The Birth of the Atomic Fleet – When Science Fiction was Dwarfed by Science Fact Reply

The Birth of the Atomic Fleet

In 1950, the same year the USS Pickerel conducted a remarkable journey from Hong Kong to Hawaii in just 21 days under snorkel, the President of the United States, President Harry S. Truman, authorized the building of an atomic submarine for the first (August 1950).

Pundits and politicians had been predicting that the potential for nuclear power in a submarine was two to ten years away from being realized. What they did not know was that when Captain Rickover steered the engineering work on an atomic engine to Westinghouse in a place called Bettis in 1948, his vision was to make the atomic sub a reality well before anyone expected. Rickover chose Westinghouse because he knew they had the practical engineering capability to do something that was being delayed by the scientists and bureaucrats of the Atomic Energy Commission.

As early as 1946, Naval Leaders like Admiral Nimitz understood that the submarine was the future of naval warfare but needed to extend its time at sea and it’s conceal ability with a new type of propulsion. The harnessing of the atom provided just such an opportunity. The commitment to build and operate the Nautilus was a bold step for Truman and the Navy.

1950 was the fiftieth year of the American Navy Submarine Force

But August of 1950 was a very challenging time for the country and the world. The Cold War was heating up. On June 25, 1950, the North Korean Army (backed by the Soviet Union and Communist China) boldly invaded the south. The Russian navy was operating large numbers of submarines in the area and newspaper articles warned of the danger of a third World War starting. Troops were still largely shipped to the danger spots of the world by ship and the existence of enemy submarines in the approaches to Korea was a real danger.

The United States had rapidly mothballed much of the fleet after the war while disbanding the forces needed to operate them. Trained men were not available and the fleet struggled at first to manage its commitments in a very hostile world.

The promise of an atomic powered vessel with nearly unlimited fuel promised a solution for many of the Navy’s concerns.

Rickover saw this and with sheer determination and will power, shoved the Navy and the World into the Atomic age. He was a practical thinker and not a sentimentalist in any way. His vision was to see a Navy second to none powered by the most advanced technology that man could imagine. He succeeded in a way that still has an impact today.

This post includes material that comes from a book that was published in 1964 by the Atomic Energy Commission called Nuclear Powered Submarines.

This book was written a short ten years after the Nautilus was commissioned and shows the rapid progression of the nuclear submarine fleet. In ten years, the Nautilus was eclipsed by the newer and sleeker boats that were themselves to be eclipsed again within a decade. Those boats would be dwarfed in size and capabilities and later joined by behemoth aircraft carriers that could go decades between fueling.

Nuclear Powered Submarines. U.S. Atomic Energy Commission


The application of nuclear energy to submarine propulsion has caught the imagination of people everywhere; no scientific proficiency is needed to understand the value of such a development. We can all share pride in the arctic achievements and the globe-circling adventures of our nuclear submarines. How- ever, it is considerably more difficult for the average person to appreciate the magnitude and complexity of the engineering involved in actually building and operating these ships. This booklet is intended to help you obtain such an appreciation.

Young people particularly are attracted to these ships and the atomic plants that propel them. Often young people mistakenly think that atomic energy somehow magically simplifies everything and that it must be easier to work with such plants than with more conventional machinery. Nothing could be further from the truth. More knowledge and understanding are needed; knowledge of science, of engineering, and of the fundamental laws of nature. I strongly urge young people who may be thinking of entering the atomic field to study the basic subjects of chemistry, physics, metallurgy, mechanical engineering, and, of course, mathematics. Then, if they have superior intelligence, insight, and especially an affinity for hard work, they may be able to participate in a program which combines both the excitement of a technological frontier and the pride of contributing to our national strength—our growing atomic Navy.

H.G. Rickover

The Nuclear Powered Submarine

The advent of the atomic age has revolutionized our undersea Navy. The introduction of nuclear power has converted the submersible surface ship of yesterday to a true submarine capable of almost unlimited endurance.

Events have followed swiftly since the pioneer nuclear submarine Nautilus entered fleet service in 1955. Records established by the Nautilus for submerged endurance and speed were soon eclipsed by submarines of later generations such as Seawolf, Skate, Skipjack, and Triton. Skipjack, first to incorporate the blimp-shaped hull, ideal for under water mobility, broke all existing records to become the world’s fastest submarine. The Navy reports, within security limitations, that today’s submarines travel in excess of 20 knots.

Nuclear submarines also have opened up the waters under the Arctic ice pack for operations. In 1958 the Nautilus made a historic voyage from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic via the North Pole. The Skate has three times journeyed to the top of the world, twice surfacing at the geographic North Pole as well as making numerous surfacings in polar lakes.

The marriage of the nuclear submarine and the ballistic missile has been one of the most significant developments in the free world’s defense structure. Since 1960, nuclear submarines capable of submerged firing of the Polaris missile, armed with a nuclear warhead, have been patrolling the seas that constitute 70 per cent of the earth’s surface. Missiles aboard the first two generations of Polaris submarines—the George Washington and Ethan Allen classes—have a range of 1,200 to 1,500 nautical miles. A new Polaris missile capable of hitting its target 2,500 miles away has been developed. These are aboard a third generation of Polaris submarines—the Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton.

The First Nuclear Submarine

Authorization for the first atomic submarine was signed by President Harry S. Truman in August 1950. This was to be the USS Nautilus. The Chief Executive gave the world an idea of what could be expected from the ship: “The Nautilus will be able to move under the water at a speed of more than 20 knots. A few pounds of uranium will give her ample fuel to travel thousands of miles at top speed. She will be able to stay under water indefinitely. Her atomic engine will permit her to be completely free of the earth’s atmosphere. She will not even require a breathing tube to the surface.” On January 21, 1954, the Nautilus slid into the Thames River, New London, Connecticut.

This article was developed on the eve of the Navy’s 243 Birthday celebration (2018). The efforts of the early pioneers in the AEC, the Navy, the men and women of Western Pennsylvania and the builders can all be proud of the realization of the dream.

Happy Birthday 1947 – Predicting the Future of Naval Warfare 1

The official Navy Birthday is now celebrated on October 13 every year thanks to Admiral Zumwalt declaring that day as the one to remember. But it has not always been celebrated on that day or with the same focus.

In 1947, the aftermath of the Second World War was being felt all around the world. The Iron Curtain had been declared, the Cold War was starting to emerge and the Navy was undergoing many changes. Historians tell us that there was a tremendous amount of pressure to amalgamate all of the services into one post war structure under a unified Department of Defense. The Navy fought most fiercely against this unification since it was not convinced that the Army would be able to understand the needs of a nautical force.

The article that follows came from the United Press services but reading it from a Navy Historian perspective, I can see the influence of many of the Navy’s leaders in the words and ideas. What is remarkable for 1947 was how right the predictions ended up being. I thought it fitting as we approach the 243rd Anniversary of the Navy that this article would be a great post to share. I hope you agree.

Navy Expects War With Russia Next

WASHINGTON, Oct. 25. 1947 — (UP)—

The Navy, celebrating its “birthday” Monday, is vigorously preparing for the greatest fundamental changes in its 172 year history.

It has a fistful of ideas for ships, new weapons and new ways of fighting that to promise a revolution in warfare.

Submerging capital ships, rockets armed with atomic, planes that can outrun he sun, clear skies when you want them — these are only a few of the dramatic ideas the Navy is considering.

Deep in the secret file until very recently was a development that seems tame by comparison but is actually of tremendous importance. It is “Radac” a revolutionary method of answering battle questions at the speed of light.

Details of Radac—rapid digital automatic computation— are locked up as tight as the Navy Knows how but the only announcement of its existence compared it in military significance to radar —king of war due inventions.

Many advances are a long way off, but even in the next few years the Navy would not fight a war with the weapons of World War II.

Carriers are switching to jet planes. Cruisers are getting completely automatic turrets. Destroyers are being equipped with new intricate detection devices. Submarines are learning to use the German “schnorkel/’8 breathing tube that allows a sub to stay concealed for weeks at a time.

None of these inventions played in a part in the war. Their development is a delayed dividend on war research.

Our original Navy idea was a fleet of ships to defend the shores of the United States against an enemy. For such a purpose the present day powerful fleet has no equal. But if the United States is to do anything about keeping peace in the world and supporting small nations against aggression, then a different kind of fleet is needed.

It will have to go anywhere in the world and fight if need be not other ships but planes and submarines defending foreign shores, perhaps with atom bombs. It will have to protect and land troops and supplies unless atomic war eliminates the need of an invasion.

Navy leaders do not say so publicly, but their private nightmare features Russia seizing the Middle East and Europe with her huge army and the U.S. trying to carve a foothold for an expeditionary force by the use of sea and air power.

Regardless of whether this is a realistic estimate, the American fleet is slowly being prepared for such a mission.

The battleships designed to fight other battleships, is dead. Its place will be taken by a new type vessel, the guided missile ship.

Two experimental ships are being constructed, using the unfinished hulls of other type ships. In the same way the first aircraft carriers were converted from other hulls.

The main weapons of the new type will be guided missiles and rockets. The huge 1-inch rifle, with its amazing accuracy, is obsolete.

The ram jet engine for a guided missile has done better than 1,500 miles per hour under test, but years will pass before it can carry a warhead and have a good range.

Rockets are closer. The first big ship rocket, the Neptune, is scheduled for test next year. Capable of 235 miles range with a light load, it is designed to teach scientists how to build big rocket weapons rather than be a weapon itself.

Marking the first such experiment, a German V-2 rocket was fired last month from the carrier Midway, but it behaved erratically and exploded six miles from the ship. One leading admiral said later that the information obtained could have been discovered by a little study and thinking.

Although the Navy does not contemplate arming its carriers with 45 – foot rockets, shipboard testing of the Neptune will probably be undertaken on a carrier. The guided missile ships are a long ways from being finished.

Defense of all ships, but especially the guided missile ships, which will have to carry the brunt of the attack, will bring many changes.

Ships will have to be sealed against radio-activity, all fighting and navigation done from below decks. Radar antennas, gun directors and other equipment which cannot withstand the shock of atomic bomb blast will have to be strengthened or made retractable into the hull.

Propulsion by atomic energy has been predicted variously for the next five or ten years. The Navy’s best ships will have to be equipped with it, bringing such changes as eliminating the smoke funnel, increasing range, providing more space for armament, probably higher speeds.

With superstructure and funnel cut down, the capital ship will look like a submarine and may end up being just that.

As I think about ships like the Ohio and Virginia Class submarines operating in tandem with the nuclear powered super-carriers and their amazing fleet of technological warriors, I wonder what the authors of this article would think today. I also wonder what the future of the Navy will be as we experiment with the new weapons that would not have even been imagined in that day. Especially the ones named after the man who set the Navy’s Birthday as October 13.

Mister Mac