View Full Version : Is the Nuclear Submarine Really Invincible?

10-07-04, 06:19 AM

Is the Nuclear Submarine Really Invincible?

By Robert G. Williscroft

Sometimes even the best of us lose sight of the forest for the trees.

In today’s world, few would argue that U.S. Navy SEAL Teams and their counterparts in the other U.S. services are among the best of the world’s elite special operations troops. Our regular soldiers and Marines have certainly proved their mettle. Our various airborne warriors have an equally well-deserved reputation.

And most observers would also agree that U.S. Submariners rank at or near the top of their worldwide class of warriors.

In recent years, “surface pukes,” as submariners like to call sailors and their ships that stay on the surface, have held their own in exercises designed to test their ability to find and destroy submerged submarines. It’s not an equal battle by any measure, but a submariner’s survival odds are less today than they were two decades ago.

In other words, our guys are good – across the board. They have some remarkable history lessons to back up their claims. There is an old adage, however, that history is written by the victor. And history has taught us over and over again that overconfidence can lead to disastrous results.

How invincible is our submarine fleet? How good are our submerged sharks, our fleet of nuclear submarines that stands guard on the front lines, protecting our battle groups, shadowing potential missile launchers, and standing by to wreck havoc in the event of a shooting war?

The U.S. Navy has long relied upon exercises to measure itself against potential threats. These exercises usually pit one U.S. naval group against another, one submarine against another, or one or more submarines against one or more surface ships or even a battle group. Sometimes we join forces with our NATO allies to conduct more realistic exercises, going up against crews with different kinds of training and experience.

Of course, all these exercises are scripted in one way or another. They have to be in order to avoid collisions, to keep things safe and moving in the right direction, and to meet the exercise objectives. Scripting has its disadvantages, of course. For one thing, in a real war, the other side isn’t following a script, at least not one we might know about. Thus, sometimes individual skippers will deviate from the script – sometimes on secret orders, and sometimes, just because .…

Over the years, these off-script events have produced surprising results – or maybe on hindsight, not-so-surprising results. Let’s take a closer look.

Twenty-three years ago during the 1981 NATO exercise Ocean Venture, an unnamed 1960s vintage Canadian diesel submarine “sank” the carrier USS America without once being itself detected, and a second unidentified vintage sub “sank” the carrier USS Forrestal.

What did we learn from this?

Eight years later, during NATO exercise Northern Star, the Dutch diesel submarine Zwaardvis stalked and “sank” the USS America again. Did the America just have problems? Well, in RIMPAC 1996, the Chilean diesel submarine Simpson “sank” the carrier USS Independence, and in 1999 during NATO exercise JTFEX/TMDI99, Dutch diesel submarine Walrus not only “sank” the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, but also “took out” the American exercise command ship USS Mount Whitney, plus a cruiser, several destroyers and frigates, and the nuke fast attack USS Boise – all without herself receiving a scratch.

Then, during RIMPAC 2000, the Australian Collins Class diesel sub HMAS Waller “sank” two American nuke fast attacks and got dangerously close to the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. During Operation Tandem Thrust in 2001, HMAS Waller “sank” two American amphibious assault ships in waters between 200 to 350 feet deep, barely more than the length of the submarine itself, and an unnamed Chilean diesel sub “took out” nuclear fast attack sub USS Montpelier twice during successive exercise runs. A year later in October 2002, HMAS Sheehan successfully hunted down and “killed” the U.S. fast attack USS Olympia during exercises near Hawaii, and just a year ago in September 2003, in an unnamed (read “classified”) exercise, several Collins Class subs “sank” two U.S. fast attack subs and a carrier – all unnamed, of course. And a month later another Collins Class sub surprised and “sank” an American fast attack during another exercise.


What’s going on here? How is it possible for “ancient,” diesel powered “surface-bound” submarines to take on and defeat the best-trained, best-equipped sailors driving the most advanced ships and submarines in the world?

Diesel submarines operating on batteries are quiet. They’re small and maneuverable, and they carry the same detection equipment and armament as their nuke big brothers. Their only disadvantage is their limited submerged time. And as the above narrative reveals, even this disadvantage does not seem to matter very much. In 2001, the Waller eventually was herself “sunk,” but the trade was one “insignificant” diesel sub in exchange for two large amphibious assault ships. If you must keep score, this is how to do it.

In earlier articles (“Tomorrow’s Submarine Fleet – The Non-nuclear Option,” DefenseWatch, Feb. 6, 2002, and “The Wrong Sub for New Warfare Era”, DefenseWatch, Sep. 20, 2004), I discussed the concept of the Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) submarine, and its role in modern warfare. Seen in light of the poor performance of our nuclear submarines against modern diesel subs, one can only imagine what would happen if they came up against AIP subs – subs that have eliminated the only “disadvantage” of modern diesels against modern nukes.

When you add to the equation that you can build eight comparably equipped AIP submarines for what it costs to build one otherwise equivalent nuke, one can only ask: What in hell are we doing?

If we don’t solve this conundrum with alacrity, AIP David is going to kick Goliath’s nuke butt right to Neptune’s doorstep the next time it really matters.

(Thanks to Prof. Roger Thompson of Knightsbridge University for his in-depth research into the performance of the U.S. Nuclear Navy against “inferior” non-nuclear submarines in exercises around the world.)

Robert G. Williscroft is a DefenseWatch Senior Editor. He can be reached at defensewatch@argee.net. Read his blogs at The Dead Hand.