January 18, 2005 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Run Silent, Run Nuke

Imagine the thoughts going through the minds of the captain and crew of the world's first nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus, when it put to sea for the very first time - 50 years ago this morning.

Not only did they have to take a new submarine to sea, but also they had to control the splitting of the atom in a small space aboard a submerged submarine - in constant danger from the nuclear fission's tremendous heat and life-threatening radiation.

So it's likely that Nautilus' crew didn't give much thought to the fact that they were ushering in the atomic age's next phase - and altering naval warfare forever - when they cast off their lines and flashed the now-historic message, "Underway On Nuclear Power."

Prior to Nautilus, submarines were powered by a dangerous combination of batteries (for submerged operations) and diesel engines (for surface operations and recharging the batteries.) Because of the noxious fumes, the diesel engines could only run while the subs were on (or near) the sea's surface, making them vulnerable to the enemy.

Naval nuclear power, under the colorful leadership of Admiral Hyman Rickover, ended all that. Nautilus was able to remain submerged for weeks, even months without surfacing. The only thing limiting Nautilus' undersea endurance was the crew's sanity and food supply.

Over the next several years, Nautilus shattered all submerged speed and distance records. For instance, in 1958, Nautilus departed Pearl Harbor with top secret orders to conduct "Operation Sunshine."

A few weeks later, with 116 men aboard, Nautilus proclaimed another record when it broadcast, "Nautilus 90 North." Nautilus had reached the freezing waters of the geographic North Pole.

Besides the Jules Verne-like breakthrough in naval and nuclear engineering, Nautilus was only the beginning. She was followed by generations of nuclear submarines - and, eventually, surface ships. (Today, 11 of the Navy's 13 aircraft carriers are nuclear-powered.)

Perhaps more important than man's harnessing of the atom to produce energy was the tectonic shift in warfare that came with Nautilus. Soviet spies could report the take-off of SAC nuclear bombers from their bases. And overhead satellites could monitor land-based ICBM silos.

But now the U.S. soon sent ballistic-missile nuclear submarines to sea, where they could remain submerged (and undetectable by the enemy) for months at a time. This was real strategic deterrence, and no doubt had a hand in preventing the horrors of a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

But some now say that the submarine is a Cold War relic. The Soviet Union is gone and the "Hunt for Red October" is over.

Not so.

The Navy's 14 nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines, each outfitted with 24 Trident nuclear-tipped ICBMs, continue to provide the U.S. with our strategic nuclear-strike and deterrent capability as they lurk in undisclosed depths around the world.

Meanwhile, nuclear subs provide the stealth and firepower needed in today's 24/7 battlespace. In fact, the Navy's 53 nuclear-powered attack submarines are some of our best spies. Operating close to shore, intelligence gathered by subs can provide timely information about the enemy's intentions and capabilities - without the risk of an international incident.

(As a result, over the last 10 years, submarine intelligence operations have doubled, while the sub force has declined 40 percent.)

In addition to hunting ships and other subs with torpedoes, American attack submarines, carrying (pilotless) Tomahawk cruise missiles, can strike land and sea targets without warning from hundreds of miles offshore. And four additional ballistic-missile submarines are currently being converted to carry large numbers of Tomahawk, too.

Nautilus was decommissioned in 1980 after 25 years of service, logging only half a million miles. Today, nuclear-powered warships have safely steamed over 119 million miles - nearly 5,000 trips around the world.

The Navy itself operates 103 nuclear reactors - equaling the number of civilian commercial nuclear reactors in the U.S. And its nuclear-safety record has been exemplary.

Nuclear power enhances our Navy's ability to sail quickly to trouble spots, and arrive ready for action. The Navy's 82 nuclear-powered warships are the mainstay of our forward presence and power projection strategy across the globe.

But perhaps most important, Nautilus is a testimony to the American pioneering spirit and boundless technical ingenuity. It should remind Americans of the importance of the endless pursuit of excellence and innovation - not to mention the tremendous professionalism and bravery of U.S. servicemen and women past and present.

Such service is not without risk.

The recent collision of the American nuclear attack submarine USS San Francisco with an unplotted undersea mountain in the western Pacific off of the island of Guam (killing one sailor and injuring at least 60 others) is a stark reminder of the dangers of the American Navy's "Silent Service."

But submarine duty remains essential to America's national security in these dangerous times. So, to our brave submariners on this important anniversary: Run Silent, Run Deep - and thanks for a job well done.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow. E-mail: peterbrookes@heritage.org

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the New York Post