Academic journal article Naval War College Review

The Submarine as a Case Study in Transformation: Implications for Future Investment

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

The Submarine as a Case Study in Transformation: Implications for Future Investment

Article excerpt

It's not the strongest that survive, but the ones most responsive to change.


The Department of Defense is sometimes guilty of glomming onto a buzzword or catchy phrase and wearing it thin. "Revolution in Military Affairs," or RMA (a term derived, incidentally, from Soviet military writings concerning a "military-technical revolution") certainly came close to crossing that threshold. Today, the word "transformation"-a marvelously useful and intellectually descriptive word-could similarly be at risk of exhaustion.

When such a phrase represents an apparently desirable property, there exists a tendency to attach that phrase to every conceivable defense system, thereby enhancing the program's attractiveness to senior decision makers. "Transformation," defined by the Department of Defense as a process shaping the way future wars are fought, including elements of concepts, technology, and organizations, clearly also includes the contemporary adoption of the Global Positioning System, precision weapons, and the ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) to guided missile submarine (SSGN) conversions-just as naval aviation and the Blitzkrieg were transformational when they were first introduced.

Though these programs may not be so abrupt or dramatic as to warrant the term "revolutionary," it is important to note that there is also a significant evolution in military affairs under way, in that certain platforms and systems are adapting to changing conditions. Throughout the twentieth century and to the present, the submarine has been a prime example of evolution, largely owing to its inherent flexibility and sometimes unintentional nonmission specificity. For example, many who were not submariners thought that the U.S. submarine force had lost its raison d'être when the Cold War ended, which was not the case. The following will show, therefore, that there has always been a next "most important mission" for these warships.


The U.S. submarine has a history of adaptation since its incorporation into the fleet in 1900. In a macroscopic sense, the figure below graphically depicts how the submarine's most important missions have continually changed in a hundred years. It is significant that it also alludes to how, at any one time, the submarine was likely to have current missions of high priority, missions of waning importance, and missions of increasing gravity. In almost every case, the time constants of these changes were shorter than the life cycle of the existing platform. To avoid obsolescence, it was sometimes necessary for extreme variant requirements to be made technically (and tactically) during a ship's (and crew's) lifetime. As a result it can be safely said that no U.S. submarine has ever been employed for its designed purpose, and no commanding officer ever performed that for which he was trained.

A partial list of examples for platform employment:

* S-Boats designed in the 1920s for coastal defense and fleet boats designed in the 1930s as battle-fleet scouts found themselves in 1942 as distantly deployed commerce raiders.

* The Skipjack class, designed to provide terminal guidance for nuclear-tipped Regulus cruise missiles fired from a large fleet of Halibut-class SSGNs, never materialized because of the advent of the Polaris ballistic missile.

* The Thresher/Permit-class SSNs, designed to operate in pairs while firing rocket-propelled nuclear depth charges at distant Soviet subs, never carried out that mission, due to the failure of Sesco, a secure acoustic communications system needed for information exchange and the triangulation of sonar bearings for target localization.

* Escorting carrier battle groups was the justification for the high speed of the Los Angeles class in the late 1960s. Even though submarines were used in direct support of battle groups in a 1977 Pacific Fleet exercise (RlMPAC), and a Navy warfare publication was published in 1980 based on further experimentation in RlMPACs 1978 and 1979, this mission was not routinely assigned until after the Cold War ended, when many of the class were being decommissioned. …

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