Long before today’s nuclear powered Trident ICBM and Cruise missile armed SSGN Fast Attack submarines roamed the ocean depths America’s Navy engaged in some rudimentary attempts to develop a submarine that could deliver a submarine launched cruise missile (SLCM) as its primary armament.
A cruise missile submarine is a submarine that launches SLCMs as its primary armament. Cruise missile capability and dedicated anti-ship missiles enhance a vessel’s ability to attack surface combatants. Although, torpedoes are a stealthier option missile give a much longer stand-off range, as well as the ability to engage multiple targets on varied headings at the same time. Cruise missiles can be fitted and deployed with either conventional or nuclear warheads, but they are considered distinct from ballistic missiles due to the substantial differences between the two weapons launch systems’ characteristics, range and payloads.
The initial designs of cruise missile submarines required that they must surface in order to launch their missiles from their decks, while later more advanced designs allowed them to launch while submerged utilizing dedicated vertical launching system (VLS) tubes. Many modern attack submarines can launch cruise missiles and dedicated anti-ship missiles from standard horizontal torpedo tubes while some designs also incorporate a small number of VLS canisters, giving some significant overlap between cruise missile submarines and traditional attack submarines. Nonetheless, vessels classified as attack submarines still use torpedoes as their main armament and have a more multi-role mission profile due to their greater speed and maneuverability. Contrastingly, cruise missile submarines are typically larger and slower boats focused on the long-distance surface strike role.
The United States Navy’s hull classification symbols for cruise missile submarines are SSG and SSGN. The “SS” denotes submarine, the “G” denotes guided missile, and the “N” denotes that the submarine is nuclear-powered.
The U.S. Navy’s first cruise missile submarines were developed in the early 1950s to carry the SSM-N-8 Regulus missile. And, the first of these was a converted World War II era Gato-class submarine the USS Tunny SSG-282, which was fitted with a top-side hangar capable of carrying a pair of Regulus missiles. Tunny was used as a test-bed for developing techniques of use for the missile system, before a second boat, USS Barbero SSG-317 was subsequently converted. From 1957, the two boats undertook the first U.S. nuclear deterrent patrols. Subsequently, two larger diesel submarines of the Grayback-class were purpose built for the deployment of the Regulus missile with each capable of accommodating up to four missiles while a further boat, the nuclear-powered USS Halibut SSGN-587, was capable of carrying up to five missiles. Between September 1959 and July 1964, the five Regulus missile boats undertook deterrent patrols in the Pacific Ocean in concert with the newly commissioned George Washington-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) in the Atlantic until sufficient SSBNs were in service to replace them. Ultimately, forty-one SSBN subs were built and together they were designated “Forty-one for Freedom” by the Navy. They were ultimately replaced by the Ohio class Trident ICBM capable submarines.
Then, between 2002 to 2008, the U.S. Navy modified its four oldest Ohio-class Trident submarines to carry cruise missiles and re-designated them the USS Ohio SSGN-726, USS Michigan SSGN-727, Florida SSGN-728 , and USS Georgia SSGN-729. The conversion was achieved by installing vertical launching systems (VLS) in a multiple all-up-round canister (MAC) configuration in 22 of the existing 24 missile tubes and replacing one Trident missile with seven smaller Tomahawk cruise missiles each. The two remaining tubes were converted to lockout chambers for use by special forces personnel. This gave each converted submarine the capability to carry up to 154 Tomahawks. The large diameter tubes can also be modified to carry and launch other payloads, such as UAVs or UUV drones although these capabilities have not yet been fully implemented. In addition to generating a significant increase in stand-off strike capabilities this conversion also counts as a nuclear arms reduction towards the START II treaty because it reduces the number of nuclear warheads that are forward-deployed by the U.S. The USS Florida SSGN-728 launched cruise missiles against Libyan targets as part of Operation Odyssey Dawn in March 2011 to enforce a United Nations resolution that implemented a no-fly zone that was proposed during the Libyan Civil War.
The submarine USS Growler SSG-577 was among one of the early attempts by the U.S. Navy to field a cruise missile submarine which would provide a nuclear deterrent. Built to deliver the Regulus I cruise missile that was an extension and adaptation of the German V-1 vengeance weapons technologies the navy soon switched its strategic weapons development efforts into nuclear powered subs carrying ballistic missiles leaving only a handful of diesel powered cruise missile capable submarines ever placed into service.
The Growler was the second and final submarine of the Grayback class and it was the fourth ship of the United States Navy to be named after the Growler type of largemouth bass following the practice in the day to name submarines after carnivorous fish. Since the Regulus I and Regulus II programs had their difficulties Growler and Grayback were the only two submarines built in this class as instead the U.S. Navy veered its nuclear deterrence efforts into submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) of the Polaris missile program.
Growler had a WWII counterpart USS Growler SS-215 that a renowned war patrol history including when on her fourth war patrol shortly after 01:00 7 February 1943 the sub stealthily approached a Japanese gunboat for a night surface attack. However, the smaller more maneuverable ship suddenly turned towards Growler to ram and unable to avoid the collision Growler’s Cmdr. Gilmore ordered left full rudder and all ahead flank and instead rammed the enemy amidships.
Then, as enemy machine gun fire raked them at point-blank range Captain Gilmore ordered the bridge cleared. But, as the commanding officer Gilmore was the last to leave the bridge and was grievously wounded before he could get below. And, rather than jeopardizing his boat’s escape he ordered “Take her down!”. So, his executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Arnold F. Schade, took command and ordered the bridge hatch be shut and dived the boat leaving Gilmore stranded on the bridge.
By saving his command at the cost of his own life Gilmore became the first of seven World War II submariners to earn the Medal of Honor.
Subsequently, USS Growler SS-215 was lost on her 11th and final war patrol that began out of Fremantle on 20 October 1944 while attacking an enemy convoy as part of a wolf pack operating with USS Hake SS-256 and USS Hardhead SS-365 .
What made Growler SSG- 577 and her sister-ship unusual was her nuclear armament however deployed on a conventional non-nuclear-powered diesel-electric submarine. Her mission was to provide nuclear deterrent capability off the Pacific Coast of the Soviet Union during the some of the peak years of the Cold War, from 1958 to 1964. However, she was soon rendered obsolete with the USN deployment of nuclear-powered Fleet Ballistic Missile (FBM) submarines.
Growler was laid down on 15 February 1955 by the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard of Kittery, Maine. She was launched on 5 April 1958 and sponsored by Mrs. Robert K. Byerts, widow of Commander Thomas B. Oakley, Jr., who commanded the third Growler on her 9th, 10th, and fatal 11th war patrols. Growler was commissioned at Portsmouth on 30 August 1958 with Lieutenant Commander Charles Priest, Jr., in command.
After training exercises off the U.S. East Coast Growler sailed south for her shakedown cruise arriving at the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station, Puerto Rico on 19 February 1959. Then, after a brief run back to Portsmouth she returned to the Caribbean Sea in March to train in launching Regulus I and Regulus II nuclear armed cruise missiles assisted by USS Runner SS-476 which was one of several submarines equipped with Regulus guidance equipment. Later, Growler returned to Portsmouth 19 April via Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and New London, Connecticut.
Growler then proceeded to the Pacific via Norfolk, Virginia, Key West, Florida, and the Panama Canal, putting in at Pearl Harbor on 7 September to serve as flagship of Submarine Division 12. At Pearl Harbor the guided missile sub participated in a variety of battle and torpedo exercises as well as missile practice before beginning her first Regulus Deterrent Mission. On this mission, which lasted from 12 March to 17 May 1960, Growler departed Hawaii with a full store of Regulus sea-to-surface missiles armed with nuclear warheads and she patrolled under a strict cloak of secrecy. Their patrols could last two months or more at a stretch and required them to remain submerged for hours and even days which pales in comparison to the patrols of nuclear-powered ballistic missile and attack submarines but was a strain for the crew of a much smaller diesel boat with limited atmospheric purification systems. It is traditional that the log entries for 00:00 (midnight) on New Year’s Day be made in verse. So, on 1 January 1961, during Growler’s second patrol, Lieutenant (j.g.) Bruce Felt wrote: “Not our idea of fun and good cheers/but doing our job to ensure many New Year’s.”
According to the documentary “Regulus; The First Nuclear Missile Submarines” the primary target for Growler in the event of a nuclear exchange would be to eliminate the Soviet naval base at Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. The patrols made by Growler and her sister Regulus-firing submarines represented the first ever deterrent patrols in the history of the USN submarine Force preceding those made by the Polaris missile firing FBM submarines.
From May 1960 through December 1963 Growler had made nine such deterrent mission patrols with the fourth terminating at Yokosuka, Japan on 24 April 1962, as the Navy displayed one of its most advanced weapons of the time.
Returning to Mare Island, California, Growler was decommissioned 25 May 1964 and was placed in reserve. She was initially moved to the Inactive Fleet section in the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington and was later relocated to the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. Then, she was struck from the Naval Vessel Register on 1 August 1980 and was scheduled to be used as a torpedo target and sunk. However, on 8 August 1988, Congress awarded the hulk to Zachary Fisher, Chairman of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City.
However, due to the renovations to the entire Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum complex including the decommissioned aircraft carrier USS Intrepid and its mooring Pier 86 the Growler was towed to Brooklyn, NY for repairs. However, holes found rusted in her hull complicated her refurbishment and pushed repair costs past $1.5 million. Therefore, the Growler wasn’t returned to Pier 86 until late February 2009 and she was re-opened to the public on 21 May 2009 during the Intrepid museum “Fleet Week 2009” celebration. She is currently on permanent display there and opened to the public.