James Holmes

How Pearl Harbor Shaped US Submarine Doctrine

US subs were used defensively before Pearl Harbor, which transformed them into an offensive, decentralized force.

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.

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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.