Skipjack Class was the first "top to bottom" new attack submarine design using nuclear propulsion. In 1954 the USS Nautilus, the world's first nuclear powered submarine, was launched. Nuclear power enabled this submarine to become the first true "submersible" - able to operate underwater for an indefinite period of time. In 1958 the the USS Albacore entered service with a "tear drop" hull design to reduce underwater resistance and allow greater submerged speed and maneuverability.
Design of a single-screw nuclear propulsion plant suitable for installation in a submarine of higher displacement and higher speed than Nautilus also was undertaken by Bettis. Much of the experience gained from the Submarine Fleet Reactor was used to incorporate improvements and advancements in this type of plant. It was used extensively in both fast attack and Fleet ballistic missile class submarines. This type of plant, combined with the cylinder-of-revolution hull form developed with uss Albacore (SS 569), resulted in the uss Skipjack (SSN 585) class. This reactor became the US Navy's standard until the Los Angeles class joined the fleet in the mid-1970's.
Commissioned 15 April 1959, Skipjack's clean design enabled her to break all existing submarine speed subs to remain on 'patrol, hidden beneath the surface of the sea, always ready to launch their missiles. The first submarine class to combine nuclear power with the new hull design was the USS Skipjack. Deep-diving and high speed capabilities were the result of HY-80 construction and a new reactor design, the S5W. USS Skipjack was also unique in that it was the first nuclear submarine with a single shaft. Placement of the bow planes on the sail greatly reduced flow noise at the bow-mounted sonar. Personnel serving on Nautilus, the first Seawolf, and the SSN-578 Skate class saw the breaking of submarine construction "rules" on the Skipjacks (single versus double hulls, one main propulsion shaft instead of two) as radical and even dangerous--although the results of these dramatic changes made the platform far quieter.
In the late 1950s the enthusiasm for SSNs within the Navy and the submarine force was far from universal, outside the small but growing cadre of Rickover-trained disciples. Most viewed the SSN as a somewhat faster SS whose greatly increased procurement, training, and maintenance costs made its justification questionable. Indeed, the increased cost and trouble of an SSN did not compete well with those of the tried-and-tested SS if all that was expected of the SSN was to perform the mission set of the SS a little faster.
On the morning of 10 March 1959, the Skipjack (SSN 585), under Commander William W. Behrens, Jr., was returning from two days of sea trials. Although the highest attained submerged speed could not be known until after the calibration of instruments and analysis of their reading, no one in the ship doubted they had set a new record.
Within the submarine, officers, men, and representatives of several contractors were elated. Grinning broadly, Behrens remarked, "Give her a Simoniz job and I'll buy het" Rickover spent the last few hours at sea going over the test results, consulting with his engineers, and as was his practice, signing letters announcing the successful completion of the trials to senior officials in the Atomic Energy Commission and the navy, congressional leaders, and those individuals in the propulsion program who in their work had ignored hours of the day and days of the week. "I want you to know that I appreciate all that you have done in helping to create this revolutionary submarine." At 10:30 tugs nudged the Skipjack into her berth. A crane swung a gangplank between the dock and the submarine, and tired but enthusiastic men began going ashore.'
On the morning of 10 March 1959, the Skipjack (SSN 585), under Commander William W. Behrens, Jr., was returning from two days of sea trials. The S5W reactor — the first of its kind — had operated faultlessly. Because a vendor could not meet the standards for the main coolant pumps, the trials had been delayed almost a year, but those furnished by Westinghouse worked perfectly. Electric Boat had carefully prepared the ship, painting and smoothing the hull so that it was almost impossible to see a weld and, shortly before the submarine left the yard, putting her in dry dock for a final inspection and cleaning. For the first time, nuclear propulsion and a streamlined hull had been combined in a submarine. Beneath the surface the Skipjack had behaved like an airplane, banking and rolling as she maneuvered at high speed.
For Rickover, his engineers, and the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory operated by Westinghouse, the trials were the culmination of an effort that went back a surprisingly few years. In September 1955 Rickover had authorized the laboratory to begin work on the S5W, and that October the Department of Defense had officially asked the commission to develop the plant. Based upon the experience of the S2W for the Nautilus (SSN 571), Naval Reactors and the laboratory had found a land prototype unnecessary.
Even before the trials of the Skipjack, the navy was heavily committed to the plant. Already five yards had laid down six attack and five Polaris submarines the S5W would drive. It was a mature and sophisticated organization, including Naval Reactors, the laboratories, and the shipyards, which had produced a reactor that was to become the mainstay of the underwater fleet and which would eventually propel six Shipjacks, fifty-one Threshers (including various subclasses), the turbine electric- drive submarine Glenard P. Lipscomb, (SSN 685), and forty-one Polaris missile submarines.' With these ships—especially the Thresher class—the navy had an unchallenged superiority over any rival.
At some time the superiority would end; at some point the ships would become obsolete. When that occurred would not necessarily be determined by age and hard use but also by other factors, perhaps a striking advance in one or more of the technologies basic to the ship, or the need to meet an increasing threat to national defense.
An example of the rapid shift from one class to another for technological reasons could be seen by comparing the Shipjack and the Thresher (SSN 593). The first was laid down on 29 May 1956; the second, one day short of two years later. The Thresher submarines, although somewhat slower, could dive deeper, had better-placed sonar, and were quieter. Variations occurred even within a class, for incorporating more equipment in later ships added to their weight and decreased their speed.
Never absent from the minds of those who designed the ships, planned the building programs, and voted the funds was the threat of a potential enemy. They found the rapid growth of the Russian submarine fleet alarming. In diesel-electric submarines the Soviet Union had an undersea force far greater than the Germans possessed at their greatest strength during World War II. The same energy poured into the construction of nuclear-powered submarines could lead to numbers the United States could not match. For that reason maintaining technological superiority was essential.
No one had an easy answer to the question of when the strength and capability of a potential enemy warranted bringing a new class to the fleet. No one could give a definitive response to the question of when innovations in one technical field were of sufficient magnitude to begin the design of a new class. No one had a firm reply to the question of whether it was best to introduce a new class by several ships at once and gain an important advantage over a rival, or to build one ship to assess the advances against the test of operational experience that might prevent costly changes to others of the class. Whatever the grounds of the decision, it was most unlikely that the United States would lay down any non-nuclear combat submarines.
The Soviet November-class was roughly contemporary with the U.S. Skipjack-class. The November was 352 feet long, had 26.1-foot beam, drew 21.1 feet, and displaced 4,069 tons submerged. Skipjack-class submarines were 251 feet long, 31.8 feet wide, drew 27 feet, and displaced 3,515 feet submerged. In addition, US reactor designs were safer: four of the fourteen November-class boats were lost due to reactor accidents. For comparison, only one of the six Skipjack-class submarines was lost due to an accident, and only two US nuclear subs (the Skipjack-class Scorpion with 99 aboard and the Permit-class Thresher with 125 aboard) have been lost - neither due to nuclear problems.
In 1990 USS Scamp (SSN-588) became the first nuclear powered submarine to be dismantled as part of the U. S. Navy's Submarine Recycling Program at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. This program led to a safe and effective process for disposing of decommissioned nuclear powered submarines.
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