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BOOK REVIEW – COLD WAR SUBMARINES The Design and Construction of U.S. and Soviet Submarines

Norman Polmar and K.J. Moore have made a contribution to the bibliography of submarines with their comprehensive accounting for, and description of, the dynamic evolution of submarines since World War II. Their method in doing this was by constructing a side-by-side chronology of the U. S. and Soviet efforts, referring to developments in Britain, France, China and the lesser submarine powers only as they were impacted by the super-power advances. Students, researchers in shipbuilding technology and Cold War historians, as well as those with an active interest in submarines, will find this book both interesting and useful, with submarine information, particularly Russian, not readily available elsewhere. Those who participated in American submarine matters during the Cold War will find much here to clarify experiences, perhaps reinforce or change opinions and maybe justify further all the hard work of those days.

The logic of the side-by-side chronology starts with the Ge11esis of the German end-of-World War II Type XXI submarine which both the Americans and the Soviets exploited as a spoil of war. The result was the TANG class in the U.S. and both the WHISKEY and the ZULU classes in the Soviet Union. The authors were careful, however, not to press the mutual Ge11esis literary device too far, ensuring that no inference can be made of a Cold War submarine arms race. The divergence of both design and production was made clear as each superpower followed its own needs and strategies.

The development of the combat submarines of each nation is sequenced according to the/our ge11eralions of nuclear submarines. That categorization system has been used in both official and semi-official writings for some time. For the general reader who might not recall just when each grouping started and stopped, a table of Nuclear Submarine Generations is presented at the beginning of the book. The list, and the book, covers both U.S. and Soviet ship classes from NAUTILUS and the Novembers to VIRGINIA and the Russians’ latest SSBN, YURI DOLGORUKIY. Helpfully, the Soviet/Russian ships are designated throughout by both the project number (which the Russians use most of the time) and the NATO name, with which most of the western readers are familiar. On that note, it can be reported also that the coverage of the Soviet/Russian submarine programs appears to be quite thorough and attests to the authors’ extensive post-Cold War interviews and associations with the appropriate design bureaus in Russia.

Intermingled with the chapters describing the generational differences and noting the advances on both sides, there are a number of special topics of interest covered. Chief among those, of course, are the in-depth treatments of the development of Cruise Missile and Ballistic Missile Submarines and the weapons which they carried. One example of the divergence in U.S. and Soviet building programs can be found in the descriptions of cruise missile employment by each of the superpowers. One of the early chapters is devoted to Closed-Cycle Submarines. The description of that Soviet effort will make most American submariners of a particular age quite glad that our Navy did not chose to exploit the Walter engine the way the Soviets tried to do.

There is a later chapter titled “Diesel Boats Forever” which covers the extensive building program for Foxtrots, Zulus, Romeos, Kilos, Arnurs and all the special use non-nuclear submarines which the Soviets continued to build throughout the Cold War. As part of that chapter the authors recalled the dispute in the U.S. government about building advanced diesel-electric submarines in the U.S. for foreign allies. They also put forth all the reasons, such as ASW training and other combat and support roles, for incorporating non-nuclear submarines into the U.S. Navy. The active opposition to those suggestions was laid to the “submarine mafia” of post-Rickover senior submarine admirals. This chapter lacks the balance that could have been achieved by addressing the persuasive argument for an all nuclear US Submarine Force.

In addition to all the really serious discussions of nuclear submarine advances, three chapters discuss the largely unrealized potential of submarine variants. These are not all Cold War projects but also reflect tangential submarine thinking from the first World War and the 20s and 30s. The first of these is a chapter on Unbuilt Giants which deals with cargo submarines, submerged tankers, a submarine LST with an aircraft launch facility, large mine layers and other assorted concepts which seemed like good ideas at the time. Interestingly enough, the demise of most of those concepts was laid to the higher priority given to production of military submarines. Another chapter is Aircraft-Carrying Submarines which concerns it self largely with the giant models of I boats the Japanese Navy built during World War II to carry two or three aircraft which could bomb U.S. cities, or perhaps the Panama Canal. Also described are the various attempts by the British, French and German submarine services to gain an organic air capability before and during WWI I. Interestingly, also recounted is the story of a concept for a sub-merged aircraft carrier which was formulated by Boeing and seriously considered by the U.S. Navy’s BuAer during the height of the Cold War. The idea seemed to be based on a HALIBUT-like submarine with a somewhat bigger power plant which could house and launch Grumman Fl IF Tiger fighters. The third of these submarine variant chapters is Midget, Small, and Flying Submarines. The features of that chapter are the WWI I British X-boats, our post-war X-1, the Soviet Piranya class of 218 tons and our later day ASDS for SEAL delivery. The authors have also included the concept for a flying submarine, actually a submersible seaplane, proposed by Convair in the 1960s.

The real substance of the book, of course, lies in those chapters which deal with the development of American and Soviet front-line military submarines. In the end this is a book about submarine design, characteristics and performance. It is not about undersea warfare and the strategies which were generated in support of national objectives, approved by national authorities, and implemented by seagoing, experienced, professional submariners. Accordingly, this reviewer can recommend this book on the basis of its sub-title; The Design and Construction of U.S. and Soviet Submarines. This recommendation, however, carries one caveat, one warning and one request.

The caveat is that there is an obvious anti-Rickover bias through-out that part of the Polmar/Moore history which deals with the U.S. Navy’s submarine evolution. To this reviewer that bias was so pervasive that the descriptions of all U.S. submarine development decisions seemed very one-sided. To me this degraded those descriptions because it is just hard to believe that Rickover, and those he trained, were always wrong, yet always won the argument. If, however, that was the case, we certainly need an explanation as to how things came out as well as they really did in the Cold War. Rickover’s nuclear Submarine Force was a significant element in winning the Cold War.

The warning is to recognize that many factors affected what was actually done in the submarine building programs on both sides of the Cold War. It was not only the technological possibilities and the military requirements which had to be compared and resolved. There were bureaucratic fights for funding, political realities of major defense programming to be faced, and perhaps even an imperfect understanding of the place of force in the affairs of men which had to be debated at high levels. It is not too much to say that a proper evaluation of Cold War submarine programs, even at the unclassified level, cannot be made without an accompanying relation to the national, and political, situations of each era in the U.S. and Soviet Union.

This is a wide-ranging, open-source treatment of a subject which was highly classified, and very important for a long time, about which so much has been said, and so much is still left unsaid. It can be expected, therefore, there can be a fair amount of discussion about the reported details of these accountings, even with general agreement about the overall historical facts of what was done. Given some amount of apparent basis for honest disagreement, one can deduce that the real story is in the why and how of the building programs. Perhaps the full value of this book, therefore, lies in its potential to generate meaningful debate about the process whereby U.S. submarine evolution was brought about. The request I leave with the reader is to see what these authors have to say, then enter that debate if you have comments on, disagreements with or additions to, the record. One must remember that every printed word is part of the record, no matter what you may think of those words, the record is something which can be cited in later arguments.


THE SUBMARINE REVIEW is a quarterly publication of the Naval Submarine League. It is a forum for discussion of submarine matters, be they of past, present or future aspects of The ships, weapons and men who train and carry out undersea warfare. It is the intention of the REVIEW to reflect not only the views of Naval Submarine Lengue members but of all who arc interested in submarining.

Articles for this magazine will be accepted on any subject closely related to submarine matters. Article length should be no longer than 2500 to 3000 words. Subjects requiring longer treatment should be prepared in parts for sequencing publication. Electronic submission is preferred with either MS Word or Word Perfect as acceptable systems. If paper copy is submitted, an accompanying 3.5″diskette will be of significant assistance. Content, timing and originally of thought arc of first importance in The selection of articles for the REVIEW.

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Comments on articles and brief discussion items arc welcomed to make THE SUBMARINE REVIEW a dynamic reflection of the League’s interest in submarines. The success of this magazine is up to those persons who have such a dedicated interest in submarines that they want to keep alive the submarine past, help with present submarine problems and be influential in guiding the future of submarines in the U.S. Navy.

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