16 Apr 20
Posted by: Richard Sharpe

It could be argued that the greatest historical advance in maritime warfare came with steam propulsion replacing canvas sails, while self-propelled shells were making redundant the ancient art of firing unguided cannon balls.

The advent of the conventional submersible at the beginning of the 20th century looked like a comparable step change, but its limited submerged speed and need to break surface to charge batteries proved to be major inhibiting factors.  The description ‘mobile intelligent floating mine’ is not perfect but it does paint an appropriate picture.  And then came nuclear propulsion, arguably the biggest single game changer of them all.  In her first major Atlantic NATO exercise, the USS Nautilus, America’s first nuclear submarine, used her top speed of 30 knots and freedom from the surface to ‘sink’ every major ship in the exercise without anyone achieving an effective ‘counter attack’.  Naval warfare had changed, and to confirm the point, the sinking of the General Belgrano by HMS Conqueror in the Falklands war of 1982 caused Argentina to withdraw its warships from any subsequent involvement.

We read a lot about activities worldwide by US aircraft carriers.  Few public accounts mention the role of the ever-present US submarines that often accompany them. In this series ‘Images of War’, Michael Green has covered the development of the US Submarine Service from the 65-ton Holland class in 1900 up to-days nuclear leviathans of 20,000 tons.  Submerged speeds can be in excess of 30 knots, diving depths below 1,500 feet and a whole armoury of homing torpedoes and air flight missiles are embarked, with ranges out to several miles. Sonar sensors and communications equipment have improved exponentially. Plus of course nuclear ballistic missiles, in a category of their own, the ultimate deterrent to major wars on land. The concept of effective defence against multiple nuclear warheads descending with minimum warning from inner space at speeds in excess of Mach 4, is laughable.

Only the US Navy is analysed in this book with chapters headed The Early Years, WWII, The Cold War, and Post Cold War.  Photographic images are numerous, taken both externally and on board, with colour predominating from 1945.  Homage is paid to the designs of the last U-Boats captured in 1945 which influenced subsequent US conversions. Earlier capture of German torpedoes technology tripled target destruction rates in the Pacific from 132 in 1942 to 492 in 1944. The final chapter concludes with a touch of humour. Pictures of an electrically powered washing machine and dryer in a present day Virginia class SSN contrast with the revolting on-board smell which distinguished the submarines of the Early Years, when compared with the cleanliness and atmosphere control that exist to-day.

If you don’t already have a working knowledge of modern nuclear submarine developments in the world’s most powerful navy, the book is worth reading for the final two chapters alone.  There is much that isn’t said but the basics are well presented. Unless there is a loss of political will to maintain, and if necessary, make use of the available firepower, only a fool would take this lot on at sea.