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Timeline of the History of Nuclear Submarines - War At Sea

Updated on November 30, 2011
The Russin Typhoon, the largest submarine ever built
The Russin Typhoon, the largest submarine ever built

In half a century, fleets of invisible giants have patrolled the oceans. You do not see them, hear them or find them. Not until it's too late and the deadly missiles are heading for their targets across the globe.

Fighting below the sea-level is not a new idea. Already around the year 1500 the Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci designed a military submarine, but "given the man's evil," he chose not to reveal any details about how to "fight on the bottom of the ocean." More hands-on was the Dutchman Cornelius van Drebbel, who a hundred years later constructed a watertight covered rowing boat which could travel over water in the River Thames.

The first actual military attack by a submarine was conducted September 6, 1776 by Sergeant Ezra Lee during the American Revolutionary War, when he was using a hand-powered propeller-operated construction called Turtle beneath a British flagship, HMS Eagle. The attack was a fiasco because it failed to attach a bomb at the ship's copper-clad hull. During the American Civil War, in February 1864, the Southern States' lowered a hand-powered submarine which shut down an enemy ship. The submarine's crew died, because of the blast wave that sank the craft.

The First World War was the first major submarine warfare, and during World War II the fighting seriously moved below the surface. During the course of the war the Germans one thousand submarines sank over 2500 Allied merchant ships.

From the earliest prototypes until the Second World War the submarines had a huge problem: They were in fact normal diesel-powered battleships that for short periods could use battery power to dive beneath the surface - either to sneak up on enemy or to hide from an overpowering opponent. First when atomic energy was developed, it became possible to build submarines that could stay submerged for a long time.

Nuclear Submarine
Nuclear Submarine

The first Nuclear submarines

USS Nautilus was the world's first nuclear submarine. It was launched in 1954 and 1958 it crossed the North Pole under the ice. The submarine was taken out of service in 1980 and is now on display at the U.S. Navy Submarine Force Museum in Groton, Connecticut.

However, it was one thing to exploit new technologies to power submarines, quite another to expand the arsenal of more than the torpedo, which the Briton Robert Whitehead invented as early as the 1860s. When Germany collapsed in early 1945, a new invention fell in the hand of the winners: the rocket technology. U.S. and Soviet Union now wanted German rocket scientists, and after just a few years, the both sides in the new conflict between East and West had their own rockets. in 1947 the Americans placed the so-called Loonmissile, a further development of the German "flying bomb", V-1, aboard two converted submarines.

Loon had a limited range of over 150 miles, but the U.S. Navy's first self-developed missile, Regulus, which was first fired from a submarine in 1953, was more impressive. Regulus was a low-flying cruise missile that was powered by liquid fuel. It had an effective range of about 500 nautical miles, usually with a payload consisting of a nuclear warhead-type W5 and W27 with an explosive force of up to two megatons.

Just like the Loon, the Regulus, and the successor Regulus II, must be launched from a hangar up on the deck, which required that the submarine during the crucial minutes were on the surface. Thus, it lost its biggest advantage: the invisibility of the depth. There were also many problems with the rocket engine liquid fuel, and the big missile hangars was also vulnerable to leakage when the submarine was submerged.

The Regulus programs with all it’s weaknesses became obsolete even before it had time to become widespread. The trend was the same in the Soviet Union, where rocket scientists also developed the German V-weapons so that they could be fired from submarines.

In 1957, the two superpowers conducted test firings of its first ballistic missiles, these nuclear missiles were flying high and fast in a ballistic path towards its target. Soon, the focus is on these new types of weapons, which, with its longer range and more manageable solid fuel became prominent.

In the summer of 1960 the submarine USS George Washington did the first under water launch with a Polaris missile.

The Americans was first out. In November 1960 the submarine USS George Washington started to patrol as an advanced bastion of the U.S. nuclear capability.

The range of a Polaris-missile was about 2200 kilometres, relatively short compared to the intercontinental robots' range, but quite adequate because most of the targets on the mainland could be reached within this distance from the sea. When this deadly ability combined with an almost constant patrol of the enemy's coastline, which was made possible by the fact that each submarine had two identical herds that could quickly succeed one another in the harbor, there was a highly effective new weapon available.

Submarine Timeline
Submarine Timeline

Nuclear Submarines During the Cold War

In the beginning the Soviet Navy could not match the U.S. Polaris submarines. First, in 1967 the Soviet Union succeeded to launch the Yankee-battery, with its 16 ballistic missiles that could responded to the threat from George Washingtons submarines.

Other countries followed: UK missile submarines were equipped with a variant of the Polaris missile. French President Charles de Gaulle was, however, an enemy to the Americans, which meant that the French had to develop its own technology. Both the missile (M1) and the submarines (the redoubtable-submarines), was clearly inspired by the American counterparts.

Missile submarines, which the U.S. became known as boomers (in the UK as bombs), had a unique role during the Cold War. During the month-long mission, they hid in the depths, and awaited the order to which no one wanted, but the order that the crews again and again practiced on: the launching of the submarine's weapons of mass destruction. This strategy meant that new needs arose. While the submarines had primarily been designed to detect and attack targets on the surface, such as convoys, transport ships and warships, they were now a target themselves..

To locate a missile submarine, however, was very difficult, especially during the cold war, when silencing technology was not yet developed. There are even those who claim that the only way to find an American missile submarines of the Ohio-class (in service from 1981) is to listen to the sea which is even quieter than normal.

From the George Washington-submarines to the Cold War during the second half of the 1980s the missile submarines did not develop much. But the technology was refined, especially when it came to weapons systems. Polaris existed in three versions (A1-A3) with ranges from 2200 to over 5000 kilometres. Then came the Poseidon C3 in 1971, which also had a range of about 5000 kilometres and was equipped with MIRV (multiple individually controllable nuclear warheads).

In the early 1980s Poseidon was replaced by the Trident program, with a range of over 7000 kilometres and MIRV. The most deadly Soviet submarine robot got the NATO code number SS-N-20. It could carry up to ten nuclear warheads to 200 kg ton force that had a range of over 8000 kilometres.

With the collapse of the USSR the the constant threat disappeared and thus the need for a balance of terror. This led to that superpowers no longer had a need to maintain a round the clock emergency at sea.

France and Britain have their own type of missile submarines (Le Triomphant and Vanguard), while China has joined the nuclear club at sea in 1981 with the Xia-submarines, Type 092, armed with 12 ballistic missiles. India is developing a series of large missile submarines called Arihant, and both China and Russia has new submarines under development.

Nuclear Submarine
Nuclear Submarine


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    • Perspycacious profile image

      Demas W Jasper 5 years ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

      An interesting read. Thanks.

    • kschimmel profile image

      Kimberly Schimmel 6 years ago from North Carolina, USA

      My uncle served on a nuclear sub during the Cold War. I admire the courage and dedication required to do the difficult and dangerous jobs those men did.