- The USS Narwhal, once considered the quietest American submarine in existence, was scrapped at a shipyard in Washington state.
- The nuclear-powered boat blazed a trail in new underwater quieting technologies that made her extremely difficult to detect.
- The sub’s Cold War missions are still classified to this day.
Workers at a shipyard in Puget Sound, Washington recently finished up scrapping one of the quietest U.S. Navy submarines of all time, despite attempts to salvage it. The USS Narwhal was a test boat for new quieting technologies that later allowed U.S. subs to become some of the sneakiest in the world.
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The Cold War was a relentless competition for military supremacy, both in numbers and technology. The U.S. and Soviet arms race extended all the way to the bottom of the world’s oceans, with both sides striving to build powerful, deep-diving, quiet submarines. One of the U.S. Navy’s boldest forays into building undetectable submarines was the USS Narwhal and the technological innovations fitted into her.
The Navy commissioned the Narwhal in July 1969. It was based on the Sturgeon-class nuclear attack submarines, and its purpose was to test new technologies for future subs. The Navy gave Narwhal was given an elongated hull to accommodate the large new S5G nuclear reactor power plant, which produced 17,000 shaft horsepower (SHP), approximately 2,000 more SHP than the previous S5W.
The Narwhal was also the first submarine to test the powerful new BQQ-5 underwater active sonar, a complicated new direct drive system that eliminated the noise made by reduction gears underway, according to the Kitsap Sun.
The Narwhal’s most important innovation was the use of “natural circulation” to cool the S5G reactor. This process involved using water convection to move pressurized water at slow speeds, rather than the existing method of using powered pumps to push water past the reactors. The Navy tested the system in the mid-1960s in a land prototype in Arco, Idaho, where the service conducted research on nuclear propulsion systems.
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For years, reactor cooling pump noise was among the loudest mechanical equipment on a sub, but the Navy considered it a trade-off for using nuclear propulsion. The natural circulation process eliminated the need for water cooling pumps. As a result, the Narwhal was much quieter than her peers—so quiet, in fact, that the Navy adopted the circulation system for upcoming Ohio-class ballistic missile subs.
The Narwhal served from 1969 until 1999, when the Navy decommissioned her from active duty service. The sub deployed 17 times, and according to the Federation of American Scientists, she received numerous medals, including the Navy Unit Commendation, three Meritorious Unit Commendations, and five Battle Efficiency "E" awards.
While the Narwhal’s activities are still classified, experts generally think they involved collecting intelligence on the Soviet Union and Soviet naval forces—particularly submarines. The ship's possible missions could have included tailing new Soviet subs and surface warships to learn their unique underwater acoustic signatures, and sneaking up close to the Soviet coastline to snoop on military communications.
After the Navy decommissioned the Narwhal, preservationists lobbied to turn it into a floating museum. While the foundation overseeing the process did receive permission to proceed, the scope of the project was ultimately beyond its grasp. The submarine was towed into dry dock 3 at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, where she was dismantled.
The submarine’s still will be sold for scrap, while the S5G reactor was encased in a steel tomb. The reactor, like other reactors from decommissioned nuclear submarines, will be transported by barge up the Columbia River to the Hanford Site for storage. According to the Oregon Department of Energy, submarine reactors are typically 33 high by 40 feet long and weigh between 1,130 and 1,680 tons.
The days of producing one-off submarines to test new engineering concepts are likely over. The cost is simply too great, and new digital engineering and modeling techniques make it possible to predict how equipment will work without building an entire weapon system around it.
The U.S. Navy may never build a ship like Narwhal again, but then again, it may not have to.
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