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Throughout the 1960s and most of the 1970s, the Navy pursued a goal of creating a fleet of nuclear carrier task forces. The centerpiece of these task forces, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, would be escorted by nuclear-powered surface combatants and nuclear-powered submarines. In deciding to build nuclear-powered surface combatants, the Navy believed that the greatest benefit would be achieved when all the combatant ships in the task force were nuclear-powered. The Navy ceased building nuclear-powered surface combatants after 1975 because of the high cost.

Nuclear-powered surface combatants shared many of the characteristics of the nuclear-powered carrier - unlimited high speed endurance, sustainability, and their larger size than their sister ships. The first nuclear-powered surface combatant was initially developed and fielded at about the same time as the first nuclear-powered carrier, in 1961. A total of nine nuclear-powered surface combatants were purchased with the final ship authorized in fiscal year 1975.

The application of nuclear propulsion to the surface fleet apparently had begun well. In three consecutive fiscal years the Eisenhower administration had requested and Congress had approved three different types of nuclear-powered surface ships: the cruiser Long Beach in 1957, the attack carrier Enterprise in 1958, and the frigate Bainbridge in 1959. Each was a major warship.

The frigate' had evolved after World War II to meet the needs of the navy for a surface ship large enough to serve as a destroyer squadron leader and flagship, and to carry missiles, guns, and antisubmarine weapons. The result was a ship only slightly smaller than a cruiser. It had several functions; screening high-speed task forces, covering amphibious landings, or operating independently.

In 1975 the term "frigate" was replaced by "cruiser" and nuclear frigates that had been designated DLGNs became CGNs. Rickover assigned to Knolls the design and development of the D1G, consisting of a reactor and the steam plant equipment for one propeller shaft. The facility was in the very early stages of assembly in the 225-foot diameter Horton sphere that had once contained the SIG, the sodium cooled prototype for the Seawolf.

The USS BAINBRIDGE was commissioned on October 6, 1962, in Quincy, Mass. The ship was commissioned as the world's first nuclear powered frigate by then Chief of Naval Operations ADM Arleigh A. Burke. Under Captain Raymond E. Peet, the Bainbridge passed her initial sea trials on 2 September 1962. The next February she began her deploy ment with the Sixth Fleet. Peet had been gunnery and executive officer of a destroyer that was a proud member of "31-Knot" Burke's "Little Beaver Squadron" during World War II in the South Pacific. v From actual combat he knew how every destroyerman worried about the amount of oil in his fuel tanks. In contrast, the experience with the Bainbridge was exhilarating. "Our transatlantic trip was extremely rough. RADM Hayward had more than his share of problems trying to fuel the other DD's. Anyone who witnessed that operation would think nuclear power is not only a bargain, but an operational necessity for the Navy . . ." Hayward noted that the weather had been so bad that he had not been able to refuel his oil-fired destroyers for forty-eight hours and had been forced to slow down to conserve fuel.

The ship's first home port was Charleston, SC. The world's first nuclear frigate carried was powered by two pressurized water reactors, and carried two twin Terrier missile launchers, two twin 3" .50 caliber radar controlled gun mounts, two torpedo mounts, an ASROC launcher, and was equiped with state of the art electronics and communications suites. The armament of the Bainbridge was patterned after the Leahy (DLG 16, later CG 16) Class with a few changes. The nuclear escort was equipped with larger Terrier missile magazines; twin 3-inch/50 gun mounts were specified instead of single mounts; and there were no reloads provided for the ASROC launcher.

Early studies of destroyers with nuclear propulsion plants showed that such plants alone weighed as much as a World War II destroyer. Because of the size ship that would be necessary to contain the space and weight of such a plant, it was not until the advent of the Enterprise (CVAN 65) that an intensive design effort was begun to provide nuclear escorts. The design of nuclear surface ship escorts was complicated by the following factors:

  • the space required for a nuclear plant,

  • the manning for a nuclear plant was more than conventional power plants,

  • available nuclear power plants were too heavy for the power they produced to use in destroyer-sized ships,

  • and they were more expensive to build than conventional plants.
Another problem was in the arrangement of the ship due to radiation hazards and the need to restrict the location of living spaces, which if adjacent to the reactor spaces could necessitate increased lead shielding. However, it was recognized that nuclear power was, in some ways, the propulsion plant of the future.

When Admiral Arleigh Burke became CNO in August 1955, he authorized studies to determine the feasibility of installing nuclear power plant in a DLG 6-type hull. These studies showed that the smallest hull, due to limitations in power, would be 540-feet long with an 8,500-ton displacement to achieve a 30-knot speed. Smaller ships were studied, but it was found that nuclear propulsion was not possible in ships with less than 6,900-ton displacement. The resultant ship platform had excessive weather deck area for the weapons suite specified.

The most unattractive factor in nuclear propulsion, however, was cost. These ships with their special requirements cost some $20 to $30 million more in 1955 dollars than a conventional power plant of the same shaft horsepower and with the same weapons systems to achieve a 30-knot speed. Added to this was the heavier weight and higher vertical center of gravity of the machinery and shielding. The hull of a nuclear destroyer had to have more beam to accommodate all of the propulsion plant and its auxiliaries as well as provide adequate stability.

Bainbridge was, from her conception, the source of great contention within the destroyer force. Although the Type Commander, Atlantic wanted her, his opposite number in the Pacific opposed it on the basis of cost. He argued that one Bainbridge could buy three or four non nuclear equivalents. Admiral Hyman Rickover was in favor of the ship, which may have been a factor in its approval. His Code 08 designed a light-weight reactor especially for Bainbridge.

Nuclear power provided a plentiful power source that was almost inexhaustible for the voracious demands of modern electronics and weapons. Freedom from fossil-fuels allowed the Bainbridge and other nuclear cruisers to travel faster, skirt storms, and avoid problems with dwindling fuel supplies on stability. With the absence of stacks these ships also permitted a tighter protection against nuclear, biological, or chemical attack. It also meant less problems from smoke and the ability to find better positions for the antennas. But, the exhausts of the emergency diesel and the auxiliary boiler had to be made integral with her foremast upon which was mounted the surface search and 3-dimensional air search radars. A two-dimensional air-search radar was mounted on a smaller lattice-type mast aft of her boat stowage.

The nuclear reactor meant that this ship could travel 5,000 hours at full power (3 or 4 years before refueling). She traveled 75,000 miles during her first two years of service and 180,000 miles before her first nuclear refueling. Improvements in the core of the reactors soon led to ones that would last ten years.

She entered dry dock at Mare Island Shipyard in August 1967 for her first refueling. In 1974 she began a 27 month shipyard modernization and overhaul in Bremerton, Washingto. While in the shipyard, her 3" .50 caliber guns were removed and replaced with 20MM cannon, she received the AN/SPS-48 radar, and the Naval Tactical Data System was installed. Additionally, the aft superstructure was constructed and an additional level was added on the forward superstructure to support the SLQ-32. On 30 June 1975, BAINBRIDGE was redisgnate a cruiser during the Navy's reorganization of ship designations; DLGN 25 became CGN 25.

During her 33 years of service, Bainbridge participated in several historical operations. In April 1964, during her second Mediterranean deployment, she joined USS LONG BEACH for the first time and later in May, along with USS ENTERPRISE, formed the world's first nuclear powered task group, Task Group 60.1. In May 1964, during her second Mediterranean deployment, Bainbridge sailed around the world with USS Enterprise (CVN 65), the world's first nuclear powered carrier, and USS Long Beach (CGN 9), the world's first nuclear powered cruiser. This was the first around the world cruise since 1908 when the "Great White Fleet" sailed around the world.

In the 1990s, Bainbridge participated in Operation Desert Shield/Storm, NATO's "Deny Flight," "Provide Promise" and "Sharp Guard" operations.

USS Bainbridge (CGN 25) was deactivated after exactly 33 years of active service on 06 October 1995, in ceremonies at Naval Station Norfolk. The principal speaker for the ceremony was retired VADM Raymond E. Peet, a former assistant Secretary of Defense and the ship's first commanding officer. After deactivation, BAINBRIDGE was towed to Norfolk Naval Shipyard for defueling and preparation for the final movement of the hull to Bremerton, Washington. More recently, most of the remaining nuclear-powered surface combatants were decommissioned early because they were not cost-effective to operate and maintain.

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