Feature   Lethality

Diving Deep: 65-Plus Years of Nuclear-Powered Subs

Oct. 28, 2020 | BY Katie Lange

On Jan. 21, 1954, the Navy’s first nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus, was launched out of Groton, Connecticut. While the U.S. had been using submersibles since the Revolutionary War — going from hand-cranked wooden rigs to treasured diesel-powered assets during World War II — this ship truly revolutionized the game.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower stands next to his wife who is breaking a champagne bottle on a submarine.
Eisenhower's Christening
In this file photo taken Jan. 21, 1954, first lady Mamie Eisenhower christens the nuclear-powered submarine USS Nautilus.
Photo By: Navy Courtesy Photo
VIRIN: 540121-N-ZZ999-004C
A crowd surrounds a submarine.
Christening Ceremony
In this file photo taken Jan. 21, 1954, spectators gather around the nuclear-powered submarine USS Nautilus during a christening ceremony.
Photo By: Navy Courtesy Photo
VIRIN: 540121-N-ZZ999-003C
A group of people sit under a tent in front of a submarine.
Historic Nautilus
Senior Navy leaders, past and present crew members of USS Nautilus, their families, and government officials gather at the Submarine Force Museum and Library and Historic Ship Nautilus in Groton, Conn., Sept. 30, 2014, to celebrate 60 years since the commissioning of the nuclear powered submarine USS Nautilus. USS Nautilus, the first nuclear vessel, was a record breaker and pioneer, serving in the Navy for 25 years before being retired as a national historic landmark and becoming part of the museum.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Tim Comerford
VIRIN: 140930-N-CS953-007C

The creation of the nuclear-powered sub ushered in an era in which tactics used up to that point by and against submarines were instantly obsolete. In their place came advanced firepower, higher speeds, survivability and endurance.

So, What Can Our Submarines Do?

All of the U.S. Navy’s submarines are now nuclear-powered and are capable of conducting a vast array of missions, including:

  • Anti-surface and antisubmarine warfare
  • Land attacks
  • Defending other fleet ships
  • Intelligence gathering
  • Mine reconnaissance
  • Special Forces support
  • Polar operations
  • DOD’s No. 1 mission: nuclear deterrence

Navy subs are accountable for about 50 percent of U.S. nuclear warheads, and they represent the most survivable leg of the nuclear triad.

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There Are Three Different Types of Subs:

Fleet ballistic missile subs
There are 14 of these Ohio-class subs, and they are our largest and stealthiest. They can launch nuclear warheads.
Sailors stand on and near the conning tower of a submarine near shore.
USS Tennessee
The Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine USS Tennessee returns to its home port at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Ga., following a strategic deterrent patrol.
Photo By: Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Bryan Tomforde
VIRIN: 181017-N-KG413-0115C
Guided missile subs
Four Ohio-class submarines play this role. They can launch Tomahawk cruise missiles and deploy Special Forces covertly when needed.
Several sailors stand on top of a submarine floating near shore.
USS Michigan
The Ohio-class guided-missile submarine USS Michigan arrives in Busan for a regularly scheduled port visit while conducting routine patrols throughout the Western Pacific. Michigan is homeported in Bremerton, Wash., and is forward deployed from Guam.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Jermaine
VIRIN: 170425-N-WT427-001C
Attack subs
These make up most of the submarine fleet and have the same capabilities as the guided missile subs, but they can also engage in mine warfare, as well as seek out and destroy enemy subs and surface ships.
A submarine pushes through the water partially submerged.
Fast Attack
The fast attack submarine USS Louisville surfaces during the antisubmarine warfare exercise SHAREM 195 in the Arabian Sea, Dec. 18, 2018.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Abigayle Lutz
VIRIN: 181218-N-FK318-0293C

Since the launch of the Nautilus, nuclear-powered subs have grown in size yet are significantly faster, quieter and can perform deeper dives. Their propulsion plants have grown more powerful and safer, and they’ve become easier to operate and maintain.

Simply said, they will be a defensive mainstay for decades to come.

Six submariners stand atop of a submarine as it returns to its home port.
Gold Crew
The Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine USS Tennessee gold crew returns to its home port at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Ga., following a strategic deterrence patrol.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Bryan Tomforde
VIRIN: 190111-N-KG413-0009C

As for the Nautilus itself? While decommissioned decades ago, it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1982 and is now open for public tours as part of the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Submarine Force Library and Museum in Groton, Connecticut.

(This article was originally published Jan. 21, 2019. The headline has been updated.)