Submersible Boats to True Submarines Part III

The most significant single development in submarine technology has undoubtedly been the use of nuclear propulsion. The first nuclear-powered boat was the USS Nautilus, launched in 1955. Nuclear power freed submarines from the need to surface or schnorkel. Subs could stay at sea for months longer than before and stay submerged indefinitely. 

Nuclear power had the biggest impact on submarine construction, beginning with the first nuclear submarine, USS Nautilus, in 1954. Nuclear power plants permitted the construction of the first true submarines. Non-nuclear submarines are properly submersibles—vessels capable of submerging that actually spend most of their time on the surface, recharging their electrical batteries. Nuclear-powered submarines, however, can stay submerged indefinitely, limited only by crew fatigue, because water and oxygen are two of the by-products of their nuclear reactors. The post-war development of guided weapons led to two classifications of nuclear submarines. 

1. Attack submarines perform the traditional submarine missions: attacking surface ships and hunting other attack submarines. The threat of fast attack submarines became so acute, post-war surface vessels incorporated helicopter facilities into their design, as only aircraft could hope to counter the faster submarines.

2. Ballistic-missile submarines, carrying long-range guided ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads, act as a last line of nuclear deterrence. The first ballistic-missile submarine, the USS George Washington, was commissioned in 1959. The first launch of a ballistic missile from a submarine came from the USS George Washington in 1960.The Soviet, British, French, and Chinese navies followed suit with their own ballistic-missile submarines. One type of these submarines, the Russian Typhoon, is, at 26,000 tons displacement, the largest submarine in the world.

Only recently has reliable information become public on the Soviet Navy’s efforts to match the US Navy’s achievement in nuclear-powered submarines. Work on the first Soviet design began in September 1952, roughly four years behind the Americans. The team was headed by V M Peregudov and N A Dollezhal, with Academician A P Alexandrov as chief scientific adviser. Special Design Bureau 143 was assigned the task of turning the Project 627 design into reality in the spring of 1953. Detailed design work took only 18 months, and in the summer of 1958, K.3 sailed on her sea trials. When the reactor plant ‘went critical’ on 4 July the Soviet Navy’s nuclear fleet came into existence.

Known to NATO as the ‘November’ type, the new nuclear attack submarine (SSN) entered service as K.3, but was later named Leninskii Komsomol (Lenin’s Young Communist League). She was followed by 12 more Project 627A boats, known to the Soviets as the ‘Kit’ class, and the same power plant was used in the Project 658 (’Hotel’) and Project 659 (’Echo’), hence the Western nickname for the reactor plant, the HEN. Both ‘Hotel’ and ‘Echo’ were armed with long-range anti-ship missiles - SSGNs in US Navy standard nomenclature.

There was great alarm in the US Navy and NATO when the Soviet nuclear programme got under way so quickly, and even more when the performance of the ‘Novembers’ was monitored. But the Soviets were having trouble with the pressurised water reactor (PWR) HEN plant, and turned to liquid metal cooling. The Project 645 boat K.27 was a ‘November’ with the prototype reactor cooled by lead-bismuth. It was successful, but had the serious operational drawback of making the SSN more dependent on shore support. For similar reasons the US Navy developed a liquid sodium-cooled plant for the Seawolf (SSN-575), but discovered that its disadvantages outweighed the benefits. Improvements in the design of PWRs provided the same results for less money.

Although taken by surprise at the speed with which the Polaris missile system was tested and introduced into service, the Soviet Navy did not wait long to provide a response. In 1963, the first Project 651 (NATO’s ‘ Julie”‘) appeared: the K.I56. Sixteen of these diesel-electric submarines (SSGNs) were built, armed with four launch tubes for P-6 Progress (SS-N-3A ‘Shaddock’) missiles in the casing. These were raised to the firing position, a system repeated in the nuclear-powered Project 675 (’Echo’) class. The 28 boats of this class had double the armament of the ‘Juliett’ design, together with the benefit of nuclear propulsion, but the 555-km (300-mile) ‘Shaddock’ bore no comparison with Polaris.

The first SLBM in service was the R-13 (SS-N-4 ‘Sark’) - developed for the Project 629 (’Golf’) class and the Project 658 (’Hotel’) class (three carried in the fin or sail). These boats were soon rearmed with the 650-mile R-21 ‘Serb’ missile, but the Russian designers eventually produced an SSBN clearly influenced by the American boats. This was the Project 667A (’Yankee’), which appeared in 1967. They resembled the ‘George Washington’ class in layout, with 16 R-27 (SS-N-6 ‘Sawfly’) missiles, credited with a range of 1500 miles. 

Admiral Gorshkov‘s Tenure
Given the damage done to the Soviet Union by Germany, and the immense amount of resources that had been poured into the war, it was impossible to provide the i11dustrial resources necessary for the creation of such a gargantuan fleet. Instead, the Soviet Navy leadership tried to complete the twenty-four big cruisers of the Sverdlov class. The main concern of the top admirals was not so much to have dominating firepower at sea as to create vessels in which crews would learn the trade of being sailors before being trained to fight.

Much of the momentum to acquire a large surface fleet died with Stalin in 1953. His death was followed by the usual Kremlin infighting, and when First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin. and the “cult of the person of Stalin” in his February 1956 speech to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Union, it was evident that there was a new power source, one to which Admiral Gorshkov immediately gravitated. (It would not be until 1958 that Khrushchev assumed the post of premier, and became head of both state and party.)

Thus it was in 1956, eleven years after the Great Patriotic War ended, that Gorshkov was given command of the Red Navy. He immediately paid lip service to Khrushchev’s policy that large surface ships were obsolete and that missiles and submarines were the weapons of the future. He also supported Khrushchev’s view that the Red Navy was an important element of foreign policy and supervised the provision of surface ships, submarines, personnel, and materials for mine warfare to countries the Soviet Union wished to influence.

Gorshkov sanctioned the huge Soviet submarine construction program that was bringing new boats into service at the rate of eighty per year. Their purpose was to defeat the enemy by disrupting naval and sea communications. The United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nations were seen as the principal enemy, and if a conventional war were fought, the Soviet Union believed that between eighty and one hundred large transports would be arriving at European ports daily, with as many as 2,000 vessels en route simultaneously. Such a massive effort could only be defeated by a massive submarine force.

Yet both the United States and the Soviet Union had moved forward with nuclear weapons and missiles. If the war turned out not to be conventional, but rather nuclear, submarines would be needed to launch nuclear missiles against enemy carrier groups, and against the enemy coast.

Gorshkov was thus faced with enormous opportunities and challenges. On the one hand, under his guidance, the Soviet Navy had to be swiftly elevated in quality and capability to undertake the missions that Khrushchev envisioned. On the other, he did not have a large share of the military budget nor, more importantly, a broad base of personnel upon whom to draw to command and man his ships.

It would be his most important task to see that the best possible candidates were selected to command submarines and be responsible for nuclear weapons. (Nuclear-powered submarines were just visible on the horizon.) To achieve this Gorshkov had to create the doctrine and supervise the training of the Soviet Navy, which lacked all the components of naval experience and confidence that are so vital in wartime. At the same time, he had to elevate the stature of the navy within the military complex of the USSR, so that it would receive a fair and adequate share of the military budget. Finally, he had to attend to the myriad other details of building and running a huge navy, while still nourishing his private dream of creating a large and balanced surface fleet.

There are many ways to evaluate Gorshkov’s relative success or failure.

Cold War Submarine Operations by the West
Three circumstances radically changed the paradigm of Western submarine operators immediately after World War II: the Allies’ overwhelming victory in that conflict, the transformation of the Soviet Union from an ally into the West’s preeminent opponent, and the advent of true submarines—epitomized by the German Type XXI boats, whose technology was readily accessible to all the erstwhile allies. Countering the potential major threat fast submarines could present to transatlantic and transpacific lines of communications and to the free operation of Western surface task forces permeated naval planning. Consequently, antisubmarine warfare, both defensive and offensive, became the central focus of Western submarine operations. 

The limitations of existing boats, even after major modifications such as the GUPPY program in the U.S. Navy, and the constraints of current propulsion technologies at first entailed concentration on interception. Submarines were deployed forward, ideally in close proximity to Soviet naval bases or, if that was impractical, at “choke points,” relatively tightly defined passages through which Soviet boats would have to travel to reach their targets. Early hunter-killer tactics relied on slow, stealthy boats using passive sonar and fire-control equipment, but actual operations quickly demonstrated the limited effectiveness of both the boats and their electronics. 

The advent of nuclear-powered boats quickly changed the antisubmarine warfare situation for Western submarines forces from the 1960s. Their greater size provided space for very powerful sonar o u t fits whose capabilities finally came close to fulfilling the needs of stealthy hunter-killer operations. Their vastly enhanced submerged endurance made prolonged ambush deployments off Soviet bases or at choke points a realistic option. Powerful sonar, speed, and endurance also opened up the possibility of maintaining continuous submerged surveillance of Soviet submarines; an urgent requirement in the Cold War situation once the Soviet Union began deploying strategic missiles aboard dedicated submarine platforms. Furthermore, the submerged speed and endurance of nuclear boats at last made feasible the long-running concept of fleet submarines. They, however, did not take on the role of ambushers of enemy surface forces (the original fleet submarine concept) but rather operated as effective wide-ranging, stealthy escorts for important fast surface task forces, especially those centred on carriers which had become the principal targets of Soviet submarines. The operations of British nuclear boats as distant escorts for the task force operating against the Falklands/Malvinas in 1982 vividly illustrated this role; the sinking of the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano on 2 May by HMS Conqueror and the subsequent self-blockade of Argentina’s carrier Veinticinco de Mayo in port thereafter clearly demonstrated how effectively submarines could perform task force escort missions. 

Two developments further expanded the mission portfolio of Western submarines: the use of submarine-launched cruise missiles and the growth of the Soviet surface fleet. The addition of cruise-missile launch capability to attack submarines enabled them to perform land attack missions with great precision against narrowly defined targets. During the 1990s submarine-launched punitive Tomahawk cruise missile strikes against facilities of specific importance became the means of choice whereby the United States attempted to reinforce its foreign policy decisions and retaliate against regimes and organizations for attacks on U.S. citizens and assets. For example, on 20 August 1998 the United States launched Tomahawk missiles against six terrorist bases in Afghanistan and a factory in Sudan suspected of producing nerve gas in retaliation for the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on 7 August. The commissioning of aircraft carriers into the Soviet Fleet also promptly revitalized the submarine mission of surface warship attack, so that Western nuclear boats took on the role of shadowing Soviet carrier forces that long had been an important function of Soviet submarines.
Cold War Submarine Operations by the Soviet Bloc
At the end of World War II the Soviet Union had the largest submarine force in the world, although it was far from being the most effective either in the quality of its equipment or its operators. The onset of tensions with its erstwhile allies in Western Europe and North America that led to the Cold War made containing the threat of the West’s overwhelming naval preponderance, and especially its carrier forces, a major Soviet military goal. Consequently, using as a basis the captured German elektroboote technology, the Soviet Union rapidly built up a very large force of modern submarines whose primary missions were intercepting and shadowing Western carrier forces and, should a conflict occur, attacking the transatlantic shipping bridge that carried reinforcements and supplies from North America to Europe. 

A second mission quickly developed: countering Western submarines that had adopted antisubmarine warfare as their primary task. A dangerous cat-and-mouse game ensued that persisted throughout the Cold War between Soviet and Western submariners, primarily in the waters of the Arctic, North Atlantic, and North-western Pacific oceans, and the Mediterranean Sea. The boats, their equipment, their weapons, and their operators became ever more sophisticated but the objective remained the same: to secretly intercept an opponent and maintain stealthy contact thereafter.

The deployment of Western ballistic missile submarines quickly led the Soviet Navy to react in the same way as Western forces by deploying its attack submarines for operations to locate and shadow the missile boats from their departure from port throughout their missions. Stealth, endurance, and sophisticated sonar and fire control were crucial to the success of such operations, which persisted throughout the Cold War and beyond to the present. 

Anti-carrier operations received a substantial boost in effectiveness with the advent of fast nuclear boats armed with long-range anti-shipping missiles. This development closely coincided with the deployment of Soviet strategic missile submarines, whose survival in the open waters of the Atlantic and Pacific depended heavily on the ability of Soviet attack boats to neutralize Western carriers and submarines. This became even more important with the advent of long-range ballistic missiles capable of targeting North America without their launch platforms having to leave the relative safety of the Arctic Ocean. The Soviet Navy developed the concept of “bastion defence” in which its attack submarines and strong surface antisubmarine forces would neutralize Western efforts to penetrate this zone of safety with their boats while the Soviet anti-carrier force prevented U.S. carrier task forces from supporting penetration operations or initiating their own attacks on the strategic missile submarines. 

Throughout the Cold War attack submarines operated by all the protagonists played a vital role. They were in the forefront of both defensive and offensive operations, operating right off their opponent’s bases, trailing both surface and submerged opposition assets, and protecting their own forces from interception and possible attack.

The advent of atomic and nuclear weapons, the physical distance between the two principal protagonists in the Cold War, the range limitations of existing and imminent missile technologies, and concerns about the vulnerability of bomber aircraft led to the investigation of the potential of submarines as launch platforms for missiles. As the United States and the Soviet Union explored the possibilities of this new submarine mission, the craft’s added attractions—stealth, mobility, and relative invulnerability—became more apparent, and it eventually came to occupy a position of at least parity with land-based strategic missiles and clear superiority over conventional bombers. 

Because Germany was the first nation to deploy strategic missiles, its experience and concepts played a noticeable role in the development of U.S. and Soviet concepts. When Allied forces landed in Normandy and advanced into northern France and Belgium, they o v e r-ran the launching sites for Germany’s V-2 ballistic missiles. The range limitations of the V-2 missile (approximately 185 miles) had placed most targets in the United Kingdom beyond its strike capabilities, and attacks against the United States had clearly been far beyond the bounds of possibility. Such considerations had led the missile development staff at Peenemünde to study options for launching ballistic missiles at sea. The solution they chose was a self-contained canister, incorporating a launching platform, control space, and propellant stowage, that could be towed by a submarine to its firing position and water-ballasted upright for launch. Successful shore side testing of this system was completed in late 1944, and construction of operational units had commenced; none, however, were completed before the war ended. 

The United States and the Soviet Union each took possession of both the technology and the engineers from the V-2 missile at the end of World War II. This knowledge laid the foundations for both nations’ subsequent development of strategic ballistic missiles for the delivery of atomic and nuclear warheads. Similarly, they used the knowledge acquired from the German V-1 program as the basis for developing their own land-attack cruise missiles that, initially, were more attractive than ballistic missiles because it was easier to endow them with longer reach. Both navies quickly appreciated the advantage of deploying land-attack missiles aboard submarines, since it offered the potential for launching weapons against their opponent’s homeland from a stealthy platform. 

The U.S. Navy initially concentrated its efforts in exploiting cruise missile technology for land-attack missions. It conducted test firings of Loon missiles (the U.S. production version of the V-1) from the submarines Cusk and Carbonero in early 1947, using radio-command guidance to improve their accuracy. Both boats served as guidance ships for later trials of the Regulus near- supersonic nuclear-armed cruise missile, fired from surface ships. Two other fleet submarines, the Tunny and the Barbero, received full conversions for front-line operation of Regulus missiles, entering service in 1953 and 1955, respectively. They soon were joined by the two purposes- built boats of the Grayback class and, in 1959, by the nuclear-powered Halibut. A large force of more elaborate nuclear- powered cruise missile submarines was proposed to supplement the Halibut. All boats were to carry the supersonic Regulus II, but, after limited testing, that missile was cancelled in December 1958 as redundant to requirements (and to concentrate funding and effort on the Polaris ballistic missile); thus the submarines were reordered as nuclear-powered torpedo-attack craft. 

The Soviet Navy exploited the concepts of the German V-2 missile launch canisters to develop a design for a very large submarine capable of firing both ballistic and cruise missiles against land targets. In the 1949 preliminary design the 5,400-ton (surfaced) Project P-2 boat could carry twelve R-1 ballistic missiles (the Soviet production version of the V-2) and additional cruise missiles, but its engineers were unable to solve a host of development problems, leading to the project’s termination. The same design bureau began work the following year on Project 624, a 2,650-ton (submerged) cruise missile submarine powered by a closed-cycle Walter steam turbine based on the plant designed for the German Type XXVI boat. When that, too, was halted, work began on Project 628, a cruise missile–armed development of the wartime Series XIV design, but the Soviet Navy’s rejection of its missile terminated efforts in 1953. 

Thereafter, the Soviet Navy simultaneously pursued the development and deployment of both cruise and ballistic missile submarines. The diesel-electric Project 611A class (NATO- designated Zulu-IV) submarine B- 62, with a single launch tube, was the first to fire an R-11 ballistic missile (NATO-designated Scud) on 16 September 1955. The succeeding Project 611AB class (NATO-designated Zulu-V) were the first operational ballistic missile submarines, the first boat (the B-67) commissioning on 30 June 1956. These six boats could launch their two R-11FM missiles from vertical tubes in the sail and retained the torpedo capabilities of their conventionally armed sisters. They were followed by 22 Project 629 class (NATO-designated Golf) boats armed with three improved R-13 missiles and 9 similarly armed nuclear-powered boats of the Project 658 class (NATO-designated Hotel). 

Meanwhile, after trials with two boats between 1955 and 1959— a Project 611 (NATO-designated Zulu) and a Project 613 (NATO-designated Whiskey)—two series of operational conversions based on the Whiskey design entered service from 1960, as the six Project 644 class (NATO-designated Whiskey Twin Cylinder) and the six Project 665 class (NATO-designated Whiskey Long Bin). Soviet designers also pursued development of nuclear-powered cruise missile submarines, initially exploring a modified version of the fleet ’s first nuclear-powered attack boat as Project 627A and then a much larger 7,140-ton (submerged) type as Project 653, both optimized for submerged operation. But problems with the P-20 missiles for those vessels halted development. Instead, a new nuclear- powered design, Project 659 (NATO-designated Echo I), which featured a conventional hull form to maximize stability while launching missiles on the surface, entered service from 1961. On 14 December 1959, however, the new Strategic Rocket Forces were established. That arm of service took control of all land-based strategic missiles, downgrading the importance of the navy’s cruise missile boats and leading to the decision to concentrate efforts on sea-based ballistic missiles and focus cruise missile efforts on anti-ship warfare. 

Soviet ballistic missile submarines were initially very vulnerable during launch, because they had to surface to fire their missiles. On 10 September 1960, the B-62 of the Project 611AB class successfully fired a ballistic missile while submerged. The new D-4 launch system it tested replaced the earlier D-2 system originally fitted in the Project 629 and Project 658 classes of ballistic missile submarines that began entering service in 1960. The upgraded Project 629A and Project 658M boats carried three liquid-fuelled R-21 ( NATO-designated Sark) missiles with a range of 870 miles (twice that of the earlier R-13 weapons) in vertical tubes and recommissioned beginning in February 1962. 

In 1955, the United States began work on a submarine-launched ballistic missile that would ultimately become the Polaris. Designers also began working on options for launching ballistic missiles from submarines. Initially their designs were conceived to accommodate modified versions of the U.S. Army’s liquid-fuelled Jupiter missile and emerged as similar to the Skipjack class attack boats, with much enlarged sails incorporating the necessary launch tubes. The urgent development of the solid-fuelled Polaris, however, made a more efficient arrangement possible. The first U.S. ballistic missile submarines used a modification of the Skipjack class attack boat design, lengthening the hull by 130 feet to accommodate 16 launch tubes in two rows of eight, additional auxiliary machinery, and special navigation and missile-control equipment. The navy was able to accelerate production by reordering a nuclear attack boat, the Scorpion, as a ballistic missile submarine and incorporating its machinery and structural material into its construction. The first U.S. Navy ballistic missile submarine, the George Washington, commissioned on 30 December 1959. The George Washington test fired two Polaris missiles while submerged on 20 July 1960 in the Atlantic and departed on its first operational patrol on 15 November 1960. 

The Polaris missile was upgraded over time, its range increasing with each iteration. The fourth upgrade produced a new missile, the Poseidon, which featured Multiple Independently Targeted Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs). Each missile could carry 10–14 independently targeted nuclear warheads. It was relatively straightforward to upgrade existing ballistic missile submarines to launch successive versions of Polaris/ Poseidon missiles, since it was not necessary to enlarge their launch tubes to accommodate them. The first boat to take Poseidon missiles to sea, the James Madison, departed on patrol on 30 March 1971, while the final war patrol by any of the 41 submarines armed with these missiles was not completed until 1994.

The Soviet Union was slower than the United States in developing ballistic missile submarines capable of carrying heavy loads of these weapons. In part this was attributable to an attraction toward deploying cruise missile boats, since cruise missiles seemed to offer greater and less complex development potential than ballistic weapons and the submarines would be capable of undertaking a broader range of missions. The emergence of a politically powerful rival for funding in the form of the Strategic Rocket Forces also inhibited development of boats matching the weapons capabilities of U.S. strategic submarines. The disappointing results of efforts to field long-range, heavily armed cruise missiles and the success in overcoming difficulties in developing solid-fuelled ballistic weapons led the Soviet Fleet to develop and deploy a large force of powerfully armed strategic missile submarines: 34 of the Project 667A class (NATO-designated Yankee) followed by 43 of the various versions of the Project 667B type (NATO-designated Delta), which entered service between late 1967 and early 1986. 

Both the United States and the Soviet Union continued to develop longer-range, more powerful ballistic missiles, which therefore were larger, and the bigger submarines required to accommodate them. For the United States the new missile was the Trident—substantially larger than the Poseidon—which led to the design of the Ohio-class submarines, the largest in the world at that time. They embarked 24 of the new weapons, an arrangement regarded as a considerably more efficient use of submarine platforms. The first of 18 boats, the Ohio, commissioned on 11 November 1981. All remain in service, although four are being converted to launch up to 154 cruise missiles via 22 vertical tubes, rather than ballistic missiles, with more possibly converting in the future. The Soviet Union countered with its Project 941 class ballistic missile submarines (NATO-designated Typhoon), the first, the TK- 208, commissioning on 12 December 1981. They use an unusual double pressure hull form, are even larger than the Ohio class, and thus are the world’s largest submarines, although they carried only 20 R-39 ballistic missiles (NATO-designated Sturgeon) in vertical tubes. The six boats of the class remain in service. 

Britain, France, and China also operate strategic missile submarines. The British turned to the United States for their missiles, purchasing Polaris A-3 missiles, launch tubes, and control systems but developing their own warheads. The design process for the four boats of the Resolution class took a path similar to that of the first U.S. ballistic missile submarines. The British essentially used the design for their own Valiant class attack submarines and inserted the missile launching section from contemporary U.S. vessels abaft the sail to create the final design for their own boats. The first of the class, the Resolution, departed on its first operational patrol on 15 June 1968. When the United States developed the more powerful Trident missile, Britain negotiated an amendment to the original Polaris agreement in 1982 to acquire the new weapon and the necessary systems for its operation. The four boats of the Vanguard class used a greatly enlarged version of the Resolution class design. Unlike their U.S. equivalents, the British boats carry only 16 missiles. They began operational patrols in December 1994. 

Largely at the instigation of President Charles de Gaulle, the French also created a submarine nuclear deterrent force. The French took a wholly independent route, developing their own indigenous M1 strategic ballistic missile system. The six submarines of the Rédoutable class also were the first French nuclear- powered boats, and they began operational patrols in 1971. After 1985 these boats were upgraded to launch the M4 missile with MIRV capability. As in the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain, advances in missile design necessitated the development of larger submarines to accommodate the more powerful weapons. The four French boats of the Triomphant class carry 16 M45 ballistic missiles capable of launching up to 6 MIRV warheads to a distance of 3,750 miles. These large boats are unusual in using a nuclear-powered turboelectric propulsion system. They are scheduled to receive upgrades to launch new M51 weapons, with a range of 5,000 miles, beginning in 2010. 

After China joined the “nuclear club,” it too inclined toward developing submarines to launch strategic missiles. In the absence of indigenous capability to realize that ambition, it turned to its then ally for assistance. The Soviet Union fabricated hull sections for two Project 629 class (NATO-designated Golf) ballistic missile submarines at Komsomolsk and transferred them, together with machinery and launch systems, to China in the early 1960s. The Chinese assembled one boat at Darien in the mid-1960s and commissioned it as its Type 035. The other boat, however, was never assembled. The completed submarine was deployed for testing: first of Soviet R-11F weapons and later of indigenously derived missiles. In 1981, China launched a single example of its Type 092 ballistic missile submarine (NATO-designated Xia). This was an enlarged version of China’s first nuclear-powered attack submarine design, the Type 091 class (NATO-designated Han), lengthened to accommodate launch tubes for twelve JL-1 solid-propellant ballistic missiles with a range of 1,100 miles carrying a 200- to 300-kiloton warhead. That single boat became operational in 1983, although it was not until 1988 that the Chinese satisfactorily resolved launch control problems. Between 1995 and 1998 it was upgraded to deploy improved JL-2 weapons equipped with up to four MIRV warheads and with a maximum range of 5,000 miles. China is reported to be developing a new class of four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (Type 094), but little reliable information on their characteristics is available.

The U.S. Navy began operating its Regulus-armed submarines on strategic deterrent patrols in September 1958. Exactly one year later, these boats initiated the continuous deployment of one or more cruise missile submarines in the North Pacific, targeting sites in the Soviet Far East for attack in the event of war. These patrols continued until July 1964, when the boats terminated their deterrent mission. Conventional Soviet cruise missile boats, on the other hand, undertook only relatively short-range missions in the Baltic Sea and Arctic Ocean until they were withdrawn from front-line service in the late 1960s, although they no longer operated land attack missiles after 1965. Their nuclear-powered cohorts of the Project 659 class (NATO-designated Echo I), however, were very active in the North Atlantic and the Pacific. One boat, the K- 122, was seriously damaged internally by a battery fire on 21 August 1980 while operating off Okinawa; the fire killed nine crewmen and left the ship without power. Soviet ships had to tow the submarine to its base at Vladivostok. 

U.S. ballistic missile submarines began deterrent patrols in the Atlantic in November 1960 and in the Pacific in December 1964. To maximize sea time, the U.S. Navy introduced a new system for operating its strategic missile submarines. Each boat was assigned two complete crews (differentiated as the Blue and Gold crews, the navy colors). While one crew took the boat on a 60-day deterrent patrol, the other was training, resting, or on leave. Upon the boat’s return to port, the active crew oversaw replenishment and repairs, then exchanged with the alternate crew, which took the boat on patrol again. This crewing system has been maintained continuously to date; it allows the navy to maintain up to two-thirds of its active ballistic missile submarine fleet at sea at any moment. 

The early Soviet conventional Project 611AB class (NATO-designated Zulu-V) operated exclusively in European waters as theatre threat weapons. The later conventional Project 629 class ( NATO-designated Golf) and nuclear-powered boats of the Project 658 class (NATO-designated Hotel) operated extensively with the Northern, Baltic, and Pacific fleets from 1962 until 1989. During those operations the K-129 of the Project 629 class was lost on patrol in the North Pacific after an internal explosion on 8 March 1968. The Central Intelligence Agency undertook a clandestine salvage operation in 1974 using the purpose-built salvage vessel Glomar Explorer to recover the Soviet submarine. During the lifting of the wreck the hull broke apart, and only the forward section was recovered for examination and subsequent disposal. The Project 658 class was plagued with problems, largely a consequence of poor workmanship and inadequate quality control. A coolant pipe burst aboard the lead member of the class, the K-19, while it was operating submerged near Greenland on 4 July 1961, exposing the entire crew of 139 officers and men, of whom 14 died, to excessive radiation. After repairs the K-19 returned to operations but collided with the U.S. nuclear-powered attack submarine Gato on 15 November 1969, damaging both boats. Then, on 24 February 1972, while on patrol 800 miles northeast of Newfoundland, the K- 19 suffered a catastrophic failure in its cooling system, resulting in the deaths of 28 of its crew. The powerless submarine was towed back to its base on the Kola Peninsula, repaired, returned to service on 5 November 1972, and not decommissioned until 1990. Other members of the class also suffered major power plant problems, often requiring tows back to port, and leading to a major reappraisal of inspection procedures during construction and repair. 

The Soviet Union began deploying the large strategic missile submarines of the Project 667A class (NATO-designated Yankee) on deterrent patrols off the Atlantic coast of the United States from June 1969 and off the Pacific coast from October 1970. Thereafter, the Soviet Navy maintained two to four of the class off the Atlantic coast and at least one off the Pacific coast. After these submarines had been supplemented by the larger boats of the Project 667B type (NATO-designated Delta), the Soviets kept 10 to 14 vessels at sea on deterrent patrols, with about three-quarters of all its ballistic missile submarines ready for almost immediate service. It also developed systems enabling submarines to launch missiles while alongside in their homeports to maximize their ability to intervene in a conflict at short notice. This disposition of forces exploited the range advantage of the Soviet liquid-fuelled missiles, which enabled their submarines to operate within “bastions,” oceanic areas protected by the Soviet Fleet’s own antisubmarine and anti-ship forces from attack by NATO antisubmarine and strike operations. That capability became even more effective when the huge Project 941 class ballistic missile submarines (NATO-designated Typhoon) became operational in late 1981; the range of their weapons was sufficient for them to operate in the Arctic Ocean, where they were virtually immune from attack. 

Both the British and French ballistic missile submarine forces adopted a crewing system similar to that devised by the U.S. Navy, using two crews to maximize operational deployments. The two forces have consistently maintained about three-quarters of their submarines in operational status, with the other quarter undergoing major refits. However, the smaller number of submarines each navy possessed meant that few boats were at sea. During the Cold War up to half of the total forces were deployed on deterrent patrols at any one time, but both navies now operate at a reduced tempo. Each fleet is currently reduced to four submarines, usually with only one on patrol at any given time. China, with a single boat, does not maintain standing patrols. Its single Type 092 submarine has rarely ventured outside Chinese territorial waters.