Nuclear-powered Attack Submarines

During the Cold War, one of the main tasks of fast attack submarines (SSNs) became finding and tracking Soviet submarines. They also carried out a variety of other covert missions related to intelligence gathering and special operations.

Attack submarines have always relied chiefly on torpedoes as weapons. During the Cold War, they might also have been armed with several kinds of short- or medium-range missiles that allow them to engage surface ships or other submarines beyond torpedo range. With cruise missiles, the only type of tactical missile now in service, they can pinpoint land targets several hundred miles away.

View a cutaway of a Los Angeles-class submarine.

Model of USS Sturgeon (SSN-637)
Nuclear-powered Fast Attack Submarine Sturgeon was the first of a 37-boat class commissioned from March 1967 to August 1975. She was 292 feet (89 m) long and displaced 4,762 tons submerged. Her crew numbered 107. Power came from a single S5W (Submarine, Model 5, Westinghouse) pressurized-water nuclear reactor driving two steam turbines connected to a single propeller shaft. Sturgeon could make better than 20 knots (37 km/hr) on the surface, over 25 knots (46 km/hr) submerged (the exact figure remains classified).

Emergency Blow Exercise (above)
Practicing an annual emergency surfacing procedure, USS Birmingham (SSN-695) leaps from the water, showing her bow sonar dome. Courtesy Newport News Shipbuilding

View a video clip of an emergency blow exercise. (2mb AVI).

Sea Trials
USS Los Angeles (SSN-688) underwent her sea trials in 1976. Courtesy Newport News Shipbuilding

Model of the Nuclear-propelled Fast Attack Submarine USS Los Angeles (SSN-688)
Los Angeles was the first of 62 boats in her class, the largest ever built. She is 362 feet (110 m) long and 33 feet (10 m) abeam, with a crew of 127. Optimized for speed underwater, her exact top speed remains classified. How much deeper than 800 feet (240 m) she can go is also classified.

Los Angeles-class submarines carry an array of weapons, including torpedoes, Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles, and submarine-launched mobile mines. Tomahawks were fired from torpedo tubes by earlier versions of this class but later versions have vertical-launch tubes. During the Cold War, Los Angeles-class boats also carried Subroc (submarine rocket) nuclear depth charges, Harpoon and Tomahawk anti-ship missiles, and nuclear Tomahawks.


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