Part I; Conception and Design
One of the most unique and unusual submarines ever built was the USS TRITON (SSRN 586). She was a ship of many superlatives and many question marks. When she was launched on August 19, 1958, she took the record away from the Japanese l-400 class submarine aircraft carriers for the largest submarine in the world. The I-400s had been designed to attack the Panama Canal. She still exceeds all attack and many guided and ballistic missile types in size. She remains the only Western nuclear submarine with a multiple reactor powerplant; the first in the world except for that on the trouble plagued Soviet icebreaker LENIN.
TRITON’s powerplant may well be the most powerful on any Western submarine, according to Captain Ned Beach, her first CO. She was designed for 34,000 shp but reached 45,000 on her trials . TRITON had the highest surface speed of any submarine ever built. Designed for 27 knots, she broke 30 on her trials. She was the only nuclear submarine designed specifically for high surface speeds, and the only one intended to operate for substantial amounts of time on the surface. Yet her most public moment of fame came with her reeord 1960 voyage retracing Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world almost entirely submerged, covering 41,500 miles in 83-112 days . And when she was decommissioned on May 3, 1969, she was apparently the first, certainly the first Western, nuclear submarine to be permanently retired from service. Why?
She was the only nuclear radar picket submarine, yet she was launched four months after the Navy announced its intention to end the SSR program. The 12 diesel pickets worked hard and seem to have been considered extremely valuable assets, in spite of numerous problems. TRITON was designed to solve these material shortcomings and design limitations: to be the near perfect radar picket. Yet she was exercised in this role only a few times, and had apparently lost much of her picket capabilities long before she was reclassified as an attack sub on May 1, 1961. Why?
I have been intrigued by TRITON literally since she was built. For 35 years I have been curious about the entire concept of TRITON. With nuclear power came the realization of the old dream of the true submarine, designed to operate entirely sub-merged, free from the atmosphere for crew or powerplant, able to equal or exceed the performance of surface ships underwater.
TRITON seemed to be intended to fulfill another old dream, that of the submersible surface ship, able to both equal the performance and serve the functions of a cruiser or destroyer on the surface and to dive and serve as a fully effective submarine. Both have recurred frequently in the history of the submarine. The British R Class killer submarines of WWI emphasized high submerged speed for example, while the steam powered K Class fleet submarines were the nearest approach to the submersible warship. But both concepts required nuclear power to be success-ful. And while the nuclear powered true submarine early appeared to be the capital ship of the future, the submersible warship, approached only with TRITON, appeared to be a blind alley.
Even so, the questions remain. Just how successful was she? Did she ever really operate in the role for which she was apparent-ly intended-high speed radar picket escort for fast carrier task forces? How did she actually perform on the surface? Was her phenomenal surface speed ever used after the radar picket role evaporated? How did she perform as a picket? Was it a worth-while role? If so, why did it disappear?
And what were TRITON’s characteristics as a submarine, her submerged speed, maneuverability, and quietness? How exactly was she actually used in her later career? Did her size and engine power prove useful in any way then?
And how about her contributions to nuclear submarine and surface ship development? To what extent was her powerplant the prototype for multi reactor surface ship plants? Did her size and her round-the-world trip teach anything that was applied to the ballistic missile subs and their long submerged patrols? What other technology did TRITON pioneer and test out? What was adopted and what abandoned? Finally, was she a failed experiment, an oddball white elephant, or was she a worthwhile unit? Was she worth building in the first place?
To many, the answer was simply not In his Proceedings article The Flip Side of Rickover, Harold Hemond wrote:
“The TRITON (SSN 586} project concentrated attention on how to install twin reactor plants in a two-shaft ship. The submarine did not need two reactor plants, but Rickover was anticipating the problems he would have installing multiple reactor systems in surface ships. Much effort was also devoted to the development of steam driven powerplant auxiliaries in lieu of electric motor driven auxiliaries with hopes that the on-board electric powerplant could be simpli-fied. But steam–driven auxiliaries were never again used on submarines, and no significant mission could be found for the TRITON.”
Many people have repeated this view, that the radar picket role was never serious and Rickover built TRITON to test a surface ship powerplant before actually beginning his political campaign for a nuclear surface fleet. A careful examination of the facts suggests this is a serious oversimplification; the wisdom of hindsight. Rickover and others may have been wrong in some of their choices, but they couldn’t know it at the time.
TRITON was borne of a complex process, a rather fortuitous convergence of two strands of development, the fleet radar picket submarine, and the submarine advanced reactor (SAR), as well as early intimations by Rickover of the future valUe of very large and fast submarines. The answers that I’ve found are the result of detective work, based on interviews with TRITON’s operators and designers. Unfortunately, though most of the TRITON’s story seems like ancient history, everything is still classified. Mean-while, the people personally involved are getting along in years– TRITON’s second CO, Captain George Morin, died shortly after being interviewed. The ideal history of these crucial years of submarine development would be based on both a study of the documents and the first-hand knowledge of the principal actors themselves, but it appears the opportunity to produce this could be lost.
The Fleet Radar Picket Requirement
First, it should be remembered that until the late 1950s the radar picket submarine appeared very valuable and promising. Fleet air defense was a major problem, never to be absolutely solved. Radar controlled fighter direction gave U.S. carriers a crucial advantage over the Japanese from Midway on. But the kamikaze attacks off Okinawa showed the deadliness of the guided missile and the great weakness of shipbome radar, its inability to see over the horizon and thus warn of very low level attackers. The first solution was radar picket destroyers, place at a distance from the fleet, but they were themselves vulnerable to attack. Radar picket submarines, however, could give early warning and then submerge to avoid attack themselves.
Post war, 10 fleet boats were converted to radar pickets, being given large air search and height finder radars, fighter homing beacons, and complete fighter direction control centers. Accommodating the equipment and personnel was a major problem; others were the electrical connections through the hull to deck mounted antennas, and the fact that their top speeds were still far less than the carriers they were supporting. The best conversions. the Migraine Ills were lengthened to provide space for the air control center. and mounted all antennas above the deck, permit-ting their operation while awash.
The SAILFISH and SALMON appeared in 1956; still diesel powered. they were not much improvement. Nonetheless, the importance of pickets for early warning is shown by the conver-sion of numerous DDs and DEs to this role. and the subs were still better because they could operate in more dangerous positions; the heart of enemy controlled waters if need be. But the concept of a radar picket sub able to match surface ship speeds seemed sufficiently attractive to the carrier air community that, according to Norman Friedman, a steam powered SSR was proposed, equipped with a pressure fired plant like that used in the Brooke and Garcia class escorts.
But the real solution was nuclear power; TRITON was laid down May 29. 1956. Yet four months before her launching on August 19, 1958, the Navy announced the end of the SSR program. The reason was probably the great strides being made in airborne early warning (AEW). The first AEW Skyraiders in 1948 demonstrated the greatly expanded horizon of airborne radar; not blocked by the curve of the earth, one airborne radar could provide far greater low level coverage than a picket line of numerous sea level radars. However, early carrier AEW aircraft lacked the capabilities of the fighter-control centers of DDRs, SSRs, and land based PO-l W Constellations. The appearance of advanced digital processing married to AEW radar. however, made possible the E-2 Hawkeye able to track hundreds of targets and control numerous intercepts simultaneously; it entered served in 1964.
Also, the appearance of 3-D radars, scanning mechanically in azimuth and scanning in altitude by frequency modulation, made specialized surface pickets unnecessary. The original 3-D radar tested on the DL-1 NORFOLK in 1957 was the SPS-26. Accord-ing to Norman Polmar, in his Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet (14th edition), the only other ship to carry this radar was TRI-TON. It seems possible that this radar was an important part of TRITON’s design as a radar picket. The other pickets carried a 2-D air search radar above the sail, and a height-finder mounted aft, on deck or on a raised pedestal. None of these were retract-able, unnecessary because of their low submerged speeds. But TRITON’s very high submerged speed required the ability to retract all antennas into her sail, and combining search and beight-fmding into a single antenna made this possible.
However, according to Captain Bob Bulmer, her first opera-tions officer, she never carried the SPS-26, mounting only a BPS-2, the same 2-D search radar as SAILFISH carried, with no separate height-finder. (‘The first production 3-D radar, the SPS-39, had severe reliability problems; perhaps the SPS-26 was never suitable for operational use.) She carried the BPS-2 the end of here career, giving her a lot more radar and air search capacity than any other nuke, but thus never had the full fighter direction capability of the other pickets.
At the Falkland Islands, British nuclear subs lying off Argen-tine air bases reported Argentine air activity and picket lines of missile destroyers gave the only early warning of the three Argentine Exocet attacks, losing SHEFFIELD in the process. The picket role was absolutely vital because the British had no AEW aircraft. Perhaps TRITON would have been a vital part of the fleet’s air defense, in the absence of the E-2. But E-2 gave far better coverage, was far cheaper, and operating behind the fleet’s air defenses, was less vulnerable than a surface picket. Of course TRITON could dive to avoid attack, but when she did so she would have temporarily ceased to function as a radar picket.
The Submarine Advanced Reactor
Still, TRITON owed her surface ship lines and speed, her large radar and CIC to the radar picket concept. But her real origin lay with the SAR. According to Captain Beach, the SAR was conceived as a successor to the SEAWOLF’s sodium-cooled reactor using even more advanced technology. NAUTILUS’ pressurized water reactor utilized neutrons at so-called thermal speeds, and thus was the submarine thermal reactor (STR); the SEAWOLF plant used neutrons at intermediate speeds, and thus was the SIR (submarine intermediate reactor). The SAR, as originally conceived, would utilize genuinely high speed neutrons for increased power and efficiency. Commander David Leighton, Rickover’s longtime colleague, says that at first the nature of the SAR was wide open, with liquid metal and even gas coolants being considered, but very early it was decided that high perfor-mance would talce priority over advanced technology and SAR would be a twin pressurized water reactor plant.
Leighton says Rickover was arguing for speeds up to 35 knots as early as 1951. The only route to such speeds before the ALBACORE hull was a massive increase in power, and thus size. The submarine community opposed this; it was receiving the short, maneuverable TANGs and wanted its first production nuclear attack boats, the SKATEs to have a similar size and characteristics. This was a mistake; NAUTILUS proved that the sonars and destroyer weapons of the mid 50s were useless against a submarine that could sustain 18 knots submerged indefinitely. Diesel boats needed maneuverability to evade destroyer weapons only because they couldn’t escape at their speeds. The SKATEs sacrificed half the power of NAUTILUS for a relatively small decrease in size.
However, Leighton says Rickover also had an important political goal in pursuing the SAR. He wanted to bring GE’s Knolls Atomic Power Laboratories at Schenectady into the business of naval reactor design as a second source of expertise to Westinghouse’s Bettis Lab, source of the NAUTILUS, SKATE, SKIPJACK, and GEORGE WASHINGTON powerplants. Knolls bad produced the unsuccessful sodium-cooled SEAWOLF plant.
Leighton says GE originally intended Knolls to pursue a variety of projects, also its people were biased towards pure scientific research and resisted Rickover’s approach of full personal responsibility for engineering perfection. Thus Rickover had the triple challenge of turning Knolls’ capabilities exclusively towards submarine reactor design, converting it to his methods, and bringing it over to pressurized water technology. Progress on the SAR was agonizingly slow; it was only determined it would be water cooled in 1954, and still in the paper stage in 1955.
Meanwhile, Rickover continued to press for the very large fast submarine, first as a Regulus carrier. This was rejected in 1955, but by 1956 interest in the radar picket was at its peale, and so TRITON was authorized. As Commander Leighton puts it, “We were looking for a customer.”
Was this the correct decision? Leighton says, unequivocally, yes. The development of Knolls as a second source of naval reactor design created a vital national resource. True, the Bettis designs proved an astounding success from the very beginning, but beforehand no one could know that would be so. Rickover was determined to see an alternative design under development, and to see that it included two reactors, in case reactors in general proved less dependable than indeed they have.
Both the very fast submarine, in the form of SKIPJACK, and the very large submarine, in the form of GEORGE WASHING-TON and her ballistic missile carrying successors, became realities. Both married a single Bettis reactor to the ALBACORE bull for a more efficient approach to high speed than TRITON’s massive horsepower. However, it must be remembered that there was considerable resistance to the ALBACORE design (for example, fears that a single screw would create a dangerous threat to reliability). His early appreciation of the utility of large size and high speed attest to Rickover’s foresight. The determination to pursue two alternative lines of development all the way to completion attests to Rickover’s familiar characteristic of doing absolutely everything to insure that what he was trying to do succeeded. If Rickover’s whole approach was right, then he was right to build TRITON. She was an engineering success, doing everything she was designed to do. Unfortunately for her, she was simply less brilliantly successful than her alternative, SKIP-JACK.