SOME LESSONS TO BE LEARNED
“Observation! Up Scope!”
Jeny Holland is a retired submarine officer currently serving as the Vice President of the Naval Historical Society. He has been a frequent contributor to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW and Naval Institute PROCEEDINGS. Part I appeared in the January 2010 issue of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW.
By 1982 or so, the US Navy had a good grasp of the Soviets plans and intentions and was planning accordingly. Admiral Michael Mullen, when Chief of Naval Operations, characterized what he termed “Cold War sureties”.
“We knew who the enemy was.”
“As time went on we learned how he was likely to fight.”
“This focused operational planning though it didn’t make the task of maritime dominance easy.”
Not clear from this ex post facto analysis is that “As time went on … ” meant twenty-five years. Could the American Navy have recognized issues relative to knowing who the enemy was sooner? Would such recognition have made a difference in learning how the enemy was likely to fight? How did the operational planning depend upon technological development and tactical innovation? What other lessons can be drawn from this history that might improve chances for maritime dominance in the future?
Learning from history is not easy. In part because, those who make history have a vested interest in its outcome (otherwise known as an axe to grind), generally lack peripheral vision, and are not usually invested in the labor of writing. On the other hand, the historians who record and analyze history often do not understand or appreciate the technical factors and personal relationships involved in its making. Then too, few victors analyze carefully why they won so usually losers in war learn more than the winners.
Comparison of adversaries is a necessary ingredient in any war plan. This comparison usually starts with lists of equipment, manpower and estimates of their capabilities. These factors are usually played against each other in planning and in war games. However in evaluating a long-term adversarial relationship, trying to grasp the sociological or cultural bases and biases of each side provides a more useful ingredient for analysis than snapshots of the equipment base. In this regard trying to compare the culture of the two navies can be more revealing than comparing their table of equipment’s.
In reviewing these forty years, the culture of the United States Navy becomes apparent. With rare exceptions- and those usually impressed on the service by forces outside of its own ranks- the characteristics that marked the American Navy in the Cold War were:
Some central planning
Trained, volunteer Sailors
Many of these characteristics were inherited from the Royal Navy. However the studies associated with the rise of the United States Navy to rank as a first class maritime power at the end of the nineteenth century and the experience of World War II, including the planning that occurred between the end of the First World War in 1919 and the beginning of the Second in 1939, buttressed these ideas.
The offensive mindset, Nelsonian in its context, exemplified by commanders in the War of 1812, by Farragut and Porter, preached by Mahan, followed by the leaders in World War II, was easily identified and well known by seamen around the world. The combination of advancing technology, intelligent direction, combined arms, and skillful use of opportunities culminated in an effective anti-submarine warfare effort not seen since late in World War II.
The culture of the American Navy reflects recognition that sustained operations at great distances are the norm. Mahan wrote before World War I that, ” … to be useful, any ship had to have a range greater than 4,000 miles.” High speed was always valued but endurance was the greater virtue. Most platforms had to be designed to be able to accomplish many missions. Ever since Joshua Humphery designed the 44 gun frigates in 1794, advanced technology was almost always sought.
Actual experience does not match the part of the hypothesis: Building the best ship possible. More than one CNO openly disregarded some of these traits in regards to acquisition of warships. The cause of their departure from these principles was in part because budgetary pressures demanded less expensive platforms and partly because their individual experience at sea was of such a nature to expect great things of small ships. Though chiefly a theoretical belief of those unpracticed in war, quantity over quality has not been a rare or isolated opinion among military officers. Many in the Submarine Force in the sixties expressed the argument, “Why nukes when we could have two diesels for the same price?” But in the long run over these forty years, the successful platforms were the ones that were as good as one could make them. Leaders of naval aviation always resisted small carriers- never succumbing to more is better, holding fast to better is better and demanding nuclear power first before determining any other characteristics.
Attempts at quantity generally came up short. Very small warships were hard to maintain and often not useful in the regions required or missions that arose. Where ship types compromised for the sake of quantity, resulting ships tended to be short lived with limited capabilities. The “B girls”, Barracuda, Bass and Bonita were prime examples. These SSK’s had big sonars but were hobbled by a thirteen knot top speed and a limited endurance. To transit to their stations in the barrier at the GIUK Gap for which the ship was designed, the SSK had to be underway en route well before the war started in order to be on station in time to intercept the oncoming Soviet submarines. BARRACUDA served 22 years as a target and training ship for sonar school but the other two were decommissioned after only five and six years service respectively.
On the other hand the Soviets had a culture that was never appreciated by their erstwhile opponents. Commander Robert Herrick described the defensive nature of the Soviet mind but few read and even fewer believed because that thesis did not help to build force sizes.2 The features of this culture that became evident in the later stages of the Cold War included:
Defense of the homeland was paramount.
Correlation of forces was central to their thought process.
Europe was the focus of their efforts and seat of purpose.
Acquisition was oriented to the Machine Tool Industry management practices and mentality of the Soviet Union.
Generals ran the strategy of the Soviet Union.
These conclusions, while generally apparent now, were not part of our understanding early in the Cold War. Yet Soviet dispositions throughout the Cold War always seemed to be aimed at homeland defense. This focus should not be surprising. Germany had invaded Russia twice in fifty years, coming close to conquering her both times. The Soviets were heir to the Russian Empire so their continental strategy, based in Europe and always dominated by generals was natural. Interest in sea power and maritime affairs was peripheral at best.
The industrialization created by Stalin through the 1930’s dominated the economic and material resource planning in the Soviet Union. Most of the Soviet military acquisition was created and managed by these industrial organizations, not by the military operators. This did not necessarily lead to poor or bad equipment – the T-34 was the world’s best tank for over 20 years. But designers and builders held sway throughout the acquisition process in the Navy and many of the results were demonstrations of the skill of the builders rather than incorporation of characteristics valuable to the operators. Soviet ships bristled with weapons and antennae, many self-limiting, and some that were not coherent with the ships’ missions. As one acute observer, Captain Jim Patton, remarked, “The ALFA [submarine] was a dog. A fast dog but a dog nevertheless”!
Comparing these two summaries of the cultures helps understand why each side performed the way it did. By the end of the period, both sides pretty much had the other’s dimensions staked out though not always accurately. The Soviet penchant for never putting a ship out of service meant that what were really liabilities were counted by Americans as assets when drawing force comparisons chiefly for budget purposes. The resulting magnification came to be a matter of belief limiting thought on strategy and constructive planning by disguising the Soviets real capabilities.
In addition to the cultural dimensions, other lessons become evident as one reviews the actions and opportunities of the Cold War at Sea. Because this war took place in the undersea domains, that is, a submarine war, many lessons apply to that domain but not necessarily to others. A voiding generalization of conclusions is as important as drawing the conclusions themselves. The remainder of this essay is based in the submarine/anti-submarine world and should not necessarily be associated with other dimensions.
In submarine warfare, the importance of careful and thoughtful intelligence cannot be overestimated. In this area, overwhelmed by variables and unknowns, every piece of evidence helps. Preparation of the battlefield, i.e. the hydrography, is crucial. To understand the ocean’s environment one must observe its conditions throughout the year. That means being a persistent presence in areas that could become the scene of action.
The size, number and material condition of the potential enemy force is a second ingredient. This begins with regular observations of yards and docks. Counting every day, allowed recognizing operational patterns and determination of what submarines were at sea. These are vital ingredients in calculating search plans, alert rates and probability of detection.
Where possible, watching the other side’s individual and collective ships at sea yielded great information on what sort of an opponent one might face in a war. Not only did these observations yield data on technical parameters but they shed light on how the equipment’s were likely to be employed and the tactics of operations. Intelligence agencies rarely underestimate the possible capabilities of the potential enemy’s equipment, so realistic evaluations, in other settings called measurements, were particularly valuable. As every bridge player knows, A peek in the hand is worth two finesses!
ASW during the Cold War demonstrated the value of full time dedicated analysts and close long-term relationships between intelligence professionals and operators. During the Cold War this relationship grew until it existed from the highest levels of the Navy down to individual ship’s companies. Out of this mutual interaction grew the understanding of how he was likely to fight. 3 Such relationships cannot be built quickly but can be destroyed in a flash of budget anxiety or pangs of professional jealousy.
Experience in ASW is hard to obtain. A couple of tours rarely provide the background to appreciate the problems much less the knowledge to exploit the environment and pursue a quarry. For destroyers and frigates often a year of operation can go by without a meaningful (against a real submarine) exercise. During the Cold War of Admiral Mustin’s two navies, one faced mainly submarines and the other seldom faced any maritime challenge. This second remains the real Navy in the eyes of most of its operators. But experience in other venues work against competence in ASW where time constants are long and anxiety takes its toll on the necessary patience and deliberateness.
Successful ASW is usually a combined arms operation in which no other service other than the Navy is engaged. There is no jointness credit awarded for ASW. The requirements for professional military training and joint duty take officers away from those necessary tedious efforts that prepare them for command of ASW forces. Too many ASW operations develop problems when a leader of Muslin’s real Navy has to oversee the efforts of the NATO Navy. Finally, most admirals are ill fitted for ASW. Those activities require intuition and judgment built on patience and understanding generated through experience. The reluctance of admirals trained in battleships to adopt convoying in both World Wars is symptomatic of the problem.
In ASW the marks of knowledgeable leadership is patience with communications. V ADM Art Cebrowski, father of network centric warfare, characterized ASW as Aufully slow warfare. Because time constants are long, routine communications are adequate to the task but not to the comfort level of flag officers from other communities used to the high data rate low latency information associated with anti-air warfare. ASW does not require instantaneous or even quick orders or responses. Doctrine and process substitute for real time verbiage. The methods used so successfully in the ASW actions of the Cold War seem to have been lost in the frantic desire to obtain Comms at speed and depth in order to calm the nerves of senior officers.
Probably the most important lesson from the period is that training must be accomplished. Without that experience, the false contacts will drive all efforts as they did in the Falkland Islands campaign. Unless demanded and dedicated at high levels there was and probably still is never enough time to train because most ships’ companies are busy with urgent matters. But even during the Cold War many did not use the opportunities available. As a result of the lack of opportunity in many cases, the equipment’s were better than the personnel operating them. This becomes particularly true when tours are short and turnover high. Complex equipment has facets that operators cannot appreciate without time on the stack and targets in the bin.
Among the reasons for this failure was that services were always hard to come by- the submarines were needed for higher priority operations. Few exercises were large enough or long enough to develop real expertise at any level. Many were structured to maximize interactions creating a false impression of capabilities and dangers. In too many cases, sonarmen and aircrewmen never exercised with a real submarine so were neophytes when operating their equipment. Fortunately for some, the Soviets provided good training opportunities for much of the Cold War. That such generous cooperation will be available from future adversaries is unlikely but every opportunity that finds someone else’s submarine at sea should be exploited.
Knowing what the equipment can do really takes time, energy and education. The first large stave passive array, the BQR-4, was considered inoperative by many ships when in fact it was hobbled by operators’ ignorance. The TULLIBEE/PERMITS’ sonar, the BQQ-1, offered options unheard of in its predecessors. Years passed before those options and the subsequent upgrades were able to be employed to anywhere near their full capability because of a very steep learning curve and a Jack of practice. Computer aided detection and tracking became really effective when officers spent time to understand the concepts and practiced manipulating the equipment. When introduced, the Mark 48 torpedo offered so many options that the associated weapons consoles were provided with gouges to assist operators in selecting the features. Five years later, after investments in practice torpedoes and exercise scenarios for every submarine every year, skilled officers could set the fish’s optimum settings within seconds.
Early SOSUS equipment demonstrated the crucial relationship between complicated technical equipment and its operators. When originally deployed, data was displayed on paper graphs that showed time versus frequency on a specific array and bearing. Determining which black marks on which graphic displays (grams) reflected a possible contact and then correlating that with five dozen other machines only some of which might hold contact on that same target was a challenging task. Nothing was automatic. Detecting the presence of a possible target and then correlating between a number of displays in order to tum this data into information, was accomplished entirely by individuals. Interestingly, the Navy found that women were much better at this task than men and before long the SOSUS network became the property of women The hardest task in warfare is detection of a submarine that does not wish to be found. When ASW must be conducted against an uncooperative target, one that operates very stealthily, detection is very difficult. In past wars, the submarine’s presence was generally heralded by a flaming datum. Torpedo ranges of a mile or two meant the area in which the attacking submarine was located could be limited to a few square miles of ocean. The submarine’s restricted maneuverability and endurance also meant that prosecution by surface escorts was practical. However with the advent of long-range missiles and torpedoes coupled with the speed and endurance of nuclear power, the explosion while alerting everyone to the submarine’s presence, no longer provides a useful datum. Detection at reasonably long range require large aperture arrays, sophisticated analysts, and patient exploitation. Even then, the result is a hunch not a point.
This difficulty does not mean that such a quarry cannot be found. Issues relating to such detection involve search rates, information accumulation, area definitions and most of all time. Understanding what the Probability of Detection really means is fundamental to overseeing a theater or area search. Yet even experienced operators are never entirely comfortable with the concept. Searches to sanitize an area large enough to operate carrier flight operations require weeks-depending upon the targets’ characteristics and operational employment. The facts can be learned in an afternoon but until experienced are rarely appreciated.
In summary and at a risk of over-simplification, some of the observations (lessons learned?) that arise from a review of the Cold War at sea that have continued relevance seem to be:
Nothing pays like training.
Pushing technology is endless. In the words of Admiral Kin McKee, “If you are not getting ahead you are falling behind”.
Fancy gear needs experienced operators at all levels.
One should beware of:
One’s own propaganda;
Speculation as a substitute for facts.