Submarines: The Greatest Generation


February 1, 2010: The U.S. Navy has retired the USS Los Angeles (SSN 688). This was the lead ship of the Los Angeles class nuclear attack submarine (SSN). The Los Angeles entered service in 1976. It is one of three classes of SSNs in American service, and was the backbone of the American SSN force during the last years of the Cold War. The mainstay of the American submarine force is still the Los Angeles class. Sixty-two of these submarines were built, 44 of which remain in front-line service, making it probably the largest class of nuclear submarines that will ever be built.

With four 21-inch (533-millimeter) torpedo tubes, it carries twenty-six weapons. These would be either the Mk 48 torpedo (50 kilometer range), the UGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missile (130 kilometer range), or the BGM-109 Tomahawk (3,100 kilometer range). The last 31 Los Angeles-class SSNs add the Mk 45 vertical-launch system (VLS), which carries another twelve Tomahawks, making them closer to guided-missile submarines (SSGN). It could launch cruise missiles or Harpoon anti-ship missile. The sub had a top speed of over nearly 60 kilometers an hour and is believed capable of diving to 300 meters. The boat normally carried a crew of 129. The basic design underwent several changes as more boats were built. The final 23 built were so different that they were referred to as 688i class boats.

The United States deploys two other classes. The Seawolf-class of nuclear attack submarines stopped at three from a planned class of twenty-nine. The Seawolf was designed as a super-submarine, designed to fight the Soviet Navy at its height. Carrying fifty weapons, and with eight 26-inch (660-millimeter) torpedo tubes, the Seawolf was designed for maximum performance. It delivered, posting a top speed of 35 knots – and remaining much quieter than the Los Angeles-class submarines. Reportedly, it is quieter at twenty-five knots than the Los Angeles-class submarines are at pierside. With the cutback of the Seawolf to three ships, the Navy has gone with the Virginia-class submarine. Less-capable than the Seawolf (it is much like the Los Angeles-class attack subs, but with a lot of the more-advanced systems from the Seawolf-class subs, particularly the quieting and sonar systems), it was supposed to be less expensive. The Virginia-class submarines are estimated to have a unit cost of $2.1 billion, but found a way to get the first six built for a total cost of $8.7 billion ($1.45 billion each). Like the Los Angeles-class, the Virginia-class submarines will be improved as the class is built.

Officials in the city of Los Angeles are discussing the possibility of taking the submarine Los Angeles and using it as a museum ship in the city it was named after. This would happen after all armaments and classified military equipment was removed. One additional item would not come with the Los Angeles. That is the cribbage board used by ace World War II sub captain (and Medal of Honor recipient) Richard O'Kane. By tradition, the oldest active sub in the fleet carries this cribbage board.