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Playboy Interview: Tom Clancy
  • October 01, 2013 : 07:10
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Playboy: Why so one-sided?

Clancy: Because they can't find us; we can find them. We have better submarines, we have better drivers.

Playboy: What makes a good nuclear-submarine driver?

Clancy: They are guys who like adventure, a challenge.... I'm sure most subscribe to Playboy! [Laughs]

Playboy: Thanks. But what's special about the submarine corps?

Clancy: They are very intelligent, very disciplined people. But considering the fact that they like living inside a steel pipe for two months at a time, they also do some crazy things. Mainly, they are out there, operating against the Soviet navy. I mean, officially, the U.S. Navy says our subs are supposedly out conducting "oceanographic research"--like, they're out counting whales for Greenpeace. Sure. In fact, they're really following Soviet submarines and surface ships, gathering intelligence and generally doing everything they do in war, except pulling the trigger.

Playboy: And you believe that submarines are the crucial weapons of modern warfare. How do the subs--or boats, as you've taught us in your books to call them--of each country compare with each other?

Clancy: American boats are quieter. They're mechanically far more reliable. Part of that comes from the fact that we have an overly conservative design philosophy. The Russians are willing to take a lot more design risks than we are. But because they have poor quality control, their good designs are poorly executed. And, therefore, they're mechanically unsafe, in many cases. There are a lot of nasty jokes in the Soviet navy about their nuclear submariners.

Playboy: For example?

Clancy: "How do you tell a sailor from the northern fleet? He glows in the dark." That sort of thing.

Playboy: Are American subs so much quieter and harder to detect that Soviet subs?

Clancy: The amount of noise you make is a function of more than one thing. It's not just the speed or the power output of your reactor. It's also the configuration of the ship, because the ship itself makes noise as it goes through the water. And since the Soviets have more flooding holes in their hulls for the ballast tanks, their hulls are inherently noisier than ours.

Playboy: This is what you have described as "hull-popping sounds"?

Clancy: Right. It's more of a groan and a creak--a pop...snap, crackle and pop, like Rice Krispies. Ours don't do that as much, because we have fewer compartments. The bad news on our side is that their submarines are more survivable, because they're compartmented more closely and they can probably withstand more flooding than ours can. On the other hand, our design philosophy is that if they can't hear you, they ain't going to hit ya. Our props are quieter--or they were until some bastards in Japan and Norway gave the Russians the technology to duplicate them.

Playboy: You're talking about the recent Toshiba scandal?

Clancy: It wasn't just Toshiba; they had help. From Kongsberg, a Norwegian outfit that makes various technological devices and quite a few weapons systems.

Playboy: And what is it, exactly, that Toshiba sold the Russians?

Clancy: A computer-controlled milling machine that, with proper software, can be programmed to design this particular type of screw; they're very difficult to make. The Soviets had been trying to make them for some time; the ones they had were hand-lathed and not terribly well done. Now they'll be able to make them the same way we do. And I'm really pissed at those bastards!

Playboy: Why so personal?

Clancy: Toshiba helped make Russian submarines quieter. As a result of that, the lives of friends of mine who drive submarines for the U.S. Navy and the Royal Navy are very much more at risk now than they were before.

Playboy: What do you think of the response from Congress?

Clancy: What response? Congress is going to wimp out on this like they do on everything else. They see 4000-American jobs at risk if we come down hard on Toshiba. What about the 10,000 people we have out on submarines right now? What's more important, the job or somebody's life?

Playboy: In your books, you write that if you can hear a sub, you can torpedo it. Are today's torpedoes like the things we grew up watching in World War Two movies?

Clancy: No, those were straight runners. You send them out on a path and they just go on a straight line until they hit something. Though the Germans had some torpedoes that circled. But modern "fish" have an ultrasonic sonar in the nose that sends out a very high-frequency ping. The ping hits something and gets an echo back, and the sonar simply turns the torpedo in the direction of the returning ping. It's like a kamikaze with an I.Q. of three.

Playboy: What do you do if you are in a sub and all of a sudden you hear yourself getting pinged? Put your affairs in order and wait for the end?

Clancy: No. First you might send out a noisemaker, a decoy that makes noise in the frequency that this torpedo is listening to. Or you might have a rubber coating on the submarine called an anechoic coating, which is tuned to absorb that specific sonar frequency; at long range, the torpedo won't hear you and won't even home in. Or you turn your tail on the fish--the torpedo--and just try to outrun it.

Playboy: Is that possible? Are modern subs that fast?

Clancy: Well, it's more a function of distance than of speed. If you do the mathematics, if somebody's a mile behind you, going twice as fast as you, he may still run out of range before he gets to you.

Playboy: What can the missiles on the boomer subs do?

Clancy: They can, for all practical purposes, end the world. They can kill off most of the citizens in the Soviet Union, and the Soviet subs can kill off most of the citizens of the United States.

Playboy: And how does the Soviet sub fleet shape up in that respect?

Clancy: They've got more of everything. At least in submarines, they certainly do. They have 385 submarines, that's boomers and fast-attack combined. That means 78 ballistic-missile submarines, the rest, attack subs--so they have us rather heavily outnumbered.

Playboy: But you've said that numbers don't tell the whole story when it comes to new military realities.

Clancy: Not even remotely.

Playboy: So you don't see the Soviet navy as an ultimate threat.

Clancy: It represents a considerable threat, but a threat with which we can deal if we have to. Our real problem is at home--in Washington. The Congressional process almost demands that people lie. If you tell Congress, "Yeah, we can deal with the Soviet threat," Congress will say, "OK, you don't need any more ships this year." What that means is that 20 years from now, we're going to need more ships than we can afford to build. So the defense community very often has to say to Congress, "Look, the Russians have us so badly outnumbered, we have to have 12 more ships." Congress will say, "Well, we can't afford 12, we'll give you six." And the Navy will say, "OK, we'll take six," knowing that six is all it needed all along. It's an absurd, stupid, wasteful process, but it's part of this idiot adversarial system we have in Washington. The real problem is that there are a lot of people in Congress who, frankly, would rather trash the military than hug their own kids.

Playboy: It's not hard to guess your politics on this subject. Some of us think that Congress is too eager to support the Pentagon.

Clancy: Oh, yeah? The day we went into Grenada, I think it was Jim Shannon, the former Congressman from Massachusetts, who got on the floor of the House, for all the C-Span cameras, and recited, "Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto, Grenada, Grenahda, let's call the whole thing off." While that arrogant little bastard was saying that, real guns were firing real bullets at a friend of mine. A Navy helicopter pilot I knew was being shot at and he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for saving 11 lives. He risked his life and some little prick of a Congressman was making jokes about it. That's wrong. That is just plain wrong.

Playboy: You think Congress basically undermines the military?

Clancy: What I'm saying is that it's Congress' job to help run the military, yet it doesn't keep up with what it's supposed to. When I spoke at the CIA last year, the talk was sponsored by the Office of Strategic Weapons Research. Over lunch, they had a good chuckle from saying that since Red October had been published, they'd had between 15 and 20 inquiries from Congress asking CIA how it was that the Soviets developed a submarine caterpillar drive before we did.

Playboy: So?

Clancy: So? So the caterpillar drive was totally fictional! I made it up out of whole cloth! Fifteen or 20 people on Capitol Hill could not tell the difference between a novel and an intelligence briefing. Don't you find that disturbing? Quite a few members of Congress lack either the time or the inclination to know what they're voting for. Decisions are made on an ideological rather than a factual basis. There's an old saying that the person who does not know how to ask the right question always hears the wrong answer.

As for my over-all views on this, the percentage of military expenditure as part of the Federal budget is still well below what it was under John F. Kennedy. And Jack Kennedy was not exactly a Nazi, OK?

Playboy: The question is, Do we really need more planes and boats?

Clancy: That's the wrong question. The question is one of developing a consensus on defense policy. Do we need a military? If you answer that question yes, ask why. What do we need it for? What is its mission? Once you define the mission, you buy all the hardware you need to fulfill that mission. You don't buy hammers because you like hammers, you buy hammers because you have to drive nails to build a house.

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