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Naval warfare is divided into three operational areas: surface warfare, air warfare and underwater warfare. The latter may be subdivided into submarine warfare and anti-submarine warfare as well as mine warfare and mine countermeasures. Each area comprises specialized platforms and strategies used to exploit tactical advantages unique and inherent to that area.

Modern submarine warfare consists primarily of diesel and nuclear submarines using weapons (like torpedoes, missiles or nuclear weapons), as well as advanced sensing equipment, to attack other submarines, ships, or land targets. Submarines may also be used for reconnaissance and landing of special forces as well as deterrence. In some navies they may be used for task force screening. The effectiveness of submarine warfare partly depends on the anti-submarine warfare carried out in response.


American Civil War

The age of submarine warfare began during the American Civil War. The 1860s was a time of many turning points in terms of how naval warfare was fought. Many new types of warships were being developed for use in the United States and Confederate States Navies. Submarine watercraft were among the newly created vessels. The first sinking of an enemy ship with a submarine came at the Action of 17 February 1864, when the Confederate submarine CSS H.L. Hunley sank USS Housatonic in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina.

World War I

Submarine warfare in World War I was partly a fight between German U-Boats and Atlantic supply convoys bound for Great Britain. British and Allied submarines conducted wide spread operations in the Baltic, North Sea, Atlantic, Mediterranean and Black Seas. Only a few actions occurred outside of the wider European-Atlantic theatre. German submarine attacks on allied merchant ships gave a direct cause for Americans to enter the war in April 1917.

All participants were supposed to abide by the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 but this was found to be impracticable for submarines. Initially German submarines did attempt to comply with the Prize Rules but then went to unrestricted submarine warfare. American diplomatic pressure forced the Germans to stop this for a while but in January 1917 declared a War Zone around the British Isles and sank up to a quarter of shipping entering it, until escorted convoys were introduced. [1] The sinking of the Pathfinder was the first combat victory of a modern submarine,[2] and the exploits of U-9, which sank three British cruisers in under an hour, establishing the submarine as an important new component of naval warfare.[3]

German submarines were used to lay mines and to attack iron ore shipping in the Baltic. The British submarine flotilla in the Baltic operated in support of the Russians until the Russian-German Pact.

During the war, the British invested efforts in developing a submarine that could operate in conjunction with a battleship fleet - the "Fleet Submarine". To achieve the necessary 20 knots (surfaced) the K class submarines were steam powered. In practice the K class were a constant problem and could not operate effectively with a fleet.

Interwar period

Between the wars, navies experimented with submarine cruisers (France, Surcouf), submarines armed with battleship calibre guns (UK, HMS M1) and submarines capable of carrying small aircraft for reconnaissance (HMS M2 and the Surcouf).

Germany was denied submarines by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and secret production was not legitimized until the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935 under which the UK accepted parity in submarine numbers with the Royal Navy.

World War II

In World War II, submarine warfare was split into two main areas - the Atlantic and the Pacific. Although the war still waged in Africa, the Mediterranean Sea was also a very active area for submarine operations. This was particularly true for the British and French as well as the Germans. The Italians were also involved but achieved their greatest success using midget submarines and human torpedoes.


Atlantic ocean

In the Atlantic, where German submarines again acted against Allied convoys, this part of the war was very reminiscent of the latter part of World War I. Many British submarines were active as well, particularly in the Mediterranean and off Norway, against Axis warships, submarines and merchant shipping.

Initially Hitler ordered his submarines to abide by the Prize Rules but this restriction was withdrawn in December 1939. Although mass attacks by submarine had been carried out in the First World War, the "wolf pack" was mainly a tactic of the Second World War U-boats. The main steps in this tactic were as follows:

  • A number of U-boats were dispersed across possible paths of a convoy.
  • A boat sighting the convoys would signal its course, speed and composition to German Naval Command.
  • The submarine continues to shadow the convoy, reporting any changes.
  • The rest of the pack is then ordered to close to the first boat's position.
  • When the pack is formed a coordinated attack is made on the surface at night.
  • At dawn the pack withdraws leaving a shadower, and resumes the attack at dusk.

With the later increase in warship and aircraft escorts the U-boat losses became unacceptable. Many boats were lost, and the earlier "aces" with them.

Pacific ocean

In the Pacific, the situation was reversed, with US submarines hunting Japanese shipping. By war's end, U.S. submarines had destroyed over half of all Japanese merchant ships sunk,[4] totalling well over five million tons of shipping.[5] British and Dutch submarines also took part in attacks on Japanese shipping, mostly in coastal waters. Japanese submarines were often ineffectual, and by doctrine concentrated on attacking warships, rather than more-vulnerable merchantmen. A few German and Italian submarines operated in the Pacific Ocean, but never enough to be an important factor, inhibited by distance and difficult relations with their Japanese ally.

Other areas

Mediterranean Sea

Indian Ocean

Japanese submarines operated in the Indian Ocean, forcing the British surface fleet to withdraw to the east coast of Africa. Like the Pacific Ocean, a few German and Italian submarines operated in the Indian Ocean, but never enough to be an important factor.See Monsun Gruppe.

Post World War II

The advent of the nuclear submarine in the 1950s brought about a major change in submarine warfare. These boats could operate faster, deeper and had much longer endurance. They could be larger and so became missile launching platforms. In response to this the attack submarine became important. The US also used nuclear submarines as radar pickets for a while. Diesel-electric submarines continued to be used as they were better in coastal waters and less expensive. There have also been major advances in sensors and weapons.

Since the Second World War, several wars, such as the Korean War, Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 and the Falklands War, have involved the use of submarines. However, the importance of the submarine has shifted to an even more strategic role than the disruption of merchant shipping, with the advent of the nuclear submarine carrying nuclear weapons to provide second-strike capability. To counter the threat of these submarines, hunter submarines were developed in turn. Later submarine-launched land-attack missiles were employed against Iraq and Afghanistan. The role of the submarine has extended with the use of submarine-launched autonomous unmanned vehicles. The development of new air independent propulsion methods has meant that the submarine's need to surface, making it vulnerable, has been reduced.

At the end of his naval warfare book The Price of Admiralty, military historian John Keegan postulates that eventually, almost all roles of surface warships will be taken over by submarines, as they will be the only naval units capable of evading the increasing intelligence capabilities (space satellites, airplanes etc.) that a fight between evenly matched modern states could bring to bear on them.

Modern submarine missions

A modern submarine is a multi-role platform. It can conduct both overt and covert operations. In peacetime it can act as a deterrent as well as for surveillance operations and information gathering.

In wartime a submarine can carry out a number of missions including:

  • Surveillance and information gathering
  • Communication of data
  • Landing of special operations forces
  • Attack of land targets
  • Protection of task forces and merchant shipping
  • Denial of sea areas to an enemy

Some theorists such as military historian John Keegan have argued that the extreme vulnerability of surface ships (when facing nations of a similar technological level) to aerial and ship-ship missile attacks will eventually lead to a trend for all types of naval vessels to receive submarine versions.

While the United State Navy says that "Submarines require no vulnerable underway logistics chain nor depend on mutual defense from other platforms for survivability."[6]

See also


  1. ^ Tucker, Spencer; Priscilla Mary Roberts (Digitized by Google Books online). World War I: Encyclopedia. London: ABC-CLIO. 312. ISBN 1851094202, 9781851094202. 
  2. ^ Story of the U-21, National Underwater and Marine Agency,, retrieved 2008-11-02 
  3. ^ Helgason, Guðmundur (2008), U 9,,, retrieved 2008-11-02 
  4. ^ Blair, Clay, Jr. Silent Victory (New York, 1976), p.878.
  5. ^ Blair, p.878.
  6. ^ USS Albuquerque Joins San Diego-based Fleet, Contributes to Maritime Strategy
  • John Abbatiello. Anti-Submarine Warfare in World War I: British Naval Aviation and the Defeat of the U-Boats (2005)
  • Blair, Clay. Silent Victory: The U. S. Submarine War Against Japan 2 vol (1975)
  • Gray, Edwyn A. The U-Boat War, 1914-1918 (1994)
  • Preston, Anthony. The World's Greatest Submarines (2005).
  • Roscoe, Theodore. United States Submarine Operations in World War II (US Naval Institute, 1949).
  • van der Vat, Dan. The Atlantic Campaign Harper & Row, 1988. Connects submarine and antisubmarine operations between World War I and World War II, and suggests a continuous war.


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