The United States Navy has developed over the years to form one of the
world's most powerful forces. The nuclear submarine is one of the major
components responsible for achieving this status. The nuclear submarines
have evolved over time in: design, construction, and weapons to become
the most feared deterrence force ever. Tom Clancy, a well-known author
and naval expert describes nuclear attack submarines (SSN&rsquos) in an
excellent fashion by commenting:
The modern SSN is a stealth platform with 70 percent of the worlds
surface under which to hide, its endurance determined not by fuel but by
the amount of food that may be crammed into the hull, and its operational
limitations determined more by the skill of the commander and crew than
by external factors. (XIX)
Clancy also gives the complete story of nuclear submarines from the
beginning. The idea of nuclear energy to power navy submarines came from
an improbable origin; a United States naval officer named Hyman G.
Rickover. After World War II, Rickover was transferred to the engineering
department of the United States Navy. While there, he was responsible for
envisioning the idea of placing small nuclear reactors in submarines and
surface ships. With these reactors, vessels could travel great distances
without having to replenish the their fuel supply. Most importantly for
submarines, it would now allow them to stay submerged for longer periods
of times instead of having to come to the surface to give air to then
diesel engines (Clancy 10).
According to Clancy, Rickover&rsquos main focus was submarines. In the
early 1950&rsquos, a contract was signed for the production of the first
nuclear submarine in the world. The boat was to be named the USS Nautilus
(SSN-571) and built by Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics. The
nuclear reactor in the Nautilus generated steam for the turbines as a
result of pressurized water. This development was far more promising than
the now Admiral Rickover and the Navy had ever dreamed (Clancy 10-11).
Dalgleish and Schweikart include that when the boat was launched in 1954,
it passed both performance and technological barriers. Being similar to
submarines developed after 1944, the boat&rsquos speed was greater
underwater than above, it did not have surface often to replenish
batteries, and could remain underwater for a length of sixty days. The
Nautilus became the first ever vessel to travel the Arctic from the
Pacific to the Atlantic. While initiating an entirely new dimension for
submarine operations, it was the first submarine to arrive at the North
Pole (Dalgleish and Schweikart 6).
A web site dedicated to United States submarines gives statistics about
the famous submarine. The length of the first ever nuclear submarine is
324 feet. The width of the Nautilus at the widest point is twenty-eight
feet. The boat displaced over four thousand tons of water when it was
submerged. The Nautilus could reach a top speed of twenty-five knots. The
crew that manned the ship was accumulated of thirteen officers and
ninety-two enlisted crewmembers. The historical vessel was decommissioned
on March 30, 1980 (Subnet).
After the Nautilus, the second nuclear powered submarine, USS Seawolf
(SSN-575), was developed in early 1957. The one major difference from the
Nautilus to the Seawolf was the reactor. Instead of a pressurized water
reactor, the Seawolf was equipped with a liquid sodium reactor. This new
type of reactor was developed to increase power output in a smaller
volume of space. Consequently, the reactor proved to be a problem and was
later replaced with a pressurized water reactor (Clancy 12).
A web site describing the Seawolf says, "One of her proudest achievements
occurred from August 7&ndash October 6, 1958, when the Seawolf remained
submerged, totally independent of the earth&rsquos atmosphere for 60
days. This set a submerged operation endurance record" (USS Seawolf
(SSN-575) (1)). Another site on the Internet gives the characteristics of
the Seawolf. It records the length at 337 feet. The beam, which is the
width, stands at twenty-seven feet. The speed in which the submarine
could travel reached twenty knots. The crew was made up of 101 officers
and enlisted men. The USS Seawolf (SSN-575) was decommissioned on March
30, 1987 (USS Seawolf (SSN-575) (2)).
The USS Skate (SSN-578) followed the Seawolf in late 1957. It was the
first submarine in a four-class group known as the Skate-class. This
class was designed similar to the Nautilus but smaller. These vessels
became very useful as fleet units and provided a broad base in the
operation of nuclear submarines. The Skate surfaced at the geographic
North Pole in mid 1958. This was the first time in history that a
submarine was able to accomplish this feat (Clancy 12).
The Subnet web site gives the structural characteristics of this class of
submarines. The lengths of these boats are 268 feet, and the widths are
twenty-five feet. The speed when submerged surpassed eighteen knots. The
ships displaced 2,850 tons of water when submerged underwater. The crew
was a combination of eight officers and seventy-eight men. The USS Skate
(SSN-578) was decommissioned on September 6, 1986. The last member of
this class, the USS Seadragon (SSN-584), was decommissioned in June of
The USS Skipjack (SSN-585) was the first of the next class of nuclear
attack submarines. The boats before the Skipjack-class were limited to a
speed no more than twenty-five knots. The limit in speed was a result of
the drag created by the conventional hull. The Skipjack-class submarines
were developed with a new teardrop shaped hull. When the Skipjack was
commissioned in April of 1959, it was quickly named as the fastest
submarine in the world (Clancy 12-13).
The lengths of these superior ships are slightly smaller at 252 feet. The
widths of the Skipjack-class submarines reach thirty-two feet. The speed
while underwater was an impressive twenty-nine knots. Water displaced by
these submarines exceeded 3,500 tons when submerged. The crew that
operated the boat consisted of seventy-six enlisted men and nine
officers. The USS Skipjack (SSN-585) was decommissioned on April 19,
1980. The USS Snook (SSN-592) which was the last member of the
Skipjack-class was decommissioned in October of 1986 (Subnet).
The next two submarines are both very similar. The USS Triton (SSN-586)
and the USS Halibut (SSN-587) were both being considered as submarines
being able to launch cruise missiles. The most notable, the Triton, was
the first submarine to travel around the globe entirely submerged in
1960. It did this by tracing the same route as Ferdinand Magellan four
centuries earlier (Clancy 12).
The length of the USS Triton (SSN-586) was the largest submarine at this
time with a length stretching 447 feet. The width is equally as enormous
reaching thirty-seven feet. The speed was slightly slower than the
Skipjack-class at twenty-seven knots. When submerged, it displaced almost
6,700 tons of water. 156 enlisted men and sixteen officers operated the
USS Triton (SSN-586). It was quickly decommissioned after ten years of
service on May 3, 1969 (Subnet).
When the first atomic weapons were developed, the United States Navy had
wanted a role in America&rsquos nuclear deterrence operations. At this
point in time, the methods used to deliver nuclear weapons were by
carrier aircraft. Now, the idea of combining the new technologies of new
weapons systems into their nuclear submarines was being considered. With
this idea, two different styles of submarines were now being developed.
There was the attack submarine, which the Navy had in operation at the
time. The attack submarine carried torpedoes developed to attack ships,
other submarines, and shipping routes. The new strategic submarine
instead carried nuclear missiles (Dalgleish and Schweikart 7). These new
submarines were capable of threatening any country that posed harm to the
United States or its territories.
The first fleet ballistic missile submarine (FBM) was the USS George
Washington (SSBN-598) which went into operation in late 1959. This was
part of a five-class fleet that would become the most feared deterrence
force ever (Clancy 17). The George Washington-class submarines were then
the longest submarines in the United States at this time spanning 382
feet. The width of the hulls expanded to thirty-three feet. The speed of
the George Washington while submerged was twenty-two knots. The ships
displaced about 6,700 tons of water when underwater. The crew was an
accumulation of two crews with twelve officers and a hundred enlisted men
each. The reason for the two crews was to allow the ship to be in
operation at all times. The George Washington was decommissioned on Jan
25, 1985. The last of the George Washington-class, the USS Abraham
Lincoln (SSBN-602), was decommissioned earlier on February 28, 1982
(Subnet). After a year with the George Washington in service, the USS
Ethan Allen (SSBN-608) was the lead boat in a second group of five
ballistic missile submarines. In 1960, this new class of boats was in the
developmental stages (Clancy 17).
The Ethan Allen-class was similar to the George Washington-class built
for the same purposes. The USS Ethan Allen (SSBN-608) is longer at 411
feet. The hull is the same width at thirty-three feet. The speed was
slightly slower when submerged in only reaching twenty-one knots. The
Ethan Allen displaced 7,900 tons of water, which is almost a ton more
than the USS George Washington (SSBN-608). The Ethan Allen also had two
crews with a combination of ten officers and a hundred enlisted men. It
was decommissioned on March 31, 1983. The USS Thomas Jefferson
(SSBN-618), which was the last of the Ethan Allen-class was
decommissioned in January of 1985 (Subnet).
After the Triton and the Halibut attack submarines, the USS Tullibee
(SSN-597) was the next attack submarine built in the late 1960's. It was
built similar to the Skipjack-class as a quiet submarine capable of
hunting other submarines. The Tullibee was the first attack submarine
have a quiet turboelectric drive system and massive sonar system in the
bow. Throughout the Tullibee&rsquos history, it had a history of
engineering problems. However, it influenced what would appear on every
following attack submarine that the United States would ever build
The length was considerably shorter than the Triton at 273 feet. The hull
only reaches twenty-three and a half feet at the widest point. The speed
while traveling underwater was a very slow fifteen knots. 2,650 tons of
water were displaced when the Tullibee was underwater. It had a smaller
crew with only six officers and fifty-six crewmen. The Tullibee lived a
lengthy life after being in service for twenty-eight years. It was then
decommissioned on June 25, 1988 (Subnet).
After evaluations of many other submarines around the world at the time,
the Navy decided that submarines with high speeds (exceeding thirty
knots) were not very seductive. These vessels made a great deal of noise
that could be heard by other vessels. The focus of the United States was
now on quieter submarines with the ability to submerge to deeper depths
This class was indeed slower than previous classes, but they could dive
deeper, travel quieter, and had a better placed sonar system. The later
boats in this class were modified with more equipment, which added to the
weight. This weight increase resulted in the vessels to be even slower
The initial submarine in this new class of deeper diving/quieter
submarines was the USS Thresher (SSN-593). The Thresher was commissioned
on August 3, 1961. Unfortunately, the Thresher sank in 1963 off the coast
of Nantucket with the entire crew. The class was still carried on with
the next boat, which was USS Permit (SSN-594) (Clancy 18-19).
This class had a length slightly longer than the Tullibee reaching 279
feet. The widths of the hulls were quite larger at thirty-two feet. The
top speed when the Thresher was submerged reached twenty-eight knots. The
ships displaced 4,300 tons of water when underwater. Twelve officers and
ninety-five enlisted men operated the boat. The USS Permit (SSN-594) was
decommissioned on October 1, 1990. The USS Haddock (SSN-621), which was
the last boat in that class, was decommissioned in April of 1992
Following the Permit-class, the Navy again focused their efforts back
towards the production of ballistic missile submarines. These new boats
would be equipped with the newest ballistic missile, the Polaris A-3
(Clancy 19). This missile was developed in 1964. The range was between
2,500 and 2,800 nautical miles. The weight of the A-3 approached 35,000
lbs. The height was thirty-two feet, while the diameter was fifty-four
inches. The Polaris A-3 was constructed of a glass fiber body. These
missiles were also put on all the George Washington-class and Ethan
Allen-class submarines (Dalgleish and Schweikart 32).
This new class of boats was designed after the USS George Washington
(SSBN-598). The designers wanted to put the newly developed quieting
technology that was first put in the Permit-class in this class. In
addition, the missile section was to be larger than the one in the George
Washington-class to house the new Polaris A-3 missile. The lead boat in
this third class of ballistic missile submarines was the USS Lafayette
(SSBN-616). These new submarines were manufactured in great
numbers&mdashthirty-one&mdashand were very surreptitious (Clancy 20-21).
The final twelve in the Layfayette-class were led by the USS Benjamin
Franklin (SSBN-640) making the Benjamin Franklin-class. These boats were
manufactured identical with the only difference being the weapons they
carried. Eventually, all of the Benjamin Franklin-class carried the new
Poseidon C-3 missile, while only five of the Lafayette-class were
equipped with it (Dalgleish and Schweikart 32). The Benjamin
Franklin-class boats developed before the new Poseidon missiles were
armed with the Polaris A-3&rsquos like the Lafayette-class. When the
Poseidon C-3 was developed in 1971, the Benjamin Franklin-class
submarines originally carrying the A-3 missiles were then switched to be
armed with the newer Poseidon C-3 missiles (Subnet).
The Poseidon C-3 ballistic missile had a range between 2,500 and 3,200
nautical miles. The weight was almost double of the Polaris between
65,000 and 73,000 pounds. The height was thirty-four feet, while the
diameter was seventy-four inches. It was also made of glass fiber like
the A-3 (Dalgleish and Schweikart 32).
The lengths of both classes of boats extend to 425 feet, while the hulls
approach thirty-three feet. When submerged, they could reach a top speed
of twenty-one knots. Also while underwater, the ships displaced 8,250
tons of water. As in all other SSBN&rsquos, the two classes have two
separate crews. The crews were made up of fourteen officers and 126
enlisted men. The USS Lafayette (SSBN-616) was decommissioned on August
12, 1991,and the USS Benjamin Franklin (SSBN-640) was on October 1, 1994.
The USS Nathanael Greene (SSBN-636), the last submarine in the
Lafayette-class was decommissioned on Dec. 12, 1286. The last of the
Benjamin Franklin-class, the USS Will Rogers (SSBN-659), was
decommissioned on April 12, 1993 (Subnet).
In 1967, five years after the USS Lafayette (SSBN-616) was commissioned,
the Navy switched their concentration to the production of attack
submarines. They wanted to improve their current attack submarines while
keeping the deep diving and quiet characteristics. The first submarine in
this class was the USS Sturgeon (SSN-637). The Sturgeon-class also was
also developed in great numbers, which included thirty-seven boats.
However, the new improvements to this class hurt the speed by slowing it
to twenty-five knots. In all, these were very good boats with great
qualities. Along with the Permit-class and the Skipjack-class, they
formed the center of the attack submarines in United States Navy (Clancy
The USS Sturgeon (SSN-637) is slightly longer than the Permit-class at
292 feet. The width of the hull reaches thirty-two feet. 4,800 tons of
water were displaced when the boat was under the surface. The crew
consists of ninety-five enlisted men and twelve officers. The boat was
decommissioned on August 1, 1994. The last several submarines in this
class are still in operation, but will be decommissioned shortly
In the mid 1970&rsquos, the Navy developed a new high-speed (over thirty
knots) and quiet attack submarine. It was originally decided to build
only twelve of these submarines. The first boat in this production class
was the USS Los Angeles (SSN-688). These boats were an instant success
with their superior speed and elusiveness. They set new records with
their new speeds and ability to be undetected. To reach this speed, the
hulls on the boats had to be thinned. With the thinner hulls, the
submarines could not dive as deep only reaching three-fourths the depth
of the Sturgeon-class and Permit-class. Eventually, the Los Angeles-class
would reach sixty-two boats in all. This immediately became the largest
class of nuclear submarines in history (Clancy 25).
The USS Los Angeles (SSN-688) and all of the Los Angeles-class submarines
have an enormous length of 360 feet, and a width of thirty-three feet.
While submerged, they displace close to 7,000 tons of water. The Navy
does not disclose the exact speed, but state the speed when submerged at
over thirty knots. They are controlled and operated by twelve officers
and 112 enlisted men. All of these boats are still in operation for the
United States Navy (Subnet).
In the late 1970&rsquos, a new class of ballistic missile submarines or
"boomers" as they were being called was being constructed. The primary
objective for this class was to be surreptitious. The first boat in this
new class was the USS Ohio (SSBN-726). When it went into service, it gave
off less noise than the ocean itself making it the quietest submarine
ever to go to sea. One difference from previous SSBNs was the number of
missile tubes. The Ohio-class has twenty-four tubes instead of sixteen as
ballistic missile submarines developed before that time had (Clancy 25).
The missiles aboard the boats were different as well. The current missile
of choice was the Poseidon C-3 developed in 1971. In 1979, a new missile,
the Trident I C-4, was now put into action. The C-4 had an improved range
around 4,000 nautical miles. The weight was similar at 65,000 pounds. The
height and diameter were the same reaching thirty-four feet and
seventy-four inches. However, the missile body was different being made
of keflar fiber (Dalgleish and Schweikart 32).
Later in 1989, the most powerful nuclear component of the nuclear arsenal
was produced. This was the Trident II D-5. It replaced the Trident I C-4
missiles that were incorporated in the ships put into action before 1989.
This missile has a range of surpassing 6,000 nautical miles. With the
longer range, added weight comes along. The missile has a massive weight
between 125,000 and 130,000 pounds. The height and diameter are larger as
well being forty-four feet and eighty-three inches (Dalgleish and
The nuclear reactor that propels the Ohio-class comes from General
Electric. This S8G nuclear-fueled reactor produces 90,000 horsepower.
This is perhaps enough energy for a city of 50,000 people (Dalgleish and
The Ohio-class is easily the largest nuclear submarine ever built by the
United States. The Ohio-class submarines stretch a lengthy 560 feet, with
the hulls expanding to forty-two feet. While submerged they displace a
massive 18,750 tons of water. The speed when operating underwater is
twenty-six knots. The two crews each have fifteen officers and 142
enlisted men (Subnet). The last of the eighteen Ohio-class submarines was
the USS Louisiana (SSBN-743), which was commissioned in September of 1997
Since the last attack submarine class, the Los Angeles-class, many
advances in submarine technology have surfaced. These changes have been
put into the latest attack submarine, which is the USS Seawolf (SSN-21).
This $2.1 billion submarine has been awarded as the quietest, fastest,
and most powerful submarine in the world (Douglass 20).
The length of the Seawolf is not much longer than previous attack
submarines at only 353 feet. However, the hull is much larger than the
Los Angeles-class reaching forty feet. The General Electric reactor on
board produces 52,000 horsepower. The Seawolf is equipped with the latest
military weapons. These weapons are Mark 48 torpedoes, Harpoon antiship
missiles, and Tomahawk cruise missiles (Wilson). Currently, there are two
submarines that will belong to the Seawolf-class under construction
(Department of the Navy).
The Mark 48 torpedoes are the standard torpedoes for today&rsquos
submarines. They were developed and put into service in 1972. The exact
range is not disclosed but is noted at exceeding five miles. The weight
of each torpedo is close to 3,500 pounds. The length is nineteen feet,
while the diameter is twenty-one inches. The speed in which they travel
through the water is over twenty-eight knots (Department of the Navy).
The Harpoon antiship missiles were developed in 1985. They have a range
that is greater than sixty nautical miles. The height of each missile is
fifteen feet, while the weight is around 1,400 pounds. The cost of each
missile approaches $720,000 (Department of the Navy).
The Tomahawk cruise missile is the main long distance missile used by
attack submarines. It was put onboard submarines in 1986. The effective
range for these missiles is under 870 nautical miles. The weight is
between 2,650 and 3,200 pounds depending on the components added. If the
booster is added, the length extends to twenty and a half feet. The
diameter of each cruise missile is twenty and a half inches. These
missiles were effectively used in Operation Desert Storm being launched
from the Persian Gulf. The cost of each Tomahawk cruise missile is an
amazing $750,000 (Department of the Navy).
Kenneth Flamm put a perspective on the current weapons situation of the
United States by saying, "Emerging as the sole global military superpower
(1997 U.S. spending on R&D and procurement of weapons systems was roughly
equal to that of Europe, Japan, Russia, China, Iraq, Iran, and North
Korea combined)&hellip"(Flamm). This statement shows the importance the
United States places on military weapons. It also shows the amount of
money that the government is willing to spend to protect the citizens of
the United States.
Currently, the Navy still has three major classes of attack submarines
still in operation. These submarines belong to the Sturgeon-class, the
large Los Angeles-class, and the Seawolf with the two more Seawolf-class
submarines under construction. A few of the thirty-seven submarines that
make up the Sturgeon-class will remain operational up to the twenty-first
century. However, the Navy is in the process of quickly retiring this
class of boats to open funds for the expensive Seawolf-class. The
sixty-two members of the Los Angeles-class will go well into the
twenty-first century (George 129-131).
Right now, there is only one class of ballistic missile submarines still
commissioned. The eighteen members of the Ohio-class will remain
operational well into the twenty-first century. They will not start to be
in need of replacement until the year 2010 (George 131).
Electric Boat Corporation, a division of General Dynamics, has been
involved with the production of the United States submarine force since
the early 1900&rsquos. These shipbuilding efforts need assistance from
all parties involved to be productive. These areas include both the
design and construction processes (Burns 55).
Originally, submarines are designed from the production of paper
drawings. This method is followed by a full-scale mockup made of wood.
The problem with having two or more components in the same space and
production problems is then recognized when the drawings are developed
into the wooden mockup. After the mockup, construction drawings are then
developed to manufacture the submarine. However, various problems arise
when the mockup is completed. The problem is that the mockup including
the components are not designed at the same detail that the actual
submarine is to be built (Burns 56).
The first step towards the manufacturing of the submarine is to order the
items which take time to be produced and delivered. These items include
the heavy equipment, the reactor, and various other items of importance
(Clancy 33). Between a year and two years, these items begin to be
brought to Electric Boat. The first step in the actual construction is to
build the outer layer known as the pressure hull. Curved sections are
welded together with a great deal of care. All of the sections are joined
to into a long "can-shaped" object to form the pressure hull. After that,
the previously welded compartments are filled with the big items that
will not be able to fit after construction. Finally, each end of the hull
is sealed with the hull now complete (Clancy 34-35).
When the larger components are placed in the boat, the hull is pronounced
watertight. Now the submarine is ready to be put to sea, known as the
launching phase. After the submarine is launched, it is brought back to
the construction dock for the final equipment. Along with installing the
equipment, the boat will undergo more tests. This final stage sometimes
takes between six and eight months (Clancy 35).
When this last stage of construction is finished to exact specifications,
the ship's crew is finishing training to optimize the submarine for
combat conditions. This process of training the crew takes several more
months as well. In these training procedures, the crew becomes capable of
operating a weapon ready for war (Clancy 36-37).
Close to six years after the signing of the contract, the official last
step takes place. When the Navy decides that the submarine has qualified
to become a member of the fleet, a commissioning date is decided. These
commissioning ceremonies usually take place in Groton, Connecticut or
Norfolk, Virginia (Clancy 37).
It is evident that submarines have developed into better and more complex
machines over the years. These submarines and their crews protect the
"homeland" of the United States of America against anyone threatening to
invade or attack. The submarine program in the Navy needs constant
funding and support from all citizens who are protected by it. If it
continues to receive both of these items, it will continue to grow and
mirror the success as in previous years.
Burns, Richard F. "Construction Submarines--Digitally." Sea Technology
39.7 (1998): 55-58.
Clancy, Tom. Submarine: A Guided Tour Inside a Nuclear Warship. New York:
Dalgleish, Douglas D., Schweikart, Larry. Trident. Carbondale and
Illinois University Press, 1984.
Department of the Navy.
Douglass, John W. "Navy Undersea Acquisition: A Changing Environment."
39.1 (1998): 20-21.
Duncan, Francis. Rickover and the Nuclear Navy. Annapolis: Naval
Institute Press, 1990.
Flamm, Kenneth. "An Economic Strategy to Control Arms Proliferation."
Issues in Science and
Technology Winter. 1997.
George, James L. The U.S. Navy in the 1990&rsquos: Alternatives for
Action. Annapolis: Naval
Institute Press, 1992.
"USS Nautilus (SSN-571)."
"USS Seawolf (SSN-575)." http://www.ssn21.com/575_hist.html (1)
"USS Seawolf (SSN-575)." http://www.acronet.net/~sljaklin/SEAWOLF.html
Wilson, Jim. "Run Silent, Run Deep." Popular Mechanics Jan. 1996.