Hunters and Killers, Vol 2: Anti-Submarine Warfare from 1943

Hunters and Killers, Volume 2: Anti-Submarine Warfare from 1943. By Norman Polmar and Edward Whitman. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis MD, 2016.
Reviewed by Dr Gregory P. Gilbert
The intensive development of submarines, in particular the appearance of missile submarines with atomic power, the fight against which assumed the character of a state task, raised the question of a further sharp rise in the effectiveness of anti-submarine weapons. Even then it was clear that the solution of this problem was essentially to be sought not by perfecting the available means of combat, the technical possibilities of the development of which were coming close to the limit. The question was one of developing entirely new principles of combating submarines …
Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union S. G. Gorshkov, 1976

VOLUME 2 of ‘Hunters and Killers’ is a comprehensive history of all aspects of anti-submarine warfare – form 1943 to present day. As one would expect it contains the strategic and tactical narratives of the major ASW operations but it is much more than just an informative history. It also includes the evolution of ASW sensors, weapons, platforms and tactics. Norman Polmar and Edward Whitman have written this book as a guide to support current and future thinking on 21st century ASW. They write as analysts who use history to support their ideas. ‘Hunters and Killers’ offers a rare combination of technical and historical research which will help inform future ASW developments.

By mid-1943 the Battle of the Atlantic had reached a turning point. Allied measures, including the use of long-range ASW aircraft, escort carriers, large numbers of smaller ASW vessels and effective attacks upon submarines in transit, had led to the withdrawal of U-boats from the North Atlantic. This success again was not entirely complete but like events during WWI, Allied shipping losses were kept to a manageable minimum for the rest of the war. The alternative of not taking up the ASW challenge was demonstrated by the total failure of Japanese ASW in WWII, with US submarines running riot in the Pacific. According to Polmar and Whitman the Allied triumph in ASW during WWII was eventually successful because of: ASDIC, Codebreaking, Convoying, HF/DF, Innovative tactics, Radar and the numbers of ships, aircraft and personnel.

During 1944-45 Allied supremacy in ASW was challenged by new German submarine types with streamlined, high-speed submarines fitted with a snorkel. Luckily for the Allies these late-war submarines were not available in sufficient numbers to change the outcome of the war but they did ensure that many small, post-war, slow-speed vessels became obsolete overnight. During the Cold War the introduction of new submarine technologies led to major ASW changes involving tactical and strategic responses. This is called the ‘First Revolution’ by Polmar and Whitman. The ‘Second Revolution’ was the introduction of nuclear propulsion, while the ‘Third Revolution’ was the introduction of submarine launched missiles – guided and ballistic. The commissioning of anti-submarine submarines was one response, as was the introduction of anti-submarine weapons with nuclear warheads (such as ASTOR and SUBROC). Surface ships designed as ASW platforms evolved significantly becoming larger and more capable. Helicopters (LAMPS) were developed for ASW operations at a distance from their parent frigates with their towed array sonar. ASW aircraft carriers and maritime patrol aircraft also went through significant technical and operational advances during the Cold War. Over time strategic ASW was necessary with dedicated facilities and systems at sea, under the sea, flying over the sea, in space, and at shore bases.

‘Hunters and Killers’ includes a chapter on nuclear war at sea. This is an area which has tended to be forgotten especially by those who wish to avoid a tactical nuclear war at sea, however ignorance is much more dangerous than informed decision making regarding possible nuclear actions in the maritime environment.

The final few chapters of ‘Hunters and Killers’ discuss the effectiveness of modern ASW, the reduction of ASW forces following the so-called peace dividend of the early 1990s, and ‘New World’ ASW. According to Polmar and Whitman post-Cold War Western ASW involved a paradigm shift towards ‘Third-world diesel-electric and air-independent propulsion submarines’ and ‘small submarines’ and local-area ASW. This inevitably led to a massive reduction in ASW capabilities which in an era of maritime power projection and expeditionary operations against rogue-states and non-state actors was a good capability development choice. During the last few years there has been increasing interest in peer-rivalry between global and regional powers. This has been emphasised by the dramatic increase in high-end submarine and ASW capabilities within the Russian, Chinese and Indian navies, while smaller navies in the Asia-Pacific have effectively been engaged in a submarine arms-race. This means that the Western navies will need to once again change the paradigm and return to a Late Cold War mindset where we will need to target ‘advanced … nuclear and diesel-electric submarines’ using large-area ASW and strategic ASW methods.

‘Hunters and Killers, Volume 2: Anti-Submarine Warfare from 1943’ is another well written, informative and comprehensive work on ASW and submarines. It contains up-to-date information that supports ASW developments in the 21st century. It provides a foundation for the modern study of ASW and is food for thought for the intelligent naval officer, specialist sailor and defence analyst.

‘Hunters and Killers’ is a book for our times. It is highly recommended.

A review of Vol 1 is here.

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