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Sea Power Confronts The Twenty-first Century
An Interview With Edward L. Beach The captain who first took a submarine around the world underwater looks at the U.S. Navy past and present and tells us what we must learn from the Falklands war
April/may 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 3
The present emphasis is on large fleet carriers. Should there be greater emphasis on escort carriers, smaller carriers?
This is an ongoing argument and it will probably always be with us. We had it with battleships. We are having it with submarines now too. How much is too big? How much is big enough? It’s quite obvious that the two little carriers that the British had in the Falklands were marginal for the job they had to accomplish. One of our big ones would have made a huge difference in the war—probably with greatly reduced loss of life on both sides. You see, the problem with military stuff—and I think it’s a basic philosophic thing—is that you can’t do with half good enough. You always have to do the absolute maximum. For example, suppose you and I are going to have a fight. And we say, okay, we’ll tie one hand behind our backs and just fight with one hand. And so you clobber me. And I say, wait a minute, I don’t accept this. I had my hand tied behind my back. So I untie my other hand. You of course do the same. Then maybe it turns out that I can clobber you, because with my two hands I’m better, maybe, than you are with your two. What I’m saying is that unless you’re able to use all your capabilities, you can’t accept an adverse decision. If you have done everything you can, then you accept the outcome because you must.
In the case of ships, if you build a ship that’s half as good, while the other side builds a better one, they’ve got an advantage. So the only thing you can do is to build it just as good as you possibly can, knowing that unless the other side slips one over on you, they can’t make a better one. Even so, a ship that was top of the fleet ten years ago is now a ten-year-old ship and is probably no longer top of the fleet. By this time there’s a better one, with newer and better equipment. So you keep trying to update the older ships. You put in new radar, new weapons to maintain top effectiveness, everything. Inevitably, however, you’ll be sending somebody out to fight in a ship that is not as good as some newer ship. But if you send them out with one that was not as good in the beginning, you’re already one notch down. So I say if you’re going to have a military operation, it’s got to be first class, otherwise you stand to lose.
So you would go with the larger carriers?
How about the submarines? Do you think the new nuclear submarines of the Los Angeles class are too big?
We are having the same argument over the submarines that we had about the carriers. But there are a couple of different angles to it. Submariners have always argued for small submarines because they are more maneuverable. You can maneuver a small submarine and get a torpedo off from it better than from a big one. During the war we needed bigger submarines than the Germans because of the vast distances to be covered in the Pacific. We needed greater range. Any ship designer can prove that if you want more fuel, more ammunition—more anything—in a ship, you must make it bigger. If you want it to be bigger and still have the same speed, you’ve got to have bigger engines. That makes it still bigger. So the process is like the constant building of a pyramid. The submarine, however, has undergone the biggest revolution in capability of any type ship as a result of nuclear power. In World War II, our subs on diesels had sixty-four hundred horsepower full speed on the surface. Submerged, we had about a thousand horsepower. With a reactor, you can have thirty thousand horsepower surfaced or submerged. If you want to make a bigger reactor, and bigger engines of course, you can have sixty thousand horsepower. That’s not three hundred or a thousand, it’s thirty thousand; it’s a lot of power. And all of a sudden, driving a submarine through the water has become much more like driving an airplane.
We have to accept the fact that ships are getting bigger—that submarines are getting bigger. The argument over the Los Angeles class stems from the fact that they have bigger reactors and bigger engines that make them faster; but a bigger submarine is required to hold it all. And so we’ve got a very fine but big ship where perhaps we could have had a smaller, simpler, cheaper, lighter submarine that might do as good a job. But “might” is the big factor—it also might not. Furthermore, you’re faced with the problem of telling somebody to risk his life in a lessthan-top-rate machine.
What about charges that the carrier battle group would not be able to survive nuclear attack?