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EVOLUTION. REVOLUTION. AND REFINEMENT or THE GOLDEN AGE OF SUBMARINES

This is not another U.S. Navy submarine history. For the sake of this discussion, let us divide the 20th Century into three essentially equal parts: 1900 to 1940, 19401970; and 1970-2000. These segments match the title. More important is the middle third for it was during these years that the author was privileged to be involved with the Submarine Force in several capacities.

The cat is already out of the bag, I would presume. The period of Revolution is the Golden Age of Submarines, AND it encompassed the author’s career. What could be neater’! The task now is to prove the proposition to the satisfaction of the denizens of the other windows.

There are a multitude of books which trace the history of submarines in the world as well as in the U.S. Navy. We need not reinvent the wheel, but rather will cite a few sources, and comment briefly upon the key steps leading to the true submarine.

The Evolution delivered to the Revolution the Fleet Boat, so tabbed because it was assigned by the strategists of the inter-war years the task of scouting for the Fleet. It is generally agreed that that fortuitous decision (wrong though it was) gave us just the ship to wage a successful trans-Pacific war against the Japanese.

But, the Fleet Boat didn’t just happen. It was the product of forty years (and much more) of tedious effort by civilian inventors, U.S. and foreign, contributions by foreign navies, and concerted U.S. Navy design and construction.

From history …

  • The submersible
    1780 – The challenge of defeating the blockade off ports in the U.S. and elsewhere was met as early as the U.S. Revolutionary War by Bushnell and Fulton with production of one-man manually propelled craft which could approach an anchored target undetected in order to attach an explosive charge to its underbody. (TURTLE and NAUTILUS)
    1880- In rapid succession in U.K. and Sweden, Nordenfelt and others introduced steam propulsion on the surface with residual steam for brief submerged periods; then electric propulsion submerged using batteries in their infancy; and Holland’s internal combustion engine with electric propulsion; but not until 1904 did the French introduce the diesel engine for safer propulsion power. (NORDENFELT I, RESURGAM, NARV AL. FENIAN RAM)
    1890- Double-hulled ships, and in 1910, internal tankage for trimming, quicker diving (negative), and torpedo compensation (WRT) were introduced.
  • Control Systems
    1888- One periscope and in 1914 two scopes (DELFINO)
    1890 – Stem and later bow planes for diving and submerged operations; and casings for effective surface cruising.
    1910- Gyros
  • ¬†Torpedoes
    1868- Whitehead type, the first for tube firing, 14″ x 11′, 6 knots, 2QO yards run with 40 lbs of explosives;
    1890- 18″ x 16.5′, 30 knots, 1,000 yards run with 200 lbs of explosives;
    1914- 21″ x 20′, 29 knots, 10,000 yards run with 225 lbs of explosives.

The U.S. Navy formaUy entered the submarine business on 11 April, 1900, when it made John Holland immortal by the famous photograph of him with the derby in the hatch of SSt.

Thereafter, a succession of submarine classes, from A through S, gradually, but certainly not without travail, increased capability in size, diving depth, speed, and numbers of torpedo Lubes. It was only when the U.S. Navy entered seriously into the design function that the Fleet Boat concept evolved.

From 1925 onward, V, P, S, T, and MACKEREL classes joined the Fleet. They brought a standardized length and displacement, internal arrangement, higher speeds and better submerged endurance, 10 torpedo tubes, and the earliest electro-mechanical fire control which fired the 1914 Whitehead torpedo.

In summary, Evolution bequeathed the Fleet Boat to Revolution.

Admittedly, World War ll was the catalyst for many of the spectacular improvements the Submarine Force adopted. Funding was essentially unlimited, R&D flourished, patrol operations encouraged initiative, and enemy (German) developments were copied. Submarines matured in a hurry.

The War saw the introduction of radar, both for air early warning and for surface search, passive electronic countermeasures, electric wakeless (Mk18) and passive acoustic torpedoes (Mk27-4 and 28), and improvements in both passive and active sonar.

Wartime operations elicited a steady stream of ideas for improvements in all aspects of the submarine and its outfit. These appeared in profusion. Even in the post-war retrenchment, submarine improvements blossomed (with the help of captured German U-boats): the snorkel (or should we say schnorke1?), the Guppy conversion (from the Type XXI), the bow mounted sonar (from the Prinz Eugen).

These, in turn, spawned further innovation, some again from the Germans. The greatest leap forward, perhaps, was the ALBACORE tear-drop hull which multiplied submerged speed and maneuverability. The use of high-yield strength steels for hulls expanded the depth envelope markedly. But other developments were important too. Amongst these, in the 1950’s, were the wire guided active/passive torpedo (Mk37), electronic miniaturized fire control (Mk101 and subsequent), surface launched cruise missiles (LOON and REGULUS), SSKs designed to fight a submerged battle with enemy submarines, periscope mounted radar, AND NUCLEAR POWER!

There is no need to expound yet again upon the impact of nuclear power on submarines and submarining. It took us to the true submersible. That spawned further technological improvements such as inertial navigation, highly sophisticated environmental control systems, and weapons which integrated the command systems with fire control and sonar, and even nuclear warheads for torpedoes.

Nuclear power developed faster than hull forms, so it was not until SKIPJACK, the third class of SSNs, that the ALBACORE hull was wedded to nuclear power. By 1970, there were 45 SSNs, mostly 594 and 637 classes.

Concurrently, studies were initiated to take ballistic missiles to ,sea. The first candidate was the liquid-fueled JUPITER which would be fired from an awash condition. The twin dangers of liquid fuel and exposure for firing soon pushed JUPITER aside in favor of a more submarine compatible system. This led to the establishment of Red Raborn’s Special Project Office with success following success. Attack submarines under construction were stretched to SSBNs, and the schedules were telescoped. The first submerged POLARIS firing by GEORGE WASHINGTON took place on 19 July 1960. By 1967, 41 POLARIS submarines were operational.

Before moving to the final era of the 20th Century, there is one non-submarine system which must be mentioned because of its impact upon submarine development (quieting), missions (ASW), and tactics (long range detection, air/submarine coordination, integration of command and control systems, and development of torpedo firing doctrine). This, of course, was the development of land-based area detection systems in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. It impacted heavily on U.S. submarine development, but it also drove Soviet improvements because it effectiveness was obvious: first to Soviet diesel boats and later to their SSNs and SSBNs.

While COMSUBLANT, Vice Admiral Bacon commented at the dedication of Ramage Hall SubTraFac in Norfolk in June 1989. Those words serve as a fitting conclusion to the “Golden Age”. He said (in part): “Despite a massive technological evolution, many of the fundamental principles of submarine warfare, forged in the fire of combat (my emphasis) have clearly stood the test of time … ”

A solid technological base and highly professional personnel were the legacies of the Golden Age of Submarines.

Just because I have categorized the 1970-2000 as the Age of Refinement does not mean that there were no major steps forward. I do not denigrate the efforts of the submarine team afloat and ashore in any manner. They have married modem computer techniques, massive R&D, and innovation in myriad directions to enhance the quality and capability of today’s submarines. We see progress in all phases, with one exception, perhaps.

The cost of new submarines has far exceeded inflation to the extent that force levels are established more by the budget than by strategic requirements.

Having given Refinement its proper obeisance, let’s assess the elements which comprise the whole.

The submarine
The 688 class is the primary attack submarine of this period. It, like its 594 and 637 predecessors, emphasizes quiet operations and sophisticated sonar detection capabilities. It is considerably larger and faster but this is not revolutionary change. Every U.S. Navy ship class, submarine or surface, has ultimately been modified to the point where there was no further space or weight margin, and a new class came into being. The 688 is no exception. The last few 68& are improved; improved to the extent that space and weight permitted. Then follows the SSN-21, the submarine of the next century, as the name implies. It will have limited impact upon the Force in the late 1990’s only because its numbers will be few. It will renect developments and refinement over 19 years since the introduction of the 688.

But, it is driven by nuclear power, the product of the Golden Age; it will have more torpedo tubes than the 637 or 688 but fewer than its WW II forebears. Its sonar and command and control are more sophisticated than the prior classes, but are conceptually similar.

The weapons mix of this last period is impressive although the Mk48/ADCAP is based on a design of the late 1960s. And some will claim that even HARPOON and TOMAHAWK have ancestors with names like LOON and REGULUS, not to mention the SoV:et SS-N-X family of cruise missiles.

TRIDENT, the only submarine even close to the world’s largest, the Soviet TYPHOON, is arguable the world’s quietest when it so wishes. It is POSEIDON reincarnated — more tubes, better sonar, better stealth, better patrol endurance, better turnaround — yet a concept developed in the Golden Age.

A final word on personnel is in order. Only in this past period has the submarine become the principal ship of the Navy, even the capital ship. Thus, it is no surprise that submarine flag officers have risen to four-star rank by reason of their careful selection, their demonstrated intelligence and performance, and their association with the key force in the Navy today.

Epilogue
We, graying or gray, balding or bald, who were privileged to fight the War against the Japanese and drive the Submarine Force with such success through the Golden Age salute today’s highly talented team. We know they will continue to build upon our legacy (it’s already been over 20 years). They will succeed in reshaping the Force technologically and operationally to meet the electrifying political and military changes unfolding as Communism collapses.

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