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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.)

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