Radar-picket submarines served only briefly in the U.S. Navy, but their story is a good one, as described by Edward C. Whitman, Senior Editor of Undersea Warfare magazine, in a Winter/Spring 2002-edition article entitled “Cold War Curiosities: U.S. Radar Picket Submarines.” Today’s installment is part two of two.
“To the MIGRAINE units were added two new-construction boats, USS Sailfish (SSR-572) and USS Salmon (SSR-573), designed from the keel up as radar pickets and laid down at the Portsmouth (New Hampshire) Navy Yard in December 1953 and March 1954, respectively. With a length of 350 feet and a surface displacement of over 2,300 tons, these were among the largest conventional submarines ever built by the United States. Because it was assumed that they would spend most of their time on the surface, Sailfish and Salmon were given substantial reserve buoyancy and hull forms optimized for surface performance. On each, the BPS-2 air-search radars could be rotated into a fore-and-aft position for retraction into the large sail fairwater, but just as in the MIGRAINE III boats, the BPS-3 height finder was mounted on a pedestal abaft the sail. The two new SSRs were both commissioned in mid-1956, giving a total of 12 radar pickets, but since the earliest of the MIGRAINE boats were reaching the end of their service lives, that total would soon drop.
“Eventually, seven SSRs (Requin, Tigrone, Burrfish, Pompon, Ray, Redfin, and Sailfish) were assigned to the Atlantic Fleet and operated nominally in the Caribbean and North Atlantic, with regular participation in NATO exercises and periodic deployments to the Mediterranean as part of the U.S. 6th Fleet. The five remaining (Spinax, Rasher, Raton, Rock, and Salmon) went to the Pacific Fleet and operated off western North America and in WESTPAC deployments to 7th Fleet. Although the SSRs became key participants in fleet air defense as early-warning pickets and CAP controllers 50 to 100 nautical miles in front of typical Cold War carrier battlegroups, their overall effectiveness was frequently hampered by their relatively modest surface speeds, particularly when task-group course changes required rapid repositioning. Even Sailfish and Salmon, the fastest of the type, could only make 20 knots on the surface, little better than the older fleet boats. Thus, the accelerating development of submarine nuclear power—and the debut of USS Nautilus (SSN-571) in early 1955—appeared to offer a welcome solution to this operational problem.
“Consequently, the Navy laid down what was intended as the first of a series of nuclear-powered radar picket submarines in May 1956. This was USS Triton (SSRN-586), which at 448 feet long and nearly 6,000 tons surface displacement, emerged as the longest U.S. submarine ever built until the appearance of the USS Ohio (SSBN-726) class in the early 1980s. Triton was unique among U.S. submarines in carrying a propulsion plant with two nuclear reactors, each an S4G rated at 22,000 horsepower. She was also the last U.S. submarine to have a conning tower inside the sail, twin screws, and an after torpedo room. Like Sailfish and Salmon, she was optimized for high surface speed—with a knife-like bow and ample reserve buoyancy—and reportedly, she exceeded 30 knots on her trials. Although like the most recent SSRs, Triton mounted her air-search radar on the sail where it could be stowed within the fairwater for submergence, her newer AN/SPS-26 was scanned electronically in elevation, so no separate height-finding radar was required. With three deck levels beneath the sail, there was ample room for dedicated air-control facilities just below the control room/attack center.
“Triton was commissioned in November 1959 with the decorated World War II submarine skipper—and later distinguished naval author—CAPT Edward L. Beach, in command. For Triton’s maiden voyage/shakedown cruise, Beach was ordered to attempt the first submerged circumnavigation of the globe, and the ship departed New London on 16 February 1960, not to return until 10 May, 84 days and 41,500 nautical miles later. This unprecedented success brought significant international prestige to the nation and the Navy, and by maintaining a steady speed of 21 knots for nearly three months, Triton firmly established the endurance and reliability of nuclear propulsion. In recognition, President Dwight D. Eisenhower awarded the ship and her crew a Presidential Unit Citation after their return.
“Triton joined 2nd Fleet in August 1960, and soon thereafter, she deployed to European waters to assume her role as a radar picket in a series of NATO exercises. And then the bottom dropped out of her primary mission.
“With the successful introduction of carrier-borne early warning aircraft in 1958—first the Grumman E-1B Tracer, and then the successor E-2 Hawkeye in 1964—the requirement for surface radar pickets soon faded, and the SSR/SSRN mission was quickly phased out. Thus, in March 1961, Triton was reclassified as an attack submarine (SSN) and overhauled at Portsmouth between 1962 and 1964 to refuel her reactors and convert her for a new role. Even though she was too large to be effective as an attack boat, Triton—now SSN-586—served gamely at Norfolk as flagship of COMSUBLANT until June 1967, but nonetheless she had become an expensive white elephant. Although plans were floated to use her large, surviving CIC space as an alternative national emergency command post, these never came to fruition, and when a planned 1967 overhaul was cancelled because of defense cutbacks, her days were numbered. Triton was subsequently inactivated and then decommissioned in May 1969—the first nuclear-powered submarine to be withdrawn from service. She is now in storage at the inactive ship facility in Bremerton, Washington, awaiting final disposal by the Nuclear Ship and Submarine Recycling Program.
“Similarly, by early 1961, all of the conventionally-powered SSRs had ceased radar-picket operations. The first to be withdrawn were the MIGRAINE I boats, Burrfish and Tigrone, temporarily decommissioned in late 1956 and 1957, respectively; the last were Sailfish and Salmon. Although two of the MIGRAINE III boats were put out of service and scrapped almost immediately, the remainder were reclassified as conventional attack boats (SS) or as auxiliary general submarines (AGSS) for non-combat duties, and they survived for ‘twilight careers’ that lasted as late as 1978. The longest-lived was Sailfish, which was decommissioned in September of that year and which still remains laid up and afloat at Bremerton. Several of the others served as Naval Reserve training hulks after decommission, and five were eventually sunk as targets, most recently Salmon in 1993. Tigrone was re-commissioned in March 1962 and, as an AGSS, played a major part in developmental testing for several passive sonar systems before she was finally put out of service in 1975. Similarly, Redfin—as AGSS-272—became a test platform for the pioneering inertial navigation systems required by the Polaris SLBM program. She was then decommissioned in May 1967 and scrapped four years later. Burrfish had an interesting aftermath: The Canadian Navy leased the boat in 1961, renamed her HMCS Grilse (SS-71), and used her as a ‘live’ target for anti-submarine warfare training. She was returned to the U.S. Navy in 1969 and sunk as a target that same year.
“Ironically, one of the first two SSRs survives today as a memorial. Requin was re-classified in 1959 as SS-481—then AGSS-481—and she remained in active service until December 1968. From 1972 to 1986, the ship was a tourist attraction in Tampa, Florida, but financial troubles led to abandonment by her operators. Subsequently acquired and lovingly restored by the Carnegie Science Center, Requin has been displayed in the Ohio River near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania since October, 1990, and she remains one of the most popular exhibits in the Three-Rivers area.”