Diving Deep: 65 Years of Nuclear-Powered Subs

By Katie Lange

On Jan. 21, 1954, the Navy’s first nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus, was launched out of Groton, Connecticut. While the U.S. had been using submersibles since the Revolutionary War — going from hand-cranked wooden rigs to treasured diesel-powered assets during World War II — this ship truly revolutionized the game.

In this file photo taken Jan. 21, 1954, first lady Mamie Eisenhower christens the nuclear-powered submarine USS Nautilus (SSN 571).
In this file photo taken Jan. 21, 1954, spectators gather around the nuclear-powered submarine USS Nautilus (SSN 571) during a christening ceremony.
Senior Navy leaders, past and present crew members of USS Nautilus, their families, and government officials gather at the Submarine Force Museum and Library and Historic Ship Nautilus to celebrate 60 years since the commissioning of the nuclear powered submarine USS Nautilus (SSN 571. Nautilus, the first nuclear vessel, was a record breaker and pioneer, serving in the navy for 25 years before being retired as a national historic landmark and becoming part of the museum. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tim Comerford/Released)

The creation of the nuclear-powered sub ushered in an era in which tactics used up to that point by and against submarines were instantly obsolete. In their place came advanced firepower, higher speeds, survivability and endurance.

So, What Can Our Submarines Do?

All of the U.S. Navy’s submarines are now nuclear-powered and are capable of conducting a vast array of missions, including:

  • Anti-surface and antisubmarine warfare
  • Land attacks
  • Defending other fleet ships
  • Intelligence gathering
  • Mine reconnaissance
  • Special Forces support
  • Polar operations
  • DOD’s No. 1 mission: nuclear deterrence

Navy subs are accountable for about 50 percent of U.S. nuclear warheads, and they represent the most survivable leg of the nuclear triad.

PUGET SOUND, Wash. (May 3, 2018) The Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Louisiana (SSBN 743) transits the Hood Canal as it returns home following a strategic deterrent patrol. Louisiana is one of eight ballistic-missile submarines stationed at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor providing the most survivable leg of the strategic deterrence triad for the United States. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Cmdr. Michael Smith/Released)

PORT CANAVERAL, Fla. (Sept. 29, 2018) The crew of USS Indiana (SSN 789) salute after brining the ship to life during the commissioning ceremony. Indiana is the U.S. Navy’s 16th Virginia-class fast-attack submarine and the third ship named for the State of Indiana. (U.S. Navy photo by Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist Leah Stiles/Released)
The Los Angeles-class submarine USS Hampton (SSN 767) surfaces at U.S. Navy Ice Camp Nautilus, located on a sheet of ice adrift on the Arctic Ocean, as part of Ice Exercise (ICEX) 2014. ICEX 2014 is a U.S. Navy exercise highlighting submarine capabilities in an arctic environment. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Amy Sun, Advanced Programs Lead, Lockheed Martin)
WATERS SOUTH OF JAPAN (Oct. 27, 2018) A Los Angeles-class fast attack submarine is participating in Exercise Keen Sword with Submarine Group 7 and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) Sailors and staff. Keen Sword, which began Oct. 29, is a joint/bilateral training exercise between the U.S. military and their JSDF counterparts. For the submarine force, it is an opportunity to demonstrate how both countries’ submariners would detect, locate, track and engage enemy assets. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Electronics Technician (Radioman) Robert Gulini)
PACIFIC OCEAN (July 31, 2018) – Sailors assigned to Los Angeles-class fast-attack submarine USS Olympia (SSN 717) participate in a swim call at sea, July 31 (U.S. Navy photo by Fire Control Technician Senior Chief Vien Nguyen)

There Are Three Different Types of Subs:


Fleet ballistic missile subs

There are 14 of these Ohio-class subs, and they are our largest and stealthiest. They can launch nuclear warheads.

Sailors stand on and near the conning tower of a submarine near shore.



Guided missile subs

Four Ohio-class submarines play this role. They can launch Tomahawk cruise missiles and deploy Special Forces covertly when needed.

Several sailors stand on top of a submarine floating near shore.

Attack subs

These make up most of the submarine fleet and have the same capabilities as the guided missile subs, but they can also engage in mine warfare, as well as seek out and destroy enemy subs and surface ships.

A submarine pushes through the water partially submerged.

Since the launch of the Nautilus, nuclear-powered subs have grown in size yet are significantly faster, quieter and can perform deeper dives. Their propulsion plants have grown more powerful and safer, and they’ve become easier to operate and maintain.

Simply said, they will be a defensive mainstay for decades to come.

As for the Nautilus itself? While decommissioned decades ago, it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1982 and is now open for public tours as part of the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Submarine Force Library and Museum in Groton, Connecticut.e