Aircraft Carrier vs. Submarine – Exercise RIMPAC 1972

This weekend’s visit to Halifax by the latest and greatest United States Navy aircraft carrier, Gerald R. Ford, has put me in mind of a lesson from fifty years ago. Impressive as these great ships are, and while we can be justifiably awed by the technology, we shouldn’t get over-awed. Let me take you back to 1972 for an example.

The American Admiral was not a happy man. During an exercise just days before, his flagship had been “sunk” by an antiquated, second-hand Canadian submarine. To add insult to injury, the ship was an aircraft carrier specialized for hunting submarines. Near the back of the auditorium where the post-exercise “Wash-up Conference” was unfolding, sat the captain and operations team from the opposing submarine, not a few nursing hangovers from the previous night’s victory party. It’s been said that mock battles at sea are not all that important: what really counts is the Wash-up. (*)

A year earlier, in 1971, the American, Australian and Canadian navies had instituted the first “Rim of the Pacific” (RIMPAC) exercise. From that modest beginning, RIMPAC has grown into the world’s largest multinational maritime warfare exercise. This year (2022), for example, it included 26 nations, 38 surface ships, three submarines, nine national land forces, some 170 aircraft and over 25,000 people, with a Canadian Rear Admiral serving as Deputy Commander. But back in the 1970s, it was still a relatively modest affair. RIMPAC ’72 was an anti-submarine exercise for the U.S, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand Navies. Canada contributed a destroyer, a supply ship and one submarine.

I had just joined Her Majesty’s Canadian Submarine Rainbow, recently graduated as one of the last two Canadian officers trained at the US Navy Submarine School. She was an old boat by any standard, having seen operational service in the Pacific during the Second World War. When Canada had bought her in 1968 she had been serving as a training boat at my old submarine alma mater. She had little modern equipment and had been purchased to serve as a live target for anti-submarine ships and aircraft. But submariners are not temperamentally inclined to play passive “clockwork mouse.” In 1972, Rainbow was tasked with simulating a Soviet “Echo II” class submarine, which had to surface to fire anti-ship missiles, ideally at a “high value target”, in this case the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga. “Tico” was nine months older than Rainbow, but had been upgraded constantly and was now configured as an anti-submarine carrier (CVS in NATO classification) carrying an air wing of Tracker fixed-wing aircraft and Sea King helicopters.

USS Ticonderoga in 1972 (Painting by Paul D. Ortlip)

When I joined Rainbow I had been told that she had “sunk” Ticonderoga during the first RIMPAC the year before. With little chance of evading modern submarine-hunters, so the story went, Rainbow had waited until after dark near the end of the exercise, surfaced and sat in the line of buoys marking the entrance to Pearl Harbor. Home-bound and perhaps over-confident, Ticonderoga had let its guard down and failed to notice one extra flashing light and “blip” on the radar in the line of buoys. She was “sunk” in the channel, blocking the entrance to the harbour. Clearly, RIMPAC ‘72 would be a grudge match.

By some miracle, Rainbow had again managed to avoid detection for most of the exercise, but was then ordered to take up a distant position that would mean having to run on the surface. Those old diesel-electric boats were slow under water but could make 20 knots on the surface. There was nothing for it but to risk an exposed sprint for the new patrol area and hope for the best. It was a calm, clear day and Rainbow’s four big old diesel engines were making a lot of smoke when we spotted Ticonderoga on the horizon – looking down for submerged submarines. No one seemed to be looking up to notice an approaching 20-knot cloud. It was a golden opportunity. We were simulating a submarine that had to surface to fire its missiles. The target didn’t seem to notice us until we announced on radio and with a green flare that we had just fired a salvo of missiles. Helicopters buzzed over us angrily but we had got our shot away first. We had “sunk” the carrier. For the second year in a row.

As I recall the wash-up, the Admiral who had been flying his flag in Ticonderoga said something like “Okay. That ‘gah-dam’ Canadian submarine may have sunk my flagship, but at least my helicopters sank it before it could submerge again!” At which point our Captain pointed out that those helicopters were equipped with anti-submarine torpedoes which are limited to operating below a certain depth to avoid hitting friendly ships. We were on the surface, so the torpedoes would have passed harmlessly underneath us. And, by the way, we shot the helicopters down with light machine guns! GAH-DAM!

I’m fond of our American naval cousins and would never demean their professionalism or underestimate their abilities. But perhaps spending almost 40% of the entire world’s military budget can tempt over-confidence in massive investment in people and stuff.  Two hundred years ago, a particularly successful general named Napoleon observed that “In war, three-quarters turns on personal character and relations; the balance of manpower and materials counts only for the remaining quarter.” Just ask any Ukrainian.

HMCS Rainbow leaving Pearl Harbour
HMCS Rainbow leaving Pearl Harbour

(*) To any Old Salts who suspect that my description of the Wash-up is based on John Winton’s hilarious chapter in his 1961 book “Down the Hatch“,  I swear that it’s life imitating art, not plagiarism!