From the bridge 60 feet above the flight deck of the USS Enterprise, Capt. Kent L. Lee could detect the bulky profile of the Soviet trawler in the distance.
It was Jan. 3, 1968, and the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier was steaming out San Francisco Bay for war duty off the coast of Vietnam. The unobtrusive Soviet vessel had been hovering just outside U.S. territorial waters.
Above decks, the trawler was a Medusa's tangle of antennas and chrome filaments glinting with flashes of the Pacific sunrise. Naval intelligence had warned the Enterprise of its presence. Throughout the Vietnam war, Soviet spy ships had maintained a constant and quiet vigil along the California coast.
Unknown to the Soviet vessel, U.S. intelligence technicians had focused their high-frequency radio antennas on the trawler's coded transmissions. As the Enterprise approached, the trawler's transmitter sent bursts of signals into the atmosphere.
Naval intelligence analysts had a good idea where the response to the trawler's signal would come from: a Soviet nuclear attack submarine now more than 1,000 miles north of the Enterprise that they also had been monitoring. Soviet attack subs had been operating in tandem with trawlers to spy on U.S. military movements in the eastern Pacific.
When the trawler's radio went silent, the submarine sent a short burst of coded signals. An acknowledgment, U.S. analysts deduced.
Suddenly, the submarine turned south, toward the Enterprise. Her twin-reactor propulsion plant surged to higher power and U.S. technicians, listening with the aid of sensitive hydrophones lying on the ocean floor, heard the submarine's propellers increase in speed.
A new day had begun in the silent war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Unlike the war going on in Vietnam, at sea there was no daily carnage, no body bags, nor even any casualties. It was a war not covered by the media, blacked out as it was by layers of classification, but it was a war nonetheless, one in which nuclear submarines hunted each other throughout the oceans -- stalking, aiming and firing imaginary torpedoes as practice for the day when it all could be real.
The January 1968 encounter between the Enterprise and the Soviet November-class attack submarine, the details of which have not been declassified, provoked one of the largest construction programs in the history of the U.S. Navy. It was intended to produce a fleet of deadly, high-speed submarines to meet the threat of a much larger Soviet submarine navy until the end of the century.
Instead, this massive industrial effort collapsed during the 1970s into the worst cost-overrun shipbuilding disaster in Navy history, a fiasco wrought largely by commercial greed and unmoderated power wielded by men at the top of the defense establishment.
Construction of the fleet that was envisioned 18 years ago turned into a glacial, complex undertaking rivaling in scope the erection of the great cathedrals of Europe, where tradesmen passed their tasks from generation to generation.
The struggle and recriminations over the construction of this multibillion-dollar submarine fleet persists to this day. It has consumed the lives and tarnished the reputations of its major participants, including that of Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, who died in July, and executives of General Dynamics Corp., one of the world's mightiest arms makers.
Rickover Reaching Zenith of His Power
Nuclear-propelled attack submarines are the vanguard of striking power in both the U.S. and Soviet navies. They constitute a full third of the combatant U.S. fleet. In wartime their missions would include racing into enemy waters to sink, mine and bottle up the Soviet fleet, to claim the ocean basins for the aircraft carrier battle groups and convoys, to clear them of warships and, along the way, to sink opposing submarine forces.
One of the first persons in Washington to hear about the Soviet submarine dispatched to intercept the Enterprise was Rickover, who at 68 was reaching the zenith of his power over the nuclear navy. It was the navy within the Navy that Rickover had nurtured and fought for as no other officer in the 15 years since the first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, had gone triumphantly to sea, making steam for her turbines from the heat of neutron collisions in an atomic reactor.
One of Rickover's senior deputies had taken the telephone call from naval intelligence reporting the message traffic between the Soviet trawler and the November-class submarine. Rickover instantly recognized the potential in the intelligence report and mobilized his staff to seize the moment created by the Soviets' silent gambit.
Since the early 1960s, Rickover had worried that the United States would lose its edge in the silent war against the Soviets, who were building nuclear submarines in unprecedented numbers at industrial facilities that dwarfed the American shipbuilding capability.
Based on intelligence reports, Rickover believed that the Soviet navy was going all-out to produce speed in its submarines sufficient to catch American aircraft carriers, whose battle groups and air wings were the central ingredients of America's mobile military might.
Building high-speed submarines would require the development of compact, high-energy nuclear reactors. Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union, according to all intelligence, had deployed high-speed submarines in the first decade of nuclear power.
But Rickover had foreseen the need for them. Since 1964, he had been trying to convince his superiors that the Soviets would soon develop high-speed submarines that could change the equation in the next war at sea. On his own authority, Rickover had secretly begun work to adapt a large surface-ship reactor and propulsion plant to submarine use.
The Central Intelligence Agency and the Office of Naval Intelligence had not been able to agree on the reliability of information about Soviet submarine speeds, so their speed estimates were presented in ranges. Rickover wanted to expose the estimates as being too conservative.
When the Enterprise report came in, Rickover was elated.
Carrier-Submarine Chase on High Seas
The Enterprise was sailing two days out of San Francisco when the first sonar report on the November-class Soviet submarine came into the combat information center. Capt. Lee had received orders from Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, the chief of naval operations, to engage the Soviet sub in a race.
Later that morning, the dawn watch was still on the bridge when Lee told the officer of the deck to increase speed from 16 to 18 knots. The order was transmitted simultaneously to all four engine room control stations, where reactor operators sat at their consoles, opening valves to send more steam blasting against turbine blades and adding revolutions per minute (rpm) to the propellers. Soon after, sonar operators heard a corresponding increase in the propeller turns of the Soviet sub.
Lee read the new sonar report and realized the submarine skipper was hooked. He doubted that he would lose his shadow until the Enterprise really started burning neutrons, her eight reactors "running critical" in the lead-shielded propulsion spaces 100 feet below him. If that was the case, Lee was going to force the Russian to push the outside of the speed envelope.
Two hours later, Lee ordered 85 propeller turns and the Enterprise momentarily pulled away from the Soviet sub to level off at 24 knots. Lee believed he was within a knot or two of the submarine's top speed.
The Soviet sub must have been running blind by then, the noise of the ocean rushing over its hull, the roar from his own turbines, coolant pumps and gears making it impossible for its sonar operator to hear anything above the din. It must have been like driving a car with a steel windshield through a downpour. If there was anyone else on the highway, you wouldn't know it.
Lee was handed another sonar report. The submarine had matched the last speed increase. Lee was impressed and considered that the real value of this horse race might be in determining how long a November-class submarine could sustain this much speed.
By Friday evening, Jan. 5, 1968, the Soviet submarine had not let up in its relentless pursuit of the Enterprise and her escorts, which were now pushing through rolling swells toward the Hawaiian Islands at 28 knots. "We're going to need 120 rpm before midnight," Lee told his reactor engineer.
Lee was certain that the brass in Washington by now all were sitting on the edges of their chairs because this Soviet sub was breaking all known speed records for the November, the oldest Russian attack-boat class. It was still back there, like a dog snarling at a pants leg. But an element of uncertainty had been injected into the race. Was there something about this submarine Washington was not telling Lee?
He waited a little longer. Then he ordered: "Go to 120 rpm." The watch rang up flank speed. Throttle valves slammed over in the engine room. After a few minutes, the carrier's speed stabilized at 31 knots. No submarine could go that fast. Not ours, not theirs. Lee was not going to leave the bridge until he was sure the November had disappeared with his wake.
When the latest sonar report was finally handed out, Lee read it in disbelief. The Soviet submarine had increased speed to 31 knots -- or 34.1 miles per hour -- as if he had power to spare. This was astonishing: The Soviet Union's oldest nuclear-powered attack submarine could keep pace at speeds the CIA said it could not reach. It had taken 10 years to discover the true speed of the Novembers. But worse, the oldest Soviet nuclear submarines were faster -- a lot faster -- than the U.S. Navy's newest ones.
The implications for the Enterprise and all the floating fortresses in the U.S. armada were shattering. A decade of crucial vulnerability somehow had passed undetected.
The official, classified report on the Enterprise incident rocked the intelligence community; its impact rolled through the back channels of the defense establishment in Washington. The CIA ordered a full-scale revision of speed estimates for all Soviet submarines. Overhead satellite coverage of Soviet shipbuilding was increased. The Office of Naval Intelligence set up a group to improve undersea monitoring of Soviet sea trials and to attempt for the first time to infiltrate covert agents into Soviet shipyards.
For the Johnson administration, sapped by the $ 80-million-a-day cost of the Vietnam war, there would be nothing but trouble in Congress. There was talk of a "submarine gap" becoming an issue in that year's presidential campaign. People were going to have to explain to some powerful members of Congress why Rickover was not getting what he wanted.
Rickover attended every classified briefing in Congress. He reminded the leadership of the Sputnik surprise and warned members about the dangers of complacency in national defense. While the Soviets had been working on increasing the speeds of their submarines, the United States had been working inadvertently in the opposite direction, he told them. Over the years, U.S. attack subs had been picking up weight from thicker diving armor, larger sonars and sound-dampening systems.
The 29 knots of the USS Skipjack, the first prototype of the modern fleet attack submarine, had dropped embarrassingly to 25 knots in the USS Sturgeon, the lead ship of the current attack-boat class. Meanwhile, the Soviets appeared headed for 35 knots or more, giving their boats a crucial tactical advantage.
Rickover urged the congressional leadership to take the long view of history -- to rise above transitory political and budgetary pressures and look into the future through the dark portent of Soviet naval superiority.
He told the lawmakers that they could counter this Soviet submarine effort for a negligible amount of money -- just enough to build the first high-speed power plant, its reactor, turbines and gear train for installation in a prototype submarine. But what Rickover had said was not the case, and everyone in the defense establishment knew it.
Opposition to Rickover's high-speed submarine formed quickly in the Navy and among the civilian leaders in the Defense Department where it was regarded as too large, too noisy and too expensive: It would cost twice as much as the current Sturgeon-class attack boat. The Navy's submarine design desk was then headed by Capt. Donald H. Kern, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained naval architect, whose staff had come up with an alternative: the Conform submarine.
Conform stood for "concept formulation," and Kern argued to the Navy brass that he could build a lighter, faster and quieter submarine for only a marginal increase in cost over then-current models. It would be powered by a natural circulation reactor, also developed by Rickover's naval reactors branch, and would use twin propellers on the same drive shaft for greater thrust.
But Rickover saw the Conform effort as a threat to his high-speed prototype, whose giant reactor plant, turbines and gear train already were under development at the General Electric Co. So Rickover, with help from Chief of Naval Operations Moorer, set out to roll over the Conform project.
Six weeks after the Enterprise incident, seven submarine commanders met in Barracks K in Arlington. Most of them owed their training and their commands to Rickover, and they had been given 90 days -- working in secret -- to come up with a design for America's next nuclear attack submarine. Its hull number gave it a name: the SSN 688. The only condition was that it carry the propulsion plant that Rickover wanted.
There was little time to do anything but validate the submarine Rickover was convinced he could get to sea faster than any other new sub.
For Rickover, the ad hoc panel of submarine commanders established by the chief of naval operations effectively supplanted the Conform project -- without ever saying so and without disturbing its continued operation -- and it would replace the independent-minded Kern with Rickover loyalists.
The submarine commanders, however, soon made a disturbing discovery. Rickover's high-speed prototype was going to have trouble breaking even 30 knots. Though it had doubled its horsepower, the 688 would have to be a much heavier submarine to accommodate the giant propulsion plant.
The reactor compartment alone was going to be 400 tons heavier, and the ship was going to have to be 60 feet longer to balance out the weight of the engine room.
The first big task of the panel was to look for excess baggage they could cut out of the ship to make it lighter. They considered taking out the auxiliary diesel and the extra air-conditioning unit Rickover had insisted on carrying over the years, but Rickover sent word that these backup systems were not negotiable.
That left only one place where they could get the kind of weight reduction they needed: the hull.
And so a panel of seven submarine commanders made the fundamental and fateful compromise that would haunt the 688-class submarine until the end of the century. They gave up what U.S. submarines had had since 1961: the ability to dive to 1,300 feet, the ability to run silent below the deep thermal cline -- a water layer in the ocean that sonar beams could not penetrate -- and to head for the bottom to let the sea and not the sub absorb the impact of an enemy weapon explosion.
By shaving the thickness of the hull, the panel got most of the weight savings the commanders were after, but they substantially narrowed the band of ocean in which the submarine could operate: no deeper than 950 feet. In the holy trinity of speed, stealth and depth, the submarine commanders had sacrificed one important attribute to acquire another. The 688's design speed was set at 32 knots.
Panel members believed they were making a temporary depth tradeoff on a single submarine. They believed that the Navy, after a few years -- at least by the mid-1970s -- would design a new class of attack boats with a new and stronger hull steel that would allow future ships to reclaim the depth they were sacrificing. But they were wrong.
When they were all done, members of the panel presented their findings in a two-volume report and the vice chairman, Capt. Joe Williams Jr., briefed the secretary of the Navy: "Mr. Secretary, the SSN 688 will meet the threat to the year 2000 with dramatically improved antisubmarine warfare capabilities over the 637 [Sturgeon]-class and the restored speed advantage we have lost over the years . . . . "
He did not mention depth. And no one asked.
Files on Conform Submarine Were Burned
Rickover had won. By the middle of 1969, the Nixon administration had requested funding for the first dozen 688-class submarines.
At the same time, the submarine desk was broken up and its functions dispersed. Never again did the sum of its parts challenge Rickover's control over nuclear submarine design. Kern, who had never worried about rank in his life, would never have to worry about it in the future after Rickover tagged him as the obstructionist who had tried to slow down the 688.
Kern was transferred to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and three years later retired from the Navy, privately accusing Rickover of selling the service an inferior class of submarine whose higher speed would be offset by the disadvantages of shallower running and whose other internal components would carry unnecessary weight to absorb shocks at 1,300 feet, a depth the ship would never see.
The defense contractors who participated in the preliminary design work on the Conform submarine lost their funding and, some time later, the thousands of pages of files, technical studies and reports on the fast, deep-diving submarine called Conform were burned.
NEXT: the General Dynamics-Rickover deal
This series of articles is drawn from "Running Critical: The Silent War, Rickover and General Dynamics," to be published next month by Harper & Row. For the book Patrick E. Tyler interviewed Adm. Hyman G. Rickover; longtime General Dynamics Corp. Chairman David S. Lewis: P. Takis Veliotis, the General Dynamics shipbuilding executive now living in Greece to avoid being prosecuted in this country for accepting kickbacks on ship construction, and scores of officials of the U.S. Navy and General Dynamics. The book is also based on tens of thousands of internal General Dynamics documents, confidential Navy records and tape recordings and other documents made available by Veliotis in Athens.