Philosophy 212 

Submarine Warfare and Its Influence on Society

by Johan Ulloa


There are a few common factors in all societies around the world. One of those factors that has been greatly affected by technology is warfare. War has been a part of every civilization from the beginning of time. More so now then ever before technology has influenced weaponry and military tactics. Modern technology has transformed when, where, and how we fight. Rather than talk about a plethora of weapons I want to focus on one so that I do not get sidetracked on any technical aspects. Also by choosing just one weapon I feel that it will make the discussion more uniform. I chose the nuclear submarine to demonstrate how technology has influenced society. I feel that it is one of the most important creations of the twentieth century and has changed the course of history and warfare forever. Also it can be closely related to the topics of the report. The main philosophical issues at hand are, "Is war technology neutral?" and "Is it autonomous?"


Records of the submarine can be traced back two thousand years. Aristotle wrote about submersible chambers that were used by Alexander the Great to Set up obstacles under water to sink opposing ships. Also, in China, there are reports of a vessel that could move under the sea that date back to the 200 B.C.1 The first signs of our modern day submarine came about 1578 when William Borne drew out designs for a submersible vessel. The design included ballast tanks that would fill with water to submerge and then empty to surface. However, his design was never put into production.

The first submarine to be successful was built in 1621 be Cornelius Drebel. He built a wooden submarine that was propelled by oars. It could dive twenty meters and travel ten kilometers before it had to surface. This brought about the problem of having to surface because of air. In 1776 an American student at Yale, David Buschnell, invented a submarine called the Turtle. It was egg shaped and was propelled by two hand-cranked propellers. One propeller was for horizontal movement and the other was for vertical propulsion. The Turtle had a complex series of air and ballast systems. It was the first submarine to be used in time of war. It was put into battle against the English vessel, the Eagle, during the Revolutionary War. Though the Turtle was not successful, it still paved the way for the submarine to be used as a weapon of war.

The next big development in submarine history was the construction of Robert Fulton's Nautilus. It took over one hundred and fifty years, but Fulton finally managed to install oxygen tanks on the Nautilus. This allowed the submarine to stay submerged for longer periods of time. The Nautilus was streamlined like today's modern vessels. It also had diving planes that facilitated vertical diving. This new design allowed the submarine to go faster. Further developments included the advancements in propulsion systems. They were beginning to use different kinds of engines such as steam, gas. electric, and ultimately nuclear powered.

For a period of twenty years before World War I, navies around the world were attempting to expand their forces as much as possible. Two countries that were very large participants in this arms race were Great Britain and Germany. Submarines were seen as sneaky and considered to be dishonorable weapons of war. For this reason Britain chose not give much attention to building up thier undersea fleet. On the other hand, Germany had no regrets in producing submarines for her navy.

At the start of World War I Germany had twenty operating submarines armed with torpedoes. Submarines were on the verge of being considered to be one of the most ruthless creations ever. Great Britain enacted a blockade on Germany. In retaliation, Germany put one on Britain and enforced it with a new policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. This meant that any allied ship entering a given war zone would be sunk. These vessels could be sunk without warning and with no guarantee for the lives of the crew or passengers. Germany began a rampage of sinking ships indiscriminately. For example, the German U-20 torpedoed the British passenger ship the Lusitania. The incident left 1256 people dead, including 115 Americans. This eventually led to the entry of the United States into World War I.

The submarine was considered to be a horrible weapon, but an effective one. Its value to a fleet was so great that many more were put into service. Submarine warfare escalated during World War I and World War II. New technology had to be invented such as the depth charge and sonar to try to fight against it. If it was not for those inventions, the tides of both wars could have changed in favor of Germany because they were the first to invest time and money into training crews and building submarines.

The end of World War II came with the dropping of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This brought upon the nuclear age. In the 1950's, nuclear power and nuclear engines were beginning to make their appearance. It allowed submarines to stay submerged for longer periods of time because, unlike combustion engines, they did not have to surface often to get air. Submarines were also starting to be made more maneuverable and faster. This increased their importance to a fleet and as a valuable weapon in time of war. Not only did the advent of nuclear technology bring new engines, but it also brought nuclear weapons.

The use of these weapons was especially important during the Cold War. This period was full of tension between the world's two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. These countries found themselves in as arms race that lasted over forty years. Each country tried vigorously and spent trillions of dollars to gain the upper hand. The Cold War was not fought by all out violence. Rather, it was fought by deterrence. This meant that each country would build up their armaments to deter the other country from waging war. The basic idea was that if your country fired your missiles, mine would fire twice as much. The use of nuclear missiles meant that world destruction would be inevitable if either country launched their missiles.

Submarines took upon an important and new role during this type of warfare in the Cold War. They were no longer used in traditional dogfights or embargoes like in the World Wars. Submarines were not only powered by nuclear power, but they were armed with nuclear missiles as well. Their role was to be mobile sites for missile launch. Satellites are able to detect missile silos on land. These silos would be prime targets in time of war. Submarines are constantly moving and are very fast and maneuverable. It would be difficult to detect and destroy them before they are able to launch. They are able to navigate their way right off the coast of an opposing country and fire in a matter of minutes. Nuclear submarines are the best weapon and deterrent of nuclear war. They are important technological advances not only for their development in engineering but also in the preservation of our way of life.


Technology can be good or bad. The same concept goes for humans. Humans can create technology and choose what they do with it. Can the submarine that launches nuclear missiles be at fault for the threat of nuclear war, or can we put some of the blame on the man that pushes the button? In many cases the captain or crewmember that is behind the button should not even be blamed. They have been trained to carry out orders without exceptions. Like a machine they have been mechanized. So who is to blame?

The answer lies behind the leader or politician of a given country. They are the politicians who want to carry out their agendas through the use of force. The nineteenth century philosopher, Carl Von Clausewitz, said, "War is the continuation of policy by other means."2 This can be exemplified by the sinking of the Lusitania that was discussed earlier. During the German blockade of Great Britain, the passenger ship was sunk and resulted in so much death. Even though it was the submarine's torpedo that sunk the ship, it was the Furor's agenda that was being fulfilled.

The torpedo solely facilitated the Furor's policy. It would have been very difficult for him to swim out to the Lusitania from Germany and then proceed to kill all of the people on board with his bare hands. I say with his bare hands, or else he would be using technology. If there was no technology it would be hard to destroy the entire world like we can do with nuclear weapons. Imagine having how long it would take for every human on earth to fight to the death, solely by using their fists. The fact remains that technology is used as a catalyst to meet or own goals.

Technology has aided man to kill from the begging of his/her existence. The first time early man picked up a stick, bone, or rock to use against another creature, he was using technology. The point is man had to want to kill before he used the tool as a weapon. The desire came from within him not from the tool. Man is capable of violence by nature. Violence has been part of human society and its entire history. Man has the ability to be aggressive and barbarous just like animals. The thing that makes us different is our soul and conscience. We do not react solely on instincts. We have the ability to think things through before we act.

Wars occur when a group of people under a similar agenda use force against another opposing group. This is not too different from two men fighting over a disagreement. The only difference is that wars have more casualties. As technology has improved, the casualty rates in wars have increased. The evolution of technology has made it easier for humans to kill each other. No longer do we have to be right next to a man in order to inflict harm on to them. At first, man had to be within arm's length to do harm. Then with the invention of the sword he had to be within blade's distance, with the invention of the gun within the range of the bullet, and now with nuclear weapons man can kill from any given point of the world. The bottom line is that technology is an extension of human will.

In the nuclear age, human will and policies are carried out differently than in the past. In this period, policies can be carried out with the assurance that another country will not launch their missiles for the fear of wiping out the existence of mankind. This is called Mutual Assured Destruction.3 With this policy some say that war will not be a problem. However, this is not the case. Just because a given country will not launch their missiles for fear of nuclear holocaust does not mean that they will not use other means of force. This can be seen with the Korean, Vietnam, and Persian Gulf Wars. All three of these took place after the creation of nuclear weapons. Countries do not have to fire nuclear missiles just because they have them. In today's society nuclear weapons are seen more as defense weapons than ones for aggression. We have them just in case another country decides to use them.

A good question to ask is that why if most countries agree that nuclear weapons are bad and could lead to nuclear holocaust then why do we not get rid of them? The answer is that they have been created and there is nothing that can be done to destroy them. Even if all the missiles that are currently in existence are destroyed the plans for those missiles will still be around. Even if we went as far as destroying all the plans and killing all the scientist with the knowledge of how to construct one, we would still not be in the clear. Some ambitious scientists in the future would read about nuclear warfare and then make it his life's work to create another bomb. Once something has been added to technology it is impossible to stop it. All we can hope to do is contain it.

Knowing that we are stuck with the weapons that humans have invented, we must find a way to contain them. There are two different schools of thought when it comes to dealing with human problems. There are those who want to fix the problem with more technology and then there are those who want to fix it with the use of human values and social engineering. Alvin Weinberg4 states that it is harder for human values to contain nuclear war from occurring than the nuclear bomb itself. Nuclear missiles force countries to be in a less militant attitude towards each other. It is harder to convince every person in the world that it is morally wrong to have war. Some people can not visualize that war is wrong until faced with the question of their own preservation. I could be very militant, but with the threat of nuclear war I would be hesitant to attack an opposing country that has nuclear weapons.

The problem with social engineering is that we can not be sure that every country holds world peace as their first priority. Inventions such as the nuclear submarine protect us from those countries. The submarine in and of itself is not bad. The way it is used for aggressive military purposes is what is bad. Submarines could be used for a number of things other than warfare. They can be used in underwater exploration of the earth's bottom. They could also be used in tours of coral reefs for tourists who are enjoying their honeymoon. The bottom line is that it is not the technology's fault that they are used as nuclear devices, it is how they are used.

The same technology that is used in nuclear weapons is used in the production of nuclear power. Eventually when nuclear power is finely tuned and all the kinks are worked out it could be a very important source of energy. At the rate that fossil fuels are being used up, it is only a matter of decades before the earth is depleted of them. We will need efficient alternatives to petroleum to survive. Nuclear technology will have to do a lot with the future of the Earth and not necessarily in a bad way. Don Ihde says that technology that was used and developed in during the cold war can now be used for exploration and more humanitarian purposes.5 A nuclear submarine could be used to examine the very bottom ocean's floor. Who knows it might end up finding the cure for cancer or AIDS. The point is technology is neutral in that at its roots it can be used for good or evil. How it grows from then on depends on human desire.


The other side to the discussion is that even though humans can choose what they do with technology, how can a nuclear submarine that is designed for the sole purpose of destruction be neutral? Being autonomous means to be in its own realm. It has a force of its own and is separate from culture. A nuclear submarine has exerted much influence on how warfare is conducted. It is true, as stated in the previous section, that a missile has to be launched by a human and new military strategy has to be enacted by a person. However, the power that a general or admiral has is influenced by the weaponry he has. The United States and the Soviet Union would not have had the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction if it was not for the technology that they had. According to Jacques Ellul, technology is capable of creating new morals and civilization.6 In our case the nuclear submarine has given us the opportunity to fight wars in a new fashion. On top of that the threat of nuclear war creates new perspectives on life and makes people think more about self-preservation. Technologies can be good or bad, but they can influence human society greatly. The power it has to exert that much influence makes technology autonomous.

Technology is also autonomous in the fact that it stimulates the production of more technology. It is like a being that has the capability of continuing its life even after it is destroyed. For example, as stated in the history section of the report, the submarine brought forth the development of the depth charge and sonar. Technology calls for the creation of more technology. When nuclear submarines are parked a few hundred miles off the coast of a country, you could be sure that a president is going to do everything in his power to protect his country. For example, President Reagan enacted the Star Wars program to protect us against nuclear weapons being launched at us.

Technology does not have to be bad in order for new technologies to be needed. New inventions are often improvements on older ones. Building on previous inventions often leads to better technology and higher standards of quality. For example, the first submarines could only stay submerged for a short time; today's submarines can stay submerged for weeks. Technology is autonomous because it continues to evolve. Technology is also autonomous because people have to conform it.7 A captain and crew of a submarine have to be trained to operate it. The submarine is useless if they do not know how to use it. Also, the crew is useless if they do not know how to operate it. The three aspects of technology given above: its ability to influence, its ability to evolve, and its ability to make humans conform to it is what makes it truly autonomous.


Hopefully using the submarine as a guide throughout the report has given the reader a better understanding of war technologies' influence on society. The ideas brought forth in this paper are very relative to our present culture. We are entering an age where technology is developing at exponential rates. People have to be very careful of what they invent and how they use it. For now we have seen that technology has its autonomous qualities, but it is still humans who have the ultimate decision of what the future will be. The most important thing that humans must keep in focus is that technology is a part of human existence. We can use technology in a number of different ways, good and bad. People have to stop putting an emphasis on controlling technology and spend more time examining their own morals. Peace will not come as soon as all weapons are destroyed; it will only come when people are ready to live in harmony with one another.

End Notes

1. Sevigny. "The History of the Submarine" (27 April 1999).

2. Chandler, David, ed. Dictionary of Battles: The World's Key Battles from 405 BC to Today. N.Y., N.Y.: Henry Holt and Co., 1988. Introduction

3. Chandler, David, ed. Dictionary of Battles: The World's Key Battles from 405 BC to Today. N.Y.: Henry Holt and Co., 1988. P 217

4. Thomson, William B., ed. Controlling Technology: Contemporary Issues. Amherst, N.Y. : Prometheus Books, 1991. Pg. 47

5. Ihde, Don. "Philosophy of Technology, 1975-1995" Society of Technology and Philosophy.

6. Thomson, William B., ed. Controlling Technology: Contemporary Issues. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1991. Pg. 87

7. Thomson, William B., ed. Controlling Technology: Contemporary Issues. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1991. Pg. 88  


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(Last Updated: 05/04/99)
© Johan Ulloa