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 A Summary History of U.S. Navy Submarines

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History of U.S. Navy Submarines

The term "submarine," as an adjective, simply means under the sea. But as a noun, a submarine invokes the mental image of a boat that can wreck havoc during wartime through its stealth and power. Although they are large craft that are crewed by over 150 submariners, a submarine is always referred to as a "boat." That's because during their development the name of the craft was shortened from the adjective "submarine boat" to create the noun "submarine." There are 75 boats either commissioned, in reserve, or under construction, making the submarine the most prolific war fighting craft in the United States Navy.

The idea of a craft that could sneak up on enemy ships from under the water has been around since the time of Alexander the Great (332 B.C.). Leonardo da Vinci had his submarine concept as well (late 1400s). The first submersible vessel that apparently worked, and there are drawings of, was constructed in 1620 by Dutchman Cornelius Drebbel in the employ of King James I of England. However, the first military submarine built in the United States was during the American Revolution. The first American submarine was appropriately named the Turtle, designed by Yale University student David Bushnell in 1775.

The Turtle was an acorn-shaped submersible propelled by means of a hand-cranked screw. The idea was that the craft would maneuver and attach itself to the underside of a war ship, where then the operator could drill a hole in the bottom of the target and attach a bomb. The bomb was on a clock fuse that would give the submersible time to get away. Sergeant Ezra Lee of the Continental Army climbed into the Turtle on the night of September 6, 1776, intent on attacking His Majesty's Ship Eagle then anchored off Boston. Unfortunately, Lee couldn't get the bomb attached to the Eagle, eventually giving up and moving off, pursued by a rowboat full of British sailors. Lee was able to set off his bomb to dissuade his pursuers. There were no casualties on either side and there were no more attempts on record of submarine warfare during the Revolution.

Click to preview or purchase "The Boldest Plan is the Best" from Amazon.comIn 1800, American inventor Robert Fulton designed, built, and tested his submarine the Nautilus. Fulton's boat would maneuver under its victim towing a floating mine which would explode by means of a contact fuse when the mine hit its target. Fulton tested Nautilus in France (the U.S. Navy was in its infancy and not in the market for any new technology) and the preliminary testing proved successful. Unfortunately, neither the French nor the British (at war with each other at the time) were impressed enough to buy Fulton's idea and incorporate submarines into their navies. Fulton returned to the United States in 1804 to work on his steamboat for which he is best remembered.

Although the technology was worked on in other countries, nothing much was done with submarines in the United States until the Civil War. Evidence leads us to believe that up to twenty working submarines were built by both sides during the war. Most were not documented, or were lost before making it to combat. The most noteworthy from the period are the Union's USS Alligator and the Confederacy's CSS Hunley. The Alligator was designed by French engineer Brutus de Villeroi and was first launched on May 1, 1862. The Alligator was the first working submarine in the United States Navy and the largest built during the Civil War at 47 feet. It included innovations like compressed and filtered air for its crew of twelve. The boat was propelled by a hand-cranked propeller. The Alligator's weapon system was two limpet mines that could be attached magnetically to the hull of the target ship. Unfortunately, Alligator was lost in a storm off Cape Hatteras on April 1, 1863 while being towed to Charleston for its first combat deployment.

The Confederate submersible H. L. Hunley was named for the boat's designer and financier. The Hunley was 39.5 feet long and carried a crew of eight. The confederate submarine also propelled itself with a hand-cranked propeller, but the weapon system was a spar torpedo. The spar torpedo was basically a spear with bomb attached. The idea was that the Hunley would ram its victim, attaching the mine to the hull of the ship. The Hunley would then disconnect the spar and withdraw, detonating the mine once it was clear. The sub had sunk in testing twice before, so one might imagine that on the night of February 17, 1864 when Hunley launched into Charleston Harbor intent on attacking the Union steam corvette USS Housatonic, observers didn't have their hopes up. However, the Hunley was successful in sinking its intended victim and signaled back to shore a successful mission. Unfortunately, on the way back to base the submarine sank, cause unknown, drowning all eight of her crew.

The Hunley's sinking of the Housatonic marks the first successful attack by a submarine on a surface warship. The location of the innovative submarine remained unknown until 1990. The ship was raised in 2000. Remains of the crew were recovered and laid to rest on April 17, 2004 at Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, South Carolina. Over ten thousand people attended the ceremony, where the sailors were buried with full military honors.

After the American Civil War, inventors in other countries made great strides in submarine technologies. Some benchmarks included developing new hull designs, creating air pressure systems, powering with steam engines, and the invention of the torpedo tube. However, in the United States the next major advancement in the development of submarines did not come until 1881. In that year Irish-American inventor John Philip Holland launched a submarine in New York that he designed and named the Fenian Ram. It was named such for his financial backers, the Fenian Brotherhood, an organization bent on Irish independence from Great Britain, who hoped to use Holland's submarine to sink British warships. The Fenian Ram's cutting edge technology for the first time used horizontal planes and forward motion to "fly" the submarine to its submerged depth. Due to disputes over payments made to Holland, the frustrated Irish group stole the Fenian Ram and another submarine prototype, the Holland III, in 1883 and took the boats to New Haven, Connecticut. Unfortunately for the Fenian Brotherhood, none of their loyal members knew hope to operate the boats and John Holland wasn't helping. The boats gathered rust for thirty years and eventually the submarines became museum pieces.

That would be the end of John Holland as well, except that his work came to the attention of the United States Navy who tasked Holland for a new boat. The Holland VI was launched on May 17, 1897 at Crescent Shipyard in Elizabeth, New Jersey. On April 11, 1900 the Navy bought the Holland VI and renamed it the USS Holland, SS-1, making it the United States Navy's first commissioned submarine. The Holland used an internal combustion engine (later changed from gasoline to diesel) for surface operations and an electric motor for running submerged. The Holland also boasted a new hull shape for easier movement through the water and self-propelled torpedoes fired from tubes that were reloadable from inside the boat.

The USS Holland was so well received that John Holland was able to sell seven of his boat designs to the U.S. Navy and, ironically, a few to the British navy as well. John Holland's company, the Holland Torpedo Boat Company, would later be renamed the Electric Boat Company. Electric Boat was acquired by General Dynamics in 1952 and is still a principle builder of American submarines today.

The First World War brought rapid advancements to submarine technology, particularly the universal adaption of the diesel engine and radio communications that allowed the boats to be directed from shore. The German's Unterseeboot, or U-boat, dominated during World War I. Within a month of the beginning of WWI in 1914, U-boats were sinking British warships in the North Atlantic. The German's adoption of unrestricted submarine warfare against all types of shipping is generally cited as the main reason for the United States' entry into WWI. The threat posed by the U-boat during the war gave birth to anti-submarine warfare (ASW). This included development of technologies such as sonar and the depth charge. As a late comer to the fight, American submarines did not have a high level of participation. In a navy dominated by a battleship mentality, submarines were used mainly in a defensive role for convoys. However, forward thinking officers in the United States Navy took note of German accomplishments with undersea warfare.

Between wars submarine technology continued to progress. The Germans were not allowed to have submarines under the Treaty of Versailles. When Adolf Hitler rose to power he made up for lost time and started to bring back the U-boat fleet in direct violation of the treaty. By the time World War II started in 1939 Germany had incorporated many advanced technologies like sonar, radar, and magnetic fuses on their torpedoes. The United States entered the Second World War with the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. The analysis of the Pearl Harbor attack and the appointment of progressive thinking Chester Nimitz as CINCPAC signaled a new era in naval technology the focused on the aircraft carrier and the submarine. In 1909 Nimitz had commanded the United States' second commissioned submarine, the USS Plunger (SS-2). Admiral Nimitz chose to send a message to the battleship elements of the navy by taking command of the Pacific Fleet on the deck of the submarine USS Grayling (SS-209).

The American submarine fleet at the beginning of the war consisted of 111 boats. During the course of the war of a total of 314 boats would see service, 260 of these in the Pacific. These submarines commissioned during the war were from the Gato, Balao, and Tench classes. The "silent service" was slow to get started, having at first to deal with the Mark 14 torpedo's faulty depth gauge and unreliable fuse which took eighteen months to correct. However, by the end of WWII, American submarines had sunk 1,560 enemy ships for a total of 5.3 million tons. That represents fifty-five percent of the total tonnage sunk during the war. Warships that fell to American submarines included 8 aircraft carriers, a battleship, three heavy cruisers, and over 200 other types. United States submariners denied Japan the raw materials it needed to conduct the war by sinking over half of all enemy merchant shipping. Additionally, U.S. submarines participated in duty that became known as the "lifeboat league," which was picking up downed allied pilots. By war's end over 500 aircrew men would owe their lives to the actions of submarines, including future President George H.W. Bush. The cost of this success was high. The United States lost 52 submarines and 3,505 submariners during World War II, the highest percentage of killed in action (KIA) of any branch of service in the American military.

The close of WWII brought about an almost immediate entry into the Cold War between the western powers, led by the United States, and Russia leading the satellite nations of the Soviet Union (and to some extent Communist China). For the next forty-five years the Super Powers engaged in an arms race, part of which was played out with a cat and mouse game at sea. Submarine and ASW technologies made great strides during the Cold War.

Thanks to the efforts of Captain Hyman G. Rickover, newly appointed as head of the office of Director, Naval Reactors, submarines were the first U.S. vessels to be equipped with nuclear propulsion. The first nuclear powered submarine was the USS Nautilus (SSN-571), launched on January 17, 1955. Prior to nuclear power, submarines were limited on their submerged time due to the need for fresh air to run their diesel engines. Now the nuclear sub could stay submerged practically indefinitely. Also, deployments were no longer limited by the need to refuel. The only resupply needed was food. The nuclear submarine could (and would) stay submerged at sea for months at a time. To prove it, in 1957 Nautilus became the first submarine to transit from the Pacific to the Atlantic under the arctic ice cap.

The first launch of a guided missile from a submarine occurred in July 1953 from the USS Tunny (SSG-282). The Tunney had seen long service in WWII and was modified to fire the Regulus missile. She served in this capacity for another 12 years. The first nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, or "boomer," designed for the specific mission of nuclear deterrence came into service with the USS George Washington (SSBN-598) in 1959. The five boats in the George Washington-class served the country well into the 1980s.

The 1960s saw rapid advances in boomers and the missiles they fired. The George Washington, Ethan Allen, Lafayette, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin classes of Fleet Ballistic Missile (FBM) submarines comprised the "41 for Freedom." This term refers to the 41 boats in these five classes that the United States Navy was limited to (along with 656 submarine-launched ballistic missiles) by the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT I) Treaty. The missiles also evolved through the Polaris, Poseidon, and finally Trident missile classes. The some of the "41 for Freedom" boats served into the new century, until replaced by the Ohio-class of boomers, able to fire the Tomahawk cruise missile along with the Trident.

The Ohio class of nuclear-powered fleet ballistic missile submarines began with the launch of the USS Ohio (SSGN-726) launched on April 7, 1979. Originally designated SSBN-726, the Ohio is one of four boats in the class that were converted to a guided missile submarine and given the SSGN designation. These boats are capable of carrying 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles with either conventional or nuclear warheads, plus Harpoon missiles that are fired through their torpedo tubes. The other 14 boats in the class are FBMs, which are each armed with up to 24 Trident II submarine launched ballistic missiles. These boats, part of the United States nuclear deterrence arsenal, are also known as "Trident" submarines. Those 14 boats carry approximately half of the country's active strategic nuclear warhead capability.

With the advent of ballistic missile boats, submarines evolved into two types, the boomers and the attack submarines. Today's attack boat mission is essentially the same as that of their WWII predecessors: to hunt and destroy enemy ships and submarines. An additional task, added during the Cold War, was to keep up with and provide a radar/sonar screen around an aircraft carrier task force. In the latter half of the 1960s, plans were made for a nuclear powered boat that was both fast and quiet. The new design became the Los Angeles-class attack submarine. The class started with the launch of the USS Los Angeles (SSN-688) on April 6, 1974. Since then, there have been 62 Los Angeles class fast attack submarines commissioned (19 have already been retired), making the Los Angeles class the most numerous nuclear powered submarine in the world. Today, all Los Angeles class submarines are capable of firing the Tomahawk cruise missile along with their compliment of approximately 25 torpedo tube launched weapons.

The intended successor to the Los Angeles-class was the Seawolf-class of nuclear-powered fast attack submarines, ordered near the end of the Cold War in 1989. The Seawolf class boats are larger, faster, and quieter than the Los Angeles class boats, but expensive. The projected cost of the first 12 boats in the class was $33.6 billion. With the budget constraints brought on by the end of the Cold War, the originally planned class of 29 boats was reduced to only 3 in service. They are the USS Seawolf (SSN-21) launch on June 24, 1995, the USS Connecticut (SSN-22) launched on September 1, 1997, and the USS Jimmy Carter (SSN-23) launched May 13, 2004. All three call Naval Base Kitsap, Washington their home port.

The Virginia-class of attack submarines was intended to be a smaller, cheaper version of the Seawolf-class ($1.8 billion per boat versus $2.8 billion). The class began with the launch of the USS Virginia (SSN-774) launched on August 16, 2004. Cost saving is accomplished through "off the shelf" electronics packages and new techniques in construction. There are eight boats commissioned and in service out of the proposed 30-boat class.

The mission of United States Navy submarines are peacetime engagement, surveillance and intelligence, special operations, precision strikes, battlegroup operations, and control of the seas. The American navy currently has 71 submarines in service, 18 of these are boomers and 53 are attack boats of different classes. See the table below for the names and homeports of these submarines.

Ohio-class Ballistic Missile Submarines:

USS Ohio SSGN-726

Naval Base Kitsap, Washington (Bangor)

USS Michigan SSGN-727

Naval Base Kitsap, Washington (Bangor)

USS Florida SSGN-728

Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia

USS Georgia SSGN-729

Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia

USS Henry M. Jackson SSBN-730
(formerly the USS Rhode Island)

Naval Base Kitsap, Washington (Bangor)

USS Alabama SSBN-731

Naval Base Kitsap, Washington (Bangor)

USS Alaska SSBN-732

Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia

USS Nevada SSBN-733

Naval Base Kitsap, Washington (Bangor)

USS Tennessee SSBN-734

Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia

USS Pennsylvania SSBN-735

Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia

USS West Virginia SSBN-736

Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia

USS Kentucky SSBN-737

Naval Base Kitsap, Washington (Bangor)

USS Maryland SSBN-738

Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia

USS Nebraska SSBN-739

Naval Base Kitsap, Washington (Bangor)

USS Rhode Island SSBN-740

Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia

USS Maine SSBN-741

Naval Base Kitsap, Washington (Bangor)

USS Wyoming SSBN-742

Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia

USS Louisiana SSBN-743

Naval Base Kitsap, Washington (Bangor)

Los Angeles-class Fast Attack Submarines

USS Dallas SSN-700

Naval Submarine Base, Groton, Connecticut

USS Providence SSN-719

Naval Submarine Base, Groton, Connecticut

USS Pittsburgh SSN-720

Naval Submarine Base, Groton, Connecticut

USS San Juan SSN-751

Naval Submarine Base, Groton, Connecticut

USS Miami SSN-755

Naval Submarine Base, Groton, Connecticut

USS Alexandria SSN-757

Naval Submarine Base, Groton, Connecticut

USS Annapolis SSN-760

Naval Submarine Base, Groton, Connecticut

USS Springfield SSN-761

Naval Submarine Base, Groton, Connecticut

USS Hartford SSN-768

Naval Submarine Base, Groton, Connecticut

USS Toledo SSN-769

Naval Submarine Base, Groton, Connecticut

USS Norfolk SSN-714

Naval Submarine Base, Norfolk, Virginia

USS Newport News SSN-750

Naval Submarine Base, Norfolk, Virginia

USS Albany SSN-753

Naval Submarine Base, Norfolk, Virginia

USS Scranton SSN-756

Naval Submarine Base, Norfolk, Virginia

USS Boise SSN-764

Naval Submarine Base, Norfolk, Virginia

USS Montpelier SSN-765

Naval Submarine Base, Norfolk, Virginia

USS Helena SSN-725

Naval Submarine Base, Norfolk, Virginia

USS Bremerton SSN-698

Naval Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

USS Jacksonville SSN-699

Naval Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

USS La Jolla SSN-701

Naval Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

USS Olympia SSN-717

Naval Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

USS Chicago SSN-721

Naval Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

USS Key West SSN-722

Naval Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

USS Louisville SSN-724

Naval Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

USS Pasadena SSN-752

Naval Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

USS Columbus SSN-762

Naval Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

USS Santa Fe SSN-763

Naval Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

USS Charlotte SSN-766

Naval Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

USS Tucson SSN-770

Naval Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

USS Columbia SSN-771

Naval Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

USS Greeneville SSN-772

Naval Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

USS Cheyenne SSN-773

Naval Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

USS Albuquerque SSN-706

Naval Submarine Base, San Diego, California

USS Topeka SSN-754

Naval Submarine Base, San Diego, California

USS Asheville SSN-758

Naval Submarine Base, San Diego, California

USS Jefferson City SSN-759

Naval Submarine Base, San Diego, California

USS Hampton SSN-767

Naval Submarine Base, San Diego, California

USS San Francisco SSN-711

Naval Submarine Base, San Diego, California

USS Houston SSN-713

Naval Forces Marianas, Apra Harbor, Guam

USS Buffalo SSN-715

Naval Forces Marianas, Apra Harbor, Guam

USS Oklahoma City SSN-723

Naval Forces Marianas, Apra Harbor, Guam

Seawolf-class Fast Attack Submarines:

USS Seawolf SSN-21

Naval Base Kitsap, Washington (Bangor)

USS Connecticut SSN-22

Naval Base Kitsap, Washington (Bangor)

USS Jimmy Carter SSN-23

Naval Base Kitsap, Washington (Bangor)

Virginia-class Fast Attack Submarines:

USS Virginia SSN-774

Naval Submarine Base, Groton, Connecticut

USS Texas SSN-775

Naval Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

USS Hawaii SSN-776

Naval Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

USS North Carolina SSN-777

Naval Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

USS New Hampshire SSN-778

Naval Submarine Base, Groton, Connecticut

USS New Mexico SSN-779

Naval Submarine Base, Groton, Connecticut

USS Missouri SSN-780

Naval Submarine Base, Groton, Connecticut

USS California SSN-781

Naval Submarine Base, New London, Connecticut

USS Mississippi SSN-782 (delivery due April 2012)

TBD

   

For further reading

Clancy, Tom, Submarine: A Guided Tour Inside A Nuclear Warship, with John Gresham (New York: Berkley, 1993)

Polomar, Norman and K.J. Moore, Cold War Submarines: The Design and Construction of U.S. and Soviet Submarines, 1945-2001 (Washington D.C.: Potomac Books Inc., 2005)

 

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