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As U.S. entry into World War One became more likely - and well before the T-class debacle became apparent - Congress in 1916 authorized 58 coastal submarines and nine additional "fleet" boats. Three of the larger coastal boats - at 800 tons - eventually became competing prototypes for the long-lived, 51-member S class. The nine "fleet boats" became the V class, built between 1921 and 1934, and in fact, they were the only U.S. submarines produced for a decade that began in the early 1920s.

The V-boats were hardly a "class" in today's sense of the word. Because their construction was spread over so many years - a period of considerable flux in U.S. thinking about submarine operational concepts - and because no other boats were being built during that time, the "V-class" designation became a catch-all for five separate sub-types whose displacements varied by more than a factor of two. S-46, launched by Electric Boat in September 1923, displaced 963 tons (surfaced) on 225 feet; Bass (then V-2), launched only a year later, weighed in at 2,119 tons on 342 feet. This extraordinary increase in length and displacement was necessitated by the speed and endurance required of a true "fleet boat."

Because the V-boats were originally conceived shortly after World War I as "fleet submarines" capable of operating with the Navy's battleships, their speed and endurance requirements demanded twice the displacement of earlier U.S. submarine designs. The first three - displacing approximately 2,100 tons and capable of 21 knots on the surface, were authorized in Fiscal Year (FY) 1919 and launched in 1924 and 1925.

In a 1921 letter to the Secretary of the Navy, during angry disagreements over technical flaws in the diesel systems supplied by Electric Boat, Captain Yates Stirling, Jr. - then Commandant of the Philadelphia Navy Yard - forcefully pointed out numerous design and reliability problems of the boats then in service, especially the new 800-ton S class. His comments sparked a tumultuous strategy, mission, and design debate that lasted for another decade, coming to a climax between 1928 and 1930. During those years, Commander Thomas Withers, Commanding Officer of Submarine Division Four, called repeatedly for an offensive strategy and solo tactics similar to those employed by the Imperial German Navy during the war.

If the "fleet submarine" indeed proved technically impractical, the Submarine Force would have to operate independently on the German model to achieve maximum effect. Unfortunately, that model had only mixed appeal. While the German commercial warfare strategy and independent patrol tactics had great effect on the war effort of the Allies, incidents like the wartime sinking of the passenger liner RMS Lusitania painted this style of warfare with a dark brush, suggesting a certain immorality in operating submersibles without restriction.

In the mid-1920s, the fleet submarine idea metamorphosed into the long-endurance submarine "cruiser," and the V-class design changed accordingly. V-4 and V-6 were thus very large ships for that time, with displacement in excess of 2,700 tons surfaced - 4,000 tons submerged - and an overall length of approximately 375 feet. Originally, the submarine cruisers were to include a small hangar for a scout aircraft, but that idea was dropped.

In the early 1930s naval authorities finally begin to give serious consideration to aggressive, independent, blue- water operations as the submarine's primary mission, vice coastal defense or intelligence gathering. Naval architects and engineers immediately realized that this new strategic perspective demanded a larger, more reliable, and more habitable submarine designed for long-range offensive missions.

Except for the very last, they were all built by the government - seven at the Portsmouth (New Hampshire) Navy Yard and one at Mare Island - at a time when the Navy was purposefully assigning all submarine construction to its own shipyards, both to build up its own expertise and to insulate the service from the possibility of a future Electric Boat Company monopoly.

In the demobilization that followed World War I, the Navy made drastic cuts in their planned program for submarine construction. Faced with the realization that there was not enough business to support two private submarine yards and fearful of the potential monopoly power of the stronger Electric Boat Company, the Navy in 1921 decided to develop the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard as an in-house center of excellence for submarine design and construction. That year, they assigned Portsmouth the first of the V-class submarines (V-1, later USS Barracuda, SS-163).

Subsequently - and at least partially because of the arms limitations of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty - no submarine contracts were let again to private industry until 1931, when V-9 was laid down at Electric Boat. During that same interim, only eight boats (including V-1) were begun in government yards - seven at Portsmouth and one at Mare Island. Although Electric Boat's greater diversity and financial strength enabled that firm to last out the long hiatus, largely by building pleasurecraft and marine machinery, the much smaller Lake Torpedo Boat Company was forced to close its doors in 1924 for lack of business.

Originally called USS V-1 through V-9 (SS-163 through SS-1711), the nine submarines were renamed in 1931 as Barracuda, Bass, Bonita, Argonaut, Narwahl, Nautilus, Dolphin, Cachalot, and Cuttlefish, respectively. All served in World War Two, six of them on war patrols in the central Pacific, and among those, one - Argonaut - was lost to enemy action.

By today's standards, the Navy's exploitation of the congressional "fleet-boat" authorization of 1916 to build five vastly different submarine designs in a series that ended only in 1934 may seem surprising or even disingenuous. However, as the only U.S. submarines built during an entire decade of shifting and often-contradictory operational concepts, the nine boats of the V class could hardly have been expected to be homogeneous. But the relative freedom that the Navy was granted to try so many novel submarine approaches in so few years may only have been matched subsequently in the initial era of the nuclear-propulsion program.

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Page last modified: 22-07-2011 17:42:26 ZULU