Back in a February 2008 issue of Naval History, aÂ piece by Admiral Charles R. Larson (Retired), Captain Clinton Wright (Retired) and Paul Stilwell caught my eye. The article, âThe Sculpinâs Lost Mission: A Nuclear Submarine in the Vietnam Warâ, details a forgotten patrol by the USS Sculpin (SSN-590). It is an article that deserves a second–if not a third–glance.
Why? Well, many of the challenges encountered during the Sculpin’sÂ little-notedÂ 2300- mile romp through the littorals remain relevant today.
For the Sculpin, thisÂ was a tough little tasking. During the 1972Â patrol detailed in Navy History, theÂ Sculpin tracked gun-running vessels from theirÂ Chinese point-of-originÂ to waters off South Vietnam. It’s an exciting COIN-esqe story–a story that should have gotten more play (in open fora) than it did. Today, as America struggles with Maritime Domain Awareness, littoral operations and clandestine use of merchant vessels, we’re having to re-learn the challenges the Sculpin grappled with back in 1972!
It’s no secret that shallow waters offerÂ an operationalÂ challenge to certain sensors. But the Sculpin story could have been a good starting point to discuss the challenge of littoral undersea warfare–because the boat had issues:
âThe active sonar in the Skipjack-class submarines wouldnât have been reliable because of the reverberations in shallow waterâŚâ
As the USS San Francisco’s (SSN-711)Â 2005 interaction with a sea-mount sadly revealed, we still have issues with seafloor awareness. The Sculpin tale, if it had only been told,Â might have helped promote better mapping–and better navigational practices within the sub fleet. The Sculpin was effectively blind:
âOne more challenge was that the trawler was heading south, right through the âdangerous ground.â On charts of the South China Sea, an area of about 180 nautical miles wide and 300 miles long is simply labeled dangerous ground. Our charts had one track of soundings through that areaâtaken in 1885..â
Complicating the matter of safe passage, the boat encountered rogue oil wells. The industrialÂ infrastructure used to exploit seafloor resources poses an even greater operational challenge today. And the Sculpin, again, offered a glimpse of that future:
âWe found a large number of oil-drilling platforms near the coast of Borneo. We first became aware of this hazard through the prolonged tracking of a diesel contact, which prompted the CO, Commander Harry Mathis, to go up to periscope depth for a look. We spotted an uncharted platform. If rigs were operating, that was no problem; we could plot the location of their noisy diesel engines. We found some charted, some not, some operating and others not. Our concern, of course, was about those uncharted and not runningâŚâ
How many times in recent years have subs hit tankers (or, um, fellow warships) in crowded shipping channels? The Sculpin experience in the South China SeaÂ was–toÂ say the least–instructive:
âThe density of the large shipping traffic in this lane was incredible. Crossing it was like running across a busy freeway.â
The crowdedÂ littorals are even more crowded today. The Sculpin’s experience mightÂ have allowedÂ foresightedÂ naval strategists to “steal a march” and start grappling with the littorals far earlier:
âThe surface was a dead calm mirror with fishing buoys and nets everywhere, not to mention small fishing boats of every description..â
With the Sculpin authorized to operate in waters as shallow as six fathoms, the boat discovered the littoralsÂ may beÂ a pretty stressfulÂ place for fast-moving, large undersea boats:
Â âWe were trying to visualize what the Sculpin looked like on the surface, running at twenty knots, with maybe only 40 feet from the top of the sail to the surface. We visualized a humpâthe water displaced above the boatâs hullâroaring through the South China Sea like a mini tidal wave, with observers wondering what it wasâŚ”
Why wasn’t the Sculpin’sÂ mission used as a means toÂ inform sailors–and modern policymakers–on the challenge of littoral operations?Â
That’s an easy question to answer. All official records of this mission were destroyed. And now, as the littorals of the South China Sea have evolved to become a region of intense interest for the U.S. Navy, future submariners have little more than a bare-bonesÂ article in USNI’s Navy History Magazine to help inform their endeavors.
Instead of the usual submariner routine of “don’t ask, ’cause I won’t tell,” a little foresight–along with a little openness–mightÂ have beenÂ a real boon to those who, today, grapple with this sort of challenge. America’sÂ NavyÂ should maintain operationalÂ records–and do a far better job of telling these “odd lot” stories. You never know when they might prove useful…
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