Since the anticipated invasion of Japan itself - scheduled for November 1945 - was expected to attract an even more intense kamikaze onslaught, the Navy high command sought to use submarines as less vulnerable radar pickets and in July 1945 ordered that 24 boats be prepared for that role by installing an approximation of a typical destroyer's radar and air-control capabilities. Since preliminary tests indicated that the standard submarine radar could not detect air targets above 10,000 feet or beyond 27,000 yards, and because there would need to be a combat information center (CIC) and appropriate communications onboard for controlling interceptors, the necessary full-blown conversions would have stretched into 1946, too late for their intended role in the invasion of Japan. As an interim measure, COMSUBPAC modified the SV air-search radars on USS Grouper (SS-214) and USS Finback (SS-230) for periscope mounting and operation at shallow submergence, and similar conversions of four other boats - including rudimentary CICs - had already begun when the Japanese surrendered in August 1945.
Thus, it was quite appropriate for the Navy's Bureau of Ships to name their follow-on design program for radar picket submarines Project MIGRAINE. In 1948 and 1949, making use of the lessons learned from Requin and Spinax, two more fleet submarines, the Tench-class USS Tigrone (SS-419) and the USS Balao (SS-285)-class USS Burrfish (SS-312), were given so-called "MIGRAINE I" conversions - and redesignated as SSRs. In this modification, the space formerly used as the crew's mess and galley was turned into a CIC, and the after torpedo tubes were removed to allow the entire after torpedo compartment to be used for berthing. Two of the forward tubes were also eliminated to make additional room for storage and equipment. More importantly, however, the two radar antennas were raised on masts, with an AN/BPS-2 search radar sprouting from the after portion of the sail, and the height finder mounted on a free-standing tower just abaft it. This put the 15-foot search antenna some 40 feet above the water, with the height finder only a little below.
At approximately the same time, Requin and Spinax were returned to the yard for upgrading of their earlier systems to a MIGRAINE II configuration that put the search radar up on a sail-mounted mast - as in MIGRAINE I - but left the height finder in its less satisfactory position down aft. Again, the after torpedo compartments were stripped of their tubes and used for both CIC space and crew berthing. Both the MIGRAINE I and MIGRAINE II boats were also fitted with AN/BPQ-2 guidance equipment for mid-course control of Regulus cruise missiles. [Editor’s Note: See “Regulus – America’s First Sea-borne Nuclear Deterrent,” in the Spring 2001 issue of UNDERSEA WARFARE.]
By this time, the Cold War with the Soviet Union was in full swing, and air defense of U.S. carrier battle groups on potential strike missions near the Russian landmass generated a requirement for even more submarine radar pickets. Eventually, six more World War II submarines – all Manitowac-built USS Gato (SS-212)-class boats – were chosen for the more drastic MIGRAINE III SSR conversion. Because experience had shown that even the newer SSR configurations were seriously cramped, the final MIGRAINE design called for cutting the boats in two and inserting a 24-foot “plug” to get additional room for an expanded CIC and electronic spaces forward of the main control room. Even so, the MIGRAINE IIIs also had to sacrifice their after torpedo tubes for more berthing space, but they were fitted with a larger, streamlined sail, with the BPS-2 search radar mounted aft of the periscopes and other masts. An AN/BPS-3 height-finder radar on a pedestal just behind the sail and an AN/URN-3 TACAN beacon on the afterdeck completed the installation. The six MIGRAINE III boats – USSs Pompon (SSR-267), Rasher (SSR-269), Raton (SSR-270), Ray (SSR-271), Redfin (SSR-272), and Rock (SSR-274) – were all converted at the Philadelphia Navy Yard between 1951 and 1953 – giving the Navy a total of ten radar picket submarines to face the growing Soviet threat just as the Korean War was drawing to a close.
Eventually, seven SSRs (Requin, Tigrone, Burrfish, Pompon, Ray, Redfin, and Sailfish) were assigned to the Atlantic Fleet and operated nominally in the Caribbean and North Atlantic, with regular participation in NATO exercises and periodic deployments to the Mediterranean as part of the U.S. 6th Fleet. The five remaining (Spinax, Rasher, Raton, Rock, and Salmon) went to the Pacific Fleet and operated off western North America and in WESTPAC deployments to 7th Fleet. Although the SSRs became key participants in fleet air defense as early-warning pickets and CAP controllers 50 to 100 nautical miles in front of typical Cold War carrier battlegroups, their overall effectiveness was frequently hampered by their relatively modest surface speeds, particularly when task-group course changes required rapid repositioning. Even Sailfish and Salmon, the fastest of the type, could only make 20 knots on the surface, little better than the older fleet boats. Thus, the accelerating development of submarine nuclear power - and the debut of USS Nautilus (SSN-571) in early 1955 - appeared to offer a welcome solution to this operational problem.
The Ultimate Radar
Picket Submarine - USS Triton
Triton was commissioned in November 1959 with the decorated World War II submarine skipper - and later distinguished naval author - CAPT Edward L. Beach, in command. For Triton's maiden voyage/shakedown cruise, Beach was ordered to attempt the first submerged circumnavigation of the globe, and the ship departed New London on 16 February 1960, not to return until 10 May, 84 days and 41,500 nautical miles later. This unprecedented success brought significant international prestige to the nation and the Navy, and by maintaining a steady speed of 21 knots for nearly three months, Triton firmly established the endurance and reliability of nuclear propulsion. In recognition, President Dwight D. Eisenhower awarded the ship and her crew a Presidential Unit Citation after their return.
Triton joined 2nd Fleet in August 1960, and soon thereafter, she deployed to European waters to assume her role as a radar picket in a series of NATO exercises. And then… the bottom dropped out of her primary mission.
The Passing of the
Pickets - and the Rest of the Story
Similarly, by early 1961, all of the conventionally-powered SSRs had ceased radar-picket operations. The first to be withdrawn were the MIGRAINE I boats, Burrfish and Tigrone, temporarily decommissioned in late 1956 and 1957, respectively; the last were Sailfish and Salmon. Although two of the MIGRAINE III boats were put out of service and scrapped almost immediately, the remainder were reclassified as conventional attack boats (SS) or as auxiliary general submarines (AGSS) for non-combat duties, and they survived for "twilight careers" that lasted as late as 1978. The longest-lived was Sailfish, which was decommissioned in September of that year and which still remains laid up and afloat at Bremerton. Several of the others served as Naval Reserve training hulks after decommission, and five were eventually sunk as targets, most recently Salmon in 1993. Tigrone was re-commissioned in March 1962 and, as an AGSS, played a major part in developmental testing for several passive sonar systems before she was finally put out of service in 1975. Similarly, Redfin - as AGSS-272 - became a test platform for the pioneering inertial navigation systems required by the Polaris SLBM program. She was then decommissioned in May 1967 and scrapped four years later. Burrfish had an interesting aftermath: The Canadian Navy leased the boat in 1961, renamed her HMCS Grilse (SS-71), and used her as a "live" target for anti-submarine warfare training. She was returned to the U.S. Navy in 1969 and sunk as a target that same year.
Ironically, one of the first two SSRs survives today as a memorial. Requin was re-classified in 1959 as SS-481 - then AGSS-481 - and she remained in active service until December 1968. From 1972 to 1986, the ship was a tourist attraction in Tampa, Florida, but financial troubles led to abandonment by her operators. Subsequently acquired and lovingly restored by the Carnegie Science Center, Requin has been displayed in the Ohio River near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania since October, 1990, and she remains one of the most popular exhibits in the Three-Rivers area.
Dr. Whitman is the
Senior Editor of
interesting to note that Requin’s first Commanding Officer was
World War II submarine ace CDR Slade Cutter, and the CO who
first took her to sea as a radar picket was Medal of Honor
winner CDR George L. Street, III.