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Take Her Deep: Reforming the U.S. Silent Service

The Dutch submarine HNLMS Walrus (S 802) prepares to moor at Naval Station Norfolk, Va., Photographer: MCC Marlowe P. Dix

In 1959, The U.S. Navy commissioned its final diesel-electric submarine combatant, the USS Blueback, which served until 1990. She was the last of her kind in the American Navy because of its insistence, or some would say, dogma, that all combatant submarines must be nuclear powered. After all, diesel-electric submarines are merely surface ships that can submerge only for short periods of time. They are too slow as well, and for these reasons primarily, they are thought to be inferior to nuclear submarines. At least that's the way the U.S. Navy thinks, but I would like to suggest that this thinking is wrong. Not just wrong, actually, but expensive and unreasonable as well. Conventional submarines, especially those with the incredibly quiet and long lasting Air Independent Propulsion (AIP), are arguably an essential weapon for any modern navy, including the U.S. Navy, for reasons that follow.

Try as they might, there is no denying that conventional submarines, even old ones, and despite their lesser speed and submerged duration, have proven themselves quite capable of sinking the U.S. Navy's best and most expensive nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers. I documented these defeats extensively in my second book, but it's worth keeping in mind just how costly and numerous these incidents have been.(1) To cite just one example, in the late 1960s the U.S. Navy decommissioned an old diesel boat from WWII, the USS Argonaut, and sold it to Canada, a country with a very small navy, thinking that a first-rate navy like the USN no longer had much need for such outdated submarines. The Canadians renamed her HMCS Rainbow, and soon put her to good use. According to author Julie Ferguson, “Rainbow earned her share of accolades and even a mention in a Russian newspaper following her 'sinking' of a U.S. carrier bound for Vietnam” in a training exercise.(2) And contrary to what the U.S. Navy wants us to believe, these sinkings, albeit only theoretical, have been happening all the time. By my count based on unclassified reports, 16 American aircraft carriers, two battleships and 10 U.S. nuclear submarines have been theoretically sunk [or, in the case of the submarines, detected] in exercises and in operations since 1966. The real number, which is obviously classified, is most certainly much higher.

Conventional submarines are less expensive, quieter, require much smaller crews, and are capable of operating in very shallow waters, and thus are often better than nuclear submarines. Now that the USN is supposed to be focusing on the shallow littoral waters as opposed to the open ocean, small conventional submarines really make sense. Nevertheless, the U.S. Navy does not seem very interested in acquiring them. Instead, it likes to emphasize that its nuclear submarines are nearly impossible to find, but allies and enemies know better. When my late father flew the CP-140 Aurora maritime patrol aircraft in the early 1980s, he told me that Canadian aircrews could find both the Soviet boomers AND the American nuclear attack submarines tailing them, and that the Americans were displeased (and in denial) when they found out that their nuclear submarines were not as stealthy as they claimed.(3)

Aside from this, the late Scott Shuger, a former Naval Intelligence officer, once said that conventional submarines offer another advantage that rarely gets mentioned: their simplicity of design, relatively speaking, makes it easier and faster for crews and captains to become expert at using them in combat. (4) The Soviets and Russians surely knew this, as Commander Richard Compton-Hall, RN, told us back in the 1980s. He said “It is a great mistake to denigrate SSKs [conventional submarines]: they will continue to be a menace for the foreseeable future and the Soviet Navy knows it.”(5) Similarly, Senator Gary Hart (D-CO) and his military affairs adviser William S. Lind observed,

"While the 'Washington Navy' disparages diesel submarines, the fleet admirals – those commanding battle groups at sea- often say they worry less about Soviet nuclear submarines than about their conventional boats, because the latter are so small and quiet they sneak up on them undetected.”(6)

In addition, the U.S. Navy's focus on nuclear engineering at the expense of combat skills compounds the problem. British submarine officers who have served on exchange with the U.S. Navy have often commented that their American friends spend far too much time and money on nuclear engineering and not enough on seamanship and fighting the ship. Back in 2007, a senior Royal Navy submariner of my acquaintance told me about his experiences after completing a two year tour as an exchange officer with the U.S. Navy. He was not exactly thrilled with how the U.S. Navy trains its submarine skippers.

“There is a conflict between the focus on engineering and warfare. In the USN, engineering wins. Director, Naval Reactors [the admiral in charge of nuclear engineering] is without doubt the most powerful man in the Navy. The self-regulation that they have in place, accepted by the U.S. government, and very successful is paid for by their almost religious concentration on engineering. For example the U.S. submarine Command Course (28 students four times a year) consists of four weeks in the classroom and four weeks at sea and a 9-12 week nuclear engineering course. The average U.S. officer has conducted only two sea going posts at this stage (Junior Officer tour, generally in Engineering) and a Department Head tour. [This means that the U.S. Navy produces better engineers than warriors] The UK split between engineering and warfare is completely correct and many U.S. believe that as well. I have no engineering degree, however am capable of driving a submarine far more effectively than my U.S. counterparts. Experience and not restricting your search for submarine officers to within the engineering community is the key to success. I had 10 years at sea as a warfare officer before I started the Brit “Perisher” course and there were only four of us (six month course with nine weeks in the simulator and four weeks at sea). The difference is staggering. That is not to say that there are some exceptions. My previous U.S. Commodore was a tactical genius, however in 15 rides at sea on different US submarines, I have only found two CO’s who match a Brit.”

In other words, the Royal Navy, unlike the U.S. Navy, does not focus on engineering, and as a result it has a well-established reputation for producing some of the very best submarine captains in the world. In a recent exercise between the new British nuclear submarine HMS Astute and the USS New Mexico, a new Virginia class submarine, the captain of the Astute reported that his ship was easily able to deal with the USS New Mexico: “The Americans were utterly taken aback, blown away with what they were seeing.”(7) Bear in mind that no ship is better than her crew, but it is all too common for people to praise equipment, and forget the human element. Without a well-trained and cohesive crew, the Astute and her excellent sonar would not prevail, and that is something that needs to be addressed in the U.S. Navy.

Recommendations for Reform

1. Firstly, the U.S. Navy needs to reform its training regimen for submarine commanders. The British and the Dutch produce excellent submarine captains, a fact confirmed not just by their fighting records, but by the Americans who have taken (and survived) the British and Dutch submarine command courses in recent years. The Navy should consider making arrangements for all new submarine captains to take one of these courses.

2. Secondly, in keeping with the thinking of the great military and naval thinkers, not only does the U.S. Navy need truly committed and well-trained warriors to command its submarines, it also needs to build more cohesive crews for all its ships, including submarines. The late submariner Captain Edward L. Beach wrote in his 1999 autobiography that personnel turbulence is too high, and sailors often have weak bonds to their crew and their submarine. His remedy is to implement a “home ship” concept in which personnel are specifically assigned to one ship for most of their career. This would improve cohesion, which will generally improve combat readiness, and give the Navy a better return on its considerable investment.(8)

3. Finally, As Professor Milan Vego recommended, it is high time for the U.S. Navy to get back into the business of operating conventional submarines. Simply borrowing a boat from Sweden, as it did recently to try to get a handle on the threat from AIP submarines, will not do the trick; America needs to have her own, in addition to her existing nuclear subs.(9) For starters, Chuck Spinney suggests that the Navy “buy 2 or 3 of these AIP boats and set up an experimental squadron which could be used like the Air Force used its Aggressor Squadrons (F-5s) to test the effects of asymmetric capabilities but also to evolve new tactics in free play exercises tailored to these boats and monitored by objective umpires. This would provide a great training platform and a relatively low cost operational testing/experimentation mechanism.”

The U.S. Navy has a golden opportunity to reform itself now, and be better prepared to face future threats. Status quo thinking has undermined the Navy for too long, and the changes called for will require leadership and innovation at the highest levels. Unfortunately, history has shown that the Navy will try to resist most attempts at serious reform unless or until blood is drawn in battle, but let us hope the new generation of admirals will be more sensible.

My thanks to Captain John L. Byron, USN (Ret.), Winslow T. Wheeler, Dave Foster, and Chuck Spinney for their assistance in researching this article.

PS: For more information on AIP submarines, please click here.


1. Roger Thompson Lessons Not Learned: The U.S. Navy's Status Quo Culture (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2007), pp. 185-186.

2. Julie H. Ferguson Through a Canadian Periscope (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1995). p. 274.

3. Colonel Bernd Horn (Ed.) Fortune Favours the Brave (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2009), p. 296.

4. Scott Shuger “The Navy We Need and The One We Got” Washington Monthly, March 1989.

5. Richard Compton-Hall Sub Vs. Sub (New York: Orion Books, 1988), p. 23.

6. Gary Hart with William S. Lind America Can Win: The Case for Military Reform (Bethesda, MD: Adler & Adler, 1996), p. 94.

7. “HMS Astute arrives home from US sea trials” article on Royal Navy website, 2 March 2012.

8. Edward L. Beach Salt and Steel: Reflections of a Submariner (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1999), pp. 275-276.

9. Milan Vego “The Right Submarine for Lurking in the Littorals” Proceedings, June 2010.