Why Everyone Fears the Navy's Los Angeles-Class Submarines

Kyle Mizokami

Key point: These submarines are nuclear-powered, powerful, and can stay under the ways for a long time.

The Los Angeles–class nuclear attack submarines were the most successful American submarines of the Cold War. The United States built sixty-two Los Angeles–class subs, more than any class except for the Gato class of World War II. Fast, powerful and heavily armed, the submarines are slowly being replaced by Virginia-class attack boats.

The Los Angeles–class submarines, also known as the 688 class, were first designed in the early 1970s. The first ship, Los Angeles (SSN-688), was laid down in 1976. The submarines were produced at a Cold War pace, with production averaging three to five submarines annually, significantly higher than the current pace of two Virginia-class submarines produced annually. The Navy sustained this rate of production until 1992. Over the twenty years the class was produced, various systems, including propulsion, bow and towed sonar, and even hull material were upgraded to reflect the latest technology.

At 360 feet long and 6,927 tons submerged, the Los Angeles–class submarines were designed to be 20 percent longer and 50 percent larger by displacement volume than their predecessors, the Sturgeon class. They are also reportedly much faster: while the Sturgeon class could make twenty-six knots submerged, the Los Angeles class can allegedly make a swift thirty-seven knots.

The Los Angeles–class submarines were constructed from HY-80 steel, with a glass reinforced plastic bow over the sonar array. This gives the submarine a maximum official depth of 650 feet. Other sources peg maximum operating depth at 950 feet. The absolute maximum diving depth in emergencies is reportedly 1,475 feet.

The submarines feature a teardrop hull first introduced with the Skipjack class, with diving planes mounted on the sail. The last twenty-three ships in class moved the diving planes to the bow and feature strengthened sails for breaking through Arctic ice. This was likely in response to the Soviet Union’s Typhoon-class ballistic-missile submarines, which were designed to operate under and through Arctic pack ice.

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