Submarine Essay, Research Paper

Development of the Submarine

Throughout history, navies have made significant impacts in the technological

development of human kind. These impacts range from improvements in metal

technologies made while perfecting the cannon to the advent of cybernetics,

which allowed more precise targeting of weaponry. One of the more sophisticated

developments in naval history has been the invention of the submarine. The

submarine was born in 1620 as a leather-covered rowboat built by Cornelius

Drebbel. After Robert Fulton came up with a more modern prototype in 1800, the

military advantages of a nearly invisible warship were quickly divined. However,

they remained unrealized for quite a while. Although Fulton probably foresaw

that his invention would be used for war, he hardly could have envisioned it

launching projectiles with the capability to level entire countries. However,

after a series of innovations in nuclear missile and submarine designs, the

submarine-launched ballistic missile has become an integral part of our naval

weapons arsenal.

To understand the need for the development of nuclear missile submarines,

there is a need to examine the political climate of the world in the era after

World War II. The realignment of the superpowers after the war resulted in a

unique situation. The two major naval powers of the day, Great Britain and the

United States, were now allied against the greatest land power in history in the

Soviet Union. In the period from 1955 to 1965, the advantage was heavily in

favor of the U.S. As the United States had developed the atomic and hydrogen

bombs first, they obviously gained a head start which developed into a decisive

nuclear advantage. This advantage acted as an effective deterrent to any Soviet

movement into Western Europe. However, as the Soviet nuclear arsenal expanded

(mostly during the Kennedy administration), it became necessary to effect a

balance in the area of conventional warfare or to make more inroads in nuclear

weapons development. Before this could be accomplished, however, advancements in

submarine technology had to made as well.

The submarines of World War II, although effective in their roles, were

rather primitive. A noisy, slow, shallow-diving sub would hardly be a capable

missile submarine as it could be easily detected and destroyed. Even so, before

the end of the war, there were intelligence reports in America that the German

Navy had developed a U-boat capable of towing or carrying V-2 rockets to launch

sites near the U.S. east coast. Although these reports turned out to be false,

the Germans had been developing a type of submersible barge to tow V-2s. This

scare prompted the American development of ballistic missile submarines.

Experiments in submarine design had concentrated mainly on improving the

quality of power plants (usually diesel or electric engines), achieving better

maneuverability through new hull designs, and developing quieter propulsion

systems that achieved better top speeds. A nuclear reactor power plant would

meet all of these objectives, but the development of a nuclear-powered submarine

was not without obstacles. As the U.S. and the Soviet Union expanded their land-

based nuclear arsenals, the weapons-grade uranium needed for missiles was

becoming quite scarce. In America, the Air Force actually fought against using

nuclear material for Naval submarine reactors, as it would cut into the

production of the nuclear missiles that they controlled. After the USSR leveled

the playing field by expanding its number of missiles, however, the nuclear

submarine desperately needed to be built to tip the balance of power back

towards the West. In 1955, the most advanced submarine in terms of these nuclear

developments was the USS Nautilus. With excellent maneuvering facilitated by her

Albacore hull design, the Nautilus had virtually unlimited range thanks to her

nuclear power plant. In fact, the Nautilus became the first submarine to

navigate under the polar ice cap in 1958. It could be said that the range of a

nuclear submarine was now only constrained by the physical limits of her crew.

In 1960, the USS Triton, a larger version of the Nautilus, circumnavigated the

earth, becoming the first ship to accomplish this feat underwater.

Like the submarine, the missiles that would eventually be launched from

their hulls underwent a similar development history. The first submarine

missiles were simple cruise missiles mounted on the hull. These missiles, like

the Loon and the Chance-Vought Regulus, were really nothing more than converted

V-1 buzz bombs. Friedman calls these projectiles “the direct predecessors of the

current fleet ballistic missiles.” The only problem with these missiles was

their nearly complete lack of guidance systems. V-1 rockets, and the improved

Loon and Regulus missiles, were terminal guidance rockets. The V-1 had a

Circular Error Probable (CEP) rating of eight nautical miles. When the rocket

reached the area of its target, its engine would be shut off by a timer. The

high CEP meant that the missile could detonate anywhere in an eight mile circle

around the target. Obviously, this kind of accuracy was unacceptable. With the

Loon and the Regulus, this problem was combated by placing a second guidance

source on another submarine closer to the intended target. The Loon missile had

a device which would allow the second submarine to blow off the missile’s wings

and tail and cause it to fall “in a more predictable trajectory? lowering CEP to

half a mile.” The Regulus bettered this with the addition of steering

components for the terminal guidance submarine. As these missiles became more

successful, a vigorous development program was planned by the U.S. Navy. However,

the invention of the Polaris missile precluded this.

With the development of the hydrogen bomb, the U.S. and other

superpowers had a weapon with 1000 times the power of the bombs dropped at

Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, the size of these missiles made them available

for use only on B-36 or B-52 bombers. The Polaris missile changed this. The

American Polaris class missile submarines, first launched in 1960, incorporated

the new, smaller missile design. The first of these subs to launch a ballistic

missile was fittingly called the George Washington, but it was her sister ship,

the Ethan Allen, that was the first submarine to launch a nuclear missile with a

live warhead in 1962.

With nuclear missiles now a fixture in the United States Navy, later

developments focused on making them lighter and more powerful. The Poseidon

missile, first launched in 1968, accomplished these goals. A two-stage rocket

with many more multi-impact reentry vehicles (MIRVs) than its predecessor, the

Poseidon also had a feature that made the U.S. rush it into active service.

Specifically, fleet submarines of the now outdated Polaris class could launch

the Poseidon from their Polaris tubes with minimal modifications.

In the quest to develop even better submarine-launched missiles, the

next installment was the Trident missile. The Trident is a larger missile than

both the Polaris and Poseidon and it is also several times more powerful.

Perhaps the most important innovation on the Trident missile is its guidance

system. The Polaris and Poseidon, while quite powerful, required heavy hardware

packages to guide their MIRVs to various targets. The new Trident guidance

package is much lighter. The system has the ability to sight on a star while

tracking towards the target, which gives the Trident two advantages over the

Poseidon. First, the missile meets its predecessor’s accuracy objectives while

achieving a greater range. Second, the lesser weight of the Trident guidance

package allows for more powerful warheads. The Trident I missile carries eight

100 kiloton MIRVs, and its newer relative, the Trident II carries eight 475

kiloton warheads. Obviously, these missiles are some of the most powerful in

service with the United States military at this time.

The Trident missile is most commonly used aboard the Ohio class

submarines of the U.S. Navy. This massive boat bears very little resemblance to

the first Nautilus designed by Fulton. As large as a World War I battleship, the

Ohio class submarines carry 24 Trident missiles. On top of this firepower, the

Ohio is one of the quietest submarines in the oceans with its nuclear power

plant. As of the early 1990s, the United States had 32 fleet ballistic missile

submarines in service with seven more being built or converted. These numbers

include both the Ohio class Trident submarines as well as older classes equipped

with the Poseidon missile.

Even with the massive destructive capability of the submarines discussed

here, further developments are being tested even now. Specifically, the new

Seawolf class submarine is the latest United States offering, though it has made

slow progress due to budget cuts. It remains to be seen if the future holds an

even more powerful submarine launched ballistic missile. Also, it is impossible

to tell which nation will be the first to develop it.

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