Republished, with permission, from the original article “Strategy and Submarine” in the December 2013 issue of the Naval Institute Proceedings. With the title change several small additions have been made to the original.
RADM Jerry Holland is a frequent contributor to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW.
The crafting of a strategy for defense of the sea in the 1980s and the near-concurrent construction of a new class of nuclear-powered submarine present a study in policy, strategy, technology, tactics, and acquisition.
Logic suggests that policy directs strategy, which in turn leads to tactics to execute that strategy. These tactical considerations then become the foundation for development of supporting technologies. The technologies developed lead to acquisition of the equipment necessary to support the tactics. This logic, adopted from business and economic models, is the basis of the Planning Programming and Budgeting Systems.
Experience suggests that the real paradigm works differently. Organizational knowledge built on an understanding of environment and mission enlarged by study and experience forms the foundation of tactics. From this basis, an understanding of national interests, a sense of the history of conflict, a grasp of the capabilities of potential enemies, and an appreciation of technology all drive tactical opportunities. These in turn establish the designs for development of technologies and future acquisitions. Equipment developed makes possible improved, advanced, or different tactical possibilities. These new tactics in turn allow changes to strategy. Such changes may or may not then be reflected in policy.
The 1981-86 Maritime Strategy and the coincident design and construction of the USS SEAWOLF (SSN-21) offers an unusual opportunity to address the question of how these aspects interact. Technical developments directly reflected ongoing operations and thereby influenced both submarine acquisition and the strategy for their use. The influence of operations on strategy can be seen in retrospect. Conversely, practical influence of national policy on the design, acquisition, and operation of submarines is not evident.
From the beginning of the Cold War, U.S. military strategy focused on the Central Front in Europe. In the event of war, the Navy was to protect the sea lanes linking the United States and Europe. Based on the experience of two wars in the Atlantic, leaders assumed a horde of Soviet submarines would interdict the sea lines of communication between the two continents. This view of the probable Soviet campaign in the event of war mirrored the campaign most American naval officers would run. This antisubmarine warfare (ASW) mission dominated Fleet employment. In the event of war, the Pacific Fleet would swing to the Atlantic to become part of this effort.
Through the 1960s American defense leadership focused on the Vietnam War and the nuclear arms balance between the Soviet Union and the United States. Little time or energy was devoted to new strategic initiatives or technological developments outside these immediate issues. During the tenure of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara,
. . . gaming was rejected as an analytical tool be-cause its results were not sufficiently precise or repeatable or, for that matter, grounded in sufficient understanding of enemy behavior. . . . This approach examined the way alternative technologies could handle the Soviet fleet on the unstated assumptions that the overall strategy would re-main fixed.
This policy froze both strategy and examination of major technical developments.
The Soviet Navy first deployed submarines equipped with ballistic missiles in 1958. The range of the missiles required the submarines to operate in the North Atlantic and Pacific oceans in order to threaten targets in the United States. The conventionally powered Golf and Hotel classes were replaced by nuclear-powered Yankee-class submarines operating in patrol areas in the mid-Atlantic and Eastern Pacific in the 1970s. These missions were carefully monitored by the U.S. Navy and provided training for its ASW forces so that by 1970 American naval commanders had confidence in their ability to track these ships. With the commissioning of the first Delta-class ballistic-missile submarine armed with a longer-range missile in 1972, the Soviets no longer had to transit into the North Atlantic to threaten the United States.
In 1971 Commander Robert Herrick’s study of Soviet strategy and behavior suggested that the Soviets would use their Navy in a defensive mode. This proposition gained few adherents in the West: official positions continued to predict Soviet naval offensive operations in all theaters.
Though the national military strategy remained basically unchanged in the Nixon administration, in the spring of 1968 efforts to describe a new attack-submarine class began, instigated by Admirals Hyman Rickover and Levering Smith and directed by Vice Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Bernard Clarey. A panel of six submarine captains, buttressed by designers from the Electric Boat Company, convened to create the specifications for the new class. Led by then-Captain (later Vice Admiral) Joe Williams, the group produced characteristics that eventually became the Los Angeles-class submarine. This was to include improved quieting, higher speed, and upgraded electronics. Efforts to quantify the required speed were extensive but unsuccessful. Nevertheless, in the minds of responsible parties in the Navy, quieting and high speed remained an absolute necessity for this ship. “Never again should we field a submarine slower than many of the Soviets.”
Endorsement of the need and qualities for a new design was not universal. Some impetus for the new design had come from Rickover’s earlier endeavors to build a submarine with 60,000 shaft horsepower. In this he had been opposed by then-Rear Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Director of the Systems Analysis Branch of the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations (OP 96). The conflict between them was direct, severe, and evidently acrimonious. In a truce engineered by Clarey, Rickover backed off his advocacy, and Zumwalt abandoned his objections to the new ship. The effort not only produced the new design but defined major research and development efforts that would affect the follow-on class, which became the SEAWOLF. Among these were new high-tensile hull steel, high-power reactors, titanium fabrication for equipment foundations, high-power low-voltage electrical generators, broadband sonar detection, narrowband passive ranging, and retractable towed arrays.
The new submarine was to have high speeds to rapidly close the forward area of operations, exploit datums developed by wide-area sensors, have at least a 5-knot speed advantage for sprint and drift tracking, and provide direct ASW support to surface forces.5These design criteria did not reflect national policy or overall military strategy: They were characteristics derived from best practices by experienced officers and operations in the field. In part they were reacting to the capabilities of new Soviet Victor-class submarines.
Through the Ford and Carter administrations, Secretaries of Defense Melvin Laird, James Schlesinger, Donald Rumsfeld, and Harold Brown concentrated on ending the Vietnam conflict and then harvesting the dividend that came from the reduction of forces following evacuation from Southeast Asia. Focus remained on the Central European front. Navy leaders’ energies concentrated on correcting the poor material conditions resulting from high operational tempos and long deferred maintenance during the Vietnam War. Late in Admiral James Holloway’s tenure as CNO, senior officers began to examine the Navy’s roles in case of war with the Soviet Union—again without apparent direction from higher authority or national policy.
In August 1976 Admiral Thomas Hayward took over as Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet and recognized the existing strategy accepted that NATO would probably not be able to withstand a Soviet attack in Europe without having to resort to tactical nuclear weapons. The planned Fleet swing from the Pacific would arrive Pacific would arrive too late to affect this calculus while at the same time uncovering the Asia-Pacific theater. Abandonment of the Pacific by the major American force would place Japan and South Korea under heavy pressures to remain neutral and diminish any Chinese threat, thus freeing the Soviet Far East land and air forces to reinforce a Soviet offensive in the West. Supporting this logic, intelligence examination of the trans-Siberian railroad found that the Soviets had double-tracked the entire line and established stockpiles for all-weather operations and emergency repairs as preparation for shifting their forces from the Far East to Europe in the event of war.
Hayward directed his planning officer, Captain James M. Patton, to redraw the Fleet’s war plans, shifting from a defensive posture to prompt offensive action against the Soviet Navy afloat and the Soviet infrastructure ashore. Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who worried that the threat of failure of NATO’s conventional defense would lead inevitably to nuclear warfare, criticized commanders for their lack of a posture that would forestall the resort to tactical nuclear weapons. Completing his tour of commands in the Pacific, Nunn was briefed on the first iteration of Hayward’s alternative to the swing strategy. Nunn’s endorsement was key to recognition of this strategy.
Within four weeks Hayward was visited separately by Secretary of the Navy Claytor and Secretary of Defense Brown. Briefings of the major staffs in Hawaii, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski followed. Within a year all were working on new war plan for the Asia-Pacific Theater, incorporating all U.S. forces there in offensive action against Soviet bases in the Far East. Part of the plan was to demonstrate to Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing that the United States was committed to remaining in the theater, denying the Soviets local hegemony.
Fundamental to these plans were equipment and tactical developments that had been taking place since the beginning of the Nixon administration. Broad ocean ASW technologies under development since the 1950s entered service. The Sound Surveillance System was operational over most of the Atlantic and much of the Northern Pacific. Air-dropped sonobouys and the supporting computers had been installed in maritime patrol aircraft. In March 1972 Towed Array Sonars deployed for the first time in the Pacific Fleet. These devices feeding computers gave the American ASW forces a marked acoustic advantage over their Soviet counterparts. Tactical development, previously centered on platforms, began to explore coordinated antisubmarine operations involving submarines and aircraft. In 1976 coordinated ASW exercises were pioneered in the major Rim of the Pacific exercise.
As Hayward’s plan was refined and the Fleet moved from paper analysis through detailed war games, major operations, including coordinated air, surface, and submarine forces, indicated that in the event of conflict the Navy could prevail against the Soviet Navy. Demonstrated advantages over Soviet submarines gave confidence that U.S. submarines working independently or in associated support would prove critical for the carrier battle groups as well as for interdicting Soviet naval surface forces.
While the Los Angeles-class submarines deploying in the late 1970s were markedly superior in performance to the Sturgeons that were the backbone of the Submarine Force, interest in improvements continued. Group Tango, a group of senior submarine officers assembled by Deputy CNO for Submarine Warfare Vice Admiral N. R. Thunman, continued reviewing the research and development related to new submarines. Principles considered were quieting, speed, all-digital sensor/combat system, large weapon loads, and special features for Arctic operations. Chief among the goals was to restore the generous acoustic advantage previously held and to do so at a higher speed. Attempts to quantify the speed requirement, as before, came to naught though the desirability of a higher speed was clear: e.g., rapid repositioning, high search rates, and counterattack evasion. “The purpose of this ship,” said Admiral Kinnaird McKee, then-Director of Naval Warfare on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations, “is to place in the mind of a potential adversary an overwhelming uncertainty as to the eventual success of his strategic plan.”
In July 1978, Admiral Hayward became CNO, and the Navy’s shift to offensive posture became general. This stance was characterized in classified discussions as “early, global, forward, offensive, joint, and allied.” The scenario discussed was a protracted, mostly conventional war, centered in Europe but global in nature. The plan aimed not only to gain sea control throughout the world ocean, but also to project naval power all around the Soviet periphery. Proponents saw the latter as altering the Soviet correlation of forces, limiting concentrations of tactical air forces, and preventing exclusive focus on the Central Region. While the original ideas included strikes from the sea on the Soviet homeland, anti-ballistic-missile submarine operations were not contemplated.
A number of movements and activities came together after 1980 that created the optimum conditions for expanding and publicizing this strategy. Chief among these was the new Reagan administration’s focus on expanding American defense posture. Secretary of the Navy John Lehman led the call for a larger Navy. The proponents of the Maritime Strategy were “pushing on an open door.”
At-sea experience with new and improving weapon systems and advanced exercises laid the groundwork for a feeling of confidence within the officer corps. The Global War Game at the Naval War College initiated in 1978 marked a wider examination of the purpose and execution of an armed conflict between the West and the Soviet Union. Hayward encouraged this intellectual ferment in the OPNAV Staff, at the War College, and especially with the establishment of the Strategic Studies Group (SSG) at the War College in 1982.
This organization, six senior captains and two colonels under the direction of former Under Secretary of the Navy Robert Murray first addressed the ASW campaign. Torpedo logistics was a major issue in their analysis. While there were enough torpedoes to rearm 30 percent of the submarines, getting this ammunition to the forward areas would be tedious and risky. Increasing the submarine magazines addressed both of these operational difficulties.11 In addition, attacks on the Soviet Surface Action Groups would roll back their outermost air defenses, permit operation of maritime-patrol aircraft, open paths for bombers, complement efforts to control the air over northern Norway, and allow surface forces to attack the Soviet northern flank. These concepts broadened the plans to emphasize the joint and coalition nature of this maritime focus.
Finally came the recognition that the Soviets planned to use their navy to provide what they called combat stability to their ballistic-missile submarines. Their new longer-range submarine-launched ballistic missiles enabled their SSBNs to operate near the Soviet homeland, where they would be easier to protect. While recognition of this essentially defensive Soviet naval strategy began with a number of analysts and intelligence professionals during the 1970s, the idea was internalized by Navy leadership as a result of a unique intelligence source that provided exceptional insights into the thinking of the Soviet naval leadership and by extension into the thinking of their overall military leadership. In 1981, guided by intelligence specialist Richard Haver’s interpretation of the information from this source, VCNO Admiral William Small chaired a group of senior officers to examine how best to exploit this information. This Advanced Technology Panel (ATP) examined the implications for the Navy and its desired aggressive strategy.
Haver preached the gospel of Soviet bastions. Most senior officers had rejected this theory because such a defensive mentality was contrary to their preferred course of action, but Haver was remarkably effective. Threatening both Soviet SSBNs and the forces protecting them quickly became the internal Navy preference and ultimately reflected in those operational plans the Navy controlled. In addition to the desire to take the fight to the enemy, this strategy would prevent the Soviets from shifting their naval effort to interdicting the sea lines of communication by keeping their general-purpose forces tied down in a protective role. The strategy was tested in a series of war games in 1982 and 1983. At this stage nuclear weapons were largely ignored. The Navy leadership was reluctant to say anything explicit about actually attacking Soviet SSBNs, fearing — correctly — that there would be a backlash from outside the Navy.
The Navy’s expert on nuclear warfare in 1982, Captain Linton Brooks, worried about the escalatory aspects of the strategy. Brooks embraced the classic nuclear-stability view that if both superpowers had survivable second-strike forces, nuclear war was less likely. The corollary was that attacks on strategic forces prior to nuclear use invited escalation.14 The ultimate answer to this quandary was a practical calculation. Expecting U.S. submarines inside the Soviet bastions to be able to selectively avoid attacking SSBNs was unreasonable. Accepting the assault on Soviet bastions meant accepting assault on all the targets, surface and submarine, within them.
Attacking SSBNs was the most prominent but not the only nuclear issue. Aggressive use of carriers near the Soviet homeland raised questions about inviting nuclear counter-attack. Nuclear war at sea would favor Soviet interests. Navies were vastly more important to the West than were the Soviets’ to them. Initial drafts of the strategy did not consider this risk. Ultimately, the ATP concluded that the Soviet General Staff had a land-campaign focus and that there was little or no chance that the Soviet Navy would be allowed to cross the nuclear threshold. In an instance of national policy reflecting this concern, the Secretary of Defense’s annual posture statements included language that the United States would not permit a nuclear war to be confined to the sea.
Over time, people outside the Navy became aware of the existence of this strategy. In 1982 and 1983 the strategy was briefed extensively within the Navy and to Congress without explicitly discussing attacking SSBNs. The implications were obvious, however, and a backlash began outside government. While never detailed as a resource issue, the words were used to open the Navy budget presentations and thereby linked to Lehman’s calls for a 600-ship Fleet. Objections followed on resource grounds, opponents preferring to spend on ground and air forces in Europe. While the presentations describing the strategy did not discuss attacking SSBNs, such an implication became obvious and concerns about such attacks on Soviet strategic arms generated a backlash outside the government from those who raised the fears of nuclear escalation or questioned the relevance of the Navy’s plans in deterring the Soviet Union.”
Professor John Mearsheimer attacked the strategy at a Navy War College conference in 1985. Brooks was present but bothered by the lack of unclassified material to defend the strategy. At his suggestion, the new CNO, Admiral James Watkins, agreed to put his name on a defense of the strategy written by Captain Robby Harris with some input from Brooks and subsequently published in Proceedings. Brooks also wrote a defense in the scholarly journal International Security in late 1986. By that point the anti-SSBN aspects of the strategy were accepted within the Navy and being defended publicly.
This document was directed at two audiences: internally as a statement of direction and externally at the leadership of the Soviet Union to indicate that in the event of war, the maritime related and geographically located bases and centers would be subject to direct assault by the U.S. Navy, e.g., attacking the Soviet Union’s submarine-based ballistic-missile forces. Later the Soviets admitted they had long expected us to attack their SSBNs.
The strategy never gained traction outside the Navy, and the nuclear aspects began to lose influence within the Navy following the departure of Watkins. Although no one working on the strategy foresaw it, by 1989 the Cold War had effectively ended. In 1991 the Soviet Union itself had vanished, and the remnants of the Maritime Strategy disappeared with it. But it would be wrong to say the strategy had no long-term effect. At the end of his International Security article Brooks wrote that the strategy’s “long-term legacy, perhaps the most important of all, is the forging of a new professional consensus on . . . the importance of systematic thought and study.”
The contract for the SEAWOLF was awarded in January 1989, and her keel was laid on 25 October. Launched on 24 June 1995, she is the fastest submarine in the world with noise levels substantially below that of her predecessors, even at high speed. The ship’s size allowed larger hydrophone arrays that vastly increased the search area and search rate. Her magazine capacity was more than twice her predecessors’, fulfilling Watkins’ direction that the SEAWOLF have a large weapon load because “if the war came there would be no going back to New London for reloads.”17 She is also capable of operations under ice. Only three ships of the class were authorized and built, but many of the advances were incorporated in the following class, the Virginia.
The acquisition of ships, ship systems, and aircraft is a succinct statement of the country’s strategic interests as seen by the U.S. Navy. Such is an unambiguous statement of the Navy’s beliefs, aims, and ambitions. The supporting research-and-development programs are an even longer-term expression of strategic interests. As shown in the Seawolf conceptualization, the service’s long-term strategic interests may be only peripherally related to a particular administration’s stated national policy, and indeed national policy may come to follow the service’s lead.