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SUBS: 'WHAT A DIFFERENCE 50 YEARS MAKES"
by Joseph J. Buff, [IMAGE]Copyright by Naval Submarine League. Reprinted with permission from October, 2007 issue of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW.

A TALK TO THE UNITED STATES SUBMARINE VETERANS, INC., HOLLAND CLUB BREAKFAST, 2007 NATIONAL CONVENTION, ABOARD MS OOSTERDAM, NEAR JUNEAU ALASKA, 17 SEPTEMBER 2007

Photo Courtesy: Walter P. Noonan
[IMAGE] Crisis/Opportunity, and an Exhortation

It is an honor and pleasure to be here. The Holland Club recognizes Sub Vets who have been Qualified in Submarines for at least 50 years. A half century is a long time in human experience. In 2007 we are privileged to be able to learn much from two consecutive, action packed 50 year spans, between the founding of the Submarine Force in the year 1900 and its Centennial during 2000. We are part way into the third half century of the Silent Service, yet debates that rage over adequacy of funding and infrastructure, and heated disputes over fundamental purpose and value, call into question whether the Sub Force will be allowed to retain the robustness required going forward for the life-and-death jobs which only subs can fulfill.

A watershed event approaches quickly, when first the full U.S. Senate and then, following a conference reconciliation, both the Senate and the House of Representatives, will vote on whether to increase the construction of VIRGINIA-class fast attacks from one per year to two starting as early as 2009 instead of 2012. Write and e-mail your Congressman! Tell them that an adequate number of these highly-capable SSNs is a lynchpin of national safety and prosperity.

Precis: The Talk's Main Argument

A scrutiny of Silent Service contributions in war and peace proves that American submariners and submarines consistently display unique attributes of agile, stealthy, persistent access to denied areas for superbly completing anticipated mission taskings. Perhaps more importantly, they possess the adaptability and small footprint needed to complete inevitably unanticipated critical new undersea warfare mission taskings better than any other military platform.

Missions Matter Most

Why scrutinize mission types? They explain what subs and their crews are for. Missions describe what they do. Unlike arcane details of technology and tactics, crucial parts of which must remain classified, overview mission descriptions can speak to everyone. Unlike stirring tales of great battles and the heroes who fought them, which are embedded in the past, mission tasks emphasize benefits to come today and tomorrow.

Missions: Expected vs. Actual, First 50 Years

In the Pre-World War I era, a leading role for submarines was harbor defense. Subs then were mainly coastal craft. Their ability to submerge gave stealth, which provided surprise and survivability that surface warships lacked. Used in an outer ring of harbor defense vessels, subs expanded the zone of jeopardy, and warning time, against approaching hostile fleets.

That was not the only mission submarines were asked to perform early on. During the First World War they scored some great successes against capital ships farther out over the continental shelf. Nowadays we would call this a part of anti-surface warfare. ASuW was contemplated long before WWI, since the ASuW mission was carried out unsuccessfully (though survivably) by TURTLE in the War of Independence, and successfully (though fatally) by CSS HUNLEY in the War Between the States. But few pundits had predicted that subs would be effective well outside harbors - yet they were.

Subs in the Great War also played a big role in commerce warfare, previously earmarked as a task mainly for surface raiders. Once Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare, this "guerre de course" reached a level of lethality, and of sheer brutality, hardly imagined in the lead up to 1914. German U-boats in WWI sank more British merchant shipping tonnage than they did in WWII - the first vivid demonstration of the enduring value of subs as a maritime striking force that could assist materially in bringing a warfighting opponent toward his knees on the intercontinental and thus essentially nautical stage.

Looking back, we can say that subs in the WWI era quickly proved their value at stealthily penetrating denied areas, since warship formations and escorted convoys would do their violent utmost to deny marauding subs the least bit of access.

WWI subs and their crews were called on for other pressing missions that no one had thought much about before. One of these was aviator rescue, which arose as soon as the war ushered in combat aircraft. A particularly intriguing WWI chore sometimes assigned to submarines, because they showed they could do it surprisingly well, was anti-submarine warfare. In WWI, ASW targets were diesel subs surfaced over the continental shelf.

In the Pre-World War II era, major powers resumed the competition for worldwide supremacy, which couldn't be won without fielding a first class navy. Submarines were viewed as the advanced guard for battleships, as fleet scouts that would locate the enemy formations, report on them, and soften them up before that long anticipated but ever ephemeral 'decisive fleet action on the high seas." U.S. submarine designs were given greater cruising endurance, speed, and payload capacity, so they could range ahead of the capital ships and pack a punch when they came upon the adversary. These enhanced capabilities soon proved of tremendous import -- but mostly not for fleet scouting.

After direct U.S. involvement in World War II began with the shock of Pearl Harbor, the Submarine Force, especially in the early dark days in the Pacific, carried the fight to the enemy. But subs were not after all best used for open ocean fleet scouting. American ASuW against warships and merchant shipping reached unsurpassed levels of intensity and effectiveness. Subs served potently as intelligence trip wires, ultra-smart minefields, and mobile covert coast watchers, in the constricted, disputed waters where so much of the naval combat actually took place. Once again, the best way for subs to accomplish war aims was to use their stealth to penetrate denied areas and strike with surprise and survivability. Little of this was articulated, or even much suspected, before December 7, 1941.

And once more, submariners and their subs were drawn into ASW. During WWII, the targets for ASW work were diesel subs running on the surface, occasionally in deep water. This was a heck of a stretch for both men and machines, but they did it, while deployed out there in the hostile front line environment -- which again shows the adaptable nature of subs and their crews.

An additional unanticipated role for subs was also invented of necessity, on the spot: radar picket. This was forced on the U.S. Navy as a desperate response to the lethality of another unexpected weapon, the kamikaze human guided cruise missile. Early warning of inbound massed kamikazes was needed for defense of island hopping landing forces and self-defense by their escorts. When lone destroyers sent far forward turned out to be overly vulnerable to kamikaze attack themselves, submarines were tapped for the radar picket role. The subs, again because of their stealth, could operate largely unimpeded, while unsupported, in otherwise denied areas.

Missions: Expected vs. Actual, Second 50 Years

By 1950, a Cold War was definitely on between East and West. Once more subs and their people were stretched to the very limit of capabilities and endurance. This was in part due to the extreme secrecy of the Manhattan Project, which prevented senior Silent Service leadership and military contractors alike from envisioning submarine roles in a world possessing the atom bomb -- until that world, via Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was suddenly and mercilessly thrust upon them. The men and machines of undersea warfare rose to the occasion, and then some. With nuclear weapons proliferating in a face off between two big opposed camps, a new mission emerged: indications and warnings. When a thermonuclear holocaust might start with a surprise attack in which one bomb could wipe out a whole city, it was vital to know in advance if the enemy was beginning to think about any belligerent move. Electronic countermeasures became an ever more valuable way to spy, an indispensable part of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Given the way many emanations hug the surface of the earth as they dissipate with distance, subs were uniquely able to get close in shore, with stealth, in enemy home waters, for clandestine, prolonged, uninterrupted interception, with favorable signal to noise ratio, of naval and national information of great import. Stealth now served the purposes of survivable physical and electromagnetic access into otherwise denied areas -- access which was dramatically extended by special operations divers accomplishing amazing feats of undersea espionage and salvage. In the ominous Cold War context, remaining undetected in order to eavesdrop effectively became especially acute. And as events like the U-2 shootdown would demonstrate, submarine undetectability was key to avoiding the local act of access turning into a conspicuous, undeniable provocation of global scale. Not even the Space Age's constellations of spy satellites could satisfy equally well all these demanding mission parameters.

Everything on the undersea front changed profoundly with the advent of practical nuclear propulsion. The anti-submarine role for U.S. Navy submarines changed along with it; instead of being a mere supplement, they quickly became the platform of choice. With a few notable exceptions, the targets for ASW work were nuclear subs operating submerged in deep water.

The mating of hydrogen bomb warheads to long range delivery platforms ushered in an arms race in which it was paramount to assure a viable second strike option against a nuclear exchange ever breaking out. Bombers and land based missiles were augmented by what stands as the greatest defense system design-engineering-construction-deployment accomplishment of all time, nuclear subs carrying highly accurate submerged launch nuclear armed ballistic missiles. SSBNs with SLBMs form the most stealthy, survivable leg of America's thermonuclear triad.

For the first time but not the last, several different submarine missions comprised one big, complex, dynamic, integrated global mission. As a package, indications and warnings, anti-submarine warfare, and the survivable second strike option allowed the aggressive pursuit of proactive undersea strategic deterrence. The posture wasn't to just build more and more overkill weapons in a dreary and dangerous perpetual stalemate. Proactive strategic deterrence, by flexing submarine muscle and demonstrating undersea superiority, achieved war-winning soft power via the flaunting of barely restrained hard power. The Silent Service gained the ultimate access into denied areas, helping shape influential minds throughout Soviet society. No one could have possibly predicted that in 1950.

The Next 50 Years – Global War on Terror

The post-Cold War period was a time of consolidation for the Silent Service. This changed radically on September 11, 2001. The Global War on Terror gelled as an episodic and bloody slugfest in which information is power and perceptions are everything. Outside of land locked Afghanistan and Iraq, many terrorist activities take place in or near coastal population centers, span littorals, and transit oceans and seas. The new type of fighting - assymetric and amorphous - has required the constant updating of traditional submarine missions and the definition of whole new missions. Many of these taskings were virtually unheard of in their present guise as recently as 2000, but now are increasingly commonplace.

Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance for maritime security have taken on many new dimensions from brown water through green water to blue water. Piracy is a significant detriment to international order, rule of law, and thriving commerce. Modern pirates operate in littoral areas that are frequently hotbeds for terrorism; their activities and personnel overlap. Suppressing piracy yields dividends against terror. One means of unconventional weapons of mass destruction delivery is a cargo ship. Al Qaeda reportedly controls as many as two dozen vessels worldwide. Constantly monitoring, tracking, and taking down terrorist 'Q-ships" is vital. Terrorism obtains funds from trafficking in drugs, conventional weapons, and human beings. Interdiction of contraband trade has provided an immediate, powerful way to sever enemy logistics, disrupt enemy attacks, and produce indispensable intelligence to plan further counter-terror efforts. Here is the latest incarnation of anti-surface warfare, in a nimble, surgical, combined arms and very multi-national way. Subs are ideal for quietly staking out and policing the nautical communications arteries used by evildoers, helping efficiently vector in surface and airborne forces. Especially when equipped with next generation undersea and aerial mini-vehicles, subs are ideal to help covertly identify and trail these diverse threats, providing sustained covert access into even very shallow waters with seamless all-weather presence out to far past any international limits.

Because the opposition consists of sub-state and trans-state bad actors, aided sometimes by regimes or factions within pariah states, mapping of hostile command and control infrastructures - which redesign themselves constantly and relocate frequently -- is particularly important. For the same reason, unconventional WMD indications and warnings need priority. The Silent Service perfected these skills, as mind readers and mind benders, during the Cold War, and beneath a cloak of secrecy is putting them into practice every day.

The proliferation of modern diesel boats, some equipped with air-independent propulsion, shifted the emphasis of anti-submarine warfare. Drug dealers have even resorted to all-battery-powered submersibles. In the Global War on Terror, the primary targets for ASW work are non-nuclear submarines operating in littorals. And the strenuous perfecting of difficult blue water ASW continues apace, not only to protect our military and commercial shipping assets underway, but also to prevent terrorists and rogues from traveling 'from their littorals to our littorals." Cooperative multi-national exercises demonstrate that the best weapon against an enemy diesel sub continues to be an American nuclear sub.

Covert special operations are crucial to prosecuting the War on Terror. Given the grueling op tempo and hectic recruiting of SEALs and other elite commandos, insertion and recovery via sub are undoubtedly a frequent occurrence. Kinetic power projection onto land - such as cruise missile precision attacks, launched with unique tactical surprise from under the sea -- is already a proven technique. Reliable targeting data is essential to the success of any special op or fire support mission. Subs are playing a sizeable role, sometimes as sensor and sometimes as shooter, in this revolutionary net-centric warfare.

The Next 50 Years - Emerging Peer Competitors

The U.S. Navy's about-to-be-released New Maritime Strategy will address the immense challenge of optimum engagement with emerging peer competitors. China and Russia are both building up their navies, including their submarine fleets, with some opacity regarding intent. Several near peers are busy modernizing their strategic arsenals, and have stated or implied that American interests may stand high on their target lists. Strategic nuclear deterrence will clearly remain one priority for the Submarine Force -- our SSBNs will need to be ably protected by SSNs in order to guarantee that they stay survivable.

Exciting new tools and doctrines will assure that the Silent Service keeps ahead of ambitious competitors, but only if funding is adequate. Innovative anti-torpedo torpedoes, and supersonic anti-aircraft missiles, fired from the torpedo room or vertical launching system tubes, will soon allow submarines to stand and fight even in the worst case of being detected and tracked. This will render them even more survivable - potentially, in certain instances, it will allow them to take greater risks for ever more impactful mission performance.

The continuing initiative of comms at depth and speed will steadily enhance the ability of a submerged sub to maintain real time, two way, low probability of intercept connectivity with joint and combined forces and higher command authorities. The resulting enhanced situational awareness all around, and new opportunities for teaming with other friendly platforms throughout a wide theater, will surely lead to more cutting edge assignments being placed on the shoulders of submariners, in no small part because nuclear subs equipped with adjuvant vehicles are exceedingly agile with an extremely low footprint, and will always remain so.

Conclusion and Suggested Action

There is no group more credible in conveying how essential submarines are to the public than Holland Club members and your many friends. Write or e-mail your Representative and Senators soon! Tell them this:

Vote to accelerate construction of VIRGINIA-class submarines from one per year to two in 2009 instead of 2012. The U.S. Navy Sub Force builds every day on a long track record of unbeaten adaptability whenever faced with urgent new types of missions. It provides America with a unique, indispensable capability for agile, uninterrupted, stealthy access into denied areas globally. A strong Silent Service is vital and decisive to the current and future path of war or peace between peoples and nations.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much, and God bless.

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Joe Buff, President
Dutchess County, New York

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