Copyright by John T. Reed

In another article at this Web site, I said that U.S. Navy surface ships appear to be obsolete for modern warfare. Why did I limit that statement to surface ships? Because I believe U.S. submarines are viable naval weapons in the Twenty-First Century against a modern enemy military.

However, it must be stated that that belief is based on a single assumption: that the enemy does not know the locations of our submarines.

A submarine is useless in modern warfare if the enemy knows where it is. It is only useful if its location is unknown. That’s because it is slow, unarmored, and cannot defend itself against much in the way of enemy attacks against it. Submarines have quite enough trouble just defending themselves against the sea that surrounds them.

Am I saying that our enemies do know the locations? Nope. I don’t know. Don’t have a clue.

World War II codes

But I do know that prior to and during World War II, the Germans and Japanese were quite confident that we could not break their complicated codes. They were wrong. The U.S. and British broke the German and Japanese codes. A lot of Germans and Japanese died as a direct result.

For example, we knew where German subs were going to meet their resupply vessels. We would send a patrol plane to the area at that time to make it look like that’s how we found out about the resupply. Then we would sink both vessels from the air.

The most famous Japanese who died as a direct result of our breaking their codes was Fleet Admiral Yamamoto—the most respected Japanese military man. Our code breakers deciphered a message about him visiting the Solomon Islands. We sent fighters to shoot him down, which they did. He died in the crash.

Now, the enemy could locate our subs either by tracking them physically or by breaking our codes that told the subs where to patrol.

We are confident

We are now in a situation where the U.S. military is quite confident that our modern enemies do not know the locations of our nuclear missile submarines that are on patrol. Should we be confident? I do not know. But if the enemy ever figures out how to track our subs, those subs are toast in a war with a military equipped with modern weapons.

MX missile

During the Reagan Administration, the MX missile was proposed. One question was where to base it. The feeling was that the Soviets at that time and since could target and destroy any fixed missile base. There was some talk of basing the MXs on railroad cars or trucks so they could move around the country and the Soviets would have trouble tracking them. Citizens were unhappy that a nuclear-tipped missile that was the target of enemy nuclear-tipped missiles might visit their neighborhood. The MX was dismantled.

Subs in the Great Lakes

I thought those missiles or others should be based on submarines in the Great Lakes. It still strikes me as a good idea. Our frequent ally Canada also has a half dozen or so large lakes that might be suitable for hiding submarines. I suspect the subs would not have to be as expensive as the ocean subs and might not even need to be nuclear.

Other large U.S. lakes like the Great Salt Lake and Tahoe strike me as possibly too small. That is, you might be able to just fire a couple of nukes into those lakes and be confident that you destroyed the subs wherever they were. Experts on the destructiveness of underwater nuclear explosions would have to make the final determination.

St. Lawrence Seaway

One reason for the Great Lakes is the assumption that there are no enemy naval vessels there. Since the opening of the Great Lakes to ocean going international vessels through the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, vessels from potential enemy nations have been able to enter the Great Lakes. If we based submarines there, we would have to prevent enemy anti-submarine vessels from entering the Great Lakes disguised as merchant ships. And, of course, we would have to be concerned if we got into a war with Canada.


Depth is an issue. Subs can been seen from above if they are not deep enough. I do not know how deep is enough to end that danger. The deepest depths in each of the Great Lakes are all greater than 200 feet, but it may be that charts of the lakes would show that some lakes, especially Lake Erie, had so few areas with adequate depth that the enemy could target those few areas and assume that any subs there would be destroyed by a nuke.

Either keep the secret or have alternative weapons

My main point is just that reliance on ocean-based nuclear subs in the event of a war against a modern enemy would be a very bad idea if our assumption that the enemy does not know how to track them is incorrect. Accordingly, we should spend a lot of time and other resources making sure they are well hidden, as well as on alternative weapons should our nuclear subs be neutralized at the beginning of a war.

Email from retired U.S. submariner regarding putting submarines inthe Great Lakes
There are several reasons why we don't put subs on  lakes. Safe operation of a submarine requires what is called a "safe operating envelope (SOE)". This is a speed dependent algorithm, which, at speed zero requires a near zero vertical column of water around the sub and increases the water column requirement as speed increases. Subs, like oil tankers, don't turn on a dime, but they live in a 3 dimensional world and the SOE is designed to give a margin of safety to prevent unintentional breaches or excursions to dangerous depths. There are few areas of the lakes that provide this SOE even at low speed. The results would be frequent breaches and collisions with the bottom. In a crowded area like a lake the breaches would inevitably lead to collisions and loss of life.

Another problem with placing subs in lakes is the missiles range. Since the lakes are in the interior of the country it simply places too many potential targets beyond their reach. A related problem is flight time. A major benefit of submarine launched missiles is the proximity to the target and the resultant short flight time. A short flight time increases the chances of taking out an enemy's weapons before they can be used. These factors were at the heart of the Cuban missile crises. By placing missiles 90 miles off our shore the Russians could hit virtually anywhere in the U.S. and the flight time would be so short that we couldn't be sure we could respond.

John T. Reed

I appreciate informed, well-thought-out constructive criticism and suggestions

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