Nuclear Submarines Have Only 1 Recorded Kill In History

Robert Farley

Key point: The Falklands War was a truly strange war.

Only one ship has ever been sunk in anger by a nuclear submarine. Designed to fight the Japanese, USS Phoenix survived Pearl Harbor and fought in battles across the Pacific. Forty-one years after the Japanese attack, she would fall victim to HMS Conqueror off the Falklands Islands.

The USS Phoenix was the fifth of the Brooklyn class—a group of light cruisers designed to comply with the restrictions imposed by the London Naval Treaty of 1930. The major navies of the world, prohibited from competing in battleships, had turned their attention to cruisers, which turned out to be both expensive and destabilizing. In an effort to limit competition in heavy cruisers, the new treaty established limits on the number of 8″ gunned cruisers allowed each of the signatories. Britain, which needed light cruisers to patrol the empire, hoped that naval architects would design new cruisers around the 6″ gun, and scale down the size of the ships appropriately.

Unfortunately for the cash-strapped Admiralty, the Americans and Japanese had different priorities. The Japanese built the Mogami class, each armed with fifteen 6″ guns in five triple turrets, on a hull as large as a heavy cruiser. The United States responded with the Brooklyns, also armed with 15 6″ guns. The Brooklyns displaced about 10,000 tons (slightly smaller than their Japanese counterparts), and could make 33 knots. In U.S. naval doctrine of the time, light cruisers were expected to lay down a wall of fire alongside the main battle line, thus deterring destroyers from closing and launching torpedo attacks. In practice, there was little functional difference between heavy and light cruisers, as the 6″ guns rapid reload time made up for the extra punch of the 8″ gun.

Laid down in 1935 and commissioned in late 1938, the USS Phoenix was present at Pearl Harbor, but escaped the attack unharmed. By the afternoon of the attack, Phoenix was part of a task force hunting the Japanese task force. In early 1942 she departed for the South Pacific, where she participated in a series of vain efforts to prevent the Japanese conquest of the Dutch East Indies. She missed the Solomons Campaign and spent much of 1943 in overhaul, but returned to the fight in December of that year.

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