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Submarine Technology Through the Years

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Full screen images are hyperlinked from the thumbnails on the left. High-resolution images, suitable for print media, are hyperlinked from the words "Hi-Res" in the caption.

The USS Skate was the lead ship of the first production class of four nuclear propelled submarines and was the first submarine to surface at the North Pole. (Hi-Res)

The USS Triton was the first submarine ever built with two reactor plants. In addition, until the commissioning of the Ohio Class Ballistic Missile Submarines, the Triton was the longest submarine ever built by the U.S. Navy. In 1960, Triton became the first ship to circumnavigate the globe while submerged. (Hi-Res)

The USS Halibut, the first submarine designed and built for the specific purpose of serving as a platform to fire guided missiles. (Hi-Res)

The USS Skipjack was the first nuclear-powered submarine built with the Albacore hull design. It also was the first nuclear submarine with a single propulsion shaft and screw. Another first was mounting bow planes on the sail which reduced flow noise at the bow-mounted sonar. Deep-diving and high speed capabilities were the result of HY-80 construction and a new reactor design, the S5W. This reactor became the U.S. Navy’s standard until the Los Angeles class joined the fleet in the mid-1970’s. (Hi-Res)

In 1956 Admiral Arleigh Burke, then CNO, requested that the Committee on Undersea Warfare of the National Academy of Sciences study the effect of advanced technology on submarine warfare. The result of this study, dubbed "Project Nobska" was an increased emphasis on deeper-diving, ultraquiet designs utilizing long-range sonar. The USS Tullibee incorporated three design changes based on Project Nobska. First, it incorporated the first bow-mounted spherical sonar array. This required the second innovation, amidships, angled torpedo tubes. Thirdly, Tullibee was propelled by a very quiet turboelectric power plant. (Hi-Res)

The Permit class was also based on Project Nobska’s recommendations. Hull streamlining, reduction in sail dimensions by approximately 50 percent, quieting of the S5W reactor plant and an increase in test depth all lead to a dramatic advance in submarine operational capabilities and stealth. The lead ship of this class, the USS Thresher (SSN 593), was lost at sea during post-overhaul trials. Lessons learned from this tragedy resulted in major design and shipboard operational improvements which still influence the submarine force. Pictured here is USS Tinosa (SSN606). (Hi-Res)

The USS George Washington (SSBN 598) was the world’s first nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine. Arguably, it can be considered the submarine that has most influenced world events in the 20th Century. With its entry into service in December 1959 the United States instantly gained the most powerful deterrent force imaginable, a stealth platform with enormous nuclear firepower. (Hi-Res)

The Sturgeon class was an extension and improvement on the Permit design. This class of 37 submarines became the workhorse of the fleet from the mid-1960’s through the 1980’s when the Los Angeles class entered the fleet in large numbers. (Hi-Res)

The USS Narwhal (SSN 671) was built as the prototype platform for an ultra-quiet natural circulation reactor design. This allows for operation with the large water circulating pumps, a major source of radiated noise, secured. It is similar to the Sturgeon design in other respects. (Hi-Res)

The USS Glenard P. Lipscomb (SSN 685) was the U.S. Navy’s second prototype design using a turbo-electric power plant similar to the Tullibee. While this design is quieter, it is heavier and larger than conventional drive trains. Those disadvantages, along with reliability issues led to the decision not to utilize this design on a wide scale. (Hi-Res)

The Los Angeles class currently serves as the "backbone" of the submarine fleet and is likely to remain so well into the 21st Century. These submarines are faster, quieter and far more capable than any of their predecessors. Later ships in the class have incorporated design improvements especially in sonar and electronics areas as well as the addition of external cruise missile launch tubes. (Hi-Res)

The USS Ohio (SSBN 726) is the lead ship of the current fleet of eighteen ballistic missile submarines. This class incorporated tremendous improvements in noise quieting, ease of maintenance and performance over earlier designs. In addition, this class introduced a more accurate and longer range missile that eliminated the need for these submarines to be homeported overseas. (Hi-Res)

Commissioned on July 19, 1997, the USS Seawolf (SSN 21) is the latest submarine to enter the fleet, and the first completely new design in approximately thirty years. It is the fastest, quietest and most heavily armed submarine in the world.  The Seawolf class can carry up to 50 torpedoes/missiles, or 100 mines. Armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles, Seawolf can target about 75 percent of the earth’s land mass for strike missions and can target surface ships at long range. The Seawolf is significantly quieter and faster than any Los Angeles class submarine, and has twice as many torpedoes tubes and a 30 percent increase in weapons magazine size. (Hi-Res)

The USS Virginia (SSN 774) will be the lead ship in the newest class of fast attack submarines. The Navy team responsible for the Virginia class, previously known as the New Attack Submarine (NSSN), has been working closely with the Advanced Research Projects Agency, Navy and national laboratories, and industry to incorporate leading-edge technology into every facet of the design at an affordable price. This technology insertion will provide the Virginia class with the tools necessary to fight in the world’s littorals. Still fully capable of open-ocean ASW, Virginia will also be equipped with weapons, sensors, and some special new equipment that optimize joint operations in shallower coastal regions, including land attack, intelligence gathering, mine reconnaissance and supporting special forces.

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