During the Cold War era, the United States and Soviet Union developed and deployed tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. The U.S. nuclear arsenal ranged from the B17 bomb, rated at up to 15 megatons, to the Davey Crockett battlefield rocket, a subkiloton explosive. (The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, was rated at approximately 15 kilotons.) The most unusual nuclear weapons developed by both navies were, however, probably their nuclear torpedoes.
The first mention of a nuclear-armed torpedo occurred before nuclear weapons existed. In 1943 then-Captain William S. Parsons, head of the ordnance division of the Manhattan Project, proposed providing a gun-, or uranium-, type, nuclear warhead in the Mk 13 aircraft-launched torpedo. In later variants, the Mk 13 was a 2,250-pound weapon with a 600-pound high-explosive warhead.1
The technical director of the Manhattan Project, J. Robert Oppenheimer, opposed the proposal, believing that Los Alamos laboratory’s technical capabilities were already strained with atomic bomb projects. “We have no theoretical encouragement to believe that it will be an effective weapon, and we have what I regard as a reliable answer to the effect that it will produce inadequate water blast,” Oppenheimer said.2 Surprisingly, Parsons did not propose the warhead for a submarine-launched torpedo, which would have been larger and have a greater range than an air-launched weapon.
Immediately after the war, several U.S. submarine officers and engineers proposed developing nuclear torpedoes, and some preliminary research was undertaken on an “Atomic warhead which can be attached to a torpedo body and launched from a standard size submarine tube to provide a weapon for the neutralization of enemy harbors.”3
Although subsequent discussions within the Navy addressed nuclear torpedoes, none appeared until the Mk 45 ASTOR entered service in 1960. The submarine fleet had envisioned a need for such a weapon because of the limited effectiveness of the conventional torpedoes in the Navy’s 1950s inventory. When the nuclear-propelled submarine Nautilus (SSN-571) went to sea in January 1955, it quickly became obvious that even the new Mk 37 torpedo—in development at the time—would not be able to counter nuclear submarines. The Mk 37 had wire guidance to allow the launching boat’s sonar initially to direct the weapon toward an enemy submarine; the wire would then break and the torpedo’s sonar would seek out the target. The basic Mk 37 was rated at 26 knots. With wire guidance it had a speed of only 14.7 knots—too slow to counter the expected Soviet nuclear submarines.
The Two-Kill ASTOR
The Mk 45 nuclear torpedo—called ASTOR for antisubmarine torpedo—was the only such weapon produced in the West. It had a 19-inch diameter and carried a W34 warhead of 20 kilotons explosive power.4 Standard 21-inch submarine torpedo tubes launched the torpedo at a speed of 40 knots with a maximum range of 15,000 yards. Wire- guided, the ASTOR had no homing capability and no contact or influence exploder; it was guided and detonated by signals sent from the submarine through its trailing wire. Submariners often cited ASTOR as having a probability of kill (pK) of 2.0—the target and the launching submarine!
The Mk 45 nuclear torpedo was fitted in U.S. attack submarines as well as the Polaris-Poseidon ballistic-missile submarines. At the same time, engineers undertook development of the SUBROC (submarine rocket), which could travel from an attack boat some 25 nautical miles through the air to deliver a nuclear depth bomb. That weapon was in the fleet from 1965 to 1988.
The SUBROC, albeit limited to attack submarines of the Thresher (SSN-593) and later classes, outlasted the Mk 45 ASTOR, which was withdrawn by 1977 and replaced by the conventional Mk 48 heavy torpedo. The Mk 48 had greater range and, with wire guidance and advanced sonar, was considered to be more effective against modern Soviet submarines.
The Bizarre T-15
On the Soviet side, the development of nuclear torpedoes had a more dramatic aspect: The first such Soviet “nuke” was a land-attack weapon. Development of a submarine- launched nuclear torpedo began in 1949-50. The origin of the T-15 torpedo—to have been the first nuclear weapon employed by the Soviet Navy—is attributed to Captain 1st Rank V. I. Alferov at Arzamas 16, the Soviet nuclear development center.5 One of the most ambitious submarine weapon projects ever undertaken, the T-15 was intended as a strategic attack weapon against major Western naval bases such as Gibraltar and Pearl Harbor. The Soviets considered Western cities either too far inland or, if truly coastal cities, expected their seaward approaches to be well-protected. The submarine carrying a T-15 would surface immediately prior to launching the torpedo to determine her precise location by stellar navigation and to use radar to identify coastal landmarks. The torpedo was to carry a thermonuclear (hydrogen) warhead a distance of some 16 nautical miles.
With a diameter of just over five feet and a length of approximately 77 feet, the 40-ton underwater missile would be propelled to its target by a battery-powered electric motor, providing an underwater speed of about 30 knots. Obviously, a new submarine would have to be designed to carry the torpedo—one per boat. The long submerged distances the submarine would have to transit to reach targets demanded that she have nuclear propulsion.
In the fall of 1952 Soviet leader Josef Stalin formally approved the development of a nuclear-propelled submarine. In addition to the T-15 launch tube, the vessel would have two 21-inch torpedo tubes, without reloads, for self-defense. Design of the submarine—Project 627—began in September 1952 with high priority and the highest possible secrecy.
Six months later Stalin was dead. The commander in chief of the Navy, Admiral Nikolai G. Kuznetsov, was aware that a nuclear-propelled submarine was being developed, but nuclear weapons were so secret in the Soviet Union that he had received no information about the giant nuclear torpedo. When the design was completed and he was briefed on Project 627 in July 1954, he reportedly declared: “I don’t need that kind of boat.”6 A Navy panel chaired by Rear Admiral Aleksandr Ye. Orel reviewed the project and recommended that the submarine be changed to a torpedo-attack craft. The commander in chief supported the recommendations of Orel’s panel. Although his tenure was soon to end, Kuznetsov’s opinions carried great weight. (When he suffered a heart attack in May 1955, he was effectively replaced as head of the Soviet Navy by Admiral Sergei G. Gorshkov, who formally relieved him in 1956.)
In 1955—in response to the Navy’s objections and recommendations—the tactical-technical requirements for Project 627 were revised for attacks against enemy shipping. Submarines were to be armed with conventional (high-ex- plosive) torpedoes. The forward sections of the boat were redesigned for eight 21-inch torpedo tubes, with 12 reloads provided, a total of 20 weapons. Thus ended the first and most unusual Soviet nuclear torpedo project.
A Standard Weapon
Almost simultaneous with the T-15, the Soviet navy initiated development of the T-5 nuclear torpedo of standard, 21-inch diameter. The initial state test of the RDS-9 nuclear warhead for the T-5 took place at the Semipalatinsk experimental range in Kazakhstan in October 1954. It was a failure. The next test of the warhead occurred on 21 September 1955 at Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic—the first underwater nuclear explosion in the Soviet Union.7
Work on the T-5 continued, and on 10 October 1957, the Project 613 (NATO Whiskey) submarine S-144 carried out the first test launch of the T-5. Again the test was at the Novaya Zemlya range with several discarded submarines used as targets. The nuclear explosion had a yield of ten kilotons at a distance of 5.4 nautical miles from the launching submarine. The target submarines S-20 and S-34 were sunk, and the S-19 was heavily damaged.
The T-5 was the first nuclear weapon to enter service in Soviet submarines, becoming operational in 1958 as the Type 53-58. The Soviet Navy subsequently developed and put to sea several additional nuclear torpedoes, with later torpedoes estimated in the West to have warheads as large as 200 kilotons.8 The later nuclear fish included 25.5-inch weapons of higher performance.
Among these was the infamous VA-111 Shkval (Squall), a 21-inch weapon with a speed of some 200 knots. This remarkable torpedo became operational in November 1977 (after a 17-year development effort). Later variants of the Shkval, sold to other navies, had conventional warheads.
The Universal Ideas of Both Navies
The Soviets also developed the ASB-30, a “universal” nuclear warhead for 21-inch torpedoes that could be fitted to specific torpedoes in place of high-explosive warheads while the submarine was at sea. These were placed on board subs beginning in late 1962. Initially two ASB-30 warheads were provided to each submarine, pending the availability of torpedoes with nuclear warheads.
The revelation that the Soviet Navy was developing advanced submarines with double hulls and multiple compartments, and built with titanium and stronger steels led to concern in some U.S. quarters that the conventional Mk 48 torpedo could not guarantee kills against such craft. Accordingly, by the late 1970s the Los Alamos National Laboratory was proposing insertable nuclear components for U.S. submarine torpedoes.
An unclassified article on the subject concluded:
The United States must maintain a capability to conduct tactical nuclear warfare at sea for two reasons: first, as a deterrent; second, as a hedge against the catastrophic failure of essential weapons—in this case, conventional torpedoes—as happened to the U.S. and German submarine torpedoes in the early phases of World War II.9
The U.S. submarine community quickly attacked the insertable nuclear concept. Submarine admirals feared any criticism of the problem-plagued Mk 48 torpedo as well as the obvious inference that U.S. nuclear submarines—including the planned SSN-21 (later named Seawolf)—were potentially highly vulnerable to Soviet weapons.
The end of the Cold War ended all discussion and debates—and in the Soviet Navy the deployment—of nuclear torpedoes.
The First Nuclear Surface Ship
The United States produced the world’s first nuclear-propelled submarine, the USS Nautilus (SSN- 571), which went to sea for the first time on 17 January 1955. The first nuclear-powered surface ship got under way almost five years later, on 12 September 1959. That vessel was a Soviet icebreaker, the Lenin.
It would be almost two more years before the first U.S. nuclear-powered surface ship, the guided missile cruiser Long Beach (CGN-9), sailed. (See Historic Fleets, p. 12.)
In the early 1950s, as the Soviets were initiating a massive nuclear submarine program, they began designing a nuclear- propelled icebreaker. The Soviet Union, with an extensive Arctic coastline, has long required icebreakers for local as well as long-range operations. Nuclear propulsion would provide considerable power and endurance for such ships.
The Lenin was laid down on 25 August 1956 at the Admiralty Shipyard in Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg). That yard traced its origins to Tsar Paul I, who established the New Admiralty yard on the left bank of the Neva River in 1800. Battleship construction began at the yard in the early 1800s, with the facility ranking as one of the major Russian shipyards. In 1908 the New Admiralty yard merged with the Galemiy Island yard, which had been building naval ships since 1713. Naval and civilian ship construction continued there.
In August 1959, Vice Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, head of the U.S. Navy’s nuclear-propulsion program, accompanied Vice President Richard M. Nixon on a trip to the Soviet Union, where Rickover was able to visit the unfinished Lenin at the Admiralty yard. Based on that visit, he told a U.S. congressional committee:
I think unquestionably we are ahead of them. I dislike saying this because I am responsible for naval atomic propulsion, but as far as we know, the only marine propulsion plant they have is in the Lenin, and it has not yet operated at sea. We have had naval [nuclear] plants operating since 1953. . . [Soviet First Deputy Premier F. P.] Kozlov, when he was in the United States in July, told me that they are building atomic-powered submarines.1
Unknown to the West, the first Soviet nuclear-propelled submarine, the Project 627 K-3 (NATO designation November), had gone to sea on trials on 4 July 1958. A massive nuclear submarine construction program was already under way in the Soviet Union. (The Admiralty yard was not yet involved in nuclear submarine construction; its first “nuke” would be the lead Project 671/NATO Victor I attack boat, laid down in 1963.)
The Lenin began sea trials on 15 September 1959 and entered service almost immediately. She was a big ship—displacing 19,240 tons at full load—far larger than any previous icebreaker built by any nation. Her three pressurized-water reactors powered four steam generators; two reactors were sufficient to propel the ship at full speed with the third used for maintenance and research.
She operated in Arctic seas until 1966 or 1967, when the ship suffered a major radiation accident. The Lenin was tied up and abandoned for more than a year until preparations could be made for her rehabilitation. As many as 30 crewmen died from radiation poisoning and others suffered injuries. Reportedly, her original nuclear plant—including the three reactors—was sunk in the Sivolky Gulf in 1967.
Rebuilt and modernized with two advanced reactors, the Lenin returned to sea in 1970 and operated for almost two more decades until retired in November 1989. Her nuclear fuel was removed and she lay idle. Then, in early 2001 Russia announced that the ship was being prepared for conversion into a historical museum about the Russian nuclear fleet and Arctic exploration. The conversion is costing more than $3 million, with the financing shared by the Russian government, Murmansk Oblast (Province) and city administrations, the Murmansk Commercial Port, and other regional organizations.
Following Lenin into Soviet service was the larger, more-powerful nuclear icebreaker Arktika, completed in 1975. In 1977 she became the world’s first surface ship to reach the North Pole. Subsequently, on a single cruise she spent 357 days at sea. The Soviet Union/Russia has produced five additional ships of the basic Arktika design, plus a nuclear-propelled container ship.2
While many additional nuclear- propelled surface ships have been built— aircraft carriers, missile cruisers, icebreakers, merchant vessels, and research ships—the Lenin was the first.
1. The Mk 13 torpedo became available for U.S. naval aircraft in 1938; the later variants had a range of 6,000 yards at 33 knots.
2. J. R. Oppenheimer, letter to Capt W. S. Parsons, USN, “Design Schedule for Overall Assemblies,” 27 December 1943.
3. Memorandum from Chairman, Submarine [Officers] Conference, to Chief of Naval Operations, “Submarine Conference on 6 November 1946—Report of,” 18 November 1946, Op-31B:ch (SC) A3-2, 5.
4. The W34 was also used in the Mk 101 Lulu depth bomb and the Mk 105 Hot- point bomb for ground attack.
5. Nuclear weapons design work was carried out at this new research facility near Arzamas, now called the Khariton Institute, beginning in 1946. It is located some 60 miles south of Gor’kiy (now Nizhny Novgorod).
6. S. Bystrov, “A Reactor for Submarines,” Krasnaya Zvezda, 21 October 1989. Kuznetsov was head of the Soviet Navy from 28 April 1939 to 17 January 1947, and again from 20 July 1951 to 5 January 1956.
7. This was the 22nd nuclear detonation by the Soviet Union. The RDS-9 warhead was suspended at a depth of 10 feet under a barge. The first U.S. underwater nuclear detonation was Test Baker at Bikini Atoll on 25 July 1946—the fifth U.S. nuclear explosion; that was a Mk 3 atomic bomb of approximately 20 kilotons.
8. RAdm John Hervey, RN (Ret), Submarines (London: Brassey’s, 1994), 127.
9. N. Polmar and D. M. Kerr, “Nuclear Torpedoes,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceed- mgs, August 1986, 68. At the time Dr. Kerr was Director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
1. VAdm H. G. Rickover, USN, “Report on Russia” (Washington, D.C.: Committee on Appropriations, House of Representatives, 1959), 42.
2. The Soviet Union also acquired two river icebreakers with nuclear propulsion built in Finland.