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Sturgeon: The Navy Nuclear Submarine Built For War With Russia

A starboard bow view of the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS SEA DEVIL (SSN-664) underway off the Virginia Capes.

The Sturgeon-Class Was the Cold War Backbone of the U.S. Navy’s Attack Sub Fleet – Until the introduction of the Los Angeles-class, the Sturgeon-class was the backbone of the United States Navy’s Cold War-era submarine fleet. The boats were dedicated to seeking out and destroying enemy submarines.

What to Know:

Both the United States and the Soviet Union had begun developing hunter-killer submarines in the late 1940s, but their paths certainly diverged. The United States Navy concentrated on submarines that were armed with weapons launched by torpedo tubes and those designated as SSNs, whereas the Soviets developed subs that were capable of launching both torpedoes and anti-ship missiles. Such vessels were designated SSGNs.

The American SSNs were designed to hunt their quarry by listening with sensitive sonar devices mounted on the hull. Apart from the high-tech sensory systems, the main advantage of the U.S. Navy’s hunter-killer submarines was that they could remain submerged on patrol for virtually unlimited periods. The diving depth of a hunter-killer could match, and even often exceed, that of a ballistic missile submarine.

Meet the Sturgeon-Class

The Sturgeon-class was an enlarged and improved version of the Thresher/Permit-classes that directly preceded it, but with additional “stealth” features and electronic systems. These were the largest class of nuclear-powered submarines until the advent of the Los Angeles-class, and were frequently used in intelligence gathering, which involved carrying special equipment and National Security Agency (NSA) personnel.

USS Sturgeon (SSN-637) began her operation patrols in 1968, and during one series of exercises, she played a partial role in the evaluation of new equipment mounted in the U.S. Navy’s maritime patrol aircraft.

Her longest deployment took place in 1974 when she was detached to the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean for a six-month period.

Key Specifications

The Sturgeon-class was equipped with a Westinghouse S5W pressurized-water reactor, which powered two steam turbines that drove a single shaft. That enabled a speed of 18 knots on the surface and 26 knots surfaced.

The original electronics suite consisted of a BPS-15 surface-search radar, a BQQ-sonar suite and later a towed array, as well as a Mk 117 torpedo fire control system, a satellite communications system and an underwater telephone.

The hunter/killer attack submarines were originally armed with 533mm (21-inch) torpedoes that were later upgraded to include Sub-Harpoon and Tomahawk submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Data on each torpedo tube could be displayed on a control panel in the boat’s control center, and relayed to the sub’s combat system. The control center also included a Target Motion Attack (TMA) system, which allowed the crew to track targets using only passive sonar bearings.

The crew complement was 14 officers and 95 men. Some of the boats of her class were modified with compartments for U.S. Special Forces, notably Navy SEALs, as well as the associated equipment.

A total of thirty-seven of the boats – as well as one modified version for experimental research – were produced. Construction on the lead boat began in 1963, and multiple shipbuilders including General Dynamics Electric Boat, Ingalls Shipbuilding, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, New York Shipbuilding, Newport News Shipbuilding, and Mare Island Naval Shipyard produced the submarines until 1975.

The final boat of the class, USS Richard B. Russell (SSN-687), was commissioned in August 1975. Originally designed for twenty-year operational lives, boats of the Sturgeon-class had this lengthened to thirty years, with a further planned three-year extension. The first to be decommissioned, in October 1991, was USS Sea Devil (SSN-664); the last, USS Parche (SSN-683), was decommissioned in July 2005.

Now a Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes.

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.