Submersible Boats to True Submarines Part II

Submarine as Submarine Killer.
The submarine, in turn, was ideal as such a platform for two reasons, one technical and one strategic. On battery, essentially hovering in place, a submarine introduced the least possible self-noise into the passive array, thereby maximizing the signal-to-noise ratio and therefore the detection range. Direct path detection ranges against snorkelers of 10-15 miles were achieved in this manner in exercises by essentially unmodified World War II fleet boats in the late 1940s. Equally important, the submarine's inherent stealth, combined with the maritime geography of the emerging Cold War, made it particularly suited for forward operations in the somewhat constricted waters through which Soviet submarines had to proceed with some dispatch in order both to gain access to the North Atlantic and to do so with transit times short enough to give reasonable endurance in the patrol area.

Both the evolutionary and revolutionary responses to the Type XXI threat began soon after World War II, when little was known about the nature of the Soviet submarine threat. It was simply expected that the Soviets, a continental power like Germany with both limited access to and dependence upon the sea, would focus their maritime efforts on interdicting Allied sea lines of communication by deploying a large force of modern submarines. Combined with this relative vacuum of intelligence was a period in the five years between World War II and Korea of very low defence spending in the United States. Despite the lack of intelligence and the extreme scarcity of resources, the Navy placed substantial emphasis on ASW and made significant progress.

Airborne ASW.
The evolutionary response focused on two technical challenges: the need to improve snorkel detection by airborne radar and the need to improve the performance of surface ship sonars against faster, deeper diving targets. Snorkels presented a much smaller radar cross section to a searching radar and were also harder to detect amongst sea clutter, while the fixed "searchlight" sonars of World War II could not be trained fast enough to keep up with a submarine moving at ten or fifteen knots. By 1950, the APS-20 radar had recovered much of the detection range lost when snorkels first arrived, and the QHB scanning sonar had improved the ability of a surface ship to hold a submerged contact, but the ASW situation remained troublesome, according to several contemporary analyses of the problem.

For example, the Hartwell report noted that despite its success, the performance of the APS-20 needed continued improvement because "we have no assurance that the ranges we are now obtaining against our own snorkels and copies of the German snorkel can be duplicated against the Soviet snorkel. Evidence regarding the efficacy of snorkel camouflage is still fragmentary, but we feel that a moderately vigorous Russian effort to exploit geometrical camouflage could probably reduce our range seriously. In the long run, then, we see the radar-vs.-submarine contest as an unequal one, with the submarine eventually the winner." Similar pessimism attached to the active sonar-versus submarine contest as well as to the equally important area of ASW weapons, where the capabilities of the Soviet systems produced by the imaginations of American engineers always exceeded the American systems actually available to counter them.

This pessimism helped leave the door ajar for other approaches to the ASW problem. Thus, one of the major conclusions of the Hartwell report was that small, tactical nuclear weapons should be developed so that carrier aircraft could strike Soviet submarines in port at the source, a strategy which had failed in World War II because of the fortifications produced by the Germans at their U-boat ports, which survived repeated and massive attacks by even the largest conventional bombs. It also discussed the possibility of ASW submarines and fixed surveillance systems utilizing passive acoustics to detect snorkelling submarines at long ranges of as much as 100 miles.

At the beginning of the Cold War, all operational submarines used diesel-electric drive. This required submarines either to surface frequently to recharge their batteries or that they be equipped with a snorkel breathing device to operate their diesel engines while under water. New approaches to the design of conventional submarines— such as the German Type XXI elektroboote, which greatly increased submerged range and speed mainly by tripling the size of the battery— were clearly only temporary substitutes for finding power plants that were not dependent on an external air supply for continuous operation. The Walter turbine, powered through the breakdown of hydrogen peroxide, had potential, but it too suffered from limitations. Its operation was hazardous, the technology was immature, and it had a voracious appetite for fuel, severely limiting the duration of a submarine deploying the plant.

The physicist George Pegram, at a specially convened meeting on 17 March 1939, suggested to the U.S. Navy that a suitable nuclear fission chamber could be used to generate steam for a submarine power plant; three days later, the Naval Research Laboratory was granted $1,500 to begin research into its feasibility. The outbreak of war and the concentration of the nation’s nuclear physicists on the creation of an atomic bomb side-lined further work until late in 1944, when it resumed. Serious research into nuclear power for submarines, which promised essentially unlimited high-speed submerged operation, began immediately after World War II, leading to the establishment of the Nuclear Power Branch, headed by Captain Hyman G. Rickover, within the Bureau of Ships in August of 1948. A Division of Reactor Development, also headed by Rickover, in the Atomic Energy Commission, was inaugurated the following February.

Strong, sustained leadership
The success of such varied innovators as the US Navy’s Admiral William J. Moffett (Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics 1921–33) and Admiral Hyman G. Rickover (responsible for the US Navy’s nuclear propulsion throughout the Cold War), Japan’s reforming Admiral Yamamoto Gombei, and, perhaps most outstandingly, the Soviet Navy’s Commander-in-Chief from 1956 to 1985, Admiral Sergei Gorshkov, all attest to the value of a long-term vision of the navy’s technological future, and the administrative authority to push it through. The more a navy’s technological programme is chopped around by regime changes, the less successful it is likely to be. To cope, navies need a long-term institutional and cultural predisposition to adopt, adapt and exploit technological change pro-actively.


Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, was put in commission in September 1954, six months before the Killian report and nearly a year before Burke became chief of naval operations. The vessel had been developed by a dedicated staff of zealots headed by one of the most complex, abrasive, forceful figures in modern American naval history, Hyman G. Rickover. Rickover eventually came to play Percy Scott, the dedicated early-twentieth-century Royal Navy technocrat, to Burke’s Jacky Fisher, though by all accounts the Briton’s career was a model of easy ascent to flag rank compared to the American’s tortured path. One might say of Rickover, as the entertainer Oscar Levant said of himself, that he was a very controversial figure whom people either disliked or hated, or, as Winston Churchill famously remarked of Charles de Gaulle, that he was a bull who carried his own china shop around with him. Many respected Rickover, few liked him, and even those who did admitted the man “exert[ed] an iron hold” on everything he touched or influenced. He drove his people to the breaking point, and occasionally beyond, in his relentless insistence on top-quality work and operations. Most found being around him “uncomfortable” and “very embarrassing,” as he “browbeat” colleagues and subordinates alike. “I found he was just impossible,” Vice Admiral Kent Lee recalled of a weekend cruise submerged with Rickover. “Insulting, never a decent word, ‘those idiots from the shipyard and people like you’ he’d say to the man.” Future chief of naval operations Elmo Zumwalt found Rickover “distasteful to listen to, egotistical, critical, spoke down. I got nothing from the lecture that I recall.” Many senior sailors were incensed by Rickover’s unwillingness to wear the uniform once he reached the relative shelter of the admiral’s star. Alfred Ward thought him “mean,” “rough,” “ruthless,” claiming that his sour personality permanently alienated him from the secretaries of defense and of the navy as well as several chiefs of naval operations.

Rickover’s biting contempt for and patent distrust of people, their competence and their motives, was readily understandable. His background was that of the poverty-stricken, frequently despised Jewish immigrant child. Born in a small village north of Warsaw, he had come to America as a young boy, settling with his family on Maxwell Street in Chicago. He saw his driven father, a tailor, rise in the world by sheer grit and competence. Little wonder that as an adult, Hyman Rickover “preached and practiced the gospel of work.” Winning one of the few Jewish appointments to Annapolis, the youngster watched as a Jewish classmate was isolated without a word spoken to him for every day of his four years because he dared to display a dash of academic excellence. The fleet Rickover entered, like the society it served, was implicitly, often more than occasionally explicitly, anti-Semitic. Brilliant as well as hardworking, Rickover never commanded a vessel larger than “an ancient minesweeper,” the Finch, “pressed into use to move Marines to China” in the late thirties. At the outbreak of war, he was back in Washington at the navy’s Bureau of Ships (BuShips), “one of the unsung engineers who planned and built the ships that others would sail to battle and glory.” Stifled, ignored, marginalized, his career something of a humiliation, it is little wonder Rickover seethed with suppressed resentments and contempt that burst out irrepressibly when he at last found himself better positioned than anyone else in 1946 to design and build revolutionary new vessels.

After World War II it was inevitable that the navy would go nuclear; the questions were how and in what ways. Some sailors believed that “primary efforts in atomic energy should go into weapons.” Others, like Deputy Chief of Naval Operations Mick Carney wanted a global ban on nuclear warships, “fearing that if the United States had them at a future time so would its enemies.” But one community was avid for nuclear power from the beginning. Submariners realized that harnessing this unique energy source would transform their weapon system from a surface ship with limited submergence capabilities into a virtually undetectable stealth system that spent the vast majority of its time far beneath the waves. The undersea community enjoyed the enthusiastic support of Chester Nimitz, hero of the Pacific war and himself a former submariner. Rickover swiftly aligned himself with these people, speaking out boldly for a nuclear-powered submarine and never letting obstacles or frustrations deter or defeat him. In 1946 he got himself assigned to the nuclear facilities at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where he formed a small team of dedicated enthusiasts, and with the kind of ruthless cunning for playing bureaucratic politics he had first displayed during the war in BuShips, he eventually got to the right people (Edward Teller) and the right superiors (Nimitz and Navy Secretary John L. Sullivan) for concept support and eventual project approval. In July 1948, following months of manoeuvre and sweat, Rickover was at last given both the title and the practical authority over the navy’s nuclear-power program. Six months later he was effectively “double hatted” as nuclear-propulsion czar by both the navy and the Atomic Energy Commission. He immediately proved to be as much an administrative genius as an able bureaucrat, blending the frequent administrative chaos of the New Deal with the costly crash research program of the Manhattan Project to build a shipboard atomic-power plant as rapidly as possible. “By the end of the year his organization involved two federal agencies (the Navy Department and the Atomic Energy Commission), two relatively autonomous groups within those agencies (the Bureau of Ships and the commission’s division of reactor development), and three research organizations (Argonne National Laboratory, the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, and the General Electric Company).” Five years later facilities for building Nautilus and its later sisters stretched from Idaho (the National Reactor Testing Station) to Connecticut (the Electric Boat Company).

Even those who came to dislike Rickover vigorously were forced to admire him. Unlike other chiefs of naval operations, Arleigh Burke exhibited “absolute warmest respect” for Rickover. The CNO was no fool. For the good of the navy he would channel and control Rickover’s insatiable thrusts for power and responsibility over the entire nuclear-submarine program. But within these limits Burke treated Rickover decently, insisting that the apostle of nuclear power and his wife be invited to all flag parties and urging those present “to make sure that people talked with Admiral Rickover because he didn’t want him to have any feeling of being an outsider.” Ward and others might wilfully ignore some understandable sources of Rickover’s conduct, but they did understand that the admiral’s drive for perfection stemmed in part from a determination that the American taxpayer obtain the most from very complex and costly programs. They also appreciated his ability to handle Congress. Ward claimed in a 1972 interview that Rickover’s skill derived from being Jewish “and therefore a minority race. . . . [A]nd the Congress was very careful not to alienate minorities.” The slur reflected more on Ward’s attitude, which was regrettably widespread in the service and the country even at that late date, than on Rickover’s presentational capabilities. “More importantly,” Ward added correctly, Rickover treated congressmen and senators with extraordinary deftness, not only agreeing with what they said but amplifying it in ways that suggested that Congressman X or Senator Y was a genius. In short, Rickover was a more than able partisan for his cause and an adept political lobbyist in the bargain.

Rickover harboured a surprisingly sensitive side that few ever saw. One who did was Captain Tom Weschler. For some while in the late fifties, Rickover begged his CNO to come up to the Bettis factory in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, to familiarize himself with nuclear-power plants, their dimensions, what kind of ships they could be used in, and so on. At last Burke made the journey, and at the end of a long day he abruptly got in his limousine and was driven off to an affair in Pittsburgh, leaving just Weschler and Rickover alone. When Rickover discovered that Weschler had to get to the distant Pittsburgh airport he said, “I’ll drive you.” Speeding along, Weschler hesitantly began to query the admiral about his work and methods and got some surprisingly candid replies. Rickover explained his mania for safety: “I have a son. I love my son. I want everything that I do to be so safe that I would be happy to have my son operating it. That’s my fundamental rule.” Weschler soon discovered that Rickover’s mania had a corollary: too many cooks spoiled any broth. “The second you get a new project here in Washington, you’re going to find out you have a million helpers,” Rickover told him. “Every one of them wants to help get your program through because it’s going to be a platform for their gadgets. I was building a nuclear submarine, and that’s what it was going to be, and I didn’t need all those other people who would have sunk my ship, or the project.”

Nautilus quickly demonstrated the astounding capabilities of the nuclear-powered submarine. On its shakedown cruise in 1955 (the same year the navy deployed its first conventionally powered supercarrier, Forrestal ) the submarine travelled thirteen hundred miles totally submerged at an average speed of sixteen knots, remaining beneath the surface for eighty-four hours. Eventually, the vessel sailed more than sixty thousand miles (including under the North Pole), almost always submerged, on little more than eight pounds of uranium before its reactor core was pulled for replacement.21 Carrier admirals were forced to take grudging notice of the possibility that such a vessel could sweep surface ships off the seas, especially after the fast, teardrop-shaped nuclear sub Skipjack later theoretically sank every aircraft carrier in the Sixth Fleet during manoeuvres in the Mediterranean.

Burke took note of nuclear-powered submarines for another reason. These comparatively large, roomy craft could be lengthened and widened even further to provide the prime launching pad for an effective sea-based ballistic-missile system. Burke went first to the air force, then to the army, saying that he wanted “about a foot in your missile to put in the equipment that’s going to be needed for a Navy missile.” He would pay a reasonable cost. The air force said no; its Thor and Atlas programs were too complex and too far along in development to make room for navy needs and requirements. The Army said yes, and the navy piggybacked its research and development on Jupiter for as long as necessary before splitting off to finish development of its own unique missile.

Burke’s first task was “get the concepts” of a sea-based ballistic-missile system “moving. So I wanted to find somebody to run it.” He wanted a man who “could get other people to do a hell of a lot of work and had an idea of organizing his work and who could get things done without creating a fight and without going around and demanding things. We’ve had enough of—like Rickover, for example,” who was fine for research and development work but not for the critical follow-on where “willing participation” was essential. After an exhaustive search Burke settled on Captain William F. “Red” Raborn, called him in, and told him two things: First, he could have the pick of any top forty people in the service and no more, because forty was the optimum number that “one man can handle by himself.” Second, “If this thing works, you’re going to be one of the greatest people that ever walked down the pike. . . . If it fails, I’ll have your throat.”

Burke first made sure that Rickover was “cut out” of the fleet ballistic-missile decision and the initial research work. Putting a complex missile system aboard a submarine was adding the kind of elaborate bells and whistles to an already successful program that sent Rickover into a rage. It was a wise decision, but even so, “Rick” would all too soon prove to be a major impediment to effective advanced submarine design. Simply put, his obsession with nuclear propulsion was not matched by a mastery of its problems. Some in the defence community harboured a suspicion that loss of the fast, deep-diving nuclear sub Thresher in the spring of 1963 was due to fatal flaws in Rickover’s nuclear reactor, though others dismissed the idea out of hand. Nonetheless, the doomed vessel and her sisters were already deemed too large and noisy for their hunter-killer role against Soviet U-boats. In January 1968 Enterprise tried to outrun a trailing Soviet submarine between the West Coast and Pearl Harbor only to discover that the Russian sub could easily match the nuclear carrier’s top speed of thirty-one knots. Rickover’s only solution to this startling advance in Soviet underwater capabilities was a reactor so big as to make the boats that carried it at once overlarge, too slow, and incapable of operation at sufficient depth to be effective against Russian counterparts. Rickover was still able to ram his solution through the Pentagon brass. According to one U.S. submarine admiral, American hunter-killer boats suffered from crippling disabilities in speed and operating depth right down to the end of the cold war. It was fortunate, I. J. Galantin maintained, that even the numerous boats of the advanced Los Angeles class never had to test their effectiveness in combat against Soviet counterparts. Rickover nonetheless continued to dominate the navy’s nuclear-power program into the early seventies, with often disruptive effects on the navy’s personnel system. Powerful congressional supporters frustrated every White House and Pentagon effort to get rid of him.

Having nonetheless managed to brush Rickover aside from the ballistic-missile program, Burke then overrode those who had absorbed too well the lesson derived from the battle over the supercarrier United States: that naval power must never be designed for use against prime strategic targets like Soviet urban-industrial centres and complexes. The CNO established a Special Projects Office under now rear admiral Raborn’s direction, then left the man and his team alone. Raborn and his men worked with physicist Edward Teller to develop both the solid-fuel propellant and the six hundred–pound nuclear warhead needed to create an effective subsurface-launched strategic missile that would ultimately come close to matching the air force’s ICBMs in range, payload, and sophistication. Rickover was then given the specifications for the kind of submarine necessary to carry such weapons, and the sixteen-tube George Washington class was born by cutting open a nuclear-powered attack submarine already on the builder’s ways and inserting a missile compartment amidships.

Sixteen George Washingtons were eventually built (the last fifteen from the keel up), followed by the Ethan Allen class and several subsequent generations of ever more advanced and elaborate boats. One of Burke’s biographers has rightly emphasized that the admiral’s bold decision to develop a fleet ballistic missile on a priority basis reflected not only his commitment to enhancing the navy’s capabilities but also “his desire to integrate the service into the broader context of national defense.”The CNO of 1955–1961 displayed the same strong team player spirit he had exhibited during the unification fight of the late forties.

Creating a submarine-based long-range ballistic-missile system posed a series of brutally difficult interlocking challenges in advanced technology. Raborn later emphasized that the program involved not just another rocket but “a wholly new concept of weaponry, the dispatching of this ‘bird’ from beneath the surface of the sea.” Though Polaris could carry a thermonuclear warhead and possessed the same fifteen hundred–mile range as army (Jupiter) and air force (Thor) strategic missiles, it had to be built substantially smaller to fit into a sufficient number of launch tubes (sixteen in all) in the narrow confines of a submarine. Of even greater importance was the decision to use solid- rather than liquid-fuel propellants. “There was just no practical way,” Raborn said, “to store or handle liquid fuels effectively or safely on board a submerged submarine.” The Soviets would never develop an effective solid fuel, and their liquid-fuelled ballistic missiles— and torpedoes—were always an immediate danger to crew health and safety. Another challenge confronting Raborn and his engineers involved “the wholly naval problem” of designing ships to carry a long-range missile and the equipment to launch it “from below the surface . . . in fact, from quite deep below the surface.” Raborn’s job was to “design stowage, handling, launching, and fire control equipment which would allow submarines to be used as the launching platforms for the missile.” A host of problems had to be overcome, and Raborn identified three particularly difficult challenges. “One was to develop equipment which would fire such a missile from below the surface and get it up into the air where its rocket engines could ignite and take over the job.” A second problem involved navigation. Physicists and engineers had to develop “new and far more exact methods of determining a ship’s position than anything needed for normal navigation,” and they had to do so long before satellite-based global positioning systems were available. “Quite a few people” had no idea that “one of the absolute ‘musts’ in firing a missile at a target fifteen hundred miles away is to know where you are, and very exactly, at the instant of firing.

Otherwise, you can make an awfully costly error in your aim.” A final and interrelated problem involved the creation of a guidance system sufficiently accurate so that the missiles “would actually go where they were directed to go.” Every problem was solved, and by 1958 Raborn could—and did—boast that the United States had developed either the ultimate deterrent to war or its most fearsome expression: a combination of “the almost limitless cruising range of the nuclear powered submarine and the vast potential for concealment offered by the ocean depths with the longest range, highest speed and most lethal weapon system ever developed, the H-bomb Armed Ballistic Missile.” Raborn, his people, and his superiors had no illusions about what they had achieved. Both sides of the world in 1958 were on hair-trigger alert. They remained so in late 1960 when George Washington first went to sea and on into the sixties, seventies, and early eighties when follow-on programs to Polaris—Poseidon and Trident—came into the fleet. Such weapons were not part of any space race or “scientific competition to solve the secrets” of the universe, the admiral said. They represented “a grimly realistic race to meet and cancel out weapons development beyond the Iron Curtain,” to assure Soviet “potential aggressors” that no surprise attack, no matter how “thoroughly developed,” could wipe out at a stroke all sources of nuclear retaliation.

The strategic-ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs), soon known as “boomers,” were designed—along with the Strategic Air Command’s B-52 bombers and a cluster of army and air force land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles—to constitute a “triad” of weapon systems designed for “massive retaliation” in response to any nuclear first strike against the United States. Such power would, at least theoretically, make the United States invulnerable to either thermonuclear blackmail or thermonuclear ambush. Some analysts have emphasized that Eisenhower’s acceptance of the SSBN program reflected his desire to rein in the air force, which by 1957 had gone completely overboard, “indulging in” a policy of “gross overkill,” to the extent that planned wartime nuclear attacks around the Soviet periphery would kill as many allied civilians as Russians. In fact, if Admiral Robert L. Dennison is to be believed, the question of who would control the boomers remained a hot question up to the moment when the George Washington went to sea.

Dennison was commander of the Atlantic Fleet in mid-1960 when he encountered Thomas Gates, now Eisenhower’s defense secretary, at a General Motors picnic in Quantico, Virginia. The affair was meant to bring defence contractors and key military people together for “consultations and briefings,” food, and a few drinks. That evening Dennison and Gates found themselves closing the party down. The two men had known each other since Gates’s tenure as secretary of the navy, and Gates unburdened himself of a problem. The ballistic-missile subs were certainly strategic weapons. The air force’s Strategic Air Command “claimed to have exclusive rights over these weapons,” though Gates, as an old navy partisan, instinctively thought sailors should have control of their own ships. Still, Gates had been out to SAC Headquarters at Omaha and had seen its superb command-and-control arrangements. Moreover, Tommy Powers, the air force chief of staff, had assured Gates that there were no command layers between the White House, SAC Headquarters, and the B-52 squadron commanders. Surely, the navy couldn’t match that!

Dennison assured Gates that as Atlantic Fleet commander he certainly could. “If you assign these Polaris submarines in the Atlantic to me as a unified commander, I will guarantee you that I’ll put in a better command and control system than SAC has over his bombers. I will command them personally, not through a whole echelon of division commanders and squadron commanders and so on.” That wasn’t what the navy had told him, Gates replied. “I’m told the Navy has such a great command organization that they’ll control Polaris through the normal chain of command.” “Well, I don’t know who’d tell you that,” Dennison said, “but that isn’t what you’re going to hear. I just told you what I will do and I’ll guarantee it. I’d like to do it.” A decision had to be made soon “because time was pressing.” Gates “couldn’t leave this issue hanging.” The secretary pondered Dennison’s offer, then made his decision. Within days the word was out. The navy would command and control the ballistic-missile subs.
The ships, aircraft, and missiles of the U.S. fleet were now at the apex of the nation’s retaliatory power. Brand-new or substantially upgraded aircraft carriers with atomic weapons in their bellies, a new generation of advanced aircraft on their flight decks, and guided-missile cruisers riding escort stocked the Sixth and Seventh Fleets that patrolled the Mediterranean and western Pacific flanks of what was widely assumed (erroneously) to be a united Sino-Soviet Communist bloc. Soon the first “boomers” would set out for their own undetected patrol areas in the vast seas ringing Russia and China.

The U.S. Navy followed two tracks simultaneously in developing reactors for use in submarines, developing units using either pressurized water or liquid sodium to transfer heat to the steam generators. Its first submarine with a nuclear power plant was the Nautilus, commissioned on 30 September 1954, although it was not underway under nuclear power until 17 January 1955. The Nautilus used a pressurized water reactor, identical to a unit tested on land prior to the installation of its power plant. It was a resounding technical success, although it suffered from extraordinarily high noise levels that made its deployment as an operational boat in wartime problematic. The Nautilus was followed by the Seawolf, powered by a liquid sodium reactor, which commissioned on 30 March 1957. The navy found that the liquid sodium reactor required detailed attention to maintaining precise and limited operational parameters, and it decided against further investment in its development. Instead, all resources went into production and improvement of pressurized water units.

The Soviet Union began research work on nuclear power plants for submarines in 1946, but very little progress was made because of the need to concentrate resources in the field of nuclear energy on the production of bombs, to break the U.S. monopoly on such weapons. Consequently, it was not until 1952 that significant effort was devoted to the project, leading to the testing of a land-based prototype beginning in March 1956. Construction of the Soviet Union’s first nuclear-powered submarine began with the laying of the keel for the K-3 at the Molotovsk yard in September 1955. The boat was launched on 9 August 1957 and commissioned on 7 January 1958. Unlike the American Nautilus, the K-3 was the first of a class of 13 boats of the Project 627 (NATO-designated November) type, which also differed from U.S. practice in using two reactors for its power plant. Their greater power output endowed them with higher performance than their U.S. counterparts, but, like American nuclear boats, they were very noisy.

The Soviet Union also explored the use of other media for transferring heat to the steam generators, in this instance, liquid lead-bismuth. Its first submarine powered by such a plant was the K- 27, built to Project 645, using the same hull design as the Project 627 boats lengthened to accommodate the bulkier reactors. The liquid metal, although less dangerous in the event of an accident than the sodium of the Seawolf’s plant, was somewhat less efficient as a heat exchanger and also required constant heat to keep it from solidifying, leading to a requirement to either run the reactor continuously or provide en external heat supply while the boat was in port. Although initial trials were satisfactory, the K- 27 subsequently suffered a series of mechanical problems that led to its early decommissioning; the experience, however, was not sufficient to induce the Soviets to abandon lead-bismuth reactors immediately.

With the advent of ballistic missile submarines, both the United States and the Soviet Union sought to protect themselves from a first strike at the hands of the other by developing fast, stealthy submarines to intercept the ballistic missile boats, while simultaneously endeavouring to preserve their own strike capability through defeating the interceptors. Very quickly the principal target of attack submarines became enemy submarines, and the demand for high speed, manoeuvrability, and quiet operation led to the rapid adoption of the hull form pioneered by the Albacore: the teardrop, or body-of-revolution, shape. The Soviet Fleet introduced the remarkable titanium- hulled, highly automated Project 705 (NATO-designated Alfa) type into limited service. Powered by a single, very powerful lead-bismuth reactor, these boats could safely dive as deep as 2,000 feet and attain submerged speeds well in excess of 40 knots. The complexity of their reactors, however, caused problems in service and rendered them anomalies among the second-generation of attack boats: the Soviet Fleet’s Project 671 (NATO-designated Victor) and the U.S. Navy’s Thresher and Sturgeon classes became the most numerous and characteristic nuclear-powered attack submarines of the Cold War.

The Soviet Fleet also established a second requirement for its nuclear submarines, leading to the production of a series of specialized boats equipped with cruise missiles with the dedicated mission of tracking and, in the event of war, destroying the fast carriers of the U.S. Navy. Initially these cruise missiles had to be launched from the surface, so their platforms, the Project 675 (NATO- designated Echo-II) type, were optimized for stability on 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.

The third generation of attack and cruise-missile submarines were the U.S. Los Angeles class and the Soviet Type 971 boats (NATO-designated Akula). Both embody considerable advances in reducing acoustic, magnetic, and infrared signatures, as well as greater operational flexibility compared with their precursors. The end of the Cold War, however, has curtailed their construction or operational deployment substantially.

Britain, France, and China all have deployed nuclear-powered attack submarines, while India is working toward deploying such boats in the not-too-distant future. Britain launched its first nuclear-powered submarine, the attack-type Dreadnought on 21 October 1960. It used a U.S. nuclear power plant, enabling the British to save both considerable time and money. Later British boats were fitted with British-built power plants, though these derived substantially from U.S. prototypes. Under President Charles de Gaulle, the French also built up a nuclear submarine force during the Cold War. The French took a different path than the Americans, British, and Soviets, however, in that they first built nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines rather than nuclear-powered attack submarines. The country’s first attack boats used power plants similar to those of its ballistic missile submarines. The low ebb of relations between France and the United States at the time meant that French designers could not draw on U.S. assistance or expertise in developing their nuclear reactors or submarine propulsion systems. Consequently, French submarine reactors were heavier than their U.S. and British counterparts. Their propulsion system also was very different, since French designers elected to use turbo-electric drive rather than steam turbines, and that preference has continued with the design for the next generation of attack submarines for the fleet, the Barracuda class, scheduled to begin deploying in 2010.