Nuclear Submersible Aircraft Carriers – USS Permit and USS Halibut

In the time before Polaris

Quick disclaimer: I am sure that the purists will be jumping up and down in their retractable arm chairs yelling at Mister Mac for misrepresenting the article and contents. But if you stick with the story long enough you will discover two things:  It was someone in BUSHIPS in 1958 that used the phrase submersible aircraft carrier in reference to the USS Permit SSGN 594, and I served on the Halibut so I know the difference between an aircraft carrier and a Regulus carrying submarine…

I am absolutely convinced that the planners in the Pentagon must have been reading a lot of science fiction magazines as they looked at the future of the fleet in the 1950’s.

Every once in a while a small story comes to my attention that makes me very sure that may have been partially the case.

In the late 1950’s there were a lot of competing visions for what the next generation of submarines would look like and what their purpose would be. The decision to go with a solid fuel rocket system (Polaris) was by no means a certainty. There had been a lot of time and money poured into the Jupiter system which was liquid fueled. But the size and weight of the Jupiter (which was an Army system after all) was prohibitive. Even with the emergence of nuclear power to allow submarines to become true “submarines” in depth, endurance and speed, the boats just weren’t as big as they needed to be in order to carry enough Jupiters to make a difference.

The following articles come from the BUSHIPS manuals of 1958 and 1958 just prior to the successful marriage of Polaris with the USS George Washington Class ballistic missile system.

A couple of surprises for me as a researcher.

I had always thought of the USS Permit as a Fast Attack.

This is a very rare view of her in a completely different configuration. To be honest, up until I found the article, I had never heard the words “submersible aircraft carrier” used in the same sentence for the United States Navy. The Japanese had infamously used them during the Second World War but the idea that the US Navy was actually planning on a nuclear submarine that would have that title was something I had never heard before.

The first day I reported aboard Halibut in 1975, she had just completed her last mission. She had long since given up her role as a Regulus Missile platform but was doing some really vital work for the nation. I have always somehow cheated that I never got to go with her on that last run. But fate was not so inclined. My role on Halibut was limited to helping her unload all of the equipment that allowed her to perform the amazing things she did. I’m told that most of what she may or may not have done is told in a book that was published after the fact but since I wasn’t there, I can neither confirm nor deny the accuracy of Blind Man’s Bluff. The boat was decommissioned and her secrets went to the grave with her as far as I am concerned.

This story is about the place in 1958-1959 where a revolutionary change was about to hit the Navy again for the second time in a decade.

Part 1: BUSHIPS October 1958 Nuclear Submarines

The designing of the USS Nautilus (SSN-571), the first nuclear propelled ship, and the forerunner of the Enterprise, has now been combined with new hull concepts tested in the USS Albacore (AGSS 569) (figure 2) to produce present optimized submarine hull form ships.

The most recent of these designs, the USS Thresher, includes many new operational and technical concepts. To produce its ultra-quiet hull and machinery, many major departures were made from existing submarines. Some features that can be noted in its surfaced view (figure 3) are single-screw propulsion and a new location for bow planes—in the sail—an arrangement that produces an unobstructed streamlined hull. As a result, operation is the quietest possible, and sonar performance is optimized.

Figure 3 USS Thresher SSN 593


Missile Submarines

A new naval warfare system, developed when the guided missile was joined with the nuclear sub marine, produced the USS Halibut (figure 4), now under construction. It will be the first “from the keel up” SSGN. To carry its Regulus missiles required the design of a large bow hangar which had as much displacement as a World War I submarine. The concept of the barber chair is embodied in the missile launcher.

Figure 4 – USS Halibut SSGN 587

The latest design for this type, which is actually a submersible aircraft carrier, is the USS Permit. In this ship (figure 5) the missiles will be housed in four hangars with two launchers. The arrangement gives more flexibility and a slightly more compact ship.

In 1955, the first design studies were conducted in the Bureau to combine the ballistic missile with the submarine.

The Jupiter sub marine (figure 6) was an attempt to use a “bird in hand”—the Army IRBM. To stow these missiles called for the design of a large sail, to provide more vertical area than was to be found in the usual submarine hull. Although the ship would have been one of the largest submarines ever built, it could have carried only four Jupiters. The major break-through in developing the simpler solid-propellant Polaris allowed the designing of an optimum hull form and gave the added capability of launching the missile while the submarine was sub merged. It will be possible to carry more missiles in the Polaris submarine (figure 7) than in a Jupiter submarine of comparable size.


Part two: The USS Halibut is launched.

The USS Halibut’s keel was laid down by Mare Island Naval Shipyard at Vallejo, California, on 11 April 1957. She was launched on 9 January 1959, sponsored by Mrs. Chet Holifield, wife of Congressman Chet Holifield of California, and commissioned on 4 January 1960 with Lieutenant Commander Walter Dedrick in command.

Halibut began as a diesel-electric submarine, but was completed with nuclear power. She was the first submarine initially designed to launch guided missiles. Intended to carry the Regulus I and Regulus II nuclear cruise missiles, her main deck was high above the waterline to provide a dry “flight deck.” Her missile system was completely automated, with hydraulic machinery controlled from a central control station.

BUSHIPS 1959 Halibut Launched at Mare Island

USS Halibut (SSGN-587), the first nuclear submarine designed specifically to carry, launch, and guide missiles, was launched at Mare Island Naval Shipyard on January 9, 1959. She is primarily a “Regulus II” design, but is able to carry any other missile of equal or lesser size and weight.

Her missile system is a completely automated group of hydraulically powered machines, controlled from a central station. In addition to her missile capability she has a torpedo battery.

The ship is the second largest submersible ever launched by the U.S. Navy. She is approximately 350 feet long and of 5,000 tons. Despite her length, she will have excellent submerged maneuverability and speed. Her propulsion plant is an improved Nautilus type. Pressurized water is the reactor coolant, as is the case in all planned U.S. Navy nuclear vessels except the Seawolf, in which sodium is used. Her main deck is relatively higher above the waterline than that of conventional submarines because it is used as a “flight deck” and must be dry in a seaway during launching.

The following is part of what was said about the new submarine on the occasion of the launching by Rear Admiral Elton W. Grenfell, USN, Commander Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, the principal speaker:

“This is not just another submarine, for she will be the greatest and most powerful individual sub marine weapons system in any navy in the world at this time. For the first time in our Navy’s history, we will see the combination of a powerful nuclear power plant with an equally powerful nuclear weapons system. The military capabilities of this submarine are almost beyond comprehension. Suffice it to say, however, Halibut will have the military power backed by millions of tons of destructive ability, if required. That is the equivalent to a small size task force of World War II type.

“In the event of an all-out war she will be able to prowl undetected close off the enemy’s coast, position herself accurately, surface and in minutes fire her atomic missile with great accuracy at a vital target; submerge and speed away to a new area many hundreds of miles away. Next day the enemy, with no knowledge of Halibut’s new position, would receive another sudden and deadly blow in like manner. In a war of the nuclear type Halibut could eliminate whole industrial areas, shipyards, submarine bases, and other military targets…

“Halibut is not just a missile submarine to be used in the event of all-out war, for she will have in addition to her greatest characteristic of stealth that second most important characteristic—versatility. Halibut will carry a large load of vastly improved torpedoes of the latest type. She will have the most modern sonar equipment and other new electronic devices necessary to carry out effective anti-submarine warfare. She will have the ability to detect enemy submarines at long distances and, more important, with her high speed and maneuverability, she will be able to close the contact and strike home with a successful attack on any enemy submarine she can hear.

Halibut will play a most important part on the Navy’s anti-submarine warfare team. For some time early in a war the enemy, with his strong defensive air superiority, will have control of the air and sea adjacent to his coastline. Thus, our friendly anti-submarine warfare vessels and planes will not be able to operate in those waters. Halibut, however, can operate in such waters and will seek out and destroy enemy submarines close to their home bases.

“Halibut will also be able to roam the enemy’s seas and cut his very vital and important sea lines of communications; vital and important because in the Pacific, practically all of the potential enemies’ industrial centers and areas of military operations can be supplied only by water shipment. Halibut, with her high speed and powerful torpedoes, can raise havoc with enemy shipping throughout the Western Pacific and thus, at will, rupture these lines of communications . . .

“Halibut may also be considered to be a forerunner of things to come in the way of new submarine mobile offensive capabilities. Her immense hangar in which she can carry a load of missiles dictated that she be built with many, many tons of carrying capacity and many thousands of cubic feet of storage space. Indeed, the interior volume of her hangars alone approximates the entire interior volume of our famous World War II fleet type sub marines.

This space and great capacity may be utilized to carry many other items of large size and number. For example, Halibut could carry hundreds of troops and their equipment at high speeds for long distances under the sea; she might carry several helicopters of various types to be utilized for a myriad of missions in enemy waters; or she could carry large amounts of badly needed supplies to beleaguered outposts of our own or friendly forces.

“Halibut will indeed be a powerful fighting machine with versatility greater than ever before in submarine history.”

The Halibut is the second nuclear powered submarine to be launched at Mare Island. Her keel was laid on April 11, 1957. This shipyard at present has three other nuclear powered submarines under construction, including the Theodore Roosevelt, designed for the underwater launching of the Polaris inter mediate ballistic missile. The Theodore Roosevelt is to be launched sometime in 1959.

Note: USS Permit (SSN-594) was ordered on January 27th, 1958 and built by the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, California. Her keel was laid down on May 1st, 1959 and she was launched to sea on July 1st, 1961. The boat was formally commissioned for service on May 29th, 1962. I can find no other references that show her as being a “submersible aircraft carrier”. But things were probably a little hectic in 1959 when the whole world of submarines was turned on its head by the introduction of Polaris.

In total, between February 1961 and July 1964, The USS Halibut undertook a total of seven deterrent patrols before being replaced in the Pacific by Polaris-equipped submarines of the George Washington class. From September through December 1964, Halibut joined eight other submarines in testing and evaluating the attack capabilities of the Permit-class submarine.

Halibut was nearly obsolete as a missile ship from the time she was launched. The emergence of the Polaris missile system eclipsed the Regulus boats in a matter of a few years. But that in no way diminishes the work the men who sailed on her and her sister boats did during the transition. They helped to keep the peace.

But one thing that was stated by the Admiral at the Halibut’s launching came true in ways that he could have never imagined. Halibut and her sister ships did indeed prove the notion that she would be a powerful fighting machine with greater versatility than ever before in submarine history. Those who sailed on her understand how true that statement is in the course of Cold War history.

Mister Mac

More about Rear Admiral Elton W. Grenfell

6 thoughts on “Nuclear Submersible Aircraft Carriers – USS Permit and USS Halibut

  1. I was stationed on the USS Permit from 1979 to 1983, she was a fast attach SSN and not an SSGN.

    1. Thanks John. You are correct. However, the article was from a BUSHIPS Journal article in 1958. The Permit was approved for building at that time but the article states that there was at least a preliminary plan to do something with missiles at that time. Obviously the timing of her launching and the advent of Polaris certainly made sure that the boat would remain a Fast Attack.

    2. Thanks John. You are correct. However, the article was from a BUSHIPS Journal article in 1958. The Permit was approved for building at that time but the article states that there was at least a preliminary plan to do something with missiles at that time. Obviously the timing of her launching and the advent of Polaris certainly made sure that the boat would remain a Fast Attack.

    3. I served with John from when He came on board until I left in 81 I think to go to Dace, I was log room yeoman, nothing in my files indicated anything about aircraft. However long before I got there Permit fired the first Subroc!

  2. I just came aboard in time to go on this deployment:
    From September through December 1964, Halibut joined eight other submarines in testing and evaluating the attack capabilities of the Permit-class submarine.
    During that time I was a RORT (Reactor Operator in Training) , and qualified at the end of that operating period. I am sure we had 5 Blue Birds on Board at that time and was not aware of this Operation: “Halibut joined eight other submarines in testing and evaluating the attack capabilities of the Permit-class submarine.”. I assumed we were actually on our last Regulus Patrol instead. However being aft of frame 85, I could have been wrong. Perhaps someone could enlighten me more on this? I remained on board the Halibut throughout the shipyard conversion, Fast Cruise, NR Readiness Review back aft, and sea Trials. I left Halibut in 8/2/66 to go teach S1C Prototype in Windsor, CT; and got out of USN 9/12/68. Thanks: Retired: Gerry W Trimble, Longview, WA

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