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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
How wary should we be of the Russian navy?
They are building a deep-water Navy, which they haven’t had before, but there’s one fundamental difference between their navy and ours. They seem to be preparing for a short war, while we’re traditionally prepared for a long one. Our ships can stay at sea longer because they’re far more habitable. Also, I think we pamper our crews a lot more. They feel they have a right to more emoluments of life, so there are “gedunk” stands on board—soda fountains, barbershops, ship’s stores, chaplains, all sorts of things that make life a little easier. But when it actually comes to fighting SL ship, we really don’t need that. What you need are guns, shells, missiles, radars, computers, dependable engines. You don’t need ice cream parlors to fight. You do need them to live on board.
In a war, a carrier battle group would have its ships as much as thirty miles apart, so that one atom bomb couldn’t knock them all out.
The Russians have cut all that stuff out. Somebody said they don’t even have bunks for their crews, that they curl up in corners. I’d be surprised if that’s true. I understand, however, that they don’t have mess halls. They go in and get their food in a little tray or bucket or something. Nevertheless, they have high morale and are effective. We don’t believe in that kind of hard life. Well, we just might kill ourselves with our self-indulgence. I’m not saying that we should return to the old days of five hundred men cooped up in the Constitution sleeping in hammocks. But if you have to decide which is the better ship, you may find that the more austere ship is the better because it’s got more offensive power.
Don’t you run into a problem here trying to make the Navy look more attractive while also talking about making our ships more rigorous?
Yes, this is indeed a problem. I think our way of doing things is probably better than the Russian way, but I’m concerned about what would happen if we got into a fight with a Russian task force, because they have more missiles and weapons of various kinds on smaller ships than we have. On the other hand, our ships are better and more survivable than theirs. I think our submarines are better. And so far they just don’t have any carriers comparable to ours.
I think we have to recognize that the Russians see themselves as every bit as big as we are, and they’ve got the right to have national ambitions. And I’d like to see us meet them on friendly terms rather than as rivals. Although we fought the British in 1812, we were on very good terms with the English navy both before and after that war. We appreciated them as navy people doing the same thing we were—fighting the elements, fighting pirates and all the rest of it. It’s a shame we can’t do that with the Russians, but I don’t see it for the foreseeable future. And yet I’ve met Russian submariners who start talking engines and submarines and periscope technique, and it was like being with old buddies. We had to be careful in certain areas, but we were talking about the same things. We were telling sea stories about leaking propeller shafts and guys who forgot to shut the hatch and the ocean coming in and things like that.
What have we learned from our naval history that we should keep and what should we throw out?
Well, speaking in a very philosophical sense, I think we’ve learned that you have to be cautious about maintaining tradition for the sake of tradition alone. For example, Pearl Harbor showed us that we had held too long to the tradition of the battle line. I think we’ve learned—or are learning—the tremendous capability of electronics and computers. No one has the foggiest idea what electronics really is and what it can do at this point. It has only been going on for a few years. What do you think it’ll be like in fifteen years?
But I also feel that we’re overcomplicating our lives and overcomplicating the military. Perhaps this means that only Ph.D.’s will be able to fly our airplanes and run our ships. I wonder what the outcome will be. It could be that someday in the future people will look back and say: at the end of the twentieth century the world became overwhelmingly concerned with trying to improve its military technical ability and just got to the point where everything was too complicated and nothing would work. Mankind finally gave up, and we have the blessing of peace bestowed by God simply because He made progress too complicated to handle.
What do you think are the lessons to be learned from the sea battle off the Falklands?
There’s no doubt it will be studied and analyzed for a long, long time for a lot of reasons—among them the facts that England is an ally of long standing and that their ships are much like our ships and their people like ours. And also because Argentina is in our own hemisphere and we found ourselves in the middle of the situation.