Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


In April of2004 in THE SUBMARINE REVIEW, a commentary was published .. Bigger is Better -Sometimes” by distinguished naval author Mr. Norman Polmar and titled “Commentary on Commentary” by not-less-distinguished, seasoned submariner Rear Admiral W. J. Holland about contemporary development of the United States nuclear submarines.

In his Editor’s Comments Captain Jim Hay, stated: “There is also a DISCUSSION between Norman Polmar and Jerry Holland about that perennial issue of whether we should build big submarines or small submarines. This contrast in opinion has a lot to do with money and is as old as the US Navy itself. Anyone with a position in this discussion is invited to join in.”

Norman Polmar is my old friend. In 1965 I translated his first book Nuclear Submarines, which had been published in Moscow by the Publishing House Atomizdat. At that time I was a senior research fellow at the Institute of Military-Technological Information in Moscow, a naval architect, Captain 3n1 Rank of the Soviet Navy with eleven years experience in designing and building of the first Soviet nuclear submarines and some knowledge about American nuclear submarines’ development. In 1969 as a naval architect, Candidate of Technological Sciences, Captain 2″d Rank, I published in the Publishing House Voe11izdat my first book Nuclear Submarines about Soviet but mainly American subs. And in 1972 as head of the Military-Technological section of the Institute of US studies of the Soviet Science Academy, Captain l” Rank, I invited Norman and his wife Beverly to spend a couple of weeks as guests of that institute in Moscow and Leningrad. In the last 15 years of my living in the USA I published a dozen articles about contemporary American and Russian nuclear submarines and helped Norman mainly by translations from Russian to English of some Russian publications about nuclear submarines. So, I know Norman Polmar’ s point of view on the subject and he knows of my point of view. And I need to repeat a well-known saying: “Norman, you are my friend but truth is dearest of all!” Relating to the contemporary development of American nuclear attack submarines the notion “Bigger is Better” is correct not sometimes but this time. Let me try to prove it.

The US SSN 21 SEA WOLF was authorized in 1989 and commissioned in 1997. She was the first top to bottom new attack submarine design since the Skip jack class in the early 1960s and unquestionably the best nuclear attack submarine in the world with her 8 26-inch torpedo tubes, 50 weapons, some 37 knots speed and some 600 meters test diving depth. She was the best product of American naval architects. Unfortunately, I do not know the name of her Chief Designer. I don’t know why it is a secret in America, when it was not a secret even in the authoritarian Soviet Union. With an underwater displacement of9, 125 tons she was better than the Soviet best nuclear Project 971 attack submarine AK.ULA class (in American terminology) which has an underwater displacement close to 13,000 tons, 4 -650mm and 4-533mm torpedo tubes, 40 weapons, a speed of33 knots and a test diving depth 600 meters too. The last sub of that class, GEPARD, was commissioned in Russia a couple of years ago.

After the Third, this time victorious, bourgeois-democratic revolution in the Russian (Soviet) Empire, the collapse of the communist rule in the USSR in 1991 and establishment of the Russian Federation and the Commonwealth of Independent States, the United States lost their predicatable superpower-adversary with its comparable nuclear submarines’ potential. As it was said in an old French movie Fanfan-Tulip, very popular in the USSR: “Our Enemy betrayed us, it turned its back to us!”

In 1992-2000 the Clinton Administration reduced the share of defense expenditures from some 5 to 3% from US GNP, cutting the number of their army divisions, navy ships and air force units. The long-range program of building 29 Seawolf class SSNs became a target for disbandment champions, who criticized it for excessive cost “more than a billion dollars for a sub”. As a result, now the US Navy has two Seawolf class and one special Seawolf class (JIMMY CARTER) SSN’s and recently commissioned VIRGINIA (SSN 774) the first of the newest class attack submarine.

To reduce the cost of Virginia-class new generation SSNs the US Navy decided to take as a prototype not the SEA WOLF but the Improved Los Angeles class SSN, first of all by her weapons number and torpedo tubes and vertical missile launchers architecture. Of course, VIRGINIA is not an SSN-6881 sub. She is much more sophisticated and capable in aspects of her nuclear reactor characteristics, possibilities of network communications, intelligence and reconnaissance in shallow waters, improved maneuverability, and the reduced number of watch standees. But in comparison with the Seawolf class she lost something: some speed, diving depth and number of weapons (38 instead of 50). But the most important loss, from the point of view this author, was losing the possibility to use drastic naval architectural potentials, which SEA WOLF had in her future development.

Now let me shift to the most important part of this article. What could we get instead of today’s VIRGINIA, if the prototype had been taken as SEA WOLF and the Chief Designer of the sub was the author of this article?

It would be a VIRGINIA with underwater displacement some 9,500 tons, length -360 feet, beam -40 feet, weapons: 8-21 inch torpedo tubes, 28 bow vertical Tomahawk missile launchers and (50+42+ 28= 120) weapons, including 28 missiles and 92 torpedoes and missiles in any necessary combination. In other words, my VIRGINIA by her weapons potential would be equal to three SSN-774s. In addition, she would have had the speed (some 37 knots) and test diving depth (some 600 meters) of SEAWOLF and all improvements, including the reduced complement of VIRGINIA. By the way, if you go out of the submariner’s envelope and look, for example, to the US Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class destroyer with a displacement of 9,200 tons, you’ll find a comparable number of missile launchers with weapons (96), or 128 missile launchers with weapons on DD-21 (DDG-103) new class destroyer with displacement of some 10,000 tons in addition to their artillery and other smaller weapons.

Such transformation of SSN-21 SEA WOLF to improved SEA WOLF from a point of view of a naval architect is very simple. It can be done by putting 42 additional reserved weapons behind or under the existing torpedo room and 28 Tomahawk missiles in the vertical tubes in a ballast tank in four transfers rows of six launchers (because SEA WOLF is 6 feet wider than VIRGINIA) and one row with four launchers.

What is the bottom line of my proposal? It is very simple: One Improved SEA WOLF (SSN-21 I) class= three VIRGINIA (SSN-774) class.

The last, and the most important question, from the point of view of my opponents, would be about the cost of my sub in comparison with those of the Virginia class? My answer will be very simple. If you take only one third of the SSN-211 weapons (38 instead of 120), the cost of her and VIRGINIA would be almost the same. So, it is your choice. To get one weapon on 71 tons of submerged displacement or on 210 tons?

The US Navy’s SSN program managers and Electric Boat’s naval architects, understanding the weakness of their position with VIRGINIA, relating the number of weapons, suggested in addition to her 38 weapons a “Two 4-Tube Modules” or “One 8-Tube Module” with probably 8×4=32 Tomahawk missiles, increasing her weapons number to 70 and the submarine length by some 12 meters and submerged displacement by some 1000 tons with a weapons/ton ratio of 9000:70=130, with some reduction of the sub’s speed.

Does all this mean that now it is necessary to stop the SSN-774 Virginia class program and begin building the SSN-21 I, improved SEA WOLF, program? Of course, not. The Virginia class subs have a lot of new and very valuable features: reduction of complement, non-penetrating periscopes, next generation battle control and communications electronics, nine-men lockout, and aircraft-type first and second pilots’ dynamic control organs. But the naval architectural and cost-effective characteristics of improved SSN-21 programs are in such a degree advantageous, that it is impossible to ignore them for the next generation of the United States’ nuclear attack submarines.

Even the comparison of the SSN-211 class sub with her 120 weapons and the Ohio Class SSGN with her 154 Tomahawk/Tactom missiles’ launchers plus 4 torpedo tubes with 25 missiles/torpedoes (179 weapons) with the indicator of displacement per weapon (18,000:179) of 106 tons, which is worse than 71 tons.

It is understandable that the United States Navy wants to have not 50 but 100 nuclear attack submarines and if that was possible, my friend Norman Polmar would be correct. “Bigger is not better -this time”. But reality is not in the direction of 100 SSNs in the US Navy. According to the excellent study of the Lexington Institute Submarines: Weapons of Choice in Future Warfare in 2015 the USA will have some 61 SSNs (3 Seawolf, 4 Ohio SSGNs, 13 Virginia’s and 41 Los Angeles class). In the 2025 -59 SSNs (3 Seawolf, 4 Ohio SSGN, 30 Virginia, 1 I Los Angeles and 11 Future Submarine class. It seems to this author that this Future Submarine should be as discussed above an Improved Seawolf Class (SSN-21 I) new American nuclear attack submarine with 120 weapons and a 9500 tons underwater displacement.

Naval architecture is a very old profession. It worked many centuries without computers and now is working with contemporary very fast and efficient computers. There always was a competition for influence between naval architect.chief designer of a ship and her experienced Navy program manager and first commanding officer. Who is more influential depends mainly on the personalities. Some-times a naval officer is more experienced, better educated, smarter, sometimes the more superior is a naval architect.

But for a good naval architect it is necessary to know more about the history of that class of ships and about the history of these ships’ development in other countries. In other words, there are two professions: to drive cars and to design them. From the point of view of the author of this article the role of naval architects in the United States is insufficient relating to the nuclear submarines’ development. We need to know a name of naval architect.chief designer from the Electric Boat of General Dynamics for the new generation of US nuclear attack submarines.

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League