Nature is the greatest teacher in submarine warfare. Sometimes, submarines assume the tactics displayed by a pack of wolves, attacking their prey collectively, as it was practised in the past during the Second Great War and sometimes, they stalk their prey alone like a lone wolf looking for an opportune time to pounce upon their targets. Sometimes, the submarine emulates the shark, considered nature’s most perfect killing machine, which circles its prey before carrying out an attack and sometimes it assumes the role of a dolphin which is known to be the enemy of sharks as in submarine-to-submarine warfare and sometimes it is like a spider.
In fact, submarines are synonymous with dolphins, because they have been designed along their shape and silhouette. The dolphin’s dorsal fin gives it stability being situated about a third along its length just like in a submarine, the front lateral fins are for diving and surfacing like the submarine forward planes. The horizontal fins of the dolphin tail are like the aft planes in the submarine maintaining stability and for depth keeping. The acoustic system of the dolphin which is used to locate the distance of objects underwater and for communication between themselves is located in its dome shaped head exactly where the Sonar has been placed in the bow of the submarine. The hydrofoil shape of the dolphin is precisely similar to the tear drop shape of the submarine hull.
Decoys fired by the submarine to evade the adversary’s torpedoes have been learnt from the octopus and squid who shoot ink when threatened by a predator creating confusion and thus making good their escape. The main underwater weapon of the submarine which is the torpedo has been equated to the shark as they emulate the killer aspect of the shark. Modern day torpedoes which are guided weapons underwater behave exactly like sharks, determined to kill their prey by homing on to their target.
Tactics and patience have been learnt from the spider, who after spinning its web, prior to attack, waits at the centre for its prey to get trapped. Humans have therefore created the submarine which is considered the most complex machine in the world and have used predatory tactics displayed by a variety of animals. Given all these advantages, a submariner’s biggest virtue is that of patience, of lying in wait like a spider for its target to approach, prior to attack. Deployment in vast areas in the oceans and denial of the use of that part to the adversary is the mantra. Just like the spider in its web but underwater.
Therefore, rightly, the sign of recognition of a submariner is the Dolphins badge. They say that Dolphins once awarded remain etched on the hearts of submariners till their graves. The number of submarines in our Navy is only about 18 and hence this elite force that mans these complex machines would be miniscule as compared to the large armed forces, thus making them like a very small family in their own country.
This story is about how my submarine of which I was the Executive Officer (second in command) was deployed on a mission to intercept an important target in an oceanic area by lying in wait, as the target’s exact movements were unknown. The movements of this cargo ship which was supposedly carrying special dangerous cargo had to be recorded. On leaving harbour and transit for a few days, our submarine had assumed patrol in the designated sea area to progress our mission. Weather was exceptionally calm and the surface of the sea was like a sheet of glass as seen from the periscope. The crew was charged up for action on the first day of assuming patrol. The sun rose and set that day without any activity being reported. Normally, acoustic signals from approaching ships would be reported by the Sonar to the duty officer or OOW (Officer of the Watch) but there was nothing to report even on the second day. A young officer started asking the sonar if there were any contacts in the area to report.
Meanwhile, the routine in the submarine went on as normal. Regular maintenance of equipment like cleaning of filters etc, cleanship and other activities occupied the time of the off-watch keepers who were not on shift duty. This went on for about 4 more days. The Sonar had not reported a single moving object in this time. In fact, even when we were at periscope depth to receive special messages and record the occasional news broadcast, there was nothing visible in the vicinity like fishing boats which was unlikely anyway as it was mid-ocean, also there were no commercial flights flying overhead as our area may not have been on the route of commercial transcontinental flights. We appeared to be totally cut off from civilisation. The equipment maintainers were a worried lot and checked the Sonar for its performance wondering if had gone kaput, but it appeared perfectly fine as we could hear fish chatter and an occasional whale song. Each time I was in the Combat Information Centre, I used to hear the OOW ask the Sonar, “any contact” and the prompt reply, “no contact sir”.
A week had gone by now but still no contact. Now the Sonar operators themselves started getting worried. Sometimes, humour in such grim situations is rare to come by. On Day 8, I observed that the Sonar Chief had written with a pen in bold letters across his disposable uniform tunic, the message, “Sorry sir, no contact”. I smiled and asked him, “What is that in aid of”? He said that he was feeling embarrassed about repeatedly answering in the negative to the question by the OOW, “Sonar, any contact”, to which he thought that he would just write the message “Sorry sir, no contact” for all to see. This brought about a smile amongst the crew and stopped the OOW asking for contacts anymore. Even the Captain smiled and remarked, “Continue your good work”. By now, we had to really make an effort to keep the crew occupied and I had ordered for off duty men a Chess and Carroms tournament to be played in the messdecks. Off duty officers were tasked to brush up their tactics for a quiz which was planned for them. This routine of ‘keep them busy’ went on, reminding me vividly about the virtue of patience shown by the spider and required to be exercised by the submariner.
Another week went by in such a manner, we had been at sea for about 18 days now, and during our daily brainstorming sessions in the Wardroom (Officers Mess) we had some young blood amongst the officers feeling restless who started questioning the aim of our mission and whether the submarine was taking the correct action to which our capable Captain reminded them of the principles of war with the salient one being singularity of aim. On Day 15 in the patrol area as we were having our meeting in the Combat Information Centre, we heard the loud report by Sonar, “CIC, this is Sonar, contact on bearing 295”. This started the flurry of activities, the claxon was sounded for Battle Stations which was like sweet music to the ears of the crew. I could see, they came running to man their posts with a smile and a spring in their step.
After quickly assessing the target’s identity of which we had previous intelligence and estimating its target motion parameters, making an assessment of target range, the submarine went in for a deep dive to record the parameters of seawater temperature and density. This is normally done to make out the various layers created in the water which would deflect the acoustic noise coming from the target and thus guide the submarine about existence of shadow and illumination zones for positioning herself either to carry out an attack or evasion.
On completion of the deep dive, the submarine returned to attack depth for the main purpose of our mission. For the next 18 hours or so, we tracked and moved about at will like a cat playing with its prey at all depths conducive to our mission maintaining stealth at all times. This merchantman oblivious of our presence was moving about in the sea in a suspicious manner, frequently altering course using a route not frequented by shipping traffic at sea. Soon it went out of our area and the lull returned for another two weeks.
So ended our total patrol of about six weeks, wherein, we saw only 22 hours of intense action with the balance of time spent in nothingness. Strangely, on this sea sortie, there were no other craft encountered except of course near the mouth of the harbour of our home base. To keep the human mind occupied and stop playing tricks is a very daunting task requiring innovativeness in people handling. On entry to harbour and a detailed debrief, our mission was classified 100% successful as we had intercepted the correct target and achieved all mission aims. If a submarine could do this once, then it could repeat such an action at will at any other time as well, was the important lesson learnt.
The spider is a great teacher and its virtue of patience was once again reinforced into our psyches.
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