A Navy’s Vital Silent Service

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A Navy’s Vital Silent Service

Submariners may be the ‘silent service,’ but they’re also essential for forces like the Taiwanese Navy.

Engineers hate to write. (I know – I started off professional life as one.) US Navy submariners are consummate engineers. So it came as a shock when a white paper titled Undersea Warfighting appeared earlier this month, courtesy of Commander United States Submarine Forces, Norfolk, Virginia. Replete with sprightly, even inspiring, prose, Undersea Warfighting constitutes a primer on the profession of arms as carried on in the unique subsurface environment where the ‘silent service’ does its work. But its insights into the human element of warfare—the decisive element according to classic strategic theorists—apply widely.

The treatise is divided into three sections. One reviews the virtues expected of individual submariners, one explores how ‘undersea systems exploit the advantages provided by undersea concealment,’ and one explains how undersea forces support national security. The first section is the best for my money because it aims to cultivate an ethos of enterprise and derring-do. It catalogues ‘the necessary attributes of US undersea warriors.’ Among these traits are ‘technical ingenuity,’ ‘military expertise,’ ‘self-sufficiency,’ ‘initiative,’ and ‘tactical creativity.’

As US Air Force Col. John Boyd once noted: people, not machines, fight wars—and they use their minds.

Such language suggests that the framers of the document intend to usher in a cultural renewal within the submarine force. Submariners have long excelled at engineering, particularly since the advent of nuclear propulsion in the 1950s. And for good reason. Commanders and their political masters understand the likely ramifications should even a single nuclear accident take place at sea. Think Three Mile Island. But there are steep opportunity costs to technical excellence. An officer spends the early years of his career almost exclusively on nuclear power school, prototype training, and qualifying to operate power plants at sea.

Seamanship and tactics are an afterthought in those formative years, when a submariner’s counterparts in the surface and aviation communities are honing their combat skills. Furthermore, Design for Undersea Warfare, a companion document to Undersea Warfighting, concedes that the submarine force’s mania for inspections and assessments, its top-down bureaucratic approach to operations, and other infringements on commanding officers’ ability to run their ships work against operational and tactical prowess. Worst of all, it admits neglecting the fact that warfare is a ‘human-centric problem’ soluble only through creativity and initiative.

Keeping this insight firmly in view is even more critical in the subsurface community than in surface vessels. Submarines operate independently and, in wartime, often in enemy-held waters. Skippers must execute their missions with little oversight—and little guidance—from their superiors. Boats rapidly take on the personality of their captains as a result, much as a fighter aircraft takes on the personality of its pilot. During World War II the US Pacific Fleet granted new skippers only two patrols to show results, measured in tonnage of Japanese shipping sunk. Otherwise they faced replacement by more aggressive, independent-minded officers.

So, two cheers to the leadership of the US submarine force. Whether a third cheer follows will depend on execution. It’s far easier to write a white paper saying the right things than it is to remake the cultures of bureaucratic institutions—mechanisms programmed to perform the same routine tasks, over and over. While serving as Woodrow Wilson’s assistant secretary of the navy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt likened the US Navy to a pillow. Civilian officials could pound on the organization as much as they wanted, but it soon sprang back to its original shape. Today’s submarine force is no exception to FDR’s rule.

Despite the impressive feats performed by US submariners against Japan, it took a systemic shock—namely the attack on Pearl Harbor, which demolished the navy’s main war making implements—to compel the Pacific Fleet to rethink how it waged war. With no battleships remaining to execute pre-war plans, submarines and aircraft carriers had to pick up the load. Crises of such magnitude make for swift cultural transformation. Many skippers distinguished themselves. Some scholars, in fact, believe the undersea campaign against Japan could have decided the Pacific War without resort to the atomic bomb.

Wartime defeat clears the mind. Generating momentum toward change represents a leadership challenge of the first order in peacetime. How the silent service will fare in this endeavour, we shall see. I belabour this because these lessons apply beyond the US submarine force, beyond the US Navy, and beyond the United States. Indeed, US commanders should send copies of these two documents to the Republic of China Navy Staff. Much as US submariners did vis-à-vis the Imperial Japanese Navy, skippers of Taiwan Navy small craft need to exercise independent judgment and ingenuity. Changing circumstances demand it.

Formations of major warships under central control from officials on Taiwan are unlikely to survive a clash with a growing, increasingly superior Chinese Navy. Swarms of missile-armed fast attack boats dispersed in caves and harbours around the island might—delaying a cross-strait offensive for long enough to matter. Such craft, like submarines, assume the personality of their captains. Grooming a generation of commanders to fight independently and with panache, then, is essential if the Taiwan Navy is to survive a clash with its mainland antagonist. Indeed, the island’s de facto independence hinges on it.

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College and the co-author of Defending the Strait: Taiwan’s Naval Strategy in the 21st Century, just out from the Jamestown Foundation. The views voiced here are his alone.