Submarine Tenders furnish maintenance and logistic support for submarines. Along with destroyer tenders, submarine tenders are the largest of the active auxiliaries. Their crews are mainly technicians and repairmen.
Tenders were crucial to the ultimate success of World War II's Pacific submarine campaign because of the vast distances that characterized the theater. And, as the war moved closer to Japan, so did the tenders - Proteus to Guam in February, 1945, for example - bringing the submarines' "base" and all it took to support them closer to where they were needed.
Since World War I, submarine tenders have had facilities onboard to provide just about every repair, replacement, service, or supply a submarine might need. Today's tenders are essentially complete factories - with pattern shops, foundries, and machine shops with precision lathes, surface mills, presses, and welding machines. Even if a replacement part isn't stocked or otherwise available on the tender, it can often be fabricated in hours. The sheet-metal shop can make partitions, ductwork, and piping. Electrical workers can run wiring, re-wind motors, and repair other electrical equipment, as well as servicing or replacing the massive battery banks. Electronics shops are fully qualified to deal with radio, radar, sonar, navigation aids, and fire control equipment. There are weapons specialists for torpedoes, missiles, and launching systems, plus optical technicians to attend to the boat's periscopes. Complete medical and dental facilities are provided to see to the crews' health and well being - and, of course, a warehouse of supplies - from toilet paper to torpedoes - that the crew will need on its next patrol. Moreover, tenders are manned - particularly at senior levels - with very experienced personnel, and their cumulative expertise is invaluable to the boats that come alongside for repair and refit services.
As submarines were positioned at more and more ports, local "station ships" found themselves hosting the crews of the local submarine flotilla, particularly since a surface ship was easy to tie up to - and was handy as a source of help.
The United States entered the world of the "Silent Service" when it purchased its first serviceable submarine, USS Holland (SS-1), in 1900. Within three years, it acquired six more. At that time, submarines were little more than crude surface craft that could submerge briefly to strike at an enemy - and then scurry away beneath the waves. Since these small boats were generally considered coastal defense assets and, in any event, could not carry much fuel, food, or weaponry, they generally operated from a shore station, where the crew could find berthing and messing ashore. Very soon, however, as submarines were positioned at more and more ports, local "station ships" found themselves hosting the crews of the local submarine flotilla, particularly since a surface ship was easy to tie up to - and was handy as a source of help.
This cozy relationship developed to the point where the host eventually became a kind of mother ship. The Navy soon realized that one advantage of putting submarine supplies, spare parts, service facilities, and berthing on a surface ship was that it made them as portable as the submarines themselves. If a flotilla was sent off to a distant port, the tender could just go right along - and setting up a new forward submarine base became almost as simple as dropping the anchor. Thus emerged an important early role for the submarine tender - to operate at advance bases all over the world so that the U.S. Navy could project submarine presence wherever it was needed. Still another impetus was the fact that day-to-day life onboard early submarines was horrible - and the better accommodations a tender could offer were sorely needed to keep a boat's crew healthy and fit for duty.
During their first decade, the Navy's de facto submarine tenders were treated primarily as accommodation ships, and as often as not, these early auxiliaries were anointed as "tenders" simply by being ordered to become one. But as submarine propulsion, weapons, fire control, environmental, and other internal systems became more and more complex, so did the equipment, skills, services, and supplies needed to properly maintain them. Increasingly, tenders better equipped with the specialized facilities and machinery needed to do the job were built and brought on line. USS Holland (AS-3), for instance, was launched in 1926 and had a special crane installed in the bow for lifting submarines. But with undersea technology advancing rapidly between 1930 and 1940, even these more modern tenders soon became inadequate to the task.
So it was that an entirely new class of ship - designed from the keel up as a submarine tender - was developed specifically to satisfy the needs of the new boats. The first of this class - and the second tender to bear the name - USS Fulton (AS-11), was at sea on her shakedown cruise on 7 December 1941, and only ten days after Pearl Harbor, the second of them - USS Sperry (AS-12) - was launched at Mare Island. Eventually, the Fulton class would number seven ships, commissioned between 1941 and 1945. Five remain afloat in the reserve fleet.
By the end of the World War II - their "high-water mark" and "finest hour" - 17 submarine tenders were operating around the world, actively engaged in the full range of support activities described above. But then, with the general draw-down after the war, all but four were retired. The Korean War (1950-1953) saw two brought back into service - and all of the Fultons except Proteus served throughout the Cold War. The latter was unique. After participating in the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay and tending submarines briefly in Japan after the war, Proteus was "retired" to New London, Connecticut, where she was assigned - though not in commission - as the "station ship" at the Submarine Base, providing support services from 1947 until 1959. More would follow.
With the development of submarine nuclear power shortly after mid-century, U.S. submarines became capable of staying at sea - and submerged - for months. Because of their near invulnerability, they emerged as the ideal platform to carry America's nuclear deterrent to sea, and the Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN) was born with the commissioning of USS George Washington (SSBN-598) in December 1959. Operating from advance bases around the world, the "boomers" became the force-in-being that kept the peace during the dangerous era that followed the Soviets' demonstration of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles of their own. However, if the SSBNs represented the "tip of the spear," it was the submarine tenders that kept them there, and they followed up their contribution to winning World War II with no small role in winning the Cold War.
The Emory S. Land and L.Y. Spear classes were designed and fitted to accommodate attack submarines, and can service four submarines moored alongside simultaneously. USS Proteus was commissioned as a diesel sub tender in 1944 and overhauled and reconfigured in 1959-60 to service ballistic missile subs. In 1981, she became an attack submarine tender. The Hunley and Simon Lake classes are configured especially to service ballistic missile submarines. USS Hunley has been converted to service attack submarines.
Between the years 1990 and 2000, the Navy deactivated eight of the remaining ten submarine tenders and, incidentally, all six destroyer tenders and four of eight shipyards.
To assist the Navy in recapitalizing its fleet by leveraging ship operations core competencies, higher operational tempo, and reduced manning, MSC has proffered proposals to the Chief of Naval Operations and the fleet to transfer ship operations of command ships, salvage ships, and submarine tenders to MSC. MSC can also operate submarine tenders, essentially providing combat logistics, maintenance and repair services for submarines as MSC does already for the surface fleets. Each of these transformation initiatives will reduce crew sizes aboard these vessels because of the relatively high experience level of MSC civil service mariners, thus returning critical sea-going Sailor billets to the fleet, and saving the Navy valuable funds over the course of time.
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