by Dr. Gary E. Weir

Undersea warfare underwent a revolution after World War II, and the American Submarine Force led the way. Building on advanced German designs created during the war, the Navy anticipated submarines of the future going deeper, staying there longer, and moving much faster. Indeed, reports submitted by the U.S. Naval Technical Mission in Europe at war’s end suggested that the Germans, in their desperation, had opened the door to the future. In 1945, no warship could effectively detect and track a submarine like the German Type 21, which could snorkel and sustain a 17-knot submerged speed for at least 30 minutes. Engineers like Captains William Ignatius and Henry Arnold suggested in their reports for the Technical Mission that naval warfare stood on the threshold of fundamental change.

This revolution in undersea warfare changed the rules of the conflict and forced both the Americans and the Russians to come to terms with the significance of the German contribution. The Navy quickly combined German innovation with American engineering and design in boats with greater underwater propulsive power (for example the GUPPY 1 conversions) and the new Tang (SS-563) class. These boats demonstrated the possibilities and challenges of much greater submerged speed and prolonged submergence. Greater depth, speed, and personnel endurance became absolutely critical to the future. As the Cold War began, the Bureau of Ships (BuShips) looked to naval shipyards to expand American construction capacity. Experience with Electric Boat Company’s (EB) supplementary wartime "Victory Yard" taught the postwar Navy the difficulty of reconstituting private facilities without the benefit of a clear national emergency. In the early postwar years Americans wanted peace, economic stability, jobs, and a chance to prosper. Placing shipyards in mothballs for the future simply meant unemployment and lost local property taxes. Furthermore, once disbanded, the Navy would find reconstituting a skilled labor force in these yards a very slow and difficult process.

Political pressure and economic need forced the postwar Navy Department to sell facilities like the Victory Yard to companies able to provide jobs for local residents. Given the Russian challenge, BuShips resorted first to EB and then to naval shipyards as alternative prime contractors. The latter facilities, notably Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, provided the advantages of using naval resources as opposed to private. On the subcontractor level, the Navy sought to preserve a mobilization base by permanently tying many major submarine vendors to the Navy’s future emergency needs through an industrial reserve program.

With their destination the deep ocean, submarines would need scientific support more than ever. As organized wartime science demobilized in 1946, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, the new Office of Naval Research (ONR), and the Navy laboratories stepped into the vacuum. At the invitation of those naval officers and scientists interested in preserving their very productive wartime relationship, the academy sponsored the creation of the Committee on Undersea Warfare (CUW), confirming and perpetuating the link between the submarine community and civilian science. ONR assisted as a CUW-sponsor, as well as the first and only source of federal funds for basic research, until the National Science Foundation received adequate appropria-tions for ocean science after the Sputnik launch in 1957.

Thanks to ONR and the Academy, the undersea warfare community made quick and remarkable advances. In 1948, the CUW proposed the creation of an experimental submarine to test scientific and technical advances of German and American origin. This initiative gave birth to USS Albacore (AGSS-569) and thedevelopment of its revolutionary teardrop hull design at the David Taylor Model Basin. The many experiments performed with this vessel made possible the 30-knot swiftness of the Skipjack (SSN-585), as well as the advances in silencing achieved with the stealthy Thresher (SSN-593). Albacore regularly served as a test platform for basic ideas in speed, control, and hydrodynamics explored by the naval bureaus, submariners, and civilian consultants.

With Albacore, the Navy, industry, and civilian science tested countless changes and variations in submarine propulsion, design, and ship construction practice with great success and at minimal cost. Indeed, in 1956 the scientists and engineers of the CUW-sponsored Project Nobska Summer study at Woods Hole strongly confirmed the advantages of using an experimental submarine to determine the characteristics of the next two or three design generations. In their eyes, this approach demonstrated both technical and fiscal responsibility.

While Albacore certainly influenced the outward characteristics of all future American submarines, nuclear power revolutionized propulsion and created the true submarine. After USS Nautilus (SSN-571) American submarines had virtually unlimited submerged endurance and the ability to conduct extended patrols in a hostile environment – a practice that became highly secret and routine over nearly fifty years of Cold War. While Admiral Hyman Rickover and his team can take credit for the practical success of the nuclear program, neither the first nuclear-submarine design, nor the idea to apply nuclear power to a submarine originated with the controversial head of BuShips Code 1500. Credit for these ideas must go to Philip Abelson and Ross Gunn of the Naval Research Laboratory. Gunn perceived the submarine applications of nuclear power as early as 1939, and both he and Abelson worked at NRL as part of the wartime nuclear effort. Together, they actually proposed a simple design for a nuclear-powered submarine in March 1946!

USS Nautilus went to sea propelled by a pressurized-water nuclear reactor plant in January 1955 and set a new standard for submarines. Rather than a surface ship capable of submerging when the need arose, this submarine’s natural environment lay below the surface. USS Seawolf (SSN-575) and the USS Skate (SSN-578)-class nuclear hunter-killer submarines quickly followed Nautilus, and together they demonstrated a new range of operational effectiveness, from the deep ocean, to the shallows, and the polar regions. These were the vessels John Holland would have built but for the limits of science and technology at the turn of the 20th century.

The advent of nuclear power for ship propulsion had a profound effect on everyone involved in undersea warfare. Since the technology was completely new, Rickover had to provide the staff at Electric Boat Division (EB) with a broad education in physics, nuclear engineering, and steam systems suited for submarine propulsion. The admiral also knew that the technology would, in its turn, instruct both the Navy and civilian shipbuilders. Nautilus forced the Navy, industry, and science to learn more about quieting, highly toxic liquid metals, vibration at sustained high speed, and the necessity of carefully managing construction materials. When a pipe that did not meet the proper specifications failed during the final dockside trials of the Nautilus cooling system before the reactor went critical, EB learned the most fundamental lesson of all: Failure to measure up to the demands of the technology could have devastating results.

Key Cold war
submarine bases used
by the Soviet Union

At Project Nobska in 1956, Admiral Burke called together representatives of science and industry, asking them to assess with the Navy the effect of the nuclear-powered submarine on American national security. As with Project Hartwell at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) six years earlier, this meeting fostered the professional intimacy that eventually characterized the Cold War undersea warfare community.2  Representatives from forty-one different commands, laboratories, universities, companies, and research institutions attended and exhibited cooperation and motivation reminiscent of the crusade against the Axis in World War II.

Indeed, personal links forged during the war from a sense of duty, professionalism, patriotism, ambition, profit, and necessity still deeply affected both institutions and individuals. Physicist Marvin Lasky cherished the mutual trust between scientists and naval officers that grew up at his David Taylor Model Basin workplace. He identified these relationships as critical to productive work on submarine problems. Woods Hole physicist Allyn Vine built oceanographic instruments and taught submariners the basics of oceanography, all the while expressing a fascination with the way his students applied their lessons strategically and tactically. Retired Rear Admiral and EB vice president Andrew I. McKee used his contacts within the Navy to help project manager Frank Horan get the Nautilus effort properly staffed with highly specialized engineers.

A Soviet submarine, surfaced, offered a rare opportunity for a visual glimpse of the threat.

At Nobska, this same kind of interaction between industry, science, and the Navy produced some of the most important decisions in the history of the American submarine program. Noted nuclear physicist Edward Teller assured those working on ballistic missiles that a nuclear warhead small enough to suit the Polaris A-1 was possible. This provided Admiral "Red" Raborn with the last and most important part of the Polaris Project puzzle. Other committee members recommended intensive work on sonar, quieter, deeper-diving submarines, the use of experimental and pre-prototypes in design and development, and a commitment to long-range research.

However, preoccupied with developing the Skipjack reactor and making provisions for production in quantity, Admiral Rickover eventually found all of the alternatives to pressurized water unsuitable for naval applications. Faith in scientific progress along a broad front motivated those participating in Nobska to believe in the future viability of select nuclear alternatives, and some scientists privately wondered if the BuShips naval reactors staff could break out of comfortable frames of reference. Out of this concern came the Nobska suggestion made by Dean Harvey Brooks of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Physics, that a new naval activity should take responsibility for long-range naval nuclear research. Admiral Rickover’s political influence and his strength within the Navy and Atomic Energy Commission, however, ensured that the Nobska recommendationson nuclear power would have little effect. Thus, while the Navy’s pressurized-water reactors certainly became safer, more efficient, and increasingly sophisticated, they also grew much larger and more expensive in a perpetual quest for the extra power and speed needed to drive American submarines in the 1960s.

A Soviet SSBN on the surface following
a casualty

The effectiveness of the postwar undersea warfare community reached its zenith with the design and construction of the guided and ballistic missile submarines. As with other submarine developments, the bureaus drew on both World War II German innovation and American progress in the field. Derived from the German V-1, the air-breathing Loon, Regulus I, and Regulus II benefited from the wartime work conducted at the Naval Air Material Center on drone targets, television guidance, and pilotless aircraft. Only the greater compatibility of the solid-fuel Polaris ballistic missile system with submarines, made possible by submerged launch, placed Regulus on hold by the early 1960s. This guided-missile limbo lasted for over twenty years, until the Tomahawk became a very potent weapon for the USS Los Angeles (SSN-688)-class attack submarines of the 1980s.

Each component of the undersea warfare community contributed a key element to making the Polaris system a reality, giving meaning and significance to the assertion made by EB’s director Carleton Shugg that "we each knew the other." Discussions at Nobska set the Navy on the road to a light nuclear warhead, and BuShips and EB provided the nuclear submarine to carry that weapon on silent, extended patrols. MIT provided the missile guidance system, and private industry found the recipe for a more powerful solid rocket propellant. The Polaris development demonstrated the performance of the undersea warfare community at its best.

The Nautilus-Albacore combination first realized in Skipjack also served to extend the reach of the submarine force. From the Polaris A-1 in 1960, through multiple generations of missiles suitable for submerged launching, the Navy’s fleet ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) have provided the ultimate nuclear deterrent. As opposed to land-based missiles easily targeted, SSBNs are in constant motion, hiding deep in the ocean, with virtually unlimited endurance, capable of reaching almost any target on the globe. The current USS Ohio (SSBN-726)-class SSBN fleet is the most effective and survivable component of current American strategic Triad.

With their quiet manner, submerged endurance, diverse weapons array, and ability to detect threats while now communicating more effectively with the surface fleet, American submarines conduct both highly-secret independent tactical and strategic patrols, as well as operations in support of carrier battle groups. The effort to integrate the submarine more thoroughly with air and surface forces suggests that the naval warfare of the 21st century will require a flexible mix of assets designed for a future filled with constantly changing defense demands. Always on the cutting edge, the submarine force will help the Navy sustain the adaptability necessary to control the twenty-first century battlespace.3

1. GUPPY is an acronym for Greater Underwater Propulsive Power.

2. Project Hartwell was a summer study conducted at M.I.T. in 1950, which focused on the undersea aspect of possible transatlantic support for Cold War allies in the event of a hot war with the Soviet Union. ASW appeared high on the agenda of naval leaders worrying about the difficulty of replicating the World War II Atlantic lifeline in the context of new and advanced submarines on the German Type 21 model.

3. Gary E. Weir, Forged in War: The Naval - Industrial Complex and American Submarine Construction, 1940-1961 (Washington: Brassey’s, 1998). The research that supports this short article is derived from my work on this volume, originally published by the Naval Historical Center in 1993. The bibliography will provide interested readers with many options for further reading and understanding.


Dr. Weir is a historian at the U.S. Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.