image, caption follows
USS Grayback (SSG-574) entering San Diego Harbor.
U.S. Navy photo

 

From USS Barb to the Ohio-class—The Use of Missiles on Submarines

by Thomas Holian

With a flair for the dramatic, on Nov. 1, 2007 Rear Adm. William Hilarides, Program Executive Officer for Submarines, officially certified the first of four newly redesigned guided missile submarines (SSGNs), USS Ohio (SSGN-726), as having reached Initial Operational Capability (IOC), signing the document in the middle of a presentation to the Naval Submarine League in McLean, Va. Ohio is now “ready to assume its intended role in the Fleet” (according to the SSGN program office’s IOC definition), but what is that role exactly? And why did the Navy look to its four oldest missile submarines as the platforms for that role?

Briefly addressing the latter question will allow us to then tackle the former. The threat environment that the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) were originally designed to address has changed in the ensuing years. In 1994, the Defense Department’s Nuclear Posture Review determined that only 14 of the Navy’s 18 SSBNs were needed to fulfill their nuclear deterrent role. As the Navy’s IOC press release puts it:

Rather than decommission the four oldest submarines, the Navy decided that it had been presented with a unique opportunity to gain four stealthy special operations and strike platforms at a fraction of the cost of any new platform with similar capabilities. The modifications made to OHIO and her sister ships, USS MICHIGAN (SSGN-727), USS FLORIDA (SSGN-728), and USS GEORGIA (SSGN-729), include improved intelligence, search, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities; improved communications via the Common Submarine Room; the ability to deploy with up to 154 TOMAHAWK cruise missiles; and special operations modifications including the ability to host a Dry Deck Shelter (DDS) and/or an Advanced SEAL Delivery System (ASDS) and two large lock-in/lock-out chambers to facilitate insertion and extraction of Navy SEALs and other special operators.

The Navy, then, intends to use its rebuilt submarines in a variety of roles, two of the most important being guided missile strikes and special operations missions. Neither of these may universally be thought of as a traditionally “submarine” role, but Navy planners did not simply dream up such missions as something the four old boats could do once it appeared they were destined for decommissioning. In fact, not only are the new Virginia-class submarines designed to accommodate such missions (albeit on a smaller platform), but many of the older Los Angeles-class submarines were converted to carry a few TOMAHAWK missiles and transport Navy SEALs. But why stop there? Looking even further back in the U.S. Navy’s history, one quickly discovers that submarine sailors have carried out missions involving the firing of guided missiles and the insertion of Special Operations Forces (SOF) since the days of World War II, when necessity was often the mother of tactical invention.

The first submariner to launch missiles from a submarine in combat was the noted tactical pioneer and World War II hero Rear Adm. Eugene Fluckey. Then-Cmdr. Fluckey, frustrated with the inherent limitations and design flaws of torpedoes, mounted a rocket launcher on the submarine he commanded, USS Barb (SS-220). After sneaking in to the harbor of Shari, Japan, on June 22, 1945, Fluckey launched twelve “ballistic missiles” (as he called them) into the mining and lumber town, setting it ablaze.

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A Regulus I missile is loaded on USS Tunny (SSG-282).
U.S. Navy photo
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With the concept of submarine-launched missiles now proven in rather spectacular fashion, the Navy decided to study the idea further by testing and modifying captured German V-1 “Buzz Bombs” for potential use against Japan in 1945-46. The war ended before the modified V-1s could be employed thus, but testing continued and an Americanized version of the buzz bomb, known as the “Loon,” quickly entered production. It contained a preset guidance device that could target the missile and its 2,200 pound high-explosive warhead onto a fixed target. The Navy modified the fleet submarines USS Cusk (SS-348) and USS Carbonero (SS-337) with ramps to launch the Loon, and altered their air-search radar so that they could send codes to the Loons, commanding them to go faster, slower, higher, lower, left, right, or dive. During a test on Feb. 12, 1947, Cusk became the first submarine to launch a truly guided missile.

Loon was seen merely as a first step in the Navy’s guided missile efforts, especially in light of its poor range (50 nautical miles under guidance, extendable to 135 nautical miles when using a second submarine as a relay). The Navy also wished to arm a guided missile with a nuclear warhead, thereby developing a credible at-sea deterrent capability. The Navy contracted with two companies to develop Loon’s replacement, to be capable of carrying a 3,000 pound warhead 500 nautical miles. Chance-Vought’s Regulus missile won out and became the U.S.’s first sea-based nuclear deterrent. Regulus was a 42-foot long unmanned turbojet aircraft, weighed seven tons, and was capable of speeds up to Mach 0.91 (550 knots). It could carry either a 40-50 kiloton nuclear warhead or a 1-2 megaton thermonuclear warhead.

Regulus was first deployed, on a heavy cruiser, in 1955. Other cruisers and even aircraft carriers were equipped to carry the missile, but the submarine was destined to be the true Regulus workhorse. The World War II fleet submarine USS Tunny (SS-282) was brought out of mothballs and recommissioned as SSG-282. Her main modification was the addition of a pressurized hangar fifteen feet in diameter, just aft of the sail, with a ramp that could be extended further aft. The hangar could hold two Regulus missiles. Tunny launched the first Regulus missile in July 1953, and continued to serve for the next several years as a Regulus test platform. Tunny’s sister fleet boat USS Barbero (SS-317) was also restored to the fleet as aan SSG and given the same modifications.

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A Regulus II Guided Missile aboard USS Grayback (SSG-574).
U.S. Navy photo
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By mid-1956, it had become official Navy policy to keep one SSG in each ocean, which required more SSGs. In 1958 USS Grayback (SSG-574) and USS Growler (SSG-577) were built specifically to carry Regulus (four per boat), and all four SSGs (along with three of the four Regulus-equipped cruisers) were moved to the Pacific to counter the growing Soviet threat. These four submarines became Submarine Squadron ONE, and were tasked with fulfilling the Navy’s new policy that four Regulus missiles be stationed off the Soviet coast at all times (either Grayback or Growler, or both of the modified fleet boats). Tunny commenced the first of these deterrent patrols in October 1959, and Grayback and Growler each followed in 1960.

The first nuclear-powered submarine to carry Regulus, and therefore the first SSGN, was USS Halibut (SSGN-587), commissioned in 1960. By 1961, the Regulus-equipped cruiser patrols had ceased, and the would-be Regulus II, although successfully tested, succumbed to budgetary restraints. Soon thereafter, the dual technologies of compact nuclear warheads and large solid-fuel rocket motors brought an end to Regulus and SSGNs, and ushered in the era of the submarine- launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and the new classes of submarines that carried them, the SSBNs.

With the demise of Regulus, the U.S. Navy took a decades-long hiatus from building guided missile submarines and the early SSGNs are now all but forgotten. Conversely, the submarine fleet’s involvement with special operations forces has endured, but the nature of such missions means they are rarely revealed or acknowledged. In point of fact, Virginia was the first submarine designed with the intent of embarking special operations forces. Nevertheless, such missions took place, with some of the earliest taking place in the Pacific Theater during World War II.

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A Loon test vehicle launches from USS Carbonero (SS-337) during a series for 1949 test flights from the submarine. USS Cusk (SSG-348) was eventually fitted with a hanger.
U.S. Navy photo
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In August 1942, the Navy planned a diversionary attack on Makin Atoll in the Gilbert Islands to draw Japanese troops away from the first major American offensive in the Pacific that was taking place at Guadalcanal and Tulagi. Companies A and B of the Marine Corps’ 2nd Raider Battalion, led by Lt. Col. Evans F. Carlson, were selected to attempt a clandestine assault on Makin. The only way to get the famed “Carson’s Raiders” to the island without alerting the Japanese would be by two large 1920s-era submarine “cruisers.” USS Argonaut (SS-166) and USS Nautilus (SS-168) displaced 4,000 tons submerged and had been converted to troop carriers for this mission by having all torpedoes removed except those in the tubes, and having tiered wooden bunks installed for the extra passengers.

The submarines were large, but not large enough for the men aboard. No less than 211 of Carlson’s Raiders were split between the two submarines, in addition to the boats’ own crews. Conditions on the eight-day trek from Pearl Harbor to Makin were miserable. The Marines were essentially confined to their racks—except for brief exercise breaks on deck—to stay out of the crews’ way, and the stifling heat and smell combined with the lack of ventilation to produce mass outbreaks of seasickness.

At 3:00 a.m. on Aug. 17, the Marines began disembarking the submarines for their assault on Makin. Plans called for the Raiders to split up in two groups and land separately on the beach, but, despite repeated practice in Hawaii, the sea swells, the surf noise, and the need to transfer some troops from Nautilus to Argonaut landing craft all conspired to force Carlson to consolidate his landing plan to one location. Despite the swamping of many of the rubber landing crafts’ engines, all 19 craft miraculously landed, with only one boat missing the change in orders and landing a mile away at its originally assigned location. Luckily for the assault itself, this group eventually found itself behind the Japanese line when fighting broke out, and was able to inflict significant damage.

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Bow view of USS Growler (SSG-577).
U.S. Navy photo
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While fighting raged on the island, Carlson attempted to put the submarines themselves to use as sea-based artillery. Argonaut never received the message, but Nautilus successfully bombarded Japanese land positions and even sank a small transport and a patrol boat that shore-based Marines spotted. Later, both boats were forced to submerge when Japanese reconnaissance planes arrived. At 7:00 p.m., Carlson began his planned withdrawal from the island, but over the course of the day the surf had picked up, and only 100 men in seven boats made it back to the submarines. The remainder of the men faced only a brief skirmish that night, and in the morning four more landing craft were able to return to the submarines. At this point, Nautilus disembarked a boat with five Marine volunteers to return to shore with a line to pull the remaining boats out to the submarines, but a Japanese aircraft chose that exact instant to attack, forcing both submarines below and strafing the rescue boat. The boat and its volunteers were never seen again. The decision was made to postpone further rescue attempts until nightfall, but the Marines soon discovered that the surviving Japanese soldiers had evacuated the island.

The Marines spent the day gathering intelligence and destroying equipment at the Japanese headquarters, and then, under cover of darkness, four rubber landing craft were tied to a native boat in the lagoon and the men sailed out to the submarines. Nautilus and Argonaut departed Makin Atoll short thirty Marines, all of whom were assumed to have been killed in action. Tragically, nine of those left behind were in fact alive, were captured by the Japanese, and were ceremonially beheaded on Oct. 16. The Japanese officer responsible for that decision, Vice Adm. Kose Abe, was convicted of war crimes after the war and hanged at Guam. Nautilus went on to conduct several more missions similar to the SOF insertion at Makin Atoll, but in another demonstration of the horrors of war, Argonaut succumbed to depth charging with all hands onboard on Jan. 10, 1943.

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U.S. Navy photo.

Although the submarine troop insertion and extraction at Makin Atoll was not flawless, Nautilus and Argonaut had proven that such operations could be successful. As 1942 gave way to 1943, the Navy was turning its attention to the Japanese takeover of the Philippine Islands. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, in charge of the defense of the Philippines, was forced to draw back to Australia, and he began planning ways to bolster the Filipinos’ own guerilla defense of their islands. It was clear to MacArthur that, while the Filipinos had the will to fight, they did not have the tactical leadership or supplies to be successful.

Inspired by his memory of American submarines successfully slipping away from their anchorage at Corregidor as the Japanese invaded, MacArthur decided that those boats could also sneak back to the Philippines. His staff informed him that the standard fleet-type boats could carry between five and 10 tons of supplies, plus six passengers, when leaving Australia on regular combat patrols. In view of the sizable requests MacArthur was receiving from his guerrillas, he pushed for a better alternative. His staff suggested he ask for the services of the Navy’s two much larger transport-type submarines, USS Narwhal (SS-167) and Nautilus. To MacArthur’s dismay, he learned that those submarines were so old and in such disrepair that Narwhal would not be available until November 1943, and Nautilus needed a complete overhaul after her Makin Atoll mission before she could put back to sea. Instead, Adm. Chester Nimitz suggested that, with a modified wartime weapon load-out, the fleet-type submarines could carry up to 34 tons of cargo and 25 passengers, and would be better suited to the narrow passages in and around the islands anyway. MacArthur agreed, and a steady, top secret parade of submarines began operating between Australia and the Philippines.

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Submarines anchored off Thimble Shoals Cannel for the International Naval Review. USS Barbero (SS-317) sits in the foreground with a Regulus I onboard.
U.S. Navy photo
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The first such mission was carried out by USS Gudgeon (SS-211) under the command of Lt. Cmdr. William Stovall, Jr. Seven Filipino soldiers and intelligence officers, disguised as mess boys and led by Maj. Jesus Villamor, U.S. Army, boarded Gudgeon in Fremantle, Australia, on the night of Dec. 27, 1942. Despite a change in landing location en route, and initial poor landing conditions once on location, Villamor was eventually successful in landing his men and supplies on the island of Negros on the night of Jan. 14, 1943. The last submarine supply mission to the Philippines, performed by USS Stingray (SS-186), took place on New Year’s Day, 1945. In all, 19 submarines participated in a total of 41 top secret missions to the Philippine Islands, with the transport submarines Nautilus and Narwhal conducting six and nine missions, respectively. The whole operation ultimately delivered 331 people, evacuated 472, and delivered some 1,325 tons of supplies to the Filipino guerillas. These missions would prove vital to the eventual liberation of the Philippines.

As is now apparent, the Navy’s new Ohio-class SSGNs have been designed to perform a variety of missions that the submarine force has, in fact, conducted quite successfully over the course of its history. The difference now, of course, is the simple fact that the new SSGNs are a new class of submarine, designed as a whole to handle these very disparate missions on a much grander scale than ever before. One SSGN alone has the potential to deploy with the same guided missile firepower as an entire Battle Group, while at the same time deploying up to 66 Special Operations Forces and serving as their command and control platform for the entire mission—including directing other assets such as unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs), unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and other friendly warships and operators. With the SSGNs, the Submarine Force has looked back over its history and created not only a single platform from many variegated missions, but because all those missions are encompassed in one platform, that platform is greater than the sum of its parts. And best of all, four submarines with twenty years of service life left a-piece now have a new lease on life.

USS Growler (SSG-577)
U.S. Navy photo
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image, USS Growler (SSG-577)
A multiple all-up round canister (MAC) is loaded on USS Ohio (SSGN-726).
Photo courtesy of General Dynamics Electric Boat
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image, USS Growler (SSG-577)

Mr. Holian is an analyst with Alion Science and Technology in Washington, D.C. and a contributing editor for UNDERSEA WARFARE Magazine.

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