Nuclear Submarines Revolutionize Naval Warfare, Intelligence Collection, and Spawn Technological Innovations

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Nuclear Submarines Revolutionize Naval Warfare, Intelligence Collection, and Spawn Technological Innovations


Although submarines had been used for warfare in one form or another since the American Revolution, it was not until World War I that they were ocean-capable vessels. Even then their limited battery life and diesel engines tied them to the surface. Nuclear power removed this obstacle, allowing them to operate as true undersea warships, limited only by their ability to store food and the endurance of their crews. The development and refinement of nuclear submarines led to drastic changes in the nature of naval warfare and information gathering, fostered a number of technological innovations, and fascinated the public in a manner matched only by aircraft carriers and, perhaps, battleships in their heyday.


In 1620 Dutch inventor Cornelius Drebbel (1572-1633) constructed and operated a 24-man submarine that cruised five meters beneath the surface of the Thames River. It employed an unknown process that produced oxygen to keep the rowers from suffocating while they propelled the vessel. In 1755 David Bushnell (1742?-1824) constructed the first submarine designed for war, the Turtle, which was developed to attack British warships. Other submarines were used sporadically through the end of the nineteenth century, but until the invention of the long-duration storage battery and a diesel engine to recharge it, the submarine remained an impractical weapon. The first modern submarines were used during World War I, and the diesel-electric attack submarine reached its pinnacle of success during the Second World War. Even then, however, plans were in place for a successor that would be able to operate with complete independence from the surface.

At the start of World War II Japan, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States all knew that a nuclear chain reaction, if controlled, could produce enormous amounts of energy. Interestingly, all four countries first thought to apply this power source to submarine warfare, and thought about constructing atomic weapons later. Nuclear submarines, however, had to wait until after the war, when Hyman G. Rickover (1900-1986) persuaded the navy to let him design and construct an operable nuclear submarine. The USS Nautilus was completed in 1954 and immediately met all expectations. It still had the boat-shaped hull of its predecessors, lessening its underwater speed and reducing the room inside.

Later submarines rapidly became more efficient. The Skipjack class, built in the late 1950s, was built with a hydrodynamic hull for underwater efficiency. The Thresher class, built in the 1960s, had better sonar and fire-control systems, an integrated attack center, and other innovations, becoming the model for future submarines. Finally, the launch of the USS George Washington in 1960 put nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles on board. This created a nearly undetectable launch platform capable of rapid deployment within striking distance of any potential adversary. Subsequent designs improved on these advances as the Trident and Los Angeles, and Seawolf submarines were built and launched. Other nations followed America's lead, with Britain, the Soviet Union, France, and China building their own nuclear submarine fleets.

As submarines' capabilities expanded, so did their roles. During the Cold War, they were used to gather intelligence, train allies' navies, launch commando teams for reconnaissance or strike missions, gather oceanographic data from beneath the polar ice cap, and a host of other duties. Engineering advances improved the accuracy of submerged navigation, provided better safety systems for commercial nuclear reactors, and led to more efficient atmosphere-control systems. Rickover's insistence on safety and quality set the standard for industrial quality-control systems. Submarines' strategic importance was highlighted by the quality of their personnel: for over 40 years nuclear submarines had the best-trained sailors on their crews, enjoyed the highest priority for ordering spare parts, received the best food, and had the highest pay among any type of ship in the Navy.


Building a nuclear-powered submarine is not easy. The ship must be large enough for 120 or more sailors to work and live in for months. It has to hold a nuclear reactor and steam turbines as well as the weapons it is designed to deliver, yet still be small enough to travel at a decent speed. Its mechanical, electrical, and electronic systems must be reliable enough that the ship can safely stay at sea undetected for two or three months at a time. Finally, if it is to be truly independent of the surface, it must be able to make its own water and oxygen and remove waste gases from the atmosphere.

Virtually all of these innovations have practical applications outside the navy. Lithium hydroxide systems that remove carbon dioxide from the air are used in spacecraft; navigation systems, including global positioning satellites (GPS), are used on pleasure boats and cars; and quality-assurance programs modeled after Rickover's help keep both civilian nuclear reactors and other potentially hazardous industries safe and reliable. Improved reactor design and, as importantly, a steady stream of highly trained "ex-navy nukes" have given American nuclear power plants a safety and reliability record that, despite protests to the contrary, is virtually unmatched in any industry. Finally, onboard studies of people living in small spaces for weeks at a time have led to a better understanding of human interactions, group dynamics, and the psychology of living under stress.

One of submarines' greatest attributes is their ability to operate undetected, which makes them ideal for intelligence operations. Submarines can drop off (and retrieve) teams of specially trained personnel, who then observe potential adversaries without being observed. This knowledge can be invaluable in war, and in peacetime, can help to defuse tensions. In times of escalating tension, direct observation of an adversary's forces can show whether or not they are preparing for war. Ideally, more and better information about a potential enemy increases stability because it's less likely that innocent actions will be mistaken for malevolent intent.

The development of ballistic missile submarines has proven a mixed blessing. A certain degree of societal and political security comes from knowing that your nation maintains a fleet of submarines, almost certainly out of harm's way, fully able to launch a strike against any nation in the world. This makes it less likely that a foreign power will use weapons of mass destruction against your nation, because they presumably know that to do so would be to invite a massive and devastating counterattack. On the other hand, your adversaries have this same capability, and since sea-launched ballistic missiles have a shorter travel time than land-based missiles, a submarine strike will give less warning and may be more devastating than its land- or bomber-based counterpart. This realization can more than compensate for any feelings of security that friendly missile submarines can bring.

All things considered, the possession of ballistic missile submarines by both sides during the Cold War was ultimately a source of stability, because both understood that any nuclear strike against the other would certainly result in an equally massive counterattack that was simply not survivable. This may have helped persuade both sides that nuclear war could not be won and was not worth starting.


Further Reading


Clancy, Tom. The Hunt for Red October. Naval Institute Press, 1985.

Clancy, Tom. Submarine: A Guided Tour Inside a Nuclear Warship. New York: Putnam's, 1993.

Huchthausen, Peter, Igor Kurdin, and R. Alen White. Hostile Waters. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.

Sontag, Sherry, and Christopher Drew. Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage. New York: Public Affairs, 1998.


Ice Run. 1999. CNN Perspective. Videocassette.

Submarines, Secrets, and Spies. 1999. NOVA. Videocassette.

Submarines: Sharks of Steel. Discovery Channel. Videocassette.

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Nuclear Submarines Revolutionize Naval Warfare, Intelligence Collection, and Spawn Technological Innovations

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