• By James Fasino

The Evolution of USN Submarine Launched Weapons - Part I - Torpedoes


Civil War Through the Cold War Era Just as submarines have evolved from the earliest days of the Alligator and the USS Holland so too have their weaponry. The word torpedo is rooted in the name of electric sea rays whose name comes from the Latin torpere meaning "to be stiff or numb". In naval usage, the American Robert Fulton introduced the name to refer to a towed gunpowder charge deployed by his French submarine Nautilus, first tested in 1800, to demonstrate that it was capable of sinking warships. The first reasonably successful but rudimentary underwater weapon termed a spar torpedo was invented by engineer E. C. Singer for the Confederate States of America during the Civil War that had an explosive charge mounted on a wooden spar extending out from the attacking ship and was detonated by a trigger mechanism actuated by means of a cord attached to the attacking vessel. Upon ramming its target and embedding the barbed torpedo into its hull it then backed off until the limit of the trigger cord was reached and the torpedo detonated. It was a spar torpedo that the CSS Hunley was employing when it attacked the Union screw sloop USS Housatonic on February 17, 1864 and sank due to its malfunction. Regardless, spar torpedoes remained the submarine weapon of choice until 1866 when British engineer Robert Whitehead invented the first operational self-propelled modern torpedo. Soon after, French and German inventions followed suit and the term torpedo came to describe self-propelled projectiles that traveled under or on the water surface. The initial trials of the “Whitehead torpedo” failed because it failed to maintain a steady course and depth however he overcame those difficulties utilizing a mechanism consisting of a hydrostatic type valve and pendulum that activated the torpedo's hydroplanes to adjust automatically in order to maintain a preset depth. Subsequently Whitehead opened two factories, one near Portland Harbour England and the other at St Tropez on the French Rivera to manufacture and export torpedoes to Brazil, Holland, Turkey and Greece. And by World War I Whitehead maintained a monopoly on torpedo production worldwide. Then in 1915 the United States deployed the Mark 10 torpedo that was derived from the existing Mark 9 aircraft torpedo and converted for submarine application. It was succeeded by the problematic Mark 14 torpedo, however stockpiles of Mark 10 Mod 3 torpedoes saw extensive action during the first part of World War II. Development of the Mark 6 exploder for the Mark 14 torpedo warhead had started at the Naval Torpedo Station (NTS) Newport in 1922. And because surface ships’ armor was evolving with innovations such as torpedo belts and torpedo blisters or bulges, torpedoes required larger warheads to be effective against the thicker hulls. So an alternative was be to utilize a more compact warhead that was designed to explode beneath the keel where there wasn’t any armor and break the keel essentially splitting the target in half. And, that strategy resulted in the development of the sophisticated Mark 6 magnetic influence exploder. Torpedoes were expensive in 1931 therefore the development of the Mark 13, Mark 14 and Mark 15 torpedoes was done frugally and the Navy resisted engaging in live fire tests that would destroy torpedoes and target ships. Consequently, engineers relied on their judgment rather than test results that sadly were sometimes erroneous and so the exploder reliability was irregular at best. Too, the frugal depression-era peacetime testing of both the torpedo and its exploder mechanism was woefully inadequate and so had not revealed the many design flaws until they came to light as torpedo after torpedo either missed the target completely, prematurely exploded, or struck targets with textbook hits sometimes with an audible clang, yet failed to detonate. However, in spite of its inadequacies the MK-14 remained the predominate weapon on USN submarines through the 1950s and were still in use into the early 70s when a typical Attack boat weapons load consisted of the MK-14- Mod-5, the newer, MK-16- Mod-8 anti-ship torpedoes, the Mk-37-Mod-2 wire guided anti-submarine torpedo, the MK-45 Astor nuclear tipped anti-submarine torpedo, and the U


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