The original full name of the City of Los Angeles, California, is El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula,” which means, “The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of Porciúncula.” Well, to enemy warships the U.S. Navy’s Los Angeles-class attack submarines, or SSNs, are veritable Angels of Death. To America and her maritime allies, the Los Angeles-class boats are an undersea manifestation of St. Michael the Archangel.
Launch of the Los Angeles-Class
There are three classes of SSN in the USN arsenal – the Los Angeles, Seawolf, and Virginia classes. The Los Angeles-class boats in particular comprise the backbone of the submarine fleet, with approximately 40 in commission – more than any other submarine class in the world. Thirty of these are equipped with twelve Vertical Launch System tubes for firing Tomahawk cruise missiles. The official Navy info page describes the task & purpose of attack submarines thusly:
“Attack submarines are designed to seek and destroy enemy submarines and surface ships; project power ashore with Tomahawk cruise missiles and Special Operation Forces (SOF); carry out Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions; support battle group operations; and engage in mine warfare.”
A total of 62 Los Angeles-class subs have been built, and they are divided across three separate so-called Flights. The SSNs 688 – 718 in Flight I, SSNs 719 – 750 in Flight II, and SSNs 751 – 773 in Flight III. The Flight II subs were the first of the bunch to carry the Tomahawk VLS, and also had an upgraded reactor core.
The Flight III subs are referred to as “688I” (for “Improved”). They are quieter, incorporate an advanced BSY-1 sonar suite combat system, and can lay mines from their torpedo tubes. They are configured for under-ice operations, with forward diving planes moved from the sail structure to the bow, and sails that have been strengthened for breaking through ice.
Fittingly enough, the first boat in the class was the USS Los Angeles (SSN 668), which was laid down on Jan. 8, 1972, launched on April 6, 1974, commissioned on Nov. 13, 1974, and decommissioned on Feb 4, 2011.
The vessel is considered eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, but whether she actually ends up getting converted into a museum ship remains to be seen. Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the age scale, the USS Cheyenne (SSN 773) is the newest ship in the class, having been commissioned in 1996.
Regardless of Flight number, these subs all wield four 21-inch torpedo tubes for launching Mk-48 heavyweight acoustic-homing torpedoes, and Harpoon anti-ship missiles for good measure. The boats displace 6,082 tons on the surface, and 6,927 tons while submerged. Hull length is 360.5 feet, beam width is 33 feet, and draft is 30.8 feet. The official top speed of the submarines while submerged is over 25 knots, although the actual maximum is classified.
For what it’s worth, the late great Tom Clancy, in his 1993 book Submarine: A Guided Tour Inside a Nuclear Warship, estimated the top speed of the submarines at about 37 knots. Maximum operating depth is officially acknowledged as 650 feet, while the Federation of American Scientists lists a test depth of 950 feet, and a collapse (hull crush) depth of 1,475 feet.
The crew complement is 13 officers and 116 enlisted sailors.
A Battle-Proven Platform
No submarine has been officially credited with sinking an enemy vessel since the Royal Navy’s HMS Conqueror did so to the Argentine Navy’s ARA General Belgrano during the Falklands War in 1982, although a North Korean midget submarine is strongly suspected as the culprit in the sinking of a South Korean navy corvette in 2010. That said, the Los Angeles-class SSNs are still a combat-tested bunch. As noted by Naval Technology, “Nine of the Los Angeles class submarines were deployed in the Gulf War in 1991, during which Tomahawk missiles were launched from two of the submarines. 12 Los Angeles submarines were deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March/April 2003. All 12 launched Tomahawk TLAM missiles.”
Two of the Los Angeles-class boats have been converted to moored training ships, while the Navy lists seven of the subs as decommissioned. Arguably the most famous of these is USS Dallas, thanks to her appearance in The Hunt for Red October.
In December 2020, the Navy announced that an additional 11 of these venerable subs will be retired and relegated to the USN’s Ship/Submarine Recycling Program.
Meanwhile, in spite of the comparative newness of the Seawolf and Virginia-class SSNs, the remaining Los Angeles-class SSNs will continue to be a potent component of America’s underwater arsenal for quite a few years to come.
Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS). In his spare time, he enjoys shooting, dining out, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and Washington DC professional sports.