Book Reviews


 

The Silent War
By John Pina Craven

Review by Rich Sheppard

 

July 14, 2001 -- Most citizens of the United States and Soviet Union (along with the rest of humanity) are blissfully unaware of the military significance of the world’s vast undersea depths, both during the Cold War and down through today.   And yet all along, keen and even obsessive military and intelligence interest in the “briny deep” progressed alongside the increasing evolution of the submarine threat, beginning in WWI and continuing through the end of WWII.

"...Enter author John Pina Craven and his lively stories of deep-sea research, rescue, and skullduggery which would become The Silent War..."

By the end of WWII, a combination of sonar, air patrols, and the inherent vulnerability of the battery-powered and noisy submarines themselves neutralized the submarine menace.  Still, the stealth advantages outweighed the existing submarine limitations, thus insuring ongoing military submarine roles. But submarine evolution languished for several years following WWII, with incremental improvements to WWII designs.

In 1954, however, the submarine made a dramatic return into the consciousness of naval planners worldwide.  That year, the submarine USS Nautilus – conceived and built by the “Father of the Nuclear Navy,” Admiral Hyman G. Rickover - became the world’s first nuclear-powered vessel.

On her maiden year-and-a-half voyage in 1955, Nautilus circumnavigated the globe without refueling and submerged.  In 1958 Nautilus reached the very top of the world, the North Pole, carrying over 100 officers and crew safely and securely beneath ice and sea.  With nuclear power, Nautilus and follow-on nuclear submarines no longer needed to expose themselves on the surface to recharge batteries.  Improving design advances encouraged super-silent operations which along with Cold War-driven evolution quickly fulfilled the ultimate submarine promise of a true stealthy weapons platform hiding beneath the waves.  The Navy quickly built a fleet of nuclear-powered, torpedo-armed attack subs with worldwide range, making them a viable threat in distant disputed waters

But Nautilus wouldn’t just revolutionize conventional naval warfare.  The combination of stealthy undersea operation and an unlimited power source gave naval planners another “idea.” This new idea would shape and direct the direction of all strategic nuclear decision-making during the increasing Cold War turbulence of the late 1950’s and down through today.  The idea was to station an invulnerable force of nuclear-tipped missiles aboard deep-diving, undetectable, nuclear-powered submarines.  These subs would insure that no attacker could destroy all of America’s nuclear forces in a “first strike.”  The missiles aboard the submarines would be launched in a “second strike” which would obliterate the attacker.  Logically and demonstrably, this system of high-stakes deterrence reigned throughout the Cold War and still rules today.

The initial submarine missile program, the Regulus, was a moderate success as first attempts go, but not ideal.  The Regulus missile, surface-launched from an unwieldy structure, had a limited range and forced the sub to surface and expose itself.  Enter author John Pina Craven and his lively stories of deep-sea research, rescue, and skullduggery which would become The Silent War.

The Silent War begins with Craven’s role as Chief Scientist of the Polaris missile program, the successor program to the deficient Regulus.   The initial Polaris was a solid-fueled missile which could carry a city-busting one-megaton warhead 1500 miles to target.  Each SSBN (submarine, strategic ballistic nuclear) would carry 16 Polaris missiles on multi-month patrols, thus insuring that a significant part of America’s retaliatory nuclear force would always threaten the Soviet Union, the Cold War’s primary nuclear adversary.   While these chapters offer some fresh insights into that critical program, readers shouldn’t expect a thorough history of Polaris in this volume.  

Following his success with Polaris, Craven – a former helmsman of the battleship New Mexico during the latter stages of WWII - held highly-classified and varied posts in deep-sea research and intelligence programs.   The Silent War is at it’s most readable during these chapters, where Craven hints at, and (when not constrained by security protocols) reveals some fascinating operations and equipment.  These include using deep submersibles vessels to recover debris from Soviet missile tests in the Pacific, “saturation” diving techniques, photographing sunken Soviet subs (and possibly retrieving their weapons), and recovering an H-bomb lost in a bomber crash off of Spain.  Craven also relates the forlorn task of discovering the reasons behind the sudden loss with all hands of the Thresher and Scorpion during the 1960’s 

Perhaps Craven’s most revealing portion of The Silent War is his supposition that the sunken Soviet submarine, possibly rummaged and definitely photographed by USS Halibut (a story more extensively told in the book, Spy Sub), and visited by the Glomar Explorer, was in fact a rogue ship destroyed in the act of trying to circumvent launch-prevention safeguards on its nuclear missiles.  Though not involved in the operations Glomar Explorer – which attempted to recover the Russian sub if not one of its missiles - Craven reveals a new truth about the aftermath high-stakes diplomatic “secret behind the secret” of Glomar’s (and Halibut’s) high-stakes missions.

Throughout “The Silent War” Craven offers on-the-scene perspectives of the planning and intelligence gaming that surrounds undersea research, military operations, and intelligence-gathering.  He speaks with experience and feeling about the constant dangers of the sea both on the surface and in the pitchblack deep.  He introduces and credits many of his peers present throughout his varied postings, and strongly advances the (real-world proven) argument that  “strength-through-deterrence”, and not a constant “war-fighting” posture, was the only desirable and sane way to avoid nuclear war.  Above all, Craven offers intriguing insights into the give and take of American and Soviet deception and diversionary tactics as they play high-seas and deep-underwater chess on a vast, dappled oceanic board.

Perhaps constrained by security concerns, Craven isn’t generous with minutest details of his and his team members’ exploits, but nonetheless he is able to tweak or credit other sources in the undersea espionage genré and expresses well-reasoned skepticism of the overall media coverage of some of these events.  He is a convincing voice in these matters.

The Silent War is entertaining reading across the spectrum - for naval and intelligence buffs - and even for the amateur oceanographer seeking other interests in the deep ocean.  It is a window –sometimes translucent - into the hidden and secret games that go on each and every day, far offshore.   But as Pina demonstrates, these contests are never far from the minds of those who must secure land borders and national security against those very real threats lurking far out to sea.

-- Rich Sheppard