Submarines and a Battle of Minds

Engineering and warfighting skills are equally important for the ‘silent service’ says Vice Admiral John Richardson.

By Vice Admiral John Richardson for

Following is a response from US Vice Admiral John Richardson, Commander of US Submarine Forces, to James Holmes’ entry ‘A Navy’s Vital Silent Service.’


Prof. James Holmes’ entry last week on our new papers, the Design for Undersea Warfare and its companion piece Undersea Warfighting, was excellent. But I’d like to add a few things.

First, Holmes captured our intent exactly right as it pertains to our emphasis on the human element of warfare. War is a battle of minds, pitting one learning, adaptive team against the other. In the end, the team that out-thinks the other – before, during, and after the conflict – wins.

I also strongly believe that our tactical commanders must be able to think, adapt, and seize fleeting opportunities to operate safely, securely, and effectively in peacetime and to suffocate and defeat the enemy in wartime. 

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This approach of autonomous action, using ‘command and feedback,’ is the strength of our Navy and our Submarine Force. Our (the US Navy’s) submarines are able to endure lengthy deployments concealed far from home waters while maintaining power, material readiness, and most importantly warfighting proficiency. This ability to remain on station is our unique competitive advantage in the maritime domain. But to be meaningful, these attributes must be trained and practiced, and that’s where our attention is focused.

I would also like to directly address the comments about engineering skills and warfighting skills. Often, these two skill sets are juxtaposed – framed in an ‘either/or’ type of discussion – particularly when nuclear engineering is discussed. 

I would offer that it’s closer to ‘both/and’ – we need to think of these skill sets as different but complementary. Particularly in submarining, it has always been so. When studying the history of submarine warfare, one quickly finds that understanding the details of the boat’s construction and operation – the engineering – has always been a necessary prerequisite to ‘fighting’ that boat.

Necessary, but not sufficient. We need to build on that strong foundation of engineering by learning how to synthesize the full physical capability of the boat, manned by a superbly talented crew, trained to a high state of readiness, commanded by creative and passionate leaders.  That’s the secret to achieving the sustained warfighting superiority discussed in the Design for Undersea Warfare and Undersea Warfighting

Is it difficult?  Yes!  That’s why the US Navy, and particularly the Submarine Force, strive to recruit and retain the very best. And even with that talent base, there’s not a moment to lose – we must begin on day one to build the submarine leaders we need almost 20 years hence. It’s a fast pace, but extremely rewarding, and it delivers an undersea force that will serve to keep our potential enemies awake long into the night.

We’re excited to be moving out along the lines of effort described in the Design for Undersea Warfare. I appreciate the very thoughtful article by Prof. Holmes and look forward to earning that third cheer he withheld as we execute.

John M. Richardson is Commander of the US Submarine Forces. As commander, Allied Submarine Command, he also acts as the principal advisor to NATO on submarine plans, operations and doctrine.