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U.S. Naval Submarine Force: An Overview

Submarine underway at surface with sailors on it
The U.S. naval submarine force dates back to a failed attempt during the Revolutionary War to use a submersible to wage war. The “Turtle” was put into action against a British blockade and it failed and sank. Luckily, submariners and those who believe in naval submarine forces did not give up the ship.

Today, the U.S. naval submarine force, known as the “Silent Service” consists of three types of submarines: fast attack, ballistic missile and guided missile submarines. The naval submarine force, as of April 2022, is comprised 53 fast attack submarines, 14 ballistic-missile submarines and four guided-missile submarines. Naval submarine forces are also responsible for more than 50 percent of the U.S. military’s nuclear firepower.

Fast Attack (SSN)
Fast Attack submarines are designed to seek and destroy enemy submarines and surface ships, project power ashore with Tomahawk cruise missiles and special operation forces, carry out Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance missions, support battle group operations, and engage in mine warfare as part of the naval submarine force.

The U.S. Navy has three classes of SSNs in service. Los Angeles-class submarines are the backbone of the naval submarine force, with approximately forty now in commission. Thirty of those are equipped to fire Tomahawk cruise missiles. 

Submarine underway at surface with three sailors in tower

The Navy also has three Seawolf-class submarines. Commissioned July 19, 1997, Seawolf-class submarines are exceptionally quiet, fast, well-armed, and equipped with advanced sensors. The Seawolf class has eight torpedo tubes and can hold up to 50 weapons in its torpedo room as part of the naval submarine force.

The Virginia-class is the third type of naval submarine. The Navy continues to build the next-generation attack submarine with the Virginia-class as part of its naval submarine modernization. Nineteen Virginias have been commissioned to date and they will replace Los Angeles Class submarines as they retire. 

Ballistic Missile Submarines (SSBN)
Ballistic Missile submarines have provided strategic deterrence since the 1960s as part of the naval submarine force. Their primary mission is to provide the United States with its most survivable and enduring nuclear strike capability as part of the naval submarine force.

The Navy's ballistic missile submarines, often referred to as “boomers,” serve as an undetectable launch platform for intercontinental missiles. They are designed specifically for stealth and the precise delivery of nuclear warheads as part of the naval submarine force.

submarine on surface at sea

Each of the 14 Ohio-class SSBNs originally carried up to 24 submarine-launched ballistic missiles with multiple, independently-targeted warheads. However, under provisions of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, each submarine has had four of its missile tubes permanently deactivated and now carry a maximum of 20 missiles.

SSBNs are specifically designed for extended deterrent patrols. To decrease the amount of time required for replenishment and maintenance, Ohio-class submarines have three large-diameter logistics hatches that allow sailors to rapidly transfer supply pallets, equipment replacement modules and machinery components, thereby increasing their operational availability.

The Ohio-class design allows the submarines to operate for 15 or more years between major overhauls. On average, the submarines spend 77 days at sea followed by 35 days in-port for maintenance.

The Ohio-class SSBNs will be replaced by the Columbia class naval submarine ships.

Guided Missile Submarines (SSGN)
Ohio-Class guided-missile submarines provide the naval submarine force with unprecedented strike and special operation mission capabilities from a stealth, clandestine platform. Armed with tactical missiles and equipped with superior communications capabilities, SSGNs are capable of directly supporting combatant commander's strike and special operation forces (SOF) requirements.

The 1994 Nuclear Posture Review determined that the United States needed only 14 of its 18 SSBNs in its naval submarine force to meet the nation's strategic force needs. Therefore, the Navy decided to transform four Ohio-class submarines into conventional land attack and special operations platforms.

Combined, the four SSGNs represent more than half of the naval submarine force’s vertical launch payload capacity with each SSGN capable of carrying up to 154 Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles.

The SSGNs have the capacity to host up to 66 SOF personnel at a time. Additional berthing was installed in the missile compartment to accommodate the added personnel, and other measures have been taken to extend the amount of time that the SOF forces can spend deployed aboard the SSGNs. The two forward most missile tubes were permanently converted to lock-out chambers that allow clandestine insertion and retrieval of SOF personnel.

submarine in dock with tug boat by it

During conversion, each SSGN received the Common Submarine Radio Room and two High-Data-Rate antennas for significantly enhanced communication capabilities. These additions allow each SSGN to serve as a forward-deployed, clandestine Small Combatant Joint Command Center as part of the naval submarine force.

The SSGN is a key element of the Navy's future fighting force. With its tremendous payload capacity, dual crew deployment concept, and inherent stealth, each SSGN brings mission flexibility and enhanced capabilities to the warfighter.

Submarine Warfare Insignia
On June 13, 1923, Captain E.J. King suggested to the Secretary of the Navy that a distinguishing device for qualified submariners be adopted. He submitted a pen-and-ink sketch showing a shield mounted on the beam ends of a submarine, with dolphins forward of, and abaft, the conning tower.

Over the next several months the Bureau of Navigation (now known as Naval Personnel Command) solicited additional designs from several sources. Some combined a submarine with a shark motif. Others showed submarines and dolphins, and still others used a shield design.

A Philadelphia firm, which had done work for the Navy in the field of Naval Academy class rings, was approached by the Bureau of Navigation with the request that it design a suitable badge. Two designs were submitted by the firm, and these were combined into a single design.

It was a bow view of a submarine, proceeding on the surface, with bow planes rigged for diving, flanked by dolphins in a horizontal position with their heads resting on the upper edge of the bow planes. Today, a similar design is used, a dolphin fish flanking the bow and conning tower of a submarine.

submarine warfare insignia

On March 20, 1924, the chief of the Bureau of Navigation recommended to the Secretary of the Navy that the design be adopted. The recommendation was accepted by the acting Secretary of the Navy in March 1924.

On Dec. 5, 2012, the first three female officers received their submariner's dolphins, making history as the first women to receive the qualification.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: This post used public information from U.S. Navy submarine websites.)

The Capture of U-505 Lives On

U-505 at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry

In May 1944 a U.S. Navy hunter-killer task force sailed from Norfolk, Virginia across the Atlantic to the Canary Islands to conduct anti-submarine patrols. For weeks the group searched with no luck; the German subs were elusive. Their goal was to find Nazi subs, but not to sink them, but rather, to capture one.

Then two days before the D-Day landings, the historic, but little-known task force (Task Force 22.3), running low on fuel, decided to turn and head towards Casablanca after another unsuccessful patrol. Ten minutes later, the USS Chatelain (DE-149) made sonar contact on an object 800 yards on the starboard bow.

USS Chatelain DE-149 at sea

The Chatelain closed in quickly on the target, in fact, it closed too quickly and it could not attack the target because depth-charges would not be able to sink fast enough to hit the sub. Instead, the destroyer attacked using “hedgehogs” which were battery-operated charges that explode on contact and are thrown ahead of the ship. After one pass, the Chatelain turned around and made another pass over the sub for a second attack. 

As the Chatelain engaged, Wildcat planes launched from the USS Guadalcanal (CVE-60), the task force’s flag ship, spotted the submerged sub from the air and fired into the water to mark the sub’s position for the attacking ships. The Chatelain adjusted her attack and set shallow depth charges around the U-boat’s location. After several detonations, an oil slick surfaced less than seven minutes after the sub had first been engaged. 

“You struck oil! Sub is surfacing!” a pilot said over the radio. 

When the sub surfaced, the USS Jenks and Pillsbury, along with the Wildcats in the air, all commenced firing upon the sub. The U-boat’s captain, Oberleutnant zur see (Lieutenant) Harald Lange, believing his boat was sinking, ordered his crew to abandon ship and to scuttle the vessel. He was also wounded in the American attack. 

Two navy ships at sea during world war two

The German crew was in such a rush to abandon ship, that they only partially scuttled the boat and left the engines running at about seven knots. With a damaged rudder, the German U-boat circled. After a few minutes, the USS Pillsbury ordered the task force to cease fire and they called away the Pillsbury’s boarding party, an order that had not been given in the U.S. Navy since the War of 1812. 

On June 4, 1944, Task Force 22.3 captured the German Type IXC submarine U-505 about 150 miles off the coast of Africa. It was the first time since the 19th Century that the Navy had captured a foreign warship. 

Captured German Type IXC submarine U-505 flying US flag above the nazi flag

The Navy task group was commanded by Capt. Daniel V. Gallery, on the Guadalcanal, and was comprised of the escort carrier and five destroyer escorts: Pillsbury (DE-133), Pope (DE-134), Flaherty (DE-135), Chatelain (DE-149), and Jenks (DE-665). 

The U-505 crew was pulled from boats and boarded the Chatelain and Jenks. As the U-505 crew was being picked up, the sub was boarded by a boarding party of sailors from the Pillsbury which was led by Lieutenant Junior Grade Albert L. David. The boarding party closed scuttling valves and disarmed scuttling charges. David was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions. He and the boarding party came aboard the U-505 and worked feverishly, not knowing when the U-boat would explode and what enemy resistance they would face. They did this as the U-boat flooded with water. Torpedoman's Mate Third Class Arthur Knispel and Radioman Second Class Stanley Wdowiak, each received the Navy Cross. The entire task force was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation. 

 Sailors from the Pillsbury led by Lieutenant Junior Grade Albert L. David

Once the U-boat was made seaworthy and secured after three days of incessant work, Nazi submarine U-505 was taken into tow and the sub was transported to Bermuda, a journey that took approximately two weeks.

Fifty-eight Nazi prisoners were captured and they were held in secret as prisoners of war in Louisiana. They were presumed dead at sea by their families in Germany. Only one German crewman was killed during the American attack and three were wounded (the commanding officer, the executive officer and an enlisted sailor).

german sailors captured by the allied forces

The significance of capturing U-505 was enormous. The boat had massive intelligence value. Aboard the sub were Nazi classified documents, code books, an Enigma cipher machine, and communications equipment. If the Germans believed that their sub had been captured and not lost at sea, the codebreaking efforts of the U.S. military would have been negated. The Navy kept the capture a secret and prevented the Nazi crew from writing loved ones. 

The seized codes not only enabled hunter-killer groups to find and engage other Nazi subs, but they also helped naval convoy commanders to route shipping away from known U-boat waters.  

Bow of the U-505 at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry

By 1945, the Navy had gleaned as much engineering and intelligence information as it could from U-505, and the boat was slated to become a target for torpedo target practice. The task force commander’s brother, Father John Gallery, learned of the boat’s planned fate and called the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) to see if they would be interested in exhibiting the sub since the museum was a center for industrial education. The Gallery brothers, natives of Chicago, had been looking for a place to house the sub.

Chicagoans raised $250,000 to tow the boat and prepare a site for it at MSI. In 1954 the U.S. government donated the sub to MSI and it was made a war memorial and a permanent exhibit after being towed more than 3,000 miles through the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes. 

Tower of the U-505 at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry

Today, U-505 resides at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. The boat has been restored and it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989. It is one of only two Type IXC U-boats still in existence. Although it has been restored, some of the battle damage remains and visitors to the MSI can easily see the large holes left by the American guns and aircraft. Visitors can also peak inside the sub and see its inside. 

Interior hatch in the U-505 at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry

Interior of the U-505 at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry

Bunks in the U-505 at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry

Steve Alvarez is the author of Selling War A Critical Look at the Military's PR Machine published by Potomac Books. Color photos by Steve Alvarez. Black and white photos courtesy U.S. Navy history office.