RADM Jerry’ Holland is a frequent contributor to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW.
Those who build, sell or operate any product or equipment are predisposed to find opportunities to promote their equipment or product favorably against the best or benchmark in their field of endeavor. In the case of conventionally powered submarines, these actors, both persons and organizations, are particularly eager to seize any situation in which their ship compares favorably vis-a-vis nuclear powered submarines. For years an undercurrent has inferred that modem conventional submarines could not only hold their own but in some circumstances could perform even better than nuclear powered ships. Those occasional essays or advertisements touting conventionally powered submarines that have appeared in professional and trade magazines generally have avoided direct claims, relying on vague allusions of operational capabilities and focusing on acquisition costs.
An enlargement of this idea can be found in a report on Swedish armed forces in the February edition of SIGNAL magazine, the house organ of the Armed Forces Communication and Electronics Association. In the article reporting on an interview with Jan Pie, the Secretary General of the Swedish Industry and Defense Group, a trade association, the following claim is made:
“In 2005, the U. S. Navy requested permission to borrow a Got/and class submarine and managed to detect the submarine only once in a two year period, Pie reports.”
Mr. Pie offers no evidence for this assertion nor does he quote any authority. There is no citation to substantiate his claim. While similar intimations have appeared in various news media and advertising material from time to time, usually such writings have been purposely vague. Situations or circumstances in which direct comparisons could be drawn between the two types have been rare and analysis of their comparative performance unavailable. This SIGNAL article is the first time this wishful thinking has been presented in an authoritative and attributable document.
However, this version of GOTLAND’s performance is unquestionably wrong. Mr. Pie’s announcement is a myth, part of attempts to promote sales of conventionally powered submarines, of which the Swedes are exporters. That Swedish naval personnel would like to believe this version reflects the capability and performance of their submarine while providing services in the San Diego Operating Areas was evident in reactions to lectures on Cold War ASW at the Swedish Defense College in 2009.
A brief review of six of the exercises that included GOTLAND off San Diego in 2005 revealed that she was detected and tracked by Maritime Patrol Aircraft (P-3), by helps from cruisers and destroyers, by surface ASW ships and by U.S. attack submarines (SSNs). While active sonar made detection, most contacts were generated by visual sightings or by radar from air and surface ships. GOTLAND’s operating condition (battery, AIP or diesel) at the time she was detected passively by the American submarines is not clear in the report of this analysis but clearly both submarines were submerged. While GOTLAND was certainly a challenging target operated by proficient crews, American ASW forces definitely were able to detect, track and engage her.
A major limitation of a conventionally powered submarine was demonstrated by the predominance of visual and radar detection reported in these exercises. Only in rare circumstances with a cooperative target can the battery alone provide enough sustained propulsion power to relocate to a new area of interest or close a suspected target of opportunity. Without the ability to reposition quickly, to close or open by running fast, the conventionally powered submarine’s discretion rate, the need to expose the periscope or to run harder at shallow depths to get a good look or achieve a shooting solution before the target gets by, is much higher than that of a nuclear powered submarine. In the latter’s case, ” … the only way the target can get away is to go in port.”1 A key tactic in combating conventionally powered submarines is to maneuver such that the submarine must move an appreciable distance smartly to engage. Conventionally powered submarines lose much of their stealth when having to move fast or far.
In creating any version of the interaction between a submarine and ASW forces, the view of the submarine crew should be suspect. When submerged, a submarine crew can never determine that it has been detected unless the opposing ASW force changes its mode of operation in a manner that the submarine can observe, e.g. changing ping interval on active sonar, dropping explosive charges, turning smartly and changing speed. Airborne ASW vehicles give no clues except for dipping sonars from helicopters. In that case, when two or three helo’s are ringing the ocean in the submarine’s vicinity, it’s a sure bet that they have the submarine nailed. Fixed wing maritime patrol aircraft have tracked many submerged submarines for long distances and periods without the submarine crew suspecting they were under surveillance. The crew’s analysis of the interactions when explosives have not been used, i.e. in exercises, often boils down to hopeful determinations that “he never laid a glove on me”.
On the other band, many exercises are structured to ensure contact is generated in order to provide useful training. Drawing broad tactical conclusions from such exercises creates expectations that are almost invariably false, wrong-headed or stupid. Tactical development exercises differ from training exercises in their structure, expectations, careful analysis and conclusions. The conditions applied to the various exercises in which GOTLAND participated varied from specified conditions and operations to free-play within given boundaries. The specific vulnerability under these various circumstances and conditions cannot be determined without detailed analysis. But in any case, never detected is wrong.
Hampered by short legs and low speeds of advance, the conventionally powered submarines’ effectiveness and utility is limited to narrow seas or coastal waters. These attributes hamstring their utility for the United States where the deployment horizon is not limited to the Gulf of Mexico. Even in the short duration cruises off California, the toll on the small crew of GOTLAND was harder than anticipated. Standing port and starboard watches plus regular General Quarters/All hands to action stations for weeks become as limiting on these small submarine’s endurance as their fuel supply or battery capacity. Reporting to the local Submarine Senior In Command, one of the Commanding Officers of GOTLAND expressed his weariness by reporting he had spent the longest deployment of his career, seventeen days. The American ISIC thought but was too polite to say, “Seventeen days! I could hold my breath for seventeen days!” Perhaps, but only because his submarines were well manned with alert crews and other experienced officers on whom he could rely while he slept.