The first recorded submarine attack in naval combat happened in 1776. An American submersible craft dubbed “Turtle” attempted to attach a time bomb to the British flagship called “Eagle,” which was a part of the Boston Harbor blockade. 

Though that early attempt failed, the desire to improve submersible technology led to today’s nuclear-powered submarines. The U.S. Navy just christened its latest Virginia class fast attack submarine, the USS Idaho, during a ceremony on Saturday, marking it as the 26th boat in its class to be christened

But, with recent budget cuts, the construction start date of the Navy’s latest class of submarines — the SSN(X) — is delayed until the early 2040s. With the replacement of the Virginia Class submarine being postponed for the third time, the current submarines will remain in active service. 

Everything you need to know about US Navy submarines

A brief history of submarines in warfare

Ever since the Turtle was used to try to breach the British blockade during the Revolutionary War, the U.S. Navy has continued to pursue submarine technology and its advancement. Submarines are a vital part of America’s defense, along with many other allied nations. 

The U.S. officially entered the underwater world of warfare after purchasing the USS Holland (SS-1) in 1900. It was commissioned on Oct. 12, 1900. John Holland designed the USS Holland, which was used for experimental purposes during its 10-year career.

When World War I kicked off, the threat of submarines existed, but it was not prevalent due to the early stages of developing submarine manufacturing and technology. At the time, the Navy had 11 different classes of submarines that used a combination of diesel-electric propulsion systems. 

The diesel-electric submarines were a step up from the previous steam-powered submarines, though the British Royal Navy’s K-class submarines used in WWI were steam-powered. Submarines played a minor part in WWI’s overall warfare.  

That was until World War II kicked off with the Nazis unleashing their feared U-boats. They implemented their submarines on merchant lane traffic and American ships. A Japanese submarine launched an attack on Fort Stevens, Oregon, in 1942. The U.S. Navy moved to update its submarines to take on the lethal threat presented by the Axis powers. 

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They accomplished their goal as evidenced by the damage done to Japan by American submarines, which sank 540,192 tons of Japanese naval vessels and 4,779,902 tons of merchant shipping during the war — 54.6% of all Japanese vessel losses.

But after WWII ended, the Cold War quickly followed, creating an arms race with the constant threat of nuclear warfare that lasted from 1947 to 1991. That’s when the nuclear triad was established. It’s a military-force structure comprising unique air, land, and sea nuclear missile launch capabilities. 

That’s what the first-ever nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus IV (SSN-571), was built for. It was commissioned on Sept. 30, 1954, and went on to be the first submarine and crew to cross the North Pole underneath the Arctic polar ice pack. 

Since the Nautilus first hit the water, submarine advancements have enabled the Navy to launch personnel and various missiles and torpedos without ever coming to the surface.

Different types of submarines active in the Navy

The Navy has nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), nuclear-powered cruise missile and special operations forces submarines (SSGNs), and nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs). 

Virginia, Los Angeles, and Seawolf Class submarines are all SSNs. Ohio and Columbia Class submarines are SSBNs. There is only one class of SSGNs, the Ohio Class. Each submarine class has a unique mission tailored to each boat’s capabilities. 

Everything you need to know about US Navy submarines

Attack submarines can hunt down and destroy enemy submarines and surface ships, as depicted in the 1990 blockbuster The Hunt for Red October. They can launch the Navy’s formidable Tomahawk cruise missiles or even special operations teams. 

Submarines have clandestine capabilities and missions, too. They can conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, support naval battle groups underway, and conduct mine warfare.

Attack submarines (SSN)

The SSN(X) is the future of attack submarines, meant to replace the Virginia Class with the most up-to-date technology. However, with the project delayed and no official date established, it will be a while before anyone sees it in action. 

The Navy has 22 commissioned Virginia class submarines, also known as SSN 774, with several more being built. These submarines have the latest upgrades, and their overall design allows easier updates on weapons systems, optics, etc. This helps them stay relevant instead of decommissioning the entire submarine when an update or new capability is introduced. 

Virginia-class submarines can transport several special operations personnel and their gear for extended operations. The crew has visible and infrared digital cameras on telescoping arms, enabling them to see in various environments and weather. The submarines can also operate in littoral and coastal areas of the ocean. 

Updates to the Virginia class submarine include a water-backed Large Aperture Bow, which provides enhanced passive detection capabilities. The 12 individual vertical launch system tubes are replaced with two 87-inch Virginia Payload Tubes. 

Each tube can launch six Tomahawk cruise missiles using Multiple All-up Round Canisters; this makes it more capable of different payloads due to the larger diameter tubes. 

The Virginia class is replacing the Los Angeles class submarine (SSN 688), though the Navy still refers to this class of fast-attack nuclear submarine as “the backbone of the submarine force.” 25 Los Angeles class submarines are currently in commission. Each one is armed with 12 Vertical Launch System tubes for firing Tomahawk cruise missiles. 

They have 25 torpedo tube-launched weapons, which allows Tomahawk missiles to be launched horizontally instead of vertically. But, as Virginia class submarines are commissioned, more Los Angeles class submarines are decommissioned. 

The last class of attack submarines is the Seawolf class, of which the Navy has three. This fast, quiet, and extensively armed submarine has some of the best sensors available. The Seawolf class has eight torpedo tubes and a maximum capacity of 50 weapons in its torpedo room. It’s larger, quieter, and faster than the Los Angeles class submarines. 

However, not all Seawolf class submarines are the same. The USS Jimmy Carter (SSN 23), the third in its class, has a 100-foot hull extension. The Navy calls the addition the multi-mission platform, which allows the submarine to have “additional payloads to accommodate advanced technology used to carry out classified research and development and enhance warfighting capabilities.” 

Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarines (SSBN)

Nicknamed “boomers,” SSBNs are Ohio-class submarines designed as an undetectable launch platform for submarine-launched ballistic missiles. They are considered one of the stealthiest submarines capable of “precise delivery of nuclear warheads.”

There are 14 Ohio-class SSBNs, each carrying a maximum of 20 missiles, including the Trident II D5 missile, which has an increased range and accuracy compared to its predecessor, the Trident I C4 missile. SSBNs can go on extended deterrent patrols and have three large-diameter logistics hatches that allow speedy resupply, updates, and maintenance, which increases operational availability. 

According to the Navy, SSBNs spend an average of 77 days at sea, with a 35-day in-port for maintenance following each patrol. These submarines are a key component of the nuclear triad that acts as a deterrent to would-be enactors of nuclear conflict. 

The Columbia Class SSBN is the largest, most capable, and most advanced submarine in the fleet—but it’s not yet ready for deployment. The original target for the first commissioned Columbia Class submarine was FY2027, on par with the schedule of the US Strategic Command’s requirements. 

However, worker shortages and budget cuts have caused delays in building the first Columbia class SSBN, so there’s no definite date for the first commissioning ceremony. 

Guided Missile Submarines (SSGN)

The 1994 Nuclear Posture Review required 14 of the Navy’s 18 SSBNs to meet the nation’s strategic force needs. So, the Navy decided to transform four Ohio-Class SSBNs into conventional land attack and special operations forces platforms. This conversion of the four submarines was completed within five years. 

The USS Ohio (SSGN 726) was the first completed conversion in December 2005 and later deployed in 2007. The USS Florida (SSGN 728), USS Michigan (SSGN 727), and the USS Georgia (SSGN 729) were all mission-ready by 2007. 

All four SSGNs make up half of the Navy’s submarine fleet vertical launch payload capacity. Each SSGN can carry up to 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles. They can carry up to 66 special operations personnel, and the missile tubes can carry stowage canisters for their equipment and food, allowing extended deployment.

The SSGN build has ample room for the added personnel, which also contributes to extended deployments. The forwardmost missile tubes are actually lock-out chambers that allow for clandestine infiltration and exfiltration of operators. 

These submarines serve a dual purpose of special operations and guided missile munitions — a lethal combination for any naval warfare scenario. 

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