An All Submarine Navy
Here is an article from 2007, originally posted at another site, written when I was trying to grasp the implications of a full-scale use of new weapons at sea, cruise missiles and laser guided bombs. After much thought and discussion with some smart people (our Bold Band of Readers), I no longer subscribe to all of the proposals, but I’m curious of your thoughts since New Wars will revisit the subject starting next week.
Last week, the third in a new class of underwater battleships, the USS MICHIGAN, joined the fleet after a $1 billion face lift. The 4 converted subs of the OHIO class, former Trident missile ships, are the undersea equivalent of the reborn IOWA class from the 1980’s. Armed with over 150 Tomahawk cruise missiles, plus the ability to carry special forces and unmanned vehicles, they give the Navy an incredible ability to strike decisively from the sea.
I am of the opinion that in full-scale shooting war at sea, the US surface navy will be devastated in the first day., by the combination of cruise missiles and stealthy submarines. The survivors would all be forced into port, unable to participate in the counterattack, which would likely be initiated by our own deadly nuclear attack submarines.
What this means is, our current force of colossal and pricey warships including aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and amphibious ships are obsolete in today’s precision, push button warfare. They are also tremendously expensive to build and operate, with only the richest of earth’s superpowers able to afford them in ever declining numbers. If this wasn’t reason enough for maritime nations to reevaluate their shipbuilding priorities, there are few if any jobs the surface fleet can do which the submarine cannot. I’ll elaborate:
Command of the Sea
Submariners say there are only 2 types of ships: submarines and targets. There’s valid reasons for this. Since World War 2 anti-submarine defenses have failed to match the attack boat’s advancements in speed, stealth, and weaponry. For instance, since 1945 the average speed of destroyers have remained at 30 knots, with only nuclear vessels able to maintain this rate for any period. In contrast, the velocity of nuclear attack submarines, beginning with the launch of USS NAUTILUS in 1954, has tripled and quadrupled from around 10 knots submerged to 30-40 knots.
Also, an antisubmarine vessel must get within a few miles of an enemy sub to fire its rockets or torpedoes. Its only long-range defense, the helicopter, is slow and must linger in a vulnerable hover while its sonar buoys seek out their prey. Some Russian-built boats come equipped with anti-aircraft missiles which makes this standard ASW tactic suicidal.
In contrast, a modern submarine can launch its missiles from 75 miles away and farther. Should it choose to close the distance, as occurred when a Chinese SONG class stalked the USS KITTY HAWK last year, to fire its ship killing torpedoes, it can do so at speeds as fast as and sometimes surpassing surface warships. Whether attacking with cruise missiles or wake-homing torpedoes the attack boat remains submerged; the preeminent stealth vessel.
The sub has likely held this dominate position on the high seas, since the dawn of the first nuke ships beginning in the 1950’s. The only lacking factor has been a full-scale naval war to prove it. The single example is the sinking of the Argentine cruiser BELGRANO 25 years ago by the British submarine HMS CONQUEROR in the Falklands Conflict. Afterward, the Argentine Navy fled to port and remained there!
This traditional role of the submarine is one which it excelled in the last century. The difference today is, neither America nor Britain has the capability to mass produce the thousands of anti-submarine escorts which just barely defeated Germany’s U-boats in 2 world wars, even if it would matter. In the next war at sea, the submarine would bring all commerce to a halt, making a mockery of the globalized free market system. The only counter to this menace is perhaps a combination of aircraft and submarine escorts, with the latter acting as the destroyer, shepherding its convoy through the “shark” ridden waters.
Admittedly, this is not a role in which the submarine excels at , with its sparse crew and cargo capacity. Where they do stand out is the ability to land small raiding parties, like the elite Navy SEALs, and underwater demolition teams in preparation for a full-scale assault.
Still, with the submarine maintaining command of the seas, it would allow a surface amphibious task force free reign against an enemy beachhead. Rather than requiring expensive standing amphibs, reserve vessels could be maintained on both our coasts, with a cadre crew ready for any emergency. Some could also be rapidly converted with landing strips for helos or whatever air assets are needed. Some small and inexpensive littoral ships fitted with cannon could provide escort close to shore.
For standard peacekeeping operations, some large subs could be built or converted for troop carrying, as in the above mentioned MICHIGAN. The ex-ballistic missile warship and her three sisters can load up to 66 SEALs, or more, I imagine, in a pinch, plus their equipment.
If America were to suddenly lose her preeminent surface fleet of carrier groups in such a future conflict, she would still have an excellent and capable submarine force to carry the fight to the enemy. The Navy says it must build 2 boats per year to maintain 50 in commission. Perhaps a doubling or tripling of this number would be necessary to replace the surface ships in the manner I propose. A fleet of 100-150 nuke submarines would be far cheaper to maintain, but also doubtless give the USN an unmatched mastery at sea for the rest of the century.