TO THE OFFSET STRATEGY
by RADM W. J. Holland, Jr., USN, Ret.
Editor’s Note: This article is reprinted with permis-sion from the June 2015 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings. It is felt there are significant differences in this Proceedings version from the Admiral’s precursor article which appeared in the December 2014 issue of this magazine.
Rear Admiral Holland devoted most of his service to submarines or submarine-related activities. He is a fre-quent contributor to The Submarine Review.
As has been the case for decades, the strategic spotlight shines once again on the U.S. Navy’s subsurface force.
On 3 September 2014 Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, warning that China and Russia are pursuing and funding long-term, comprehensive military modernization programs, to include fielding an array of capabilities designed to counter traditional U.S. military advantages, promoted an offset strategy. Rather than wading into a symmetrical duel with the military modernization of potential opponents, he advocated employing technologies and associated operational skills that impose disproportionate costs on any competitor; specifically:
...key investments in submarines, cyber, next-generation fighter and bomber aircraft, missile defense, and special operations forces—putting a premium on rapidly deployable, self-sustaining platforms that can defeat more technologically advanced adversaries. Under-sea capabilities that can deploy and strike with relative freedom of movement and decision will continue to be a vital part of the mix. (Italics added).1
As an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary
Assessment some 20 years ago, now-Deputy Secretary of Defense
Robert Work promoted submarines as the basis for a strategy that
sought to exploit U.S. advantages in technologies for which there
was no peer. Work viewed submarines as the prime example of
investing in a weapon system in which the United States possessed
a clear advantage with a lead that could grow faster than a
potential adversary could match. Rather than trying to respond to
an opponent’s strengths, an offset strategy seeks to impose on such
a competitor burdens that will require more time and resources
than it can muster. This cost-imposing strategy’s goal is not just
victory in war but deterrence by making evident the costs to
compete and the prospect of a likely defeat in the event of war.
Any future conflict in the open ocean will start with submarines.
For the immediate future no country will have the capacity
and capability to deploy an armada to contest the sea in the face of
the overwhelming superiority of the U.S. Navy. Even should such
a navy appear, there will be no fleet actions. Any war at sea will
be fought between submarines and such antisubmarine adversaries
as can be assembled. In the words of historian and commentator
...command of the sea in the future unquestionably lies
beneath rather than on the surface.... Consider the record
of the only naval campaign fought since 1945, that of the
Falklands in 1982. From it two salient facts stand out: that
the surface ship can barely defend itself against highperformance,
jet propelled aircraft and that it cannot
defend itself at all against a nuclear powered submarine
Recognition of the preeminence of American sea power is
evident in the proliferation of Submarine Forces around the world.
Even small countries investing in a navy elect submarines as their
naval weapon system of choice. Many, if indeed not most, of those
countries building navies and investing in Submarine Forces are
friends or allies. Their submarines are not aimed at American
carriers. Others, however, with nascent or resurrecting Submarine Forces, are devoted to efforts that threaten U.S. dominance at sea.
Only the First Step
But a simple selection of hulls is only the first step in creating an effective Submarine Force. Developing such a capability requires serious investment of money, intellect, people, and time. Development takes years or even decades to create the kind of capability that Germany, Japan, the United States, and Great Britain wielded in World War II. Attempts by smaller countries to produce an effective Submarine Force have foundered on lack of resources, failure to enlist and retain skilled people, and an inability to construct and sustain the logistics infrastructure necessary to create and then maintain these complex machines. Some Western countries have been successful in building and maintaining an effective Submarine Force, but only in small numbers and not without difficulty. Canada, Germany and Australia, for example, all have admitted their inability to man all the submarines that they have in commission.
The United States, on the other hand, has a major force of submarines manned by experienced crews, practiced in the operations at sea and in the far corners of the world. These are supported by a construction and maintenance infrastructure that is the envy not just of other navies but of other parts of the U.S. Navy as well. The submarines this force operates are the world’s quietest and most technologically advanced. More important, behind this force is a training establishment that not only instructs a steady stream of new personnel but provides advanced training in maintenance and operations including realistic simulators in which submarine operational tactics are practiced daily. Finally, still smarting from the ineffective torpedoes of World War II, the Americans shoot real torpedoes regularly, including proof-testing war shots.
To properly employ Submarine Forces of whatever size re-quires leaders that grasp the unusual nature of their operations—the limitations as well as the capabilities of these ships and crews. Ships that intentionally sink do not follow the norms for other
seagoing vessels. In World War II the Japanese failed to employ to
their full capability talented crews and well-built submarines
because the leadership of these forces rested with admirals
experienced in battleship operations and conditioned to expect
decisive battle between surface fleets. The lack of experience and
understanding in the senior Imperial Japanese Navy leadership
often resulted in deploying submarines as if they were surface
ships, as scouts and supply vessels. Despite their misemployment,
Japanese submarines scored a number of significant blows. On 15
September 1942 the torpedo spread from the I-19 that sank the
aircraft carrier USS WASP (CV-7), fatally damaged her escort
destroyer USS O’BRIEN (DD-415), and put the battleship USS
NORTH CAROLINA (BB-55) out of action for months has to be
at least close to the most significant score from a single submarine
salvo in history. German and U.S. submarine operations in World
War II benefitted not just from leaders who knew and understood
such actions but from command climates that for the most part
encouraged honest reports and critical self-examination. Such
climates are not erected overnight or come as a result of classroom
instruction. They take time, energy, and personal investment to
create. Regular and sustained operations at sea are a vital
ingredient not only to hone the ability of the individual ships’
crews to conduct their affairs but also to set the expectations of the
command and staff personnel as they learn and exercise their
functions. The limits for radio communication with submarines
requires advanced planning, a climate of mutual understanding,
and trust that comes about only with personal investment and
routine practice. As difficult and time-consuming as they are to
create, these climates can be fatally damaged by senior leadership
that disabuses reporters of bad news, ignores symptoms of trouble
or distress, or hogs credit for successes rightly achieved by
subordinates. Societies that are based on rigid caste systems, have
formal class hierarchies, or must conform to rigid political
straitjackets have difficulty creating and maintaining such
command-and-control characteristics. But any navy that expects to
effectively employ its submarines requires these distinctive
The operational military effort involved in a strategy to domi-nate the sea is a return to Alfred Thayer Mahan’s classic dictum that the first aim of the Navy is to destroy the enemy’s fleet.3 Before 1945 this meant major fleet actions but today any such action is exceedingly unlikely. As demonstrated in the Falklands Islands campaign, the ability of nuclear-powered submarines to dominate the ocean surface means that in future conflict, warships will be widely dispersed and the most important parts of a fleet will be stealthy. Engagement will be defined by the ability to locate individual units and bring them to battle. The historical parallel is the cruiser warfare of the War of 1812 and World War I rather than the major fleet actions of Trafalgar or Jutland. But the goal remains the same: the first aim of a Navy in war is destruc-tion of the enemy fleet.Whatever the name, this effort is offensive submarine warfare. The operational aim at the heart of the strategy is to position submarines in the coastal and near-ocean areas of a potential enemy as a crisis builds and, should war break out, to quickly sink all opposing surface warships and submarines. War games have demonstrated the great advantage of “flooding the littorals with SSNs.” Properly operated, submarines become a national maritime resource not simply a component of a battle group or the launcher of land-attack missiles.
Here lie pitfalls within the Navy itself. Submarines have themselves become primary antisubmarine weapon systems. Their presence and performance as part of a task group have built an aura of security and a confidence that, when so assigned, threatening submarines will not appear undetected. This record is admirable but creates a situation that can dilute the primary task in the event of war. Commanders’ demands for submarines to be assigned to protect their task groups subvert the primary attribute of conducting unrestricted warfare against the enemy’s force in waters that otherwise are not open or accessible to others. The proper employment of submarines is as a major force to be wielded as a unit—dispersed and widely distributed under an
operational command whose task is to sweep the seas. Destruction
of the enemy fleet is the goal; protecting our own fleet by
eliminating the threat is a beneficial byproduct.The second difficulty in properly using American submarines
in times of war rises from their new role as arsenal ships.
wars and related actions against shore targets have seen employment
of submarine-launched missiles in significant numbers—not
because the submarine is the best-fitted launch platform or situated
within an enemy surveillance and strike zone too dangerous for
surface ships. Submarine-launched weapons are used because they
are there. Surface-ship launchers outnumber the submarines’ in
most situations, but such launchers are also homes for antimissile
and antiair weapons. Where such threats may exist, the number of
land-attack weapons in the surface fleet is substantially reduced—
often leaving submarines as a significant source of land-attack
Combatant commanders with eyes focused on objectives
and targets on the land are likely to want to add the land-attack
weapons on board submarines to those available for attacking
targets ashore at the expense of assigning their host submarines to
efforts at sea.
For at least the duration of the period in which maritime
dominance is being contested, submarines should be employed in
pursuing elimination of the enemy navy—a task for which they are
singularly fitted. In this early phase, submarines should be used as
missile shooters only when they are the only launchers within
range of high-priority targets or when the attack needs to be
launched from an otherwise-impossible azimuth
. Once maritime
dominance is established, submarine missile shooters can then be
positioned where most advantageous in regard to time of flight and
direction of attack considerations.Nuclear propulsion not only allows the submarine to operate
under the cloak of invisibility, but it powers the ability to
reposition quickly without a logistics train and for a long duration.
These are all incalculable advantages in any time-constrained
situation. This logistic-free tail allows dispatch of submarines
singly or in numbers on short notice and with little buildup or
Among the advantages arising from this is an opportunity
to learn the environment first and to find the most advantageous positions in relation to expected threats and geography.
Flexible submarine deployments can be accomplished without adding to the tensions surrounding a crisis, and with no notice or with subtle direct evidence if such is to our advantage. Early major deployments before the commencement of hostilities give the combatant commanders the assets to execute attacks and interdiction from the first moment of a war. This freedom of movement and decision that Secretary Hagel found so important is inherent in nuclear-powered submarines. This ability to enter the area of conflict without notice provides an additional benefit in that any opponent of the United States must assume that American submarines are always present on his littoral and across his maritime pathways.
Because nuclear power adds this dimension of logistic flexi-bility and rapid reaction, the capability to redeploy American’s total force of submarines on short notice places great stress on any potential opponent. Such an adversary must count on facing all active U.S. submarines within days. In any crisis the first forces to arrive at the scene are of great tactical importance and strategic significance. When those forces are not only powerful, but stealthy, the effect is multiplied by uncertainty concerning their location and strength. Regular operations by submarines in these waters are a necessary ingredient in this aspect of submarine warfare—not only to train crews but to establish the expectations that, should conflict occur, the American submarines will be on-scene early.
The potential peer maritime competitor appears to be develop-ing an anti-access/area-denial strategy based on a suspected land-based ballistic missile and an undefined ocean surveillance and targeting system aimed at large ships at sea. While the difficulties in creating and then operating such a system are enormous, its deployment might threaten major capital ships (read aircraft carriers). But a strategy based on such a system does not address the threat to the adversary’s navy and maritime assets from
In the words of defense analyst and former assistant
Secretary of the Navy Seth Cropsey:As a hedge against China’s anti-access strategy, submarines
are matchless…. So long as submarines remain
stealthy, they bypass the age-old technological cat-andmouse
game of countering an adversary’s technology and
in turn being countered
While this recognition is well understood by those with submarine
experience, the annunciation by a nationally recognized
figure who has no investment in the Submarine Force signals the
wide awareness of the asymmetric advantages of submarines, now
and in the future.
One necessary ingredient in the success of an offset strategy is
the potential competitor’s recognition of these aspects of the
contest. Establishing this perception is not accomplished by ships
in harbor, much less ships on the building ways. Sustained
operations at sea and regular visits to the neighborhoods populated
by potential opponents create the impressions on which to lay the
ground work to effect the strategic objective. By the end of the
Cold War most public utterances of officers of the Soviet Navy
acknowledged the omnipresence of the Western powers’
submarines. That impression was one of the keys to their
adaptation of defensive tactical operations-and to the success of
the 1981 Maritime Strategy.
1. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Southeastern New England Defense
2. Industry Alliance, Newport, RI, 3 September 2014.
3. John Keegan, The Price of Admiralty (London: Hutchinson, 1988),
4. Alfred T. Mahan, Naval Strategy (Boston: Little, Brown, 1918), 5.
5. Seth Cropsey “A Naval Disaster in the Making,” The Weekly Standard,
6 October 2014, www.weeklystandard