How Pearl Harbor Shaped US Submarine Doctrine
Image Credit: Wikicommons

How Pearl Harbor Shaped US Submarine Doctrine


The Naval Diplomat spent a brief but heroic submarine career on board USS Pittsburgh in 1986, prowling the briny depths. My mentor was a young lieutenant (or, as it seemed at the time, a grizzled ancient mariner) named Mike Connor. In the interim he scaled the ranks and is now Vice Admiral Connor the big kahuna of U.S. Navy submarine forces. He recently pledged to inculcate independence in American captains. That means affording them the liberty to act without stifling oversight from, well, people like the big kahuna of U.S. Navy submarine forces.

For him this seems to be a matter of expediency. In a contested electronic environment and an age of cyberwarfare, it's far from inconceivable that a boat might find itself cut off from senior commanders. If so, the skipper needs the autonomy and authority to fight the ship. No one else will be around to take charge.

Preparing for cyberwar is good, but the silent service should free up commanders as a matter of course. Micromanagement deadens the tactical moxie needed to prevail in combat.

Nor is this a new lesson for U.S. submariners. During the interwar years, U.S. Navy doctrine viewed submarines as fleet auxiliaries. Their purpose in life, that is, was to assail enemy battle fleets, primarily that of Imperial Japan. That sounds like a brash vision, but in fact the prevailing tactics bred timidity in American skippers. Undersea craft, believed tacticians, stood little chance against surface combatants, and still less against enemy warplanes. So commanders were trained to dive upon spotting the adversary.

When the battle fleet was ablaze at Pearl Harbor, however, the submarine force found itself at the center of the American war effort. It was one of the few implements left to the Pacific Fleet. Accordingly, Chief of Naval Operations Harold Stark ordered U.S. boats to sink any ship flying Japanese colors. That meant unlearning the old, defensive-minded way of doing things and embracing a devil-may-care ethos.

The Pacific Fleet granted new skippers two patrols to produce results, measured in tonnage sent to the bottom. Those who couldn't adapt gave way to those who could. And the culture of the silent service changed — virtually overnight. Submariners ended up playing an outsized part in Japan's defeat.

That's a legacy worth recovering.

G. T. Matthews
August 5, 2013 at 13:23

Give each SSN a section of ocean and knowing that any ship or sub in it is hostile to avoid blue-on-blue incidents like the Brits did against Argentina. Let the skipper go hunting. An SSN is a powerful weapon and what we need are aggressive commanders like Mush Morton. The fear of British SSNs kept the Argie Navy in port while their SSKs kept the Royal Navy on their toes. The Argies could have sunk at least one FFG, possibly more, had their sub not had faulty torpedoes.

The Chinese will, if they ever grow a pair, try to take Taiwan mostly like by a submarine blockade and missile attacks. They will be looking for 1-2 US CVN battle groups to relieve the pressure. Let the Virginia’s and the 688-I boats take out their SSKs. When their boats do not come home, they will get the message.

Bob Melley
August 2, 2013 at 23:51

A very long time ago, I remember seeing the USS Copperfin, commanded by Cary Grant. both a product of Hollywood's imagination, sneak into Tokyo Bay and land a team of agents and then, once their target location mission was completed and they returned to the sub, she silently made her way out of Sagami Wan, firing torpedoes as she left……..the morale of the story……let our subs and our sub commanders have the freedom they need to get the job done no matter what comes their way……..Since then, I have had the good fortune of going into Sagami Wan to the US Naval Base at Yokosuka a number of times………the Japanese Navy was on our side then as it is now…….Good ships and good sailors………It has been a very long time since watching the 26 VICTORY AT SEA series on TV …………A few segements of that series showed how US subs operated as solo hunters in the Pacific…….we need to make sure we can do that again…….

Chuck Hill
August 2, 2013 at 12:27

By contrast the Japanese sub fleet continued to be tied to fleet operations and was never used effectively against commerse or fleet train.

9 dashes, 4 dishes, 1 soup
August 2, 2013 at 10:55

"In a contested electronic environment and an age of cyberwarfare, it's far from inconceivable that a boat might find itself cut off from senior commanders. If so, the skipper needs the autonomy and authority to fight the ship. No one else will be around to take charge."

I hope the commanders already have instructions on what to do when communication with command centers is no longer possible. 

The US will experience another Pearl Harbor. And it will be much worse than the first one. It will be a massive cyber/sat attack followed by the launch of land-based missiles. 

An enemy can launch a strike against the US from its own territory. It doesn't need to put a plane in the sky. US boomers need to be within 7,000 miles of their targets to launch the Trident II MIRV's. 

The mission of the US submarine fleet should be both pre-emptive and retaliatory. They should pre-emptively find the enemy's subs and kill them. That means they need to be tracking them before a battle begins. 

Following an enemy attack on the US, American boomers should fire the last shot and launch the Trident II MIRV's at targets inside the enemy's territory.

Finding and killing enemy subs before they can launch becomes more difficult if they are resting silently off the enemy's coast. Diesel subs in situations like that can be very quiet.

Mark Thomason
August 1, 2013 at 23:15

It is important that the US proved able to do both.  The ability to do independent raiding was in addition to, not at the cost of, cooperation with the fleet whenever the Japanese came out.  It proved not to be an either/or proposition.

At Midway, a sub got a torpedo into a Japanese carrier during the battle.  At Philippine Sea, US subs during the key moment of the battle sank the only two Japanese fleet carriers sunk.  At Leyte, US subs ambushed the Japanese fleet and torpedoed three of its heavy cruisers including the fleet flagship as they approached.  US subs also sank a good many more Japanese carriers, and twice torpedoed the Yamato class battleships, and another battleship and more cruisers as well as many destroyers.  They could not have done more, and likely less, if they had stayed tied to cooperation with the fleet.  

It proved not to be a question of mission, but a question of how.  The answer was maximum authority to the man in the best place to make the key decisions.   

R. L. Hails Sr.. P. E.
August 1, 2013 at 02:08

It is fruitful to compare the WWII German U boat in the Atlantic and the US sub in the Pacific.  Until 1943, the U boat threatened, and almost, destroyed sea transport to an island nation, England.  Thereafter it became prey.  The US sub became a critical weapon after Pearl Harbor, simply because you use what you've got.  It crippled the Japanese war machine, sank it.  In both cases, the US won because it could launch more tonnage than the enemy could sink, primarily by submarine.


However, due to nuclear technology, today's sub has a fundamentally different role.  The skippers must know and accept the difference.

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