Cold War Timeline: The Cost of Submarines

During the Cold War, the United States invested heavily in submarine technology to counter a much larger Soviet submarine force. Technological superiority proved a winning but expensive strategy. How expensive is hard to say. Determining the cost of any advanced military technological system produced in relatively small numbers raises complex problems. There are no price lists for nuclear-powered submarines. A 1998 study estimated that the United States spent $2 trillion in 1996 dollars (to account for inflation) on all strategic nuclear forces throughout the Cold War. Submarines took about one-third the total: $320.5 billion for the ballistic-missile submarine program, plus $97 billion for the missiles; $46 billion for the submarine share of naval nuclear propulsion research, development, testing, production, and operations; and $220 billion for attack submarine construction, weapons, and related systems.

Nuclear-powered submarines also took almost one-third of the Navy's shipbuilding funds between 1952 and 1991—19% for fast attacks, 12% for boomers—and, at peak strength, comprised just under one-third of the U.S. Navy's fighting fleet. Although submarines cost relatively more than surface ships to buy, they are cheaper to operate. Not only do submarines have smaller crews, the purchase price includes the cost of fuel. Nuclear-powered submarines steam for years between refuelings while conventionally powered warships must refill their fuel tanks every few days.


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