, greater damage to the enemy.

Are we putting too much value into ever-smaller numbers of ever-more marvelous ships; ships for which we are unlikely to find missions worthy of their great qualities? In the air we seem to have done that with the B-2 stealth bomber. Submarines too? Ten-billion-dollar “destroyers” too?

So much for all that. What an excellent magazine you edit!

Frank Uhlig, Jr.

Naval Submarine League

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