Article Published in the Sea Power
The beginning of the third millennium in the year 2000 also marks a centennial in the history of undersea warfare. It was in autumn of 1900 that the U.S. Navy commissioned its first submarine, a marvel of nineteenth-century technology destined to transform military strategy in the twentieth. Within a generation, a handful of German U-boats had nearly strangled Britain’s seaborne commerce in World War One, sinking up to 400 merchant ships in a single month and catapulting antisubmarine warfare into the ranks of highest-priority naval missions. A more numerous and better organized German submarine force again pushed Britain to the brink in World War Two, while U.S. submarines actually succeeded in severing Japan’s sea lines of communication. In the latter conflict, submarines comprising barely 3% of the vessels in the U.S. fleet accounted for 80% of the Imperial Navy’s losses at sea.
And that, as it turned out, was only the beginning. Within a decade after the end of the Second World War, the United States and the Soviet Union began applying the unbounded energy of the atom to both submarine propulsion and submarine-launched weapons. In 1955 the first nuclear-powered sub, the U.S.S. Nautilus, completed its maiden voyage, and five years later the first Polaris submarine carrying nuclear-armed ballistic missiles began patrolling in the North Atlantic. Nuclear propulsion transformed submarines from fragile, frequently vulnerable vessels into stealthy undersea warships of unprecedented range and endurance, while nuclear warheads made them by far the most lethal military platforms in history. The destructive power of the 192 nuclear warheads on a Trident submarine — equivalent to over 50 million tons of high explosives– far surpasses the force of all the bombs dropped in World War Two.
That sort of power was just as easy for Soviet leaders to appreciate as it was for their U.S. counterparts, and largely explains why Russia, traditionally a land power, became America’s principal naval competitor during the Cold War. The capabilities of the Soviet surface fleet never came close to matching those of the U.S. Navy, but the Red Navy eventually fielded a submarine force even bigger than America’s. Not surprisingly, the main mission of the U.S.
undersea warfare community became applying America’s superior technology to the task of coping with a quantitatively superior Russian submarine force.
It was a harrowing, usually surreptitious mission that continued for four decades beyond the awareness of most Americans. Despite setbacks, it was consistently successful in securing the seas for U.S. naval power and deterring aggression. Throughout the two generations of the Cold War, there was never a time when the U.S. Navy could not claim a substantial advantage over the Soviet Navy in undersea warfare. A combination of military discipline, superior technology and political vision assured that America would prevail.
But as U.S. submariners approach their first centennial, the mission of countering Russian naval power seems to be slipping into history. Russian subs still surpass in numbers and sophistication the undersea capabilities of any other potential adversary. Some of them still carry nuclear warheads that can reach U.S. soil in a few minutes. And they still occasionally make forays into distant seas. But the Russian Navy today is a fading shadow of its former self, and so the U.S. undersea warfare community is gradually turning to new challenges.
The term “undersea warfare” tends to be used somewhat loosely. Traditionally it has meant antisubmarine and mine warfare, but in popular usage the term frequently attaches itself to any mission involving submarines. There are several reasons for this. First of all, Russian submarines were by far the most important undersea threat during the Cold War. Second, submarines are the most costly and politically visible platform closely associated with undersea warfare. Third, although both the surface warfare and naval aviation communities make important contributions to the undersea warfare mission, they have tended to favor other missions in their post-Cold War spending priorities. Finally, doctrinal changes following the end of the Cold War have blurred the significance of undersea warfare.
The latter point is worth pondering for a moment. Although it is obvious that hostile submarines and sea mines may pose major challenges to U.S. military forces in the future, the whole concept for naval power is slowly migrating towards a preoccupation with influencing events on land. Naval strategists today spend less and less time discussing military operations on or beneath the sea and more time discussing how to influence action ashore “from the sea.”
Much of the recent thinking about the future of submarines and undersea warfare is infused with this growing emphasis on littoral operations. In effect, the meaning of undersea warfare is being
redefined to reflect changing military requirements in the post-Cold War era.
At first blush, the fact that the main focus of naval strategy has shifted to the littoral might seem like a threat to the submarine community. After all, submarines have traditionally engaged in antisurface and antisubmarine warfare on the open seas. But the ongoing transformation of the global political and technological landscape is enhancing the littoral utility of submarines while calling into question the future efficacy of more conventional means for projecting power in coastal areas. On the one hand, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, precision-guided munitions, advanced tactical aircraft, airborne and orbiting sensors, and an array of digital electronic systems is posing a growing threat to high-value, highly visible surface combatants particularly when they operate in close proximity to the territory of hostile states. On the other hand, the digital revolution is providing submarines with a range of new capabilities for participating in littoral warfare. As Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a key member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has pointed out, as long as submarines retain their characteristic stealth (which thus far looks likely) they may prove to be the best platform for waging many forms of littoral warfare in the lethal battlespaces of the next century.
Traditional Missions Still Relevant
Which is not say that submarines have outlived their usefulness in “Cold War” missions such as nuclear deterrence and sea control. Quite the contrary: Russian and Chinese nuclear weapons will remain the most pressing threat to America’s security for the foreseeable future. Regional aggressors, terrorists and other actors may pose significant dangers, but it is not likely they could accomplish destruction comparable to even a limited nuclear strike on U.S. cities. Deterring and/or preempting such a strike will continue to be the single most important mission of the U.S. submarine force.
Current plans call for the U.S. to retain a sea-based nuclear deterrent of 18 Trident ballistic-missile submarines until the Russian Duma ratifies the START II strategic arms reduction treaty, at which point the U.S. would remove the four oldest Ohio-class boats from its
nuclear force. The remaining force will be backfitted so that all fourteen vessels carry the Trident II (D-5) Fleet Ballistic Missile. Each of the 24 missiles on the remaining T
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