Is the Nuclear Submarine Really Invincible?

Sometimes even the best of us lose sight of the forest for the trees.

In today’s world, few would argue that U.S. Navy SEAL Teams and their counterparts in the other U.S. services are among the best of the world’s elite special operations troops. Our regular soldiers and Marines have certainly proved their mettle. Our various airborne warriors have an equally well-deserved reputation.

And most observers would also agree that U.S. Submariners rank at or near the top of their worldwide class of warriors.

In recent years, “surface pukes,” as submariners like to call sailors and their ships that stay on the surface, have held their own in exercises designed to test their ability to find and destroy submerged submarines. It’s not an equal battle by any measure, but a submariner’s survival odds are less today than they were two decades ago.

In other words, our guys are good – across the board. They have some remarkable history lessons to back up their claims. There is an old adage, however, that history is written by the victor. And history has taught us over and over again that overconfidence can lead to disastrous results.

How invincible is our submarine fleet? How good are our submerged sharks, our fleet of nuclear submarines that stands guard on the front lines, protecting our battle groups, shadowing potential missile launchers, and standing by to wreck havoc in the event of a shooting war?

The U.S. Navy has long relied upon exercises to measure itself against potential threats. These exercises usually pit one U.S. naval group against another, one submarine against another, or one or more submarines against one or more surface ships or even a battle group. Sometimes we join forces with our NATO allies to conduct more realistic exercises, going up against crews with different kinds of training and experience.

Of course, all these exercises are scripted in one way or another. They have to be in order to avoid collisions, to keep things safe and moving in the right direction, and to meet the exercise objectives. Scripting has its disadvantages, of course. For one thing, in a real war, the other side isn’t following a script, at least not one we might know about. Thus, sometimes individual skippers will deviate from the script – sometimes on secret orders, and sometimes, just because .…

Over the years, these off-script events have produced surprising results – or maybe on hindsight, not-so-surprising results. Let’s take a closer look.

Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor

Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

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