Welcome back to history, mariners of the world! Your post-Cold War holiday from history is drawing to a close—if it hasn’t expired already. Last week’s imbroglio between the Swedish Navy and an apparent Russian submarine in the Stockholm archipelago was only the most recent reminder of certain verities about combat at sea.
To name one, hunting submarines is hard—today as for the past century. It takes golly-gee hardware to detect, track, and target submersibles plying the deep. It takes plentiful anti-submarine craft to search the enormous volumes of water where subs may lurk. And, most of all, anti-submarine warfare takes patient, resolute, technically savvy hunters to employ this high-tech gear to good effect.
Success is hardly a foregone conclusion, even when a fleet surmounts such benchmarks. American military people tend to think of the Cold War in triumphal terms. But during the late Cold War—when Western fleets stood at the apogee of their supremacy over Warsaw Pact foes—U.S. Navy wargames involving undersea warfare typically started out the same way: the game administrators let U.S. Navy ASW units find the adversary boat. Their quarry then dove beneath the waves, there to be tracked—or not—by American aircraft, surface warships, or nuclear-powered attack boats that had a fix on the enemy’s original position.
That hostile boats would obediently let themselves be caught on the surface constituted quite an assumption, even in those halcyon days. It’s yet more suspect today, after a quarter-century of technological advances and cultural atrophy. No longer is it a given, for instance, that diesel submarines have to surface frequently, exposing themselves to radar detection. Many diesel submarines now sport “air-independent propulsion” that lets them stay in the deeps for long intervals rather than come up to periscope depth to snorkel. No Soviet boat enjoyed such marvels. And modern boats benefit not just from AIP but from better acoustic properties—quieting, in other words—and an array of other innovations.
Meanwhile, ASW skills have decayed among navies grown obsessed with projecting power shore. In the early 1990s, U.S. Navy directives bearing titles such as …From the Sea instructed seamen to turn their attention ashore. That sent a powerful bureaucratic signal. With the Soviet Navy rusting at its moorings, it appeared, no one could contest American rule of the sea. Why bother practicing to fight nonexistent foes? Instead the navy busied itself exploiting its seemingly everlasting command of the sea. Disciplines such as ASW, surface warfare, and mine warfare fell into disuse.
New aspirants to undersea prowess understand all this, of course. China has centered its new-and-improved PLA Navy mainly on diesel-electric attack boats, importing some and building its own, while also experimenting with nukes. Russia has fielded new classes of nuclear-propelled boats. To guard their interests—against China in particular—smaller Asian powers have taken to constructing or importing undersea flotillas of their own. Japan deploys some of the most impressive diesel boats in the world. Vietnam has taken delivery of Russian-built Kilos, while more are on the way. Taiwan wants to build submarines at indigenous shipyards. Indonesia and Bangladesh recently voiced interest in purchasing boats abroad. India and Australia are trying to get their submarine programs on track. And on and on.
How should the U.S. Navy cope with submarine proliferation in the Pacific and Indian oceans, its primary theaters of endeavor? American seafarers appear confident in the kit installed aboard ASW vessels and patrol planes—sensors, processors, and the like. Whether the human factor is up to the challenge is another question. Cultures are resilient but can be broken. Ordering a navy not to concentrate on the central function of navies—winning sea command—could fracture one in a hurry. Reversing cultural decay—restoring, or remaking, the culture of a naval service—demands leadership from on high as well as from the middle ranks.
In short, the naval establishment needs to send a countervailing signal, overriding the one it sent back in the early 1990s. You’d think resuscitating the ASW culture in the U.S. Navy would be a simple matter. After all, Admiral Jon Greenert, the chief of naval operations or America’s top uniformed naval officer, is a submariner himself. Why not just give the order to restore ASW to its former prominence? But think about it. …From the Sea appeared in 1992, making that a convenient year to date the navy’s turn from war at sea to power projection ashore. That’s fully twenty-two years—meaning ASW has been a subsidiary function for a generation now.
That means a generation’s worth of naval officers and enlisted technical specialists entered the service and ascended the ranks during an age when ASW was an afterthought. Nor did the surface navy in particular do itself any favors around 2000, when it shut down junior-officer training for several years. Newly commissioned officers were issued stacks of CDs and told to learn such skills as ASW while also doing their shipboard—i.e., full-time—jobs. Thankfully, the surface community partially corrected this practice some years back, restoring some classroom training. But several years’ worth of officers have reached or are approaching mid-career—the time when they form the backbone of any crew—without that foundational training. One hopes the DIY training took.
So it remains to be seen who will spearhead the revolution in ASW tactics, techniques, and procedures. Doubtless today’s crews can bombard land targets with aplomb, or police the sea, or render humanitarian or disaster aid. That’s what they’re trained to do and have done all their careers. But have they learned the reflexes and habits of mind needed to prosecute elusive submarines in densely populated waters? That’s another matter.
This is not a slam. This wouldn’t be the first time misbegotten doctrine or strategy instilled counterproductive habits in seafarers. For instance, the interwar U.S. Navy taught a generation of submarine skippers to seek safety in the depths upon sighting an enemy surface task force. Subs were thought to stand little chance against destroyers and other sub hunters. The best they could do was hide. Fine. After Pearl Harbor, though, the chief of naval operations ordered SUBPAC, the Pacific Fleet submarine force, to sink not Imperial Japanese Navy men-of-war but tankers, freighters, and tankers—unarmed or lightly armed ships that ferried raw materials and finished goods hither and yon among the islands and territories comprising the Japanese Empire.
You’d think torpedoing largely defenseless vessels would be easy. Yet many SUBPAC captains found it impossible to jettison their cautious ways and go on the attack. To break this culture of reticence, the Pacific Fleet leadership instituted policies that culled out timid captains remorselessly in favor of youth and derring-do. Skippers who produced few results after two patrols found themselves canned—and replaced by others given a chance to show they could produce. A swift turnabout in attitudes ensued.
SUBPAC boats’ lethality improved as the culture changed. The wreckage of Japanese ships strewn across the Pacific seafloor attests to it. One hopes today’s cultural revolution won’t demand measures that ruthless. Still, the navy may again find itself compelled to speed up cultural change through expedients resembling those deployed seven decades ago. Some candid self-assessment is a must. If last week’s Russian adventure spurs introspection, it will have done our navy a favor. Admitting you have a problem is the first step toward finding a solution.