Robot kamikaze submarines shaped like blue whales render navy ships useless?

One lesson from World War II at Sea: A Global History by Craig Symonds is that a huge expensive ship might be destroyed in a few minutes by a submarine or airplane:

Displacing 71,890 tons when fully loaded, the Shinano was the largest aircraft carrier ever built, a distinction she retained until 1961 when the U.S. Navy commissioned the nuclear-powered Enterprise. … Abe dutifully took the Shinano out of Tokyo harbor one hour after sunset on November 28[, 1944] with a four-destroyer escort. Two and a half hours later, the [U.S. submarine] Archerfish picked her up on radar.

At 3:00 a.m. on November 29, Abe ordered the Shinano and her escorts to turn west, toward the coast. It was the opportunity Enright had been waiting for, and at 3:17 he fired six torpedoes. For an attack on a carrier torpedoes would ordinarily be set to run at a depth of twenty-five to thirty feet, but Enright thought if he hit the big carrier higher up on her hull, it could make her top-heavy and more likely to capsize. He ordered the torpedoes set to run at only ten feet. That decision doomed the Shinano, because the torpedoes struck just above her armored blisters. As the Archerfish submerged, Enright thought he heard six explosions, though in fact only four of his torpedoes hit. It was enough. Tons of seawater rushed into the Shinano’s hull, and almost at once she took on a fifteen-degree list to starboard. With many of the watertight doors not yet installed, the flooding spread quickly. The ship’s list increased to twenty-five degrees, then thirty. Too late, Abe steered for the coast, hoping to run the Shinano aground in shallow water, where she might be recovered and repaired. He didn’t make it, and the Shinano sank just past ten-thirty the next morning. She had been in commission only ten days, and at sea for only sixteen and a half hours.

We have lost some expensive warships to submarines, e.g., the USS Wasp aircraft carrier and the USS Indianapolis cruiser.

After nearly 75 years since we last faced a serious naval adversary, the U.S. has spent $trillions building up and running a Navy full of large and costly warships. These do seem to intimidate Somali pirates (though not so much that they abandon their career?), but might they be vulnerable to an enemy spending only 1/100th of our budget?

What if an enemy were to built a fleet of robot kamikaze submarines? They’d pick up power from the sun when near the surface, be clad in rubber to have a SONAR signature like a whale’s, and have the same size and shape as a whale.

Our advanced systems would pick up these fake whales due to their spinning propellers? It is possible to build a machine that swims like a fish: RoboTuna. Would that make it tougher for SONAR systems to distinguish between an electric fish and a real fish?

Readers: Does it make sense to spend $billions on these Navy ships that could be attacked by robots?

World War II at Sea: A Global History on a guy who was able to predict the future fairly successfully:

Yamamoto was an outlier in other ways. He had spent two tours in the United States and had been profoundly impressed by its industrial strength, reflected by Henry Ford’s automobile assembly plant in Detroit, and the fecundity of the Texas oil fields. War against such an opponent, he concluded, was foolish. Fleet Faction admirals such as Katō did not entirely discount America’s material and economic superiority, but they insisted that the spirit of yamato-damashii could overcome mere wealth and numbers. Like Confederates after Fort Sumter who boasted that one Reb could lick five Yanks, they valued a martial culture over material superiority.

Another area in which Yamamoto defied the reigning philosophy of the Fleet Faction was his skepticism about the preeminence of battleships.

Like every other Japanese naval officer of his generation, Yamamoto had read Mahan’s book at Etajima, and he had initially embraced its tenets. By 1930, however, his natural skepticism led him to reconsider. Prior to his participation in the conference at London, he had been captain of the large aircraft carrier Akagi, and afterward he commanded the First Carrier Division, composed of the smaller carriers Ryūjō and Hōshō. Based in part on that experience, he became convinced that aircraft were poised to make battleships secondary, if not quite irrelevant. In 1934, he told a class of air cadets that battleships were like the expensive artwork that wealthy Japanese families put on display in their living rooms to impress visitors: beautiful, perhaps, but of no practical utility.


  • “China’s Navy Could Soon Have a New Weapon to Kill Navy Submarines” (National Interest, August 2018)
  • “Pentagon To Retire USS Truman Early, Shrinking Carrier Fleet To 10” (Breaking Defense): “Amidst rising anxiety over whether the US Navy’s thousand-foot-long flagships could evade Chinese missiles in a future war, the Pentagon has decided to cut the aircraft carrier fleet from 11 today to 10. By retiring the Nimitz-class supercarrier USS Truman at least two decades early, rather than refueling its nuclear reactor core in 2024 as planned, the military would save tens of billions on overhaul and operations costs that it could invest in other priorities.” (the ship cost $4.5 billion when launched in 1996 (took two more years to commission))

11 thoughts on “Robot kamikaze submarines shaped like blue whales render navy ships useless?

  1. Forget about submarines, anti-ship missiles probably make every surface ship a sitting duck in a war. But in the nuclear age, MAD means that we are unlikely to fight a war with a nuclear adversary and that still leaves a lot of non-nuclear powers (who also lack sufficiently advanced anti-ship missiles).

  2. The Navy has been struggling since the 1980s trying to find a complete role for their services that is not just a support role for the other services. They talk about floating island ships that carry lots of missiles and big aircraft carriers for lots of planes and fast attack boats for marines. All these things are good warfare and protection roles but mostly support roles to the other services. So the Navy still has not carved out a major role for itself. But now this dust up with China in the south China Sea and the island building may be their future. They have to protect the planets oceans for free trade and fishing and stop the Chinese and Japanese and Russians from ruling the water….

    • Large tsunami tidal waves are produced by ocean floor (tectonic plates) moving. As far as I understand, Russian nuke does not move oceanic floor. So effects of it, if it is close to be operational, are over-hyped. Also tsunami wave height falls at cube of length traveled in-shire rates, otherwise many countries would be already wiped out by large oceanic volcanos.

  3. “fleet of robot kamikaze submarines”

    I don’t think that the robot AIs will be initiating “suicide attacks” soon. If they do (and I am very wrong about the state of AI) then humans are doomed.

  4. Aircraft carriers presents juicy targets for enemies; That is not new and has always been the case. When operating out at sea in a battle group the sole reason for all the other ships and submarines with it are to protect the carrier. Yes, if you dedicate enough resources towards destroying a carrier you can. You can even sink a carrier with low cost, sea mines are cheap, have been around forever and they work, one mine missed by a mine sweeper can easily sink an aircraft carrier. But what happens after you destroy the carrier? Assuming that only the carrier and its embarked airplanes are destroyed you are talking about over $6,000,000,000 of equipment and 3,000 dead Americans.

    There are two scenarios here, first a low tech country get “lucky” and sinks the carrier. Iraq and Afgananstain are a good example of what happens. We spend the next few decades and trillions of dollars bombing you and occupying your country with “peace keepers.”

    The second scenario with a peer adversary is interesting. Total war? Nukes flying? I’m going to say no. No country today can exist by itself and the production of goods and raw materials are globalized. Those globalized goods are shipped via the ocean. The USA has the largest Navy in the world by a significant margin. We would simply setup a blockade out of range of whatever sleek missile or mine people have and just starve them out like a mid-evil siege. We could lob the occasional long range cruise missile to keep them on their toes. We would have to accept the occasional retaliatory long range cruise / ballistic missile but I’m guessing that after the first few months those will all be either destroyed or launched. It would be an excellent opportunity for some of our older city centers to be destroyed so that we can build them with a more modern layout and not deal with pesky historical preservation rules.

    • Seems a bit too abstract to me. I would guess there are two main potential naval hotspots today: Taiwan and the Persian Gulf.

  5. The world has done pretty well against submarines. The days of having 1000% more carriers than the rest of the world are over, as a matter of economics. The future will be smaller & diesel powered.

  6. The future is a floating island with a battery of ATV drones and or some cruise missiles and a few sailors to do loading and arming. Several islands can be towed to the latest hot spots and be cut loose or anchored as necessary. This is low cost, effective and a great force projection. Big expensive boats with high cost planes are obsolete.

  7. People still buy Robinson’s even though a Walmart drone or even a kid with a slingshot and some rocks can bring them down.

  8. >What if an enemy were to built a fleet of robot kamikaze submarines?
    So could we.

    >They’d pick up power from the sun when near the surface
    Easily detected with look down RADAR.

    >be clad in rubber to have a SONAR signature like a whale’s
    >and have the same size and shape as a whale.
    And we’ll send one of our 500 robot subs to bump it.

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