Cold War Submarines

Author: Norman Polmar and Kenneth Moore
Publisher: Potomac Books, Inc.
Year: 2003 (Paperback 2004)
Reviewer: Daryl Carpenter

Between August 1945 and December 1991, the United States and Soviet Union built 936 submarines, 401 of which were nuclear powered. Of this total, the Soviets built more than 650, building at least 50 identifiable classes in all. In Western intelligence reports and in published sources, speculation prevailed regarding the true capabilities of Russia's underwater warships, much of which has been disproved since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since the early 90s, submarine buffs have eagerly awaited a definitive book on the design and construction of submarines during the Cold War. Written by American naval analyst Norman Polmar and former submariner and technology analyst Kenneth J. Moore, Cold War Submarines: The Design and Construction of U.S. and Soviet Submarines is the first book to detail the parallel development of both superpowers' submarine fleets, and the political realities, engineering breakthroughs, and naval strategies that shaped their creation.

The story of how the superpowers built their impressive submarine fleets began with the end of the Second World War in Europe. The Americans, Russians, and British managed to obtain several of the new German Type XXI U-boats intact, and were shocked to learn that the design superseded it's Allied opponents in just about every regard. The XXI became the baseline design for the post-War submarine fleets of the United States and Russia, and both countries began stripping off deck armament and fittings from old submarines, and installing larger batteries and more powerful electric motors. The Soviets were more receptive to the XXI than the Americans, building 236 of the Project 613 (NATO Whiskey) class, an improved copy of the XXI.


By the early 50s naval authorities in both nations had become aware of the potential capabilities of nuclear submarines. The Americans came first with the Nautilus, Seawolf, and Skate-class boats, the Russians responding with the November SSN, Echo SSGN, and Hotel SSBN. The slab-sided XXI hull gave way to the "body of revolution" - a revolutionary (pardon the pun) hull shape that maintained a circular cross-section throughout the entire length of the hull. This allowed the superpowers to build increasingly faster submarines, including the 32-knot November, 35-knot Skipjack, and the Papa, which attained an extraordinary 44.7 knots. At the same time, the design philosophies of both countries went in opposite directions - while the Americans built solely nuclear-powered attack and ballistic missile submarines, the Russians built a plethora of diesel-electric submarines, anti-ship cruise missile carriers, and one-off experimental boats.

The Soviet Union's large number of competing design bureaus was a key factor in the large number of submarine classes built and designed during the Cold War. While American submarines held the edge in quietness, sensor capabilities, crew training, and reliability, their Russian counterparts were often superior in performance and survivability, and many couple carry a wider range of weapons. Both nations also designed amphibious landing, cargo transport, and aircraft carrying submarines, none of which were actually built. In the end, the Russian and American navies ended up with radically different submarine fleets for a number of different reasons explained in great detail in this book.

Cold War Submarines is a book I'd put off buying for a long time, because the price tag intimidated me somewhat. I was worried that the book would be a dry technical history, a fear that was thankfully unfounded. At last, someone wrote a comprehensive parallel history of the Cold War submarine fleets of the American and Russian navies, and you didn't have to be a naval architect to understand it! As evidenced by the lengthy bibliography and notes sections, Polmar and Moore spent an enormous amount of time and effort researching this book. Having studied formerly classified intelligence memos, Russian language articles, and interviewed several important figures on both sides of the Cold War, they uncovered a large amount of rare and long-forgotten material.

Cold War Submarines begins with the end of World War II, with chapters on postwar diesel and "closed cycle" propulsion submarines. It then proceeds to cover the entire history of Cold War submarine design in roughly chronological order, with each chapter focusing on a particular topics (i.e., "High Speed Submarines," "Advanced Diesel Submarines"), with most chapters describing both American and Russian developments in that field. Not only does this book describe the "nuts and bolts" of the subject, it also delves into the political, technical, and managerial issues of submarine design and construction throughout the Cold War.

A.D Baker III, the former editor of Combat Fleets, provides more than 70 crisp cross-section drawings, with the rest of the book illustrated with cleanly reproduced black & white photographs. The book's layout is typical of most military reference books, devoid of pretension or extraneous "fat." There are also plenty of tables, with each chapter ending with one that compares the specifications of each submarine described in the previous chapter.

Along with information on submarines that were actually built, Cold War Submarines delivers some surprising details on ones that never got off the drawing board:

  • The Boeing AN-1, a 498-foot nuclear-powered submarine aircraft carrier that would have carried eight ramjet-powered fighters in converted Regulus missile hangars.
  • For the first time ever published, photos of a model of the advanced CONcept FORMulation (CONFORM) submarine, which was axed in 1968 in favor of the less-capable Los Angeles class.
  • The original design for the November class, with a single giant nuclear torpedo that would have been fired into an enemy harbor.
  • The "Project 748" submarine tank landing ship, which would have carried 470 troops and up to 20 armored fighting vehicles.
  • The "Project 673" attack submarine, a small-scale variant of the Project 671/Victor that would have had a revolutionary sail-less hull.
  • A real-life American Flying Sub that actually made it the model test stage before being canceled.

I've always been more interested in diesel, rather than nuclear submarines, but the mythos and intrigue of the "Silent War" fought between the Americans and Soviets remains a fascinating one. Considering the difficulty of finding solid information on this period in naval history, Cold War Submarines belongs on the shelf of anyone seriously interested in the subject. The actual technical material is pretty light, and the writing style is fairly accessible for a book that threatened to be little more than an astute military history book before I read it. Actually, the technical material might be a little too light for a book of this type - I'm a bit of a glutton for punishment and I was actually expecting more. Hopefully, Polmar and Moore will one day expand this book into a trilogy, with a 2nd book on postwar diesel-electric submarines, and a 3rd on the nuclear submarines of Britain, France, China, and those currently under development by other nations.

In conclusion, Cold War Submarines is a goldmine for serious submarine buffs, filled with material you can't find anywhere else. You might want to invest in the hardcover edition, since you'll be returning to it time and again.

Cold War Submarines is 430 pages long, measuring 8 by 11 inches. It was published in November 2003 in hardcover and in March 2005 in paperback. There are 20 chapters, along with 5 appendixes, and the pages are printed on glossy stock.


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