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Navy’s Strength Beneath the Sea – An Enduring Evolution

By Phyllis Tolzmann, Naval History and Heritage Communication and Outreach Division

Submarines have lurked beneath the vast world waters for as long as the U.S. Navy’s 240-year existence. Albeit a mystical notion to some in the beginning, submarines are now capable of conducting a wide variety of missions including anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare, land attack, intelligence gathering, mine reconnaissance, supporting special forces, and nuclear deterrence. While the graphic below highlights some notable subs in the evolution of Navy’s submarine force, it’s by no means all-inclusive.

In the Beginning

The world’s first submarine used in warfare, the 8-foot-long Turtle, debuted during the American Revolution. With an oak made, walnut-shell-shaped casing it bobbed just below the water’s surface. The one-person craft was paddled using a hand-crank. Its captain attempted to affix explosives to British ship HMS Eagle’s belly. While unsuccessful, its underwater warfare capability validated the great possibilities ahead to thwart the enemies who threatened America’s freedom. It would be almost 100 years later until H.L. Hunley, a Confederate submarine during the Civil War would be credited with being the first combat submarine to sink a warship, although following her successful attack, was lost along with her crew before she could return to base.

While the first submarines hold historical significance and set the stage for submarine warfare, it wasn’t until 1900 that the Navy commissioned its first submarine, the USS Holland (SS-1). Holland sub was bigger, stronger and just a tad faster than its predecessors, clocking in at 5 knots and reaching depths of more than 50 feet. While only in action for a mere five years, its experimental value led to the E Class. E Class’s greatest contribution was the fact that it was diesel-powered, which led to its ability to make another first – cross the Atlantic on its own power!

Sub Force’s Wartime Utility Becomes Apparent

Continuous advancements carried over to the Balao Class submarine, which emerged during World War II and led to the sudden realization of the submarine fleet’s true and utter importance. As Adm. C.W. Nimitz endorsed, “We shall never forget that it was our submarines that held the lines against the enemy while our fleets replaced losses and repaired wounds.” The Balao became the ”backbone” of the submarine service in the vast Pacific depths during World War II and would remain a treasured asset for nearly four decades.

As submarines became more relevant to the fleet’s warfighting mission, huge technology advancements were made. Newer submarines advanced in every aspect of their ability to travel the depths of the sea; going stealthily further, faster and deeper for longer periods of time.

Dawn of the Nuclear Age

Thanks to the many contributions of Admiral Rickover, in 1954 the sub’s diesel and gasoline-powered days were nearing the end when the Navy introduced USS Nautilus (SSN 571) – the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine. Shortly after, the Navy boasted the world’s first ballistic missile submarine the George Washington Class, fully armed with Polaris missiles.Built between 1958 and 1965, the George Washington, Ethan Allen, Lafayette, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin classes made up the fleet of ballistic missile submarines known as “41 for Freedom” Dubbed “Boomers,each carried 16 ballistic missiles with a thousand—plus mile reach.

Today’s Silent Force

From the one-person vessel fueled only by crank, to today’s nuclear powered submarines that can stay submerged for unimaginable lengths of time without resurfacing, the Navy’s submarine force continues to evolve to meet the nation’s warfighting mission and to keep American’s safe from harm. Today’s nuclear-powered submarines will be a defensive mainstay for decades to come. High-tech vessels such as the seek-and-destroy Los Angeles Class, noted as the Backbone of the fast attack sub fleet for more than 20 years, and its partners, the Seawolf and Virginia are the hunters beneath the sea. Armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles they can defy the enemy from virtually anywhere on the globe.

The Navy’s underwater fleet continues to evolve to meet the nation’s warfighting mission and to keep American’s safe from harm. The Ohio class is a great example of that. The Navy’s largest and stealthiest sub, Ohio Class is able to remain undersea for lengths at a time without resurfacing, cruising deep below – providing the nation with the most survivable leg of the nuclear deterrence “Triad.”

Undoubtedly, the Navy will remain dominant so long as the nation’s next great subs remain valued and understood. Yet none of the successes past, present and future would even be possible without the “Silent Service.”

Evolution of U.S. Navy Submarine

InfographEvolution of the Submarine


  1. What about the USS Triton (SSRN-586) and Operation Sandblast, the first around-the-world submerged voyage? Also, Triton only western submarine to have two nuclear reactors.

  2. While it is true that the Turtle was a submersible I wouldn’t call it a submarine as we know it, and the US Navy Submarine service recognizes its heritage back to the Holland in 1897. I am also concerned over the accuracy of the class listings in your info graphic as you left out not only past classes but one of the current classes of submarines mentioned in the article. If the Los Angles class is the workhorse or Ford pickup of the Submarine Service the Seawolf is a Ferrari. One of the most impressive things about the US Navy submarine service and the Navy in general is our ability to quickly develop, adapt, and employ technological advances to maintain superiority over our adversaries. Finally there is no mention of the proud heritage of the men, and now women, of the submarine service. These sailors are some of the most highly trained and dedicated professionals in the US Navy and are elite in that they make up such a small percentage of the active duty roster. For a sailor to become Submarine Warfare Qualified or get their “Fish” is a proud event for anyone who has ever earned them, which is why either your qualified or your not.

  3. Lots of subs missing here…Thresher, Sturgeon, Madison Franklin… all had more than ten subs in class , only three in the

  4. Why isn’t the Seawolf Class listed after Ohio and before Virginia? Only three boats, but still a significant class.