By Lt. Cmdr. Benjamin Amdur
Director, Submarine Force Museum and Officer-in-Charge, Historic ship Nautilus
We now live in an age where every new car, smart phone and skincare product claims it will transform our lives. The meaning of the phase “revolutionary technology” has lost much of its clout. However, 60 years after her launching on Jan. 21, 1954, USS Nautilus (SSN 571) still represents a profound and truly “revolutionary” leap forward which still echoes within the submarine force of today.
As a warship, the traditional submarine Achilles heels of slow submerged speed and very limited endurance were instantly reversed with launching of Nautilus. She could chase down or outrun surface ships while remaining underwater for weeks at a time.
Worldwide submarine and anti-submarine tactics instantly became obsolete. Classic Cold War submarine missions that we now take for granted, including strategic deterrence patrols, battle group operations, deep water anti-submarine warfare and polar operations now became possible.
Similarly, most of our present day forward operating submarine missions would be drastically less effective, if possible at all, without the propulsion and energy generating capabilities of controlled nuclear fission that USS Nautilus pioneered.
Just as significant were the submarine force personnel changes that came with nuclear power. With Adm. Hyman G. Rickover at the program’s helm, and officers like Nautilus’s first commanding officer, Cmdr. Eugene P. Wilkinson, leading the way, submarine crews rapidly became one of the most highly trained, proficient and technologically advanced professions in the country.
Today’s Navy “Nucs” (nuclear power trained Sailors) are widely regarded as among the smartest groups in the military with engineering expertise second to none – a reputation that began with Nautilus and her hand-picked initial crew.
Supporting the submarine crews was a new industrial base of national laboratories, public and private shipyards, and equipment manufacturers – all with technical experts and expertise that had to be developed or created. The success of the program that these men and women built and maintained is clear in this simple statistic: More than 151 million miles safely steamed throughout 6,500 reactor-years of operations.
Many game-changing technologies in warfare develop slowly. It took thousands of years for the wheel to revolutionize warfare with the chariot. Effective steam powered warships did not appear until half a century after the steam engine. Conversely, the revolution that Nautilus initiated happened quickly. As late as 1945 controlled fission power was still widely considered a technology of the distant future. The Navy, greatly aided by private industry interest in civilian nuclear power plants, advanced the research so rapidly that by March 1950 President Truman and the Congress wrote funding for Nautilus into the very tight fiscal year 1952 defense budget.
Laid down in June of 1952, First Lady Mamie Eisenhower launched Nautilus into the Thames River and naval history on January 21, 1954. The acceptance of nuclear power was so rapid that the Navy ordered additional nuclear submarines (the Skate class) before Nautilus even went to sea. Once she went to sea, she exceeded expectations. During her first months at sea she set submerged speed and distance world records, outran U.S anti-submarine torpedoes, and devastated U.S. and NATO anti-submarine warfare forces during a series of exercises.
Later submarines steadily improved upon the Nautilus design, making the U.S. Submarine Force the fastest, most powerful and sophisticated warships in history.
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