Cold War Submarine Warfare I

Submarines played a significant role in the Cold War (1947–91), particularly as the development of nuclear weapons and platforms to deliver them introduced the ballistic missile submarine into the fleets of the United States, the Soviet Union, and then to other powers. With the concept of a submarine surfacing in close enough proximity to launch missiles without sufficient warning to evacuate the civilian leadership of a country, or to conduct a preemptive assault, submarine warfare by necessity also involved fast attack craft to hunt and stop ballistic boats from getting too close. Missions to shadow surface fleets, infiltrate enemy harbors and ports, conduct espionage and intelligence gathering, and the development of new technologies to intercept communications, listen for enemy boats with greater ability to detect and track them, and to build deeper, faster, and deadlier submarines defined the Cold War beneath the waves. Among the missions were early penetrations of the Black Sea, then a Soviet Mare Clausum, in early 1947, and the waters off Vladivostok in 1952 during the Korean War by wartime diesel boats, US submarine surveillance of Soviet atomic testing off Novaya Zemlya, deployment of divers to tap into Soviet seabed cables, shadowing and photographing Soviet submarines, and the mapping off the Arctic coast of the Soviet Union. A deadly Cold War game of cat-and-mouse ensued, with the Soviets losing four of their boats, K-129, K-8, K-219, and Komsomolets and the US losing two, USS Thresher and USS Scorpion as various missions pushed some boats beyond their capacity and tragic accidents occurred. The May 15, 1968, loss of Scorpion, still classified by the US Government as “cause unknown,” is widely believed to be “the first premeditated sinking of a US submarine since World War II,” a retaliatory act by the Soviet Union in the belief that an American submarine had collided with and sank the Golf II boat K-129 in the Pacific on March 8, 1968. Even without any verified combat, the Cold War exacted a human price. There were other submarine-caused casualties and submarine losses during the Cold War period, three British submarines, Truculent, Affray, and Sidon and the Israeli submarine Dakar are among the more famous losses. Truculent was sunk in 1950 as the result of a collision with a Swedish oil tanker in the Thames Estuary, while Sidon was lost in 1955 due to an explosion of a test torpedo on board. Both Affray and Dakar were sunk with all hands and were not recovered for some time. Affray was lost during a simulated war mission in 1951 and was not found for two months, while Dakar sunk in 1968 due to what has now believed to be a ruptured hull, but was missing for over 30 years. Even after the Cold War, the Russian Navy lost the nuclear submarine Kursk in a tragic training accident that claimed all of its crew. The Kursk tragedy unfolded during naval maneuvers in the Barents Sea on August 12, 2000. During preparations to fire a torpedo, an explosion at the bow was followed by a second, larger explosion. The first explosion is believed to have been caused by a faulty hydrogen peroxide fueled torpedo followed by a secondary detonation of additional torpedoes which demolished the bow and sank the submarine. Coming to rest in 354 feet of water, the sunken Kursk became the center of a protracted drama as Russian authorities refused to accept international help to rescue any surviving crew out of the 118 men aboard. It was later determined that 23 men had survived in an aft compartment but were tragically lost.

After salvors raised Kursk, in aft compartment number nine, the body of Captain-Lieutenant Dmitri Kolesnikov, commander of the seventh compartment, was found with notes he had written after the disaster and as he and the others faced their deaths. Kolesnikov’s last words were powerful, poignant, and brave:

It’s dark here to write, but I’ll try by feel. It seems there are no chances, 10–20 percent. Let’s hope that at least someone will read this. Here’s the list of personnel from the other sections, who are now in the 9th and will attempt to get out. Regards to everybody, no need to be desperate.

Kolsenikov’s last note also included a message to his wife; “Olichka, I love you. Don’t suffer too much. My regards to GV [his mother-in-law] and regards to mine.”

The submarine also exacted a toll on other vessels during the Cold War and afterward. During the Indo-Pakistani War in 1971, the French-designed Pakistani submarine Hangor under the command of Ahmed Tasnim sank the Indian frigate Khakri on November 22, 1971, the first submarine kill since World War II, and the former Tench-class Indian Navy submarine Ghazi sank during the war through circumstances that remain disputed. The British submarine HMS Conqueror, under the command of Commander Chris Wreford-Brown sank the Argentinean cruiser General Belgrano during the Falklands War on May 2, 1982, the first and currently the only wartime attack by a nuclear submarine. The most recent likely submarine attack came on March 26, 2010, when the South Korean corvette Cheonan exploded and sank, killing 46 of its crew. After raising the sunken craft, South Korean officials stated that a North Korean submarine had sunk Cheonan, and displayed the remains of a homing torpedo recovered from the wreck site, releasing a report from a panel of foreign experts. North Korea angrily denied any complicity in the sinking, and the matter remains controversial.

By the end of the Cold War in 1991, submarines prowled the oceans of the world at depth, silently waiting for coded orders to unleash enough atomic firepower to wipe all life off the surface of the planet. While a number of stories have emerged about the Cold War nuclear boats, the men who commanded and crewed them, and the various missions they undertook, many more stories and details remain secret and shrouded in mystery, and only the opening of top-secret archives will allow for a final accounting of this period of submarine development and operations. Cold War submariner and author W. Craig Reed sees this period as one in which American submarines prevailed due to leadership, superior training, and technology, despite the US submarine force being “greatly outnumbered by the Soviets, with only 123 submarines pitted against nearly three times that number.” By the time the Cold War ended, Soviet technology had caught up, and as Reed has noted, if the Cold War had continued, it might have in time had a different conclusion.

In the first decades of the 21st century, other powers have acquired nuclear submarines, other nations retain diesel-electric fleets, including some nuclear powers, and a submarine arms race quietly continues around the globe in the face of ongoing regional and international tension.

The nuclear submarine

The US Navy had designed a new submarine, the Tang class, to replace the fleet boat, but budget constraints limited production even as the Soviets raced to build up their own fleet of modern fast diesel-electric submarines. Experiments with the Walter propulsion system determined, just as British experiments had, that the hydrogen peroxide system was not ideal, nor was any other form of diesel-electric propulsion. The concept of a nuclear-powered boat, first envisioned in 1939 and more firmly pursued by naval visionaries, excited a number of submarine proponents, among them Admiral Charles Lockwood, a veteran commander of Pacific submarines in World War II, who later recalled a meeting about the concept:

If I live to be a hundred, I shall never forget that meeting on March 28, 1946, in a large Bureau of Ships conference room, its walls lined with blackboards which, in turn, were covered by diagrams, blueprints, figures, and equations … used to illustrate various points as he [Philip Abelson, a brilliant physicist whose work helped pave the way for naval nuclear reactors] read from his document, the first ever submitted anywhere on nuclear powered subs. It sounded like something out of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea.

By late 1947, the idea had received the support of the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Chester Nimitz, who wrote a secret memorandum to the Secretary of Defense arguing that:

The most secure means of carrying out an offensive submarine mission against an enemy is by the use of a true submarine, that is one that can operate submerged for very long periods of time and is able to make high submerged speeds … it is important that the Navy initiate action with [a] view to prompt development, design, and construction of a nuclear powered submarine.

Following various stages of approval, the Navy pursued the plans for a nuclear submarine beginning in 1948. By 1949, the plans had progressed to the point where two designs, one to test the ideal hull form for high speeds, and the other to test a naval reactor, were ready for trials.

The hull form test boat, designed by the Bureau of Ships under submarine veteran Admiral Charles B. Momsen, was a return to some of the basic concepts that John Holland had advanced at the beginning of the century – a sleek craft with minimal superstructure, a single propeller, stern planes to make it dive, and a rudder aft of the screw – the final design of USS Holland. That basic form was adopted and updated in the experimental submarine USS Albacore. Laid down at the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, navy yard between 1950 and 1953, Albacore was built with a new, low-carbon steel known as HY-80. Commissioned in December 1953, it was tested and modified as a result through 1961, before being retired and ultimately decommissioned in 1972. Albacore’s design and tests paved the way for the Skipjack class of nuclear attack submarines, which made submerged speeds of more than 25 knots and could dive to greater depths thanks to the improved steel; Navy designers had been seeking submarines capable of dives up to 1,000ft.

The first nuclear-powered US submarine was USS Nautilus, its design emerging from years of study and proposals. The first step was the development of a prototype reactor for the ship, which emerged from the work of a team led by an energetic if not hard-driving and intense, at times eccentric, engineering officer, Captain Hyman G. Rickover. Disregarding protocol and the “way things are done,” Rickover relentlessly assumed strong control of the research program, and ordered simultaneous development not only of the submarine’s hull in advance of testing its yet to be developed propulsion system, but also of two simultaneous prototype reactors. He also insisted “that the Mark 1 [and Mark 2] reactor be both an engineering prototype and a shipboard prototype, completely sized to fit a submarine’s hull.” This approach would cost engineering flexibility, but with it Rickover could speed up the development schedule.

The reactors were completed and tested at an Atomic Energy Commission facility in the desert outside Arco, Idaho, and on June 25, 1953, the Mark 1 reactor reached its full power level. Not content with a limited test, Rickover insisted that the reactor run for the duration of a cross-Atlantic voyage. Meanwhile, the Electric Boat division of General Dynamics laid the keel of the submarine on June 12, 1952, at its Groton, Connecticut, yard, with the President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, officiating. On January 21, 1954, the First Lady of the United States, Mamie Eisenhower, christened the submarine with an obvious and fitting name, Nautilus. Measuring 323ft 9in in length with a 27ft 9in beam, USS Nautilus displaced 3,533 tons. The submarine could dive deep, and run at 23 knots indefinitely either surfaced or submerged – its endurance, thanks to its reactor, was limited by the amount of supplies it could carry for the crew. With its sealed pressurized water reactor (PWR), it was roomier than wartime boats, and had amenities such as air-conditioning (a necessity given the high heat of the reactor-heated steam plant), better berthing, and Coca-Cola and ice-cream machines, as well as a jukebox that played with a nickel. On January 17, 1955, USS Nautilus put to sea for the first time, her commander sending an historic message, “Underway on nuclear power.” A new era – the era of the first true submarines, craft capable of diving deep and remaining there, capable of circling the globe, and of penetrating to the top of the world, beneath the Arctic ice – had dawned. Jules Verne’s dream had at last come true. Nautilus’ 25-year career saw it break existing records for submarine endurance and speed, and on August 3, 1958, it became the first submarine to penetrate the Arctic ice-pack and reach the North Pole, where Captain William Anderson sent an historic signal, “Nautilus 90 North.” Anderson would later write that, “I stood for a moment in silence, awestruck at what Nautilus had achieved. She had blazed a new submerged northwest passage, vastly decreasing the sea-travel time for nuclear submarines from the Atlantic to the Pacific… Nautilus had opened a new era, completely conquered the vast, inhospitable Arctic.”

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