Cold War Period – Submarines



Submarines operate both submerged and on the surface. They were developed to scout for the main battle fleet and destroy enemy warships. In World War I, they were also employed effectively as commerce destroyers, and in World War II that and hunting enemy surface warships were their principal roles. The Cold War added the missions of hunting enemy submarines and serving as a launch platform for ballistic missiles.

At the beginning of the Cold War, all operational submarines used the diesel-electric drive. This required submarines to either surface frequently to recharge their batteries or be equipped with a snorkel breathing device for submerged diesel operation. Serious research into nuclear power for submarines, which promised essentially unlimited high-speed submerged operation, began immediately after World War II. The Nautilus, the first submarine with a nuclear power plant, was commissioned on 30 September 1954, although it was first under way under nuclear power on 17 January 1955. The Nautilus, 98.7 meters long with a beam of 8.43 meters, displaced 3,180 tons on the surface and 3,500 submerged. It could attain 22 knots on the surface and 23.3 knots submerged and was armed with six bow torpedo tubes with twenty-two torpedoes.

It was three years before the Soviets launched K-3, the first of a class of thirteen nuclear-powered submarines, on 9 August 1957. The K-3 was commissioned on 7 January 1958. This Project 627-class (NATO-designated November-class) submarine was 107.4 meters long with a beam of 8.0 meters. It displaced 3,087 tons on the surface and 3,986 submerged. Its two-reactor power plant gave it a speed of 15.5 knots on the surface and 30.5 knots submerged. It had eight bow torpedo tubes and carried twenty torpedoes.

Nuclear power provided great cruising range. In 1960 the Triton sailed around the world while completely submerged, a trip of 41,519 miles. The Triton displaced 5,662 tons on the surface and 7,781 submerged, was 136.4 meters long and 11.26 meters in beam, had a speed of 27 knots both surfaced and submerged, and was armed with four bow and two stern torpedo tubes with fifteen torpedoes. Because submarines could now remain submerged for their entire duration at sea, they became much more difficult to track. However, nuclear power did not completely eclipse diesel submarines. Indeed, diesel submarines continue to be quieter and are considerably less expensive than those with nuclear power.

With the advent of nuclear weapons, including ballistic missiles, both the United States and the Soviet Union sought to protect their missiles from a first strike by the other power. One of the solutions seized upon was to launch ballistic missiles from submarines. The Soviet diesel-electric Project 611 A (NATO-designated Zulu-IV) submarine B-62, with a single launch tube, was the first to fire a ballistic missile, on 16 September 1955. The succeeding Project 611 AB-class (NATO-designated Zulu-V) submarines were the first operational ballistic missile boat, the first (B-67) being commissioned on 30 June 1956. With a length of 90.5 meters and a beam of 7.5 meters, these submarines displaced 1,890 tons on the surface and 2,450 submerged. They attained 16.5 knots on the surface and 12.5 knots submerged. They could launch 2 R-11FM missiles (NATO-designated Scud) from vertical tubes in the sail, and they mounted six bow and four stern torpedo tubes with twenty-two torpedoes. Initially, Soviet ballistic missile submarines were very vulnerable during launch because they had to surface to fire their missiles.

In 1955, the United States also began work on a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), which would ultimately become the Polaris. The first U. S. ballistic missile submarines used a design derived from that of the Skipjack-class attack boats, and their construction was expedited by redirecting materials, machinery, and equipment originally ordered for attack submarines. The first, the George Washington, was commissioned on 30 December 1959. These nuclear-powered boats displaced 5,900 tons on the surface and 6,700 submerged, were 116.36 meters long and 10.06 meters in beam, attained 16.5 knots on the surface and 22 knots submerged, carried sixteen Polaris missiles in vertical launchers, and had six bow torpedo tubes with twelve torpedoes. The George Washington test-fired two Polaris missiles while submerged on 20 July 1960 in the Atlantic and departed on its first patrol on 15 November 1960.

On 10 September 1960, the Soviet submarine B-62 also successfully fired a ballistic missile while submerged. The new D-4 launch system replaced the earlier D-2 system originally fitted in the first nuclear-powered Soviet Project 658-class (NATO-designated Hotel-I) ballistic missile submarines, first commissioned in December 1960. The upgraded Project 658M (NATO designated Hotel-II) boats displaced 4,080 tons surfaced and 5,240 submerged and were 114.1 meters long and 9.2 meters in beam. Their two-reactor power plants provided a maximum speed of 18 knots surfaced and 26 knots submerged. They carried three R-21 (NATO-designated Sark) missiles in vertical tubes plus four bow and four stern torpedo tubes. Recommissioning began in June 1964. On 24 February 1972 while on patrol some 800 miles northeast of Newfoundland, the K-19, the first of the class, suffered a catastrophic failure in its cooling system, resulting in the deaths of twenty-eight of its crew.

The Polaris missile was upgraded over time, its range increasing with each iteration. The fourth upgrade produced a new missile, the Poseidon, that featured multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles (MIRVs). Each missile could carry ten to fourteen independently targeted nuclear warheads. The Poseidon first departed aboard a submarine on patrol on 30 March 1971.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union continued to work toward the construction of larger ballistic missile submarines to accommodate bigger missiles. For the United States, this led to the Ohio-class submarines, the largest in the world at that time, embarking the Trident missile. The first of these, the Ohio, was commissioned on 11 November 1981. Ohio-class submarines displace 16,764 tons surfaced and 18,750 submerged, are 170.7 meters long with a beam of 12.8 meters, attain 18 knots surfaced and approximately 25 knots submerged, and carry 24 Trident ballistic missiles in vertical tubes and 24 torpedoes fired from 4 bow tubes. The eighteen Ohio-class Trident submarines remain in service, although four are being converted to launch up to 154 cruise missiles via twenty-two vertical tubes rather than ballistic missiles.

The Soviet Union countered with its Project 941-class ballistic missile submarines (NATO-designated Typhoon), the first, TK-208, commissioning on 12 December 1981. They are even larger than the Ohio-class boats and thus are the world’s largest submarines, although they carried only twenty ballistic missiles apiece. They displace 23,200 tons surfaced and 33,800 submerged, are 172.0 meters long with a beam of 23.3 meters, attain 16 knots on the surface and 27 knots submerged, and have six bow torpedo tubes with twenty-two torpedoes, along with 20 R-39 ballistic missiles (NATO-designated Sturgeon) in vertical tubes.

Besides ballistic missile submarines, the other major categories of submarines are attack and cruise missile submarines. Such submarines are used to hunt other submarines, especially ballistic submarines, as well as enemy surface vessels. Along with the first generation of attack and cruise missile submarines, the Soviets developed submarines equipped with cruise missiles as a means of attacking U. S. aircraft carriers. As with ballistic missiles, cruise missiles initially had to be launched from the surface. It was not until the Project 670-class (NATO-designated Charlie-I) nuclear-powered cruise missile submarines that the Soviets developed the capability to launch cruise missiles while submerged. These submarines displaced 3,580 tons on the surface and 4,550 submerged, were 94.0 meters long with a beam of 10.0 meters, attained 16 knots surfaced and 23 knots submerged, and were armed with eight cruise missiles on individual launchers and twelve torpedoes or antisubmarine missiles fired through six bow tubes. The United States first tested a cruise missile, the Regulus, from the USS Tunny on 15 July 1953. It saw limited service aboard five submarines (one nuclear-powered) but was retired in July 1964. Generally speaking, the U. S. Navy chose to rely on aircraft flown from aircraft carriers for antiship warfare purposes.

With the introduction of the second generation of attack and cruise missile submarines, missions included hunting other submarines. This mission was especially important for the Soviets, who built the Project 671-class (NATO-designated Victor) attack submarines specifically to hunt U. S. ballistic missile submarines. The most capable U. S. design in this category were the Thresher-class submarines. They displaced 3,750 tons surfaced and 4,310 submerged, were 84.9 meters long and 9.65 meters in beam, reached 15 knots surfaced and 28 knots submerged, and carried four torpedo tubes and twenty-three torpedoes or submarine rocket (SUBROC) antisubmarine missiles. This generation of submarines represented the bulk of American and Soviet submarine forces from 1961 until the end of the Cold War but is no longer in service.

The third generation of attack and cruise missile submarines are the American Los Angeles-class and the Soviet Project 971 boats (NATO-designated Akula). Production of this third generation of attack submarines was cut short by the end of the Cold War, but they remain in service today. The Los Angeles-class boats displace 6,080 tons surfaced and 6,927 submerged, are 110.3 meters long with a beam of 9.75 meters, and attain more than 30 knots submerged and possibly 20 knots on the surface. They have four torpedo tubes and carry twenty-six torpedoes (and also Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from vertical tubes in later boats). Their Soviet counterparts displace 6,300 tons surfaced and 8,300 submerged, are 108 meters long with a beam of 13.5 meters, travel at up to 20 knots on the surface and 35 knots submerged, and carry forty missiles (a mixture of torpedoes, antiship missiles, and up to twelve cruise missiles) fired through eight torpedo tubes (ten in later boats).

Two characteristics dominate the designs of the third-generation attack submarine classes: high underwater speed and greatly reduced noise emission. The much greater cost of nuclear submarines undoubtedly deterred many navies from adding them to their fleets, but the quest for low noise emission also encouraged development of advanced diesel-electric submarines.

From 1967, the German Type 209 epitomized these advanced conventionally powered boats. Early boats, of Type 209/1100, displaced 1,106 tons surfaced and 1,207 submerged, were 54.4 meters long with a beam of 6.2 meters, and could attain 11 knots surfaced or 21.5 knots submerged. The latest Type 209/1500 boats displace 1,660 tons surfaced and 1,850 submerged, are 62 meters long, and can reach 15 knots surfaced or 22 knots submerged. They are armed with fourteen torpedoes fired through eight tubes. More than forty boats have served with more than a dozen navies, and most are still operational. The new Type 212 that was developed from the Type 209 can be expected to achieve similar success.

The Soviets also continued to build diesel-electric attack submarines. The Project 877 boats (NATO-designated Kilo) displaced 2,350 tons surfaced and 3,126 submerged, were 72.6 meters long and 9.9 meters in beam, reached 12 knots surfaced and 25 knots submerged, and were armed with eighteen torpedoes fired through eight tubes. Although largely withdrawn from service in 2000, an export version of this exceptionally quiet design has proven very successful, with at least twenty sold to six navies since 1986.

Many other nations operated submarines. Among the principal Cold War navies with submarines were Great Britain and France. Britain launched its first nuclear-powered submarine, the attack-type Dreadnought, on 21 October 1960. The Dreadnought displaced 3,500 tons on the surface and 4,000 submerged, was 81 meters long and 9.8 meters in beam, attained 25 knots surfaced and 30 knots submerged, and was armed with twenty-four torpedoes fired through six tubes. The Dreadnought had an American nuclear power plant, enabling the British to save both considerable time and money. The British took a similar path when building their first ballistic missile submarines, the four-boat Resolution-class, by purchasing Polaris missiles. These submarines displaced 7,500 tons on the surface and 8,500 submerged, were 129.54 meters long and 10.06 meters in beam, reached 20 knots on the surface and 25 knots submerged, and could launch sixteen Polaris missiles via vertical tubes and also carried twelve torpedoes fired through six tubes. These submarines provided the British with their own nuclear underwater deterrent force.

Under President Charles de Gaulle, the French also developed an independent submarine nuclear deterrent force. They took a different path than the Americans, British, and Soviets in that they built nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines before their first nuclear-powered attack submarines. Altogether, the French built six Redoutable-class ballistic submarines, the first commissioning in 1971. They displaced 8,050 tons surfaced and 8,940 submerged, were 128.7 meters long and 10.6 meters in beam, attained 20 knots on the surface and 25 knots submerged, and carried sixteen ballistic missiles launched from vertical tubes plus eighteen torpedoes fired via four tubes. Five boats were decommissioned by 2003, but the four later Triomphant-class ballistic missile submarines remain operational. France built a series of sophisticated conventionally powered attack submarines between 1961 and 1978 that also were successful export types. The first of France’s six nuclear attack submarines, Le Rubis, was launched in 1976 and entered service in 1983. It displaces 2,410 tons surfaced and 2,680 submerged, is 75 meters long with a beam of 7.6 meters, attains 18 knots on the surface and 25 knots submerged, and is fitted with four torpedo tubes that can discharge a mix of fourteen torpedoes or Exocet missiles.

References Isenberg, Michael T. Shield of the Republic: The United States Navy in an Era of Cold War and Violent Peace, Vol. 1, 1945-1962. New York: St. Martin’s, 1993. Pavlov, A. S. Warships of the USSR and Russia, 1945-1995. Translated from the Russian by Gregory Tokar. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997. Polmar, Norman, et al. Chronology of the Cold War at Sea, 1945-1991. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997. Polmar, Norman, and Kenneth J. Moore. Cold War Submarines: The Design and Construction of U. S. and Soviet Submarines. Washington, DC: Brassey’s, 2004. Preston, Antony. The Royal Navy Submarine Service: A Centennial History. London: Conway Maritime Press, 2001. Sondhaus, Lawrence. Navies of Europe, 1815-2002. London: Pearson Education Limited, 2002. Watson, Bruce W., and Susan M. Watson, eds. The Soviet Navy: Strengths and Liabilities. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1986.

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