The Extraordinary Submarines of the U.S. Navy

The Extraordinary Submarines of the U.S. Navy

Next time you see or hear a phrase like "Los Angeles class submarine" you'll know what they're talking about.

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If you've ever read a Tom Clancy novel, or watched one of the movies made from his books, you're likely to have heard a phrase such as, "Los Angeles-class submarine." The BBC's new series, Vigil, which just concluded, takes place on board a British nuclear submarine being shadowed by a Los Angeles-class American sub.

What is a Los Angeles-class submarine, and what are the various "classes" of U.S. submarines? A "class" is a single design that is used for a number of submarines, with later boats in the series often having improvements. Below, we're going to take a look at some of the U.S. Navy's submarine classes throughout the years. Just be aware that submarines are always referred to as boats and never as ships.

The first U.S. submarine, the USS Turtle, was built to attach explosive charges to the hulls of British ships during America's War of Independence. None of Turtle's attempts were successful.

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Next came the Alligator-class, of which only one boat was made. She was built during the Civil War, and her main purpose was to protect the Union's fleet of wooden ships against the Confederacy's ironclad frigate Merrimack, and she first set sail in 1861. In April, 1863, Alligator was being towed toward Charleston, South Carolina when she was lost in bad weather off of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

The USS Aligator was made of iron and was 47 feet (14 m) long and had a beam of 4 feet 8 inches (1.42 m). Air was supplied from the surface by two tubes connected to an air pump inside the submarine. Originally, Alligator was powered by sixteen hand-powered paddles that protruded from her sides, but these were replaced by a hand-cranked propeller which got her up to four knots (7.4 km per hour).

By 1896, the U.S. Navy commissioned the first Holland submarine, built by the Holland Torpedo Boat Company. This was the first commissioned submarine in the US Navy. Seven more of the boats were commissioned and built by Holland for the Plunger-class, which was later renamed the A-class, and they served primarily as training and experimental vessels. These boats had both an internal combustion engine for use on the surface, and an electric motor for use underwater. Plunger-class boats were the first with a reloadable torpedo tube and a deck gun, and they had ballast and trim tanks which allowed them to make precise changes in depth and attitude underwater.

Next came a group of prosaically named classes, starting with the letter B in 1905 (the Plunger-class boats would be renamed as A-class in 1911), and ending with the letter S, built between 1917-1922. Each subsequent class featured improvements in design, for example, the D-class boats were able to survive flooding in one of their compartments. The E-class, in use between 1909 and 1912, were the first diesel-powered boats, while the L-class, built between 1914-1918, was the first built specifically for ocean-going.

Operating between 1909 and 1914, G-class submarines were up to 161 feet long (49 m), and they were able to reach 14 knots (7.2 meters per second) on the surface and 10.9 knots (5.6 meters per second) submerged. In 1911, six years before the Russian Revolution, the Russian Imperial Navy ordered 17 H-class boats Holland-type boats (which they confusing called American Holland-class). Eleven were delivered, but the shipment of the final six was held up by the outbreak of the Russian Revolution of 1917. These were eventually purchased by the US Navy, in 1918 and commissioned as H-4 to H-9 in late 1918.

Built beginning in 1912, K-class boats were the first U.S. submarines to see combat action when they participated in World War I. 1916 saw the commissioning of three experimental AA-1-class boats, which were the first submarines designed to be fast enough to travel along with battleships. Though designed to travel at 14 knots (7.2 meters per second), the ships actually only achieved 11 knots (5.7 mph) due to a poor engine design and none of the boats saw active service.