28 September 2005

Breaking Down Ignorant Submarine Claims

Bubblehead has pointed me towards a ridiculous critique of the US Navy’s submarine plans. I break it down in the Full Post. Careful, it is long.

The Navy's Fish Story
(Alternately titled The Great Submarine Hoax on another site he posted it to.)

His story is in italics. My breakdown follows it piece by piece.

-In two world wars of the last Century, the submarine has received the reputation of a fearsome weapon of war. During these global conflicts, the undersea boats almost changed the outcome until adequate countermeasures were developed to overcome the threat.

History Lesson: Subs did more than *almost* change the outcome of WWI and WWII. Ever hear of the Lusitania? The US entering WWI certainly changed the outcome.
As for WWII, how about Churchill’s quote that, “The only thing that ever frightened me during the war was the U-Boat peril."
On the allied side, how about ADM Nimitz? “When I assumed command of the Pacific Fleet on 31 December 1941 our submarines were already operating against the enemy, the only units of the Fleet that could come to grips with the Japanese for months to come. It was to the Submarine force that I looked to carry the load until our great industrial activity could produce the weapons we so sorely needed to carry the war to the enemy. It is to the everlasting honor and glory of our submarine personnel that they never failed us in our days of great peril."
Or, if you’d like hard numbers, submarines accounted for 4.9 million tons (60%) of Japanese Merchant Marine losses during WWII. Additionally, U.S. submarines sank 700,000 tons of naval ships (about 30% of the total lost) including 8 aircraft carriers, 1 battleship and 11 cruisers, all from a force that only comprised 1.6% of the Navy (info from here, an easily found site with lots of good facts).

-Though modern attack subs are armed with superior weapons and better tracking equipment, its principal foes remain aircraft and surface ships. The problem is submarines lack the long-range weapons with which it can sink another sub, depending instead on its torpedoes and the short-range anti-sub rocket. In contrast, surface vessels now regularly deploy aircraft of its own, in the form of helicopters which can range out 100 miles or more.

It is too bad there isn’t an engagement in recent history with modern equipment that can provide examples here. Oh wait, there is. Let’s review the Falklands War, shall we?
I will not delve into the sinking of the General Belgrano. The significance of this should be obvious. Instead, let’s look at what the small, obsolete Argentine subs accomplished. At first glance, it appears to be “not much.” However, let’s look a little more closely. Yes, the Brits sank the Sante Fe. However, she was an old Guppy class sub, essentially WWII technology, that the US had unloaded on Argentina. Yet, she still managed to freeze the British fleet at least temporarily:
On 23 April submarine alarm was raised among the British and all operations were stopped, whilst the "Tidespring" headed back to sea in order to avoid to be attacked.

The following day the old sub was damaged to the point of abandonment, while on the surface. That left the Argentines with two subs, one another old Guppy, and a type 209, a more modern diesel, but still, not state of the art. And yet, the Argentinean sub threat was still significant:
One Argentine submarine, the SAN LUIS, operated in the main areas of the British task force during a 36-day patrol. Because the fire-control panel for its main torpedo malfunctioned, the SAN LUIS fired all of its torpedoes on
incorrect bearings. Very obviously, Britain's ineffective ASW operations could have led to major, even prohibitive, setbacks for the task force.

And yet, with only one real submerged threat, and an entire task force at their disposal, the Brits still could not rid themselves of the SAN LUIS:
Once the Argentine fleet returned to port, the surface ships had only to contend with submarine and air threats to the task force. They fired on many suspected submarine contacts but scored no hits.

In fact, their amphibious landings were carried out under threat because of this failure:
Woodward's carrier group succeeded in achieving only two of its three objectives. It did impose a reasonably effective blockade and did eliminate the threat of Argentina's naval forces. But in failing to eliminate the submarine threat and to gain air superiority, the carrier group failed to create the conditions necessary for a successful amphibious landing.

It was, in fact, luck and lack of Argentine funding of their sub program that kept the Brits from large losses from the SAN LUIS:
British anti-submarine warfare (ASW) systems failed to defeat the Argentine submarine threat. Probably only a faulty torpedo-firing mechanism on the SAN LUIS denied the Argentines the opportunity to inflict serious damage to British shipping.

So, surface ships with longer range aircraft can be shown to be not that effective against even older submarines. Other submarines, however, while they do have less range than an aircraft, do not suffer from many of their drawbacks. The primary difference is due to the biggest drawback of aircraft and surface ships when conducting ASW. These platforms cannot reliably and quickly place sensors in the same depth stratum as an opposing submarine. In the complicated ocean environment, this can make one essentially blind due to the bending of sound through different ocean layers. Additionally, surface ships and aircraft do not have a quick way of judging the ocean environment, while subs have buoys that do this, and more importantly, they can measure it themselves with their organic sensors. In this way, they know exactly what kind of environment they are in, and how to position their sensors to best take advantage of the ocean layers. As opposing submarines have the same range drawbacks as prosecuting submarines, they will often position themselves near chokepoints to ensure close contact with surface contacts. Knowing this, the prosecuting submarine can be positioned in the same area, thus obviating the range drawback on which the author has hinged his argument.

-In terms of speed, diving depth, and range, this is a true statement. Other than diving however, these are all abilities desirable in surface ships and not necessarily in a submarine. Primary tactics for undersea warfare has changed little since the world wars: “hide and seek” followed by “hit and run”.

“Hit and Run,” and yet, speed and range are not important? When I am running from an attack, I would like to be in the fastest platform possible, with the best range.

-Constantly in naval maneuvers were hear in the media of slow and silent diesel powered vessels besting the large and noisy nuclear subs. This great asset of the modern attack sub, nuclear propulsion, may be its fatal flaw. The large size required to fit noisy turbines make it vulnerable to countermeasures. A conventional sub cruising on electric batteries is still the quietest warship at sea, making it also the deadliest.

And you trust the media accounts. How cute. I will grant that diesels are quiet. However, what makes you think that 1) nuclear subs are noisy, and 2) it is the nuclear plant that causes this? Additionally, saying that a sub’s large size makes it vulnerable to countermeasures is just nonsensical. There are many effective ways for a nuclear powered boat to prosecute a diesel, some which take advantage of speed, despite your belief that speed is not important, some which take advantage of an SSN’s endurance, and some of which are straight head-to-head. And yes, an SSN can and has prevailed head-to-head against diesels. In realistic maneuvers, this happens far more often than the converse.

-So what can a submarine do? Naval leaders often fail to promote the attack boats’ greatest advantage, the sinking of surface ships. During the war with Japan in the Pacific, submarines sank more enemy vessels than all other US weapons combined, including destroyers and aircraft. In the one true naval conflict of the Cold War, off the Falklands Islands, the submarine again confirmed this ability. After the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano was sunk by the British nuclear sub HMS Conqueror, the entire enemy fleet including its lone aircraft carrier, fled to port never to venture forth again. Throughout the Cold War, submariners often boasted of sailing undetected under the mighty aircraft carrier task forces of the US Fleet.

Ahhh, you did get to the Falklands. In the most superficial way, but at least you mentioned it. However, to answer your question more thoroughly, submarines can:
-Conduct long-term, close-in ISR.
-Insert SOCOM forces in the most covert way available.
-Conduct devastating land attack with as little warning as the US government cares to give the unlucky target country.
-Conduct covert mine operations, rendering any port in the world effectively useless.
-Maritime Intercept cueing.
Oh, and of course:
-Conduct ASW operations in any and all environments
-Conduct SUW attacks against any ship in the ocean.

-Armed with long range supersonic cruise missiles, the submarine now poses a threat which lawmakers in Washington claim “there is no defense”.

Ahhh, you brought up land attack. But again, in only a superficial, and in this case, factually incorrect way. First, the factual error: The Tomahawk missile, the submarine’s choice of weapon for land attack, is not supersonic. A simple web search could have revealed this. As for the doubting tone you take with the claim that there is no defense against this method of attack, let us again review history. In the Persian Gulf War, Clinton’s Iraq strikes, the 1998 strikes in Afghanistan and the Sudan, and Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Iraqi Freedom tomahawks have been used. How many have been stopped by their targets? None. Out of over 1200 fired, and there have been no major problems with weapon effectiveness. I would say that the Washington claim is fairly well justified.

-With some 400 diesel subs estimated in the world, and modern nuclear craft approaching $3 billion each, it is doubtful the handful which can be afforded will be much of a deterrent against possible aggressors. Hopefully the Navy will admit the submarine’s proper role in naval warfare and build smaller, less expensive vessels which can be produced in the numbers needed.

The handful currently stands at over 70 submarines. Whether that number will be reduced remains to be seen. However, with the advent of the SSGN, one submarine will now carry enough firepower to completely devastate the infrastructure of a country, so smaller numbers are not really a good measure. Additionally, Virginia, Seawolf, and yes, the now-venerable 688’s all still have the capability to render another country’s surface and subsurface forces ineffectual, even if there are fewer of them at the scene of hostilities as compared to their opposition. One must keep in mind the combat effectiveness in these cases. As for building smaller, less expensive subs, I will agree they have their place. However, long range power projection is not one of them, and that is the arena in which the US Navy plays. Without a friendly port or submarine tender, diesels are severely handicapped away from their home shores. Nuclear powered submarines have no such restriction. This is why the US Navy does, and will continue to, build these ships rather than conventionally powered submarines.

As a note about the author:
Mike Burleson is a regular columnist with Sea Classics magazine and an advocate of Military Reform. He resides in historic Charleston, SC.
If one bothers to look him up via Google, you will find that he describes himself thusly:
A high school graduate, I am presently working for the Charleston County Library as an Assistant Librarian. I have a life long interest in history, and the military. I have my own website dedicated to my home of Charleston SC and to naval history, I belong to several online clubs dedicated to history and war, and I write for my own group, Military Reform Now! at yahoogroups.com.
So his qualifications for writing this article, and his breadth of experience in these matters is, well, sparse to say the least. I haven’t bothered wasting my time reading any of his other material, but if you want to check him out, he does have his own blog, as well. I will not link to it here, look it up if you are interested. I do not feel like directing any more traffic his way.

Read the Full Post


At 9/29/2005, Blogger Chap said...

Two additional factoids--

The flag in charge of the Brit Falklands invasion mentions the ASW effort in his book--says they musta bombed every whale in the ocean as they diverted vast resources towards minimizing the Argentinian threat.

WWI public opinion turned on Lusitania and other unrestricted sub warfare, but the straw that broke the back was the Zimmerman telegram IIRC.

Well done, sir. Nice takedown.

At 9/29/2005, Blogger PigBoatSailor said...


Thanks. I agree with the Zimmerman point. I didn't go there as I was just trying to show submarine influence, even if it wasn't the last straw. I agree, though, that Zimmerman was the tipping point.

At 9/29/2005, Anonymous 636ear said...

I've written Mike several times to disput his claims. I think the key to this guy, is that he stands for military reform first last and always. He can not be confused by the facts, as he has already made up his mind.

At 9/29/2005, Blogger PigBoatSailor said...

Concur. I recently wrote him about a different posting of his. He seems unpreturbed by his own contradictions. He is committed to "reform", regardless of facts, it seems.

At 1/11/2006, Blogger Candice B. said...

Hey - Cool blog, nice layout! Checkout my unlisted numbers blog if you can.


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