SCULPINBack in a February 2008 issue of Naval History, a piece by Admiral Charles R. Larson (Retired), Captain Clinton Wright (Retired) and Paul Stilwell caught my eye. The article, “The Sculpin’s Lost Mission: A Nuclear Submarine in the Vietnam War”, 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’s little-noted 2300- mile romp through the littorals remain relevant today.

For the Sculpin, this was a tough little tasking. During the 1972 patrol detailed in Navy History, the Sculpin tracked gun-running vessels from their Chinese point-of-origin 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 offer an operational 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:

“The active sonar in the Skipjack-class submarines wouldn’t have been reliable because of the reverberations in shallow water…”

As the USS San Francisco’s (SSN-711) 2005 interaction with a sea-mount sadly revealed, we still have issues with seafloor awareness. The Sculpin tale, if it had only been told, might have helped promote better mapping–and better navigational practices within the sub fleet. The Sculpin was effectively blind:

“One more challenge was that the trawler was heading south, right through the “dangerous ground.” 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 area—taken in 1885..”

Complicating the matter of safe passage, the boat encountered rogue oil wells. The industrial infrastructure used to exploit seafloor resources poses an even greater operational challenge today. And the Sculpin, again, offered a glimpse of that future:

“We 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 running…”

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 Sea was–to say the least–instructive:

“The density of the large shipping traffic in this lane was incredible. Crossing it was like running across a busy freeway.”

The crowded littorals are even more crowded today. The Sculpin’s experience might have allowed foresighted naval strategists to “steal a march” and start grappling with the littorals far earlier:

“The surface was a dead calm mirror with fishing buoys and nets everywhere, not to mention small fishing boats of every description..”

With the Sculpin authorized to operate in waters as shallow as six fathoms, the boat discovered the littorals may be a pretty stressful place for fast-moving, large undersea boats:

 “We 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 hump—the water displaced above the boat’s hull—roaring through the South China Sea like a mini tidal wave, with observers wondering what it was…”

Why wasn’t the Sculpin’s mission used as a means to inform sailors–and modern policymakers–on the challenge of littoral operations? 

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-bones 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–might have been a real boon to those who, today, grapple with this sort of challenge. America’s Navy should maintain operational records–and do a far better job of telling these “odd lot” stories. You never know when they might prove useful…


Posted by Defense Springboard in From our Archive, History, Maritime Security, Navy

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