Military ships have been always surrounded by secrets, specially the submarine ones, and probably there is nothing as secret as the characteristics and capabilities of a modern nuclear submarine.

During the Second World War, aircraft had definitely subdued the submarine threat, chasing it from their land bases and the escort aircraft carriers. For a submarine, to emerge equaled to a disaster, and because of this Germany sought the design of a "true" submarine: highly hydrodynamical and able to remain submerged indifinitely. But the Type XXI and Type XXIII, started to be built on the late period of the war, arrived too late. Promising experiments were effectuated with the hydrogen peroxide turbine Walther, a closed-circuit system that required no external air. However, the experiences after the war demonstrated that it was unstable so it was abandoned.

Other postwar experiments were carried out to increase the capacity of batteries and to improve the hydrodynamical profile, to reach higher speeds while in immersion. Cannon mountings were suppressed and conning turrets were made taller to encompass the former tallness of periscopes. The arrival of nuclear propulsion in 1954 marked a much deeper revolution than that caused by the HMS Dreadnought in 1906. And in 1959 it was started a new and more sinister phase, when the first ballistic submarine was built. With 16 nuclear missiles onboard, she replaced the Strategic Air Command as the national "deterrence weapon" and, as replica, caused the explosive growing of the Soviet Navy in both quantity and quality.

More recent classes introduced the missile Trident fitted with warheads MIRV (Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles), with a range somewhat over 4000 miles and which forced the Soviet Navy to build warships able to operate worldwide. Since no escort ship could travel faster than a submerged submarine, quickly was developed the helicopter as response. Submarine targets could be detected by means of sensors placed in the seabed or dropped from the air, and destroyed by a guided torpedo launched from a helicopter or by a guided rocket fired from a surface ship, such as the ASROC (Anti-Submarine ROCket), which could deliver a nuclear depth charge. A newer alternative was the CAPTOR or Encapsulated Torpedo, a projectile that "sleeps" in the seabed until it is "awakened" by the noise generated by a nearby submarine.

In turn, a submarine could destroy another submarine by means of a missile SUBROC (SUBmarine ROCket), a surface target by means of an encapsulated surface-to-surface missile (SSM) and a helicopter by means of a small missile such as the SLAAM (Submarine Launched Anti-Aircraft Missile). ICBM (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile) submarines have a deterrent purpose and they try to remain undetected and enter action only for self-defense. But in modern warfare there is also a place for the conventional patrol submarine, which has the advantage of being extremely silent.

The arrival of the nuclear submarine

The USS Nautilus, launched in 1954 and ready for trials one year later, was the first nuclear submarine in the world. She had a length of 98 meters, a beam of 8.4 meters and a displacement of 3180 tonnes while in surface. Apart from the nuclear propulsion plant, which delivered 13400 horsepower and a speed of 21 knots, she had Diesel engines and electric motors. She had traveled 62562 miles, over half of them submerged, when she received her first resupply of nuclear fuel in February 1957. The 3rd August 1958 she reached the North Pole after a long travel under the ice cap. She had a complement of 101 crewmen and could descend below 210 meters. With her first fuel resupply she covered 91324 miles, of which 78885 while in immersion, and about 150000 miles with her second fuel resupply.

USS Nautilus nuclear attack submarine
At the end of the year 1960 over twenty nuclear submarines had been already launched in United States. The largest one was the USS Triton, and in that time also the largest submarine ever built. Launched in 1958, she had a length of 136.24 meters, a beam of 11.28 meters and a displacement of 5900 tonnes while in surface. Her two reactors were enough to operate during two years and her maximum speed was estimated in 33 knots. Her main purpose was surveillance and exploration in cooperation with aircraft carriers; because of this she was fitted with a long-range radar. Her complement was 148 crewmen.

The USS George Washington, launched in 1959, had a length of 116.43 meters, a beam of 9.45 meters and a displacement of 5600 tonnes while in surface. She was armed with sixteen ballistic missiles Polaris of about 9 meters in length and 1.27 meters in diameter, fitted with nuclear warhead. These missiles could be launched while in immersion and had a range of 1500 nautical miles. The USS George Washington (which belonged to a class of five ships) was the first ballistic missile (denominated SSBN) in the United States Navy. About 40 SSBN more would be built until 1967.

Comparison of submarines Type XXI, USS Nautilus, USS Triton and USS George Washington
In those years the fastest submarines in the world were the USS Skypjack and her five sisters, of which was said to have a speed over 35 knots while in immersion. These nuclear attack submarines had a length of 76.81 meters, a beam of 9.58 meters and a displacement of 2850 tonnes while in surface.

USS Skipjack nuclear attack submarine

The nuclear ballistic missile submarine in the West

The SLBM (Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile) are the most terrible weapon ever built by mankind. Hard to counter due to their ballistic trajectory and altitude of flight, their multiple nuclear warheads could devastate several cities in any part of the world. When Germany started to launch its lethal V-2 against London it was seen how fearsome was a contraption that arrived unseen and unheard and whose effect was noticed only after the impact. After the war the V-2, now transferred to secret locations into the steppes of United States, was transformed into the Polaris of the Navy and the Jupiter of the Army, terrible weapon but also terrific vehicle that made possible the first space launchings.

After several years "playing" with the V-2 and other ballistic contraptions, the Polaris program began, officially, in 1955. The first launching of this missile while in immersion was effectuated in 1961 from the submarine USS George Washington. Further developments brought the missiles Poseidon (1971) and Trident (1981), whose most powerful version, the C5, was introduced circa 1990. The Soviet Union, in whose hands had fallen German materials as well, followed similar ways. The history of SLBM in Russia started with the SS-N-4 in 1958, and subsequently followed the SS-N-5 (1963), SS-N-6 (1967), SS-N-8 (1973) and many others. As 2016, the models in service are the veteran SS-N-23 (30 years in service) and the new SS-N-32.

The George Washington class, first American SSBN (Submarine Service Ballistic Nuclear), was a modification from the Skipjack class, "cut" amidships to place there an almost 40-meter long cylinder topped by a low superstructure, to house the sixteen vertical launchers for the Polaris A-1. The following class, Ethan Allen, somewhat larger and operating with Polaris A-2, arrived in 1961, just on the threshold of the Cuban Crisis. The following classes, La Fayette and Benjamin Franklin, which amounted 31 vessels, were larger than the preceding classes and equipped with Polaris A-2 and Polaris A-3, respectively. They saw a brief service between 1963 and 1967.

The last and most powerful class of American SSBN is the Ohio with a total of 18 vessels, which entered service between 1981 and 1997. All of them use the missiles Trident I C-4 or Trident II D-5 in number of twenty-four instead of the sixteen used in previous classes. They have a length of 170.7 meters, a beam of 12.8 meters and a displacement of 16000 tonnes while in surface. They are of the largest submarines ever built and have a complement of 133 crewmen. Their machinery develops 60000 horsepower and it is believed they can achieve speeds of about 25 knots while submerged.

Ohio class nuclear ballistic missile submarine USS Michigan
The modern, sophisticated control room of the USS Ohio is in stark contrast with the array of pipes, analogue meters and manually operated valves found on submarines of previous generations.

Control room of USS Ohio nuclear ballistic missile submarine
The operational range of a Trident II missile, which is fitted with twelve thermonuclear warheads MIRV, is estimated to be around 12000 kilometers. The big advantage of this last generation of SLBM is that it can hit a far enemy even if being fired from own waters, which renders the destruction of the attacking submarine as virtually impossible. The Ohio class is armed as well with four 533-millimeter torpedo tubes. These submarines are resulting unusually long-lived, for their active life had been calculated in 25-30 years and currently there is no short-term replacement for them. These submarines, the most powerful vessels ever built, have preserved for decades the advantage of the western nations, formerly over the Soviet Union and now over Russia and China.

American SLBM
In Europe, only United Kingdom and France developed SSNB, being the prestations of these equivalent to those of the best models in service worldwide. The Royal Navy built its much more modest SSNB fleet from the mid 1960s, when they started to enter service the four vessels of the Resolution class, armed with sixteen Polaris A-3. In the early 1990s these submarines were being replaced by the four units of the Vanguard class, armed with sixteen Trident II D-5, the last of which was delivered in 1999. They have as well four 533-millimeter torpedo tubes.

On the other hand, France keeps a small force of SSNB which began in 1971 with the commissioning of the first of five vessels that formed the Le Redoutable class, which were being built during the whole decade. From the late 1990s they were being replaced by the four vessels of the Le Triomphant class, whose last unit entered service in 2010. The French submarines have been armed with sixteen missiles of national production, M4 TN-70/71 for Le Redoutable and M45/M51 TN-75 for Le Triomphant. They also have four 533-millimeter torpedo tubes capable of launching surface-to-surface missiles Exocet.

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