The U.S. Navy’s Nuclear Submarine Force: A 60-Year Legacy of Excellence

By Lt. Cmdr. Ben Amdur
Officer in Charge of the Historic Ship Nautilus (SSN 571) and the Director of the Submarine Force Museum

In just a few weeks, USS North Dakota (SSN 784) will join the fleet when she is commissioned later this month. She is the first of the Block III series of redesigned Virginia-class submarines with improved capabilities to bring more might to the fight. As the 11th Virginia-class submarine joins the fleet, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus recently named our 19th future Virginia-class submarine: Vermont (SSN 792).

GROTON, Conn (Nov. 2, 2013) Pre-Commissioning Unit North Dakota (SSN 784) sits moored at the graving dock of General Dynamics Electric Boat prior to its christening ceremony in Groton, Conn.

GROTON, Conn (Nov. 2, 2013) Pre-Commissioning Unit North Dakota (SSN 784) sits moored at the graving dock of General Dynamics Electric Boat prior to its christening ceremony in Groton, Conn.

 

Those submarines represent a 60 year legacy of operational excellence that began when the world’s first nuclear powered vessel, USS Nautilus (SSN 571), was commissioned on Sept. 30, 1954. The advent of a nuclear-powered submarine was brought full circle from concept to completion in a mere 10 years, thanks to the driving force behind the project, then-Rear Admiral Hyman G. Rickover.

USS Nautilus (SSN-571), in Long Island Sound, off New London, Connecticut, during her shakedown cruise, May 1955.

USS Nautilus (SSN-571), in Long Island Sound, off New London, Connecticut, during her shakedown cruise, May 1955.

In the 60 years since Nautilus, her successors have all been technological marvels that embody the very best in American engineering, ship design, and construction; each has progressively improved, keeping the U.S. Navy’s submarines the best in the world. The Virginia-class is nearly twice the size of Nautilus, yet is significantly faster, can dive deeper, and are immensely quieter.

That constant improvement is especially true where the power plants are concerned. While Nautilus improved the distance she could steam with each of her four cores during her service, North Dakota’s propulsion plant will sail her farther then all four of Nautilus’ combined with fuel designed to last the entire 33+ year life of the ship. All of this in a propulsion plant that is more powerful, simpler to maintain and operate, and safer.

Additionally, more efficient use of space provides payload flexibility and even the possibility of deploying unmanned aerial or undersea vehicles.

What has not changed in the 60 years since Nautilus is the training expected of the people who operate our submarine fleet. They are among the most intelligent and highly-trained people in the Navy. All nuclear-qualified submarine officers and enlisted crew members must receive more than a year of intensive, advanced technical training that before assignment to their first boat. The history of this training began with first Nautilus crew at national laboratories and the S1W prototype in Arco, Idaho. The choice not to separate the nuclear engineering officers from the navigation and tactical officer positions of the submarine’s wardroom also began with Nautilus. While most nations separate the career paths of the ship’s nuclear engineers from the ship drivers; every successful U.S. nuclear submarine line officer qualifies to operate and lead both the engineering plant and the combat, navigation, and ship control teams. The philosophy behind this decision is simple: the best submarine officers understand every capability of their crew and ships.

ATLANTIC OCEAN (Aug. 18, 2014) The PCU North Dakota (SSN 784) during bravo sea trials. The crew performed exceptionally well on both alpha and bravo sea trials.

ATLANTIC OCEAN (Aug. 18, 2014) The PCU North Dakota (SSN 784) during bravo sea trials. The crew performed exceptionally well on both alpha and bravo sea trials.

With the Virginia-class submarines’ superior performance, the legacy that began with Nautilus continues today providing undersea dominance, and sustained capabilities to operate forward, across the full range of conflict.

The submarine force provides the capability to ensure stability and security not only our nation, but our allies as well. It is a lasting tribute to that technological marvel from 1954 that our nuclear-powered submarines continue to deter potential adversaries from acts of aggression. As always, the submarine force continues to adjust and adapt to global threats, providing unmatched nuclear-powered Stealth, Endurance, Agility, and Firepower to the fleet.

 

 

Watch the celebration on livestream: http://bit.ly/1vu7lqC

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