Cold War Submarine Warfare II

For a short time, Nautilus was the world’s only nuclear-powered submarine. Admiral Rickover noted that, “Nautilus did not mark the end of a technological road. It marked the beginning. It should be compared with the first airplane that flew at Kitty Hawk. It marks the beginning of technological revolution at sea.” Another Cold War submarine mission also demonstrated the age of the submarine had arrived. USS Triton (SSN-586), commissioned in 1959, was the only dual-reactor American nuclear submarine. Built as a radar picket to perform electronic surveillance and radar screening in advance of a surface fleet, the 447-foot long, 5,963-ton Triton was built not only to be the largest US submarine up to that time, but also fast. On its trials, Triton exceeded 30 knots. It was not speed, however, that distinguished Triton, but under the command of veteran submariner Edward L. “Ned” Beach, Jr., Triton made history on its shakedown cruise when it embarked on a submerged cruise around the world.

While the mission commenced as a Top Secret exercise codenamed Operation Sandblast, the Navy’s intention was to publicize the feat after the voyage. Departing on February 15, 1960, on what was billed as a transatlantic crossing, Triton submerged and followed the track of 16th century navigator Ferdinand Magellan for 36,102 nautical miles for the next 60 days and 21 hours. In addition to completing the world’s first completely submerged circumnavigation, Beach and his crew collected oceanographic data and made history, a fact that the commander, as a naval historian and author in his own right, was well aware of in his dedication of the voyage:

The sea may yet hold the key to the salvation of man and his civilization. That the world may better understand this, the Navy directed a submerged retrace of Ferdinand Magellan’s historic circumnavigation. The honor of doing it fell to the Triton, but it has been a national accomplishment; for the sinews and the power which make up our ship, the genius which designed her, the thousands and hundreds of thousands who labored, each at his own metier, in all parts of the country, to build her safe, strong, self-reliant, are America. Triton, a unit of their Navy, pridefully and respectfully dedicates this voyage to the people of the United States.

The intended recipient of the message of Triton’s voyage – and America’s submarine prowess – was the Cold War enemy, the Soviet Union, a fact underscored by headlines like that of the Hartford, Connecticut, Courant of May 15, 1960, “Triton’s 83-day Odyssey Should Give Reds Chills.” While that message was overshadowed by the downing of a U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union and the capture of its pilot, the successful completion of the voyage of USS Triton earned Captain Beach a Legion of Merit, personally awarded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower after a dramatic helicopter trip that plucked Beach off Triton for a fast trip to the White House for the ceremony before returning him to the submarine. In addition to Beach’s medal, Triton and its crew were awarded a Presidential Unit Citation.

Demonstrations of Nautilus, Triton, and their immediate successors, USS Seawolf, Skate, and Skipjack, proved the concept of the nuclear submarine to allies, notably Britain, which had previously studied reactor designs but had set its own project aside in 1952. The UK now acquired an American reactor (of the type used in the Skipjack class) for its first nuclear submarine, HMS Dreadnought, which was launched from Vickers Armstrong shipyard at Barrow-in-Furness on October 21, 1960, by Queen Elizabeth II. An all-British reactor and submarine followed with HMS Valiant. Like Nautilus, Dreadnought had a distinguished career, including surfacing at the North Pole on March 3, 1971. Laid down at roughly the same time as Nautilus, Dreadnought was succeeded by the two-boat Valiant class and then Polaris-carrying Resolution class, part of a nuclear club that by 1980 included 14 other British, five French, 115 American, and 170 Soviet nuclear submarines.

With the death of Josef Stalin in 1953, the new Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, inaugurated a nuclear submarine program that culminated in the Project 627 (NATO codename November) class boats. Between 1957 and 1962, the Soviets launched 14 variants of the class, with a series of achievements – long-range missions, silent tracking of US surface warships, and submarine K-3, “Leninskiy Komsomol,” reaching the North Pole in July 1962. Other classes followed, with the Soviets ultimately building a diverse and powerful fleet of larger, harder-hitting boats – hunter-killers, such as the Victor, Sierra, Akula, and Alfa classes, guided missile boats like the Echo, Charlie, and Oscar classes, and submarines carrying ballistic missiles such as the Hotel, Yankee, Delta, and Typhoon classes. The NATO-codenamed Typhoon, project 941 “Akula” (not to be confused with the NATO-named submarine) was not only the largest Soviet submarine, but also the largest submarine class built in the world with a surfaced displacement of 24,110 tons, a length of 574ft, and a beam of 675ft 6in. Built with multiple pressure hulls enclosed within one massive outer hull, the six Typhoon boats were designed to carry a 163-man crew for missions of 180 days and longer, if needed, and were specially designed for Arctic service. In addition to torpedoes and cruise missiles, the Typhoons were built to also carry 20 missiles, each missile with 10 MIRVs in tubes forward of the sail.12 While a technical triumph, the cost of these submarines and their weapons were ruinous, with one Soviet submarine designer noting that “such ill-considered decisions, which were lobbied by the definite industrial circles, undermined the economy of the USSR and contributed to the loss [of] the Cold War.” The economic cost of the Soviet submarine program, including the Typhoons, was staggering. During the Cold War, the United States built 191 submarines, while the Soviets completed 661.

While not all of the Typhoons survived the end of the Cold War, at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, two of these behemoths remain in service in the fleet of the Russian Navy. In addition to the gigantic Typhoons, the Soviet Union also built two small experimental submarines for coastal incursions and special operations in the 1980s. The Project 865 “Piranha” or Losos submarines MS-520 and MS-521, which displace 218 tons surfaced and are 93ft long, define the other end of the Soviet submarine spectrum.

The concept of nuclear deterrence included a decision by the US to make the submarine the ultimate deterrent, with nuclear-powered craft capable of remaining submerged, on constant patrol, armed with nuclear missiles that could be launched from the deep. Submarines launching a Regulus on the surface were exposed to attack, whereas submarines firing a missile while submerged were less vulnerable. What followed the cruise missile program in close order was the construction of a new type of missile together with a new type of submarine to carry it, the strategic ballistic missile submarine (SSBN). That missile, an A-1 Polaris, was a solid-fuel ballistic missile developed between 1956 and 1960 by Lockheed. With a 1,000 nautical mile range, the 28-foot long two-stage missile carried a 600-kiloton warhead.

The submarine-launched ballistic nuclear missile

The first test firing of a submarine-launched ballistic nuclear missile was the launch of a Polaris by USS George Washington, on July 20, 1960. The successful launch was reported in a coded message to US President Dwight D. Eisenhower; “Polaris – from out of the deep to target. Perfect.” George Washington again made submarine history when it departed from Charleston, South Carolina, on November 15, 1960, on its first nuclear deterrence cruise. In the words of Admiral I. J. Galantin, that was when “sea-based ballistic missile deterrence became a reality.” The Cold War in submarines was defined in part by the nature of such a cruise; “Once in deep water, the ship proceeded submerged to an area in the North Atlantic from which the arching trajectories of her missiles could reach targets far inside Russia’s borders. As she roamed randomly and silently within a sea area the size of Texas, no one ashore, not even her operational commander, Commander-in-Chief Atlantic Command, could know exactly where she was at any time.”

The cruise of USS George Washington lasted 67 days and 10 hours, all of them submerged. The Cold War submarine had become more than the ultimate deterrent; it was a true submarine, operating in the depths, as Admiral Galantin noted, with only one dive and one surfacing. Over the course of the Cold War, thousands of strategic deterrence patrols, as well as barrier patrols and surveillance patrols followed the first missile cruise of George Washington. The five George Washington class of submarines, built between 1957 and 1961, were 381ft long boats that carried 16 Polaris missiles in a 130ft compartment known to their crews as “Sherwood Forest.” They remained in service into the 1980s, with the Navy decommissioning the last boat in 1986.

The George Washington class was followed by the Ethan Allen class, the first American ballistic missile submarines designed and built as such from the keel up, since the George Washington class were essentially Skipjack-class attack boats with the missile compartment added on. The United States built 41 variations of the Ethan Allen boats as the Lafayette, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin classes. Carrying Polaris A-2 missiles, and later fitted with Poseidon and Trident missiles, these boats, collectively known as the “41 for Freedom,” served between the 1960s and the beginning of the 21st century. The 41s were phased out in favor of the Ohio class, a group of 18 boats built by General Dynamics Electric Boat between 1976 and 1996. The Ohios, the largest American submarines yet built, are 560ft long, with a 42ft beam, and displace 16,499 tons surfaced. Built for speed, rapid replenishment, and 100-day patrols, the Ohios do not remain in port for long. Designed to deliver 24 Trident missiles, the Ohio class is the current ultimate submarine nuclear deterrent of the United States, with 14 of the class carrying upgraded Trident II missiles, each missile with up to eight multiple independent reentry vehicle warheads (MIRVs). Four of the class were modified to carry vertically launched Tomahawk cruise missiles (which can be armed with either conventional or nuclear warheads). Collectively, it is claimed that the Ohios can carry up to half of the United States’ nuclear warheads.

As with the attack boats, the Soviets countered with their own ballistic missile submarines, at first with diesel boats in 1962 and then with the nuclear-powered Yankee class in 1968. Other powers also joined the submarine nuclear “club” – France in 1971 and China in 1974, each introducing ballistic nuclear missile boats respectively in 1971 and 1987. Britain took its first nuclear missiles to sea in 1967 with HMS Resolution, which was quickly followed by three sister boats, Repulse, Renown, and Revenge, all armed with US-provided Polaris missiles.