Nuclear Navy and Energy Independence Pick Up Steam in 1961

Sept. 9, 2014 | By Joshua L. Wick Naval History and Heritage Command Communication and Outreach Division
Long Beach, the world's first nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser, was commissioned Sept. 9, 1961, the same year as the world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise (CVAN 65). "With their nuclear-powered submarine counterparts already operating in the fleet and the nuclear-powered guided missile destroyer USS Bainbridge (DLGN 25), to be commissioned the following year, they would join a community of ships whose increased range and combat capability were an important part of America's growing deterrent capability.
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Her design, on-board technology, weaponry and unique propulsion system - powered by a reactor built specifically for surface ships - were brand new concepts. Driving innovation wasn't new to the Navy, but nuclear power offered the nation increased energy security - reducing its dependence on increasingly expensive and scarce fossil fuels while at the same time maintaining and, in many cases, improving on existing combat capability to counter air, surface and subsurface threats.

USS Long Beach (CGN-9), painting by Walter E. Brightwell, ca. 1965. Painting, Oil on Canvas. (Painting Courtesy of the Navy Art Gallery.

In May 1964, Enterprise, Long Beach and Bainbridge joined together in the Mediterranean to form the first all-nuclear-powered task force (TF-1) and conducted Operation Sea Orbit. Sea Orbit was a throwback to President Teddy Roosevelt's demonstration of the strategic mobility of the U.S. Navy: the Great White Fleet's cruise around the world from 1907 to 1909. With the nuclear ships, however, this 30,000-mile voyage was done in 58 steaming days and without refueling. But unlike the Great White Fleet, the TF-1 ports of call at Karachi, Pakistan; Melbourne, Australia; Wellington, New Zealand; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil weren't for coal or provisions; they were to show the U.S. Navy's nuclear powered innovation to foreign dignitaries and countless others.

After more than 30 years of service, on July 2, 1994, USS Long Beach's reactors were deactivated. Like so many great ships before her, she was sold for scrap. The ship's impressive innovation now gives way to newer technologies on modern platforms that offer increased warfighting capability and employ cutting edge propulsion technologies such as the hybrid-electric propulsion systems onboard USS Makin Island (LHD 8), and built into future amphibious assault ship America (LHA 6) and the new Zumwalt-class destroyers. Meanwhile the lessons learned from the nuclear Navy over nearly 50 years are being implemented into designs for the next generation of submarines, the Ohio-class replacement.

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These new and improved technologies, like the nuclear power of USS Long Beach, will drive the Navy, operating forward, toward a new future of efficient and sustainable power through energy independence.