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ANTONY PRESTON, JOHN BATCHELOR
As soon as the United States Government knew that the A-1 Polaris missile was work able, permission was given to build the first of a fleet of 41 submarines, each capable of launching 16 Polaris missiles. As each missile's H-Bomb warhead was equal in power to all the high-explosive bombs dropped in the Second World War, the deterrent effect of such a system was obvious. Before the end of 1957 two newly ordered attack submarines had been redesignated Polaris submarines. A further three followed in 1958, and the five became the George Washington Class, the first Fleet Ballistic Missile (FBM) submarines
This diagram shows the basic components of the propulsion system of a nuclear submarine in the world. To mark their importance, both in size and purpose, they were also the first USN submarines to be named after people rather than reptiles or fishes.
The next class, the five Ethan Allen Class, differed principally in being properly designed for their task, rather than hurriedly adapted from a smaller type. They and the 31 Lafayette Class which followed from 1960 onwards were better arranged internally than the original George Washingtons, and had improvements such as quieter machinery, but they retain the basic layout of two rows of eight missile tubes abaft the "sail".
The news of the success of Polaris, after many pundits had said it would not be ready for another ten years, spurred the Soviet Navy on to develop a similar underwater deterrent. As we have seen, some of their conventional submersibles had been modified to fire two or three surface-to-surface missiles, but in 1958 work began on converting the first of ten "Z" Class to fire IRBMs. The same system was used as before, two or three tubes housed in the fin, which opened like a clam shell to allow firing. Thirty "G" Class were specially built for the job, and then came the nuclear powered "H" Class, still using the same system. Not until 1968 did the first news leak out of a Russian version of the Polaris system, when the "Y" Class appeared, with a very similar configuration to the American boats. Incidentally, all Russian class-designations are those assigned by NATO and bear no relation to what the Red Fleet may call them.
The first Russian nuclear hunter-killer submarines came into service between 1961 and 1963. Known in the West as the "N" or "November" Class, they numbered 15 units, and at least two were named. The Leninskii Komsomol emulated the Nautilus in the summer of 1962 by crossing the North Pole submerged, but in 1970 one of the class sank south-west of the British Isles. The "V" or "Victor" Class which followed were generally similar but greatly improved in detail, and the 12 in service command a high reputation in Western intelligence circles.
The next country to build nuclear submarines was Great Britain, which had been experimenting with nuclear energy for some years. To save time a reactor was bought from the United States in 1958, to power HMS Dreadnought, the Royal Navy's first "nuke", and the British reactor went into a second prototype, HMS Valiant, two years later. Since then a further two classes have been ordered, making a total of seven completed and four building. In 1963 it was announced that the Royal Navy would buy the A-3 Polaris weapon system from the United States and install it in their own hulls. These materialised in 1967-69 as the four Resolution Class, which replaced the RAF's bomber force as Great Britain's strategic deterrent.
France was hardly likely to allow the British to have an "independent", nuclear deterrent, but when the United States refused to supply Polaris missiles they went ahead with their own version, the MSBS M-1 (Mer-Sol-Balistique-Stratégique). A nuclear submarine had been laid down in 1958, but after being cancelled a year later she was redesigned as an experimental submarine to test the missiles and other equipment, and was appropriately named Gymnote after Gustave Zede's prototype. She fired the first ballistic missiles, but the first operational FBM, Le Redoutable, did not come into service until 1971.
Apart from the People's Republic of China, whose intentions remain inscrutable, the only other country to contemplate the huge expense of nuclear propulsion was Holland. However, the two hulls planned in the early 1960s were replaced by conventional submarines, leaving only four navies with nuclear submarines. Red China certainly has the capability to build both nuclear submarines and Polaris-type missiles, but apart from a mysterious sighting of an Albacore-hulled submarine under construction in 1969, nothing is known.
The US Navy has improved the firepower of its later FBM submarines by arming them with the more powerful Poseidon missile. Very similar in appearance to the A-3 Polaris, Poseidon is two feet wider in diameter and three feet taller, but this modest increase in dimensions conceals many differences. Poseidon has twice the payload, which allows it to carry multiple warheads; this makes counter-measures even harder than before, since each missile can have three possible targets. The modifications include alterations to the missile tubes and replacement of the fire control system.
Despite the clear advantages of nuclear propulsion, conventional submersibles are still being designed and built. Nor are they confined to the smaller navies who cannot afford the cost of nuclear boats, for a new class of Russian diesel-electric submarines has been seen. One reason for this is that nuclear propulsion makes very heavy demands on skilled personnel, quite apart from its cost, and another is that the size of present-day nuclear submarines makes them unsuitable for coastal waters. There are areas in which small submersibles can function more effectively than the big fleet types, and so there are a number of French. British and German designs available for sale to foreign buyers.
Today the submarine represents the most potent naval weapon available. The nuclear submarine in particular represents a terrible threat to all surface warships, for her speed enables her to close in, attack with a variety of weapons such as guided torpedoes or even missiles, and then withdraw at high speed. The awesome destructive power of Polaris has already been described, but its value is enhanced because, unlike any other submarine weapon, it can be fired at a range of 2,000 miles or more. Even today the old convoy maxim holds good, that an attack submarine must sooner or later approach her target, and thus risk a counter-attack; a Polaris submarine, on the other hand, avoids all contact, and so she has the world's oceans in which to hide.
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