“The submarines could lick us” … 1950 – The submarine missile threat emerges



With the Second World War less than five years in the past, Naval Authorities were sounding the alarm that technology was about to let the Soviets take a leap forward in the ever expanding chess game called the Cold War. As this article relates, the Soviets were already beginning to realize the power of projection by the use of submerged missile delivery systems.

Interestingly enough, this article was published just three months before the North Koreans invaded the south and started a conflict that continues to this day. The Navy and Department of Defense focus and funds would be diverted away from this critical area for the next three to four years.

Fortunately for the country and the Free World, enough attention did remain to develop the longer term solutions to the problems identified. The birth of the Nuclear Navy would negate much of the challenges and the advantages captured in this article.

But if you were living near the coast in 1950, this had to have gotten your attention.

Mister Mac


Russia has a huge fleet of new radar-defying, bomb-throwing U-boats that could wreck our coastal cities overnight. It’s the only weapon against which we have no real defense. Here’s what our new Navy chief and his team are doing about it . . .

by Burke Wilkinson Washington, D. C.

BURKE WILKINSON won a Navy citation for wartime anti-sub work, has written numerous articles on undersea war

The man on the cover, Admiral Forrest P. Sherman, our new Navy chief, is more important to your safety than you probably realize. His big job these days is to find a way to lick the submarine menace.

To understand his problem, you have to absorb a new and unpleasant fact of life: the submarine, far from being an obsolete weapon, a page out of the history of past wars, is the one revolutionary new weapon against which the U. S. has no defense today.

Today, in the terrible event of war, enemy submarines could not only cut our supply lines to our troops and allies abroad, but could blast our coast with guided missiles from far out at sea. If and when our enemies master the H-bomb, this can mean the utter annihilation of such cities as New York, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

And — most disturbing of all — the new underwater killers are at present virtually immune to counterattack.

In order to understand what has happened, we must go back to World War II.

The submarine the Allies defeated in the last war was the conventional type of U-boat. It spent a good deal of time on the surface recharging its batteries. Its underwater speed was slow. It could be spotted by planes and destroyers and hunted down.

It was, in fact, a Model-T submarine.

Yet this Model-T sub sank 14 million tons of shipping and cost us thousands of lives. It took the Allies four years and one quarter of their total scientific effort to beat her, at the staggering expenditure of a hundred billion dollars in ships, weapons and research. Radar and the sound-detection device called sonar, the convoy system, the hunter-killer groups, the new fast-sinking depth charges — all these played their parts in the victory.

Then in the spring of 1944 the Germans put a breathing tube on their U-boats. This was the famous snorkel, which allowed a submarine to recharge her batteries while running. Rocket propulsion plus the “snorkel” have revolutionized the sub’s role submerged. The snorkel barely shows above the surface. It gives about the same radar signature as a white cap does.

Up to this time the submarine had been a torpedo boat which dove. Now she was truly an underwater craft, which surfaced only at rare intervals. Because she seldom surfaced, many of the deck obstructions needed on a surface vessel could be removed. This streamlining resulted in increased underwater speed and maneuverability.

As far as Hitler was concerned, the snorkel came too late. The German Type XXI submarine, combining streamlining and snorkel, was not yet operational when the war ended. Some 120 were built. Most of them were in the Baltic area.

These the Russians grabbed, along with a high percentage of the best German engineering brains, submarine technicians and commanders. Although Soviet sailors have never been noted for their handling of surface craft, they have always been relatively skilled at undersea warfare. The U.S.S.R. promptly instituted a massive submarine program.

“Russia has 270 to 280 submarines,” Admiral Sherman says, adding that a quarter of them are in the Pacific. And “Jane’s Fighting Ships,” authoritative naval guide, states that the Soviet Navy hopes to have no fewer than 1,000 in service by end of 1951. By comparison we have 75 submarines in commission. Less than half are “Guppies,” our version of the German Type XXI. It is from our Guppies that we have learned how dangerous the 1950 submarine can be.

Recently experiments have shown that guided missiles modeled on the German V-l are quite easy to fire from submarines and that, once fired, they are extremely hard to intercept. No less an authority than Dr. Vannevar Bush gives fair warning of this new menace in his book, “Modern Arms and Free Men.” “We must,” he writes, “take into account the delivery of bombs by submarine, the bombs being lobbed into coastal cities by rocket projectors, perhaps from submarines twenty-five to fifty miles at sea.

‘This is no mean threat.”

Such missiles are vicious but not too accurate. The V-l had an aiming error of five miles in 200. That means that for the present the use of an atomic warhead, too valuable to be wasted on a non-vital target, would not be warranted. But that consideration doesn’t go for the H-bomb — whose area of destruction is so wide an aiming error doesn’t mean much.

And in the meantime, if you live near the coast, they are liable to hit you in your living room with a ton of high explosive.

Twice as Fast

The ability to fire guided missiles is just one example of the striking power of the new subs. They can spot a convoy from well beyond the range of detection by sonar, and fire long range, homing torpedoes at the escort vessels.

Then they can knock out the convoy at leisure. They cruise twice as fast underwater as the subs of six years ago and are capable of bursts of even higher submerged speed.

‘Employing tactics of attack and swift evasion, a fleet of submarines could, I believe, isolate the Eurasian land mass from us, so that we could not effectively fight a war overseas. And equally, they could isolate us from the vital supplies required to wage war at all.

The submarine is, in fact, the only existing menace for which we have no adequate method of detection. Planes can be spotted by radar. But radar is not effective underwater, and the use of sonar has been blunted by the speed and long-range firing capabilities of the modem true submersible.

The Navy’s high brass is aware of this peril. One of the first moves Admiral Sherman made on becoming Chief of Naval Operations was to step up the anti-submarine program, which now has highest Navy priority. In his first speech Admiral Sherman said, “We must remember that much development has taken place in submarines and more is to be expected.

“We must make certain that every practicable means is exploited to make the Navy fully ready to defeat a third attempt to deny us the use of the sea by undersea warfare… It is essentially the Navy’s job in wartime to keep the conflict remote from our shores, and to deliver the nation’s fighting strength overseas.

These are still our principal functions, although not an enemy vessel be on the high seas.”

Pressure Is On

Admiral Sherman has ordered Vice-Admiral Francis S. Low to make an exhaustive survey of the present submarine situation. Low, a bull-dog of a man with a layer of urbanity over his toughness, master-minded the wartime Tenth Fleet, which played a vital part in licking the U-boat.

“Allied countermeasures defeated the conventional U-boat,” he told me, “but they would not have beaten the Type XXL Fortunately the pressure is on now, in peacetime. It is within our ability to overcome the menace, provided we realize how tough it is and how much hard work, ingenuity and money it’s going to take.”

A hundred billion, I remembered then. It took a hundred billion to lick the old-fashioned sub. The total amount available to the Navy for research in 1950 is 300 million dollars. In the new 1951 budget this is cut to 266 million. And this isn’t just for anti-submarine warfare, it’s for all Navy research, on hulls, guns, jet planes and guided missiles as well as detection gear and depth charges.

The Real Solution

It isn’t enough. Brain-wise and budget-wise the Navy is not going to solve the riddle of the stream lined submarine that way. Hear Dr. Bush on the subject: “The real solution is to drive the submarine from the seas. This can be done, but not by methods carried over from the last war. The importance of undersea warfare … is fully as great as that of air warfare, and it warrants fully as concentrated and flexible attention… The problem can be solved, but it will take years of heavy effort. It will not be solved by some inventor’s having a brilliant stroke of genius.”

Despite the alertness at the top level, I discovered a certain amount of anxiety among experts in the lower echelons about the progress of the anti-submarine program.

“Don’t let anyone tell you we have this one licked,” a harassed three-striper warned me. “We haven’t, not by a long shot.” “If anti-submarine warfare is really the Navy’s top priority we should be getting a lot more money,” a civilian in one of the Bureaus said.

“They ought to start moving industry inland,” another expert commented grimly.

Up at the Headquarters of the Commander, Submarines, Atlantic Fleet (ComSubLant) in New London, Conn., my fears were confirmed. I rode the new submarines, made a dozen dives, and talked to a lot of people.

Most of them agreed that sonar is not able to keep up with the headlong speed of the 1950 submarine. “The sub is still ’way out in front,” a communications officer with six combat patrols on his record told me. “Sonar is improving, but not fast enough.”

“In the last Fleet maneuvers, six subs —six little subs — sank half the attackers. If we’d had twelve, oh brother!” This from a chief petty officer with 10 years in the boats.

Biggest Blimp

I DO NOT want to give the impression that the situation is all dark. The Navy is building a new cruiser, incorporating all the latest anti-submarine devices, and the largest blimp ever, capable of hovering over the sea for days. Destroyers are being steadily converted to exclusively anti-submarine duties.

Three anti-submarine submarines are under construction — and there is nothing a submariner fears more than another sub lying silently in wait for him as he puts to sea. Forward-thrown weapons capable of submerging quickly have largely replaced the old-fashioned, slow-sinking depth charges.

But the effectiveness of all these innovations still hinges on one fact: to kill the submarine you first must find her. Until the problem of detection is solved, the gap between measure and countermeasure, made so dangerously wide by the snorkel, will not be closed. To solve it, the Navy will have to take even more vigorous action within her ranks. More ships may have to be moth-balled for the present and the money used for research.

The Navy’s love affair with the carrier will have to ripen into a more temperate relationship, for until the problem of finding the subs is licked the carrier is not a fully effective striking weapon.

Budget Too Small

Navy brass has been reasonably frank. But in stating that its present budget is adequate for the nation’s safety, the Department of Defense has not faced this danger squarely. The Navy must fight harder to expand its meager program of research and development in the anti-submarine field. The Department of Defense must see that sufficient funds are made available.

And we whose families and homes are now in the line of fire must bring pressure to bear so that the peacetime battle against the lurking menace will be won. For we are all anti-submariners now.

The End


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