Electric Drive Submarine[EDS] 1968-9: US Navy and Atomic Energy Committee

Wyatt  Reader M.A.'s picture
 An exchange between Congressman Chet Holifield [D] California and VAdm. H. Rickover [USN] during Joint Atomic Energy Committee Hearings in 1968 highlighted one of the US Navy's most important considerations during the 1960s era, now more than 50 years previously. 

The Joint Committee, along with Armed Services Committee were two of the Electric Drive Submarine's supporters, and with their urging, Navy budget inclusion saw plans for development in 1970. This electric drive submarine, though mentioned in the public Reports from 89th Congress, was highly classified and indicated the US Navy concerns for advancing beyond just nuclear powered submarine technology and propulsion. There were at least a couple of reasons. One of these involved the undersea noise factors from operating nuclear propulsion. Electric Drive offered a quiter and less dectectable submarine and it was one of the early indications for environmental history in technology and its effects upon the ocean environment covering 70% of the Earth.

A cleaner technology had its own advantages and historically would move forward beyond the limitations found in nuclear propulsion, even though 1968 marked a watershed year for developing nuclear power in aircraft carriers and the US Navy transition to nuclear powered surface ships.

Had a once in lifetime opportunity to see the EDS, from a distance, while it was being developed. The submarine reminded very much of Jules Verne and his classic Capt. Nemo submarine from his literary fiction. It was only a moment in time but portended the future of Navy history.

Wyatt Reader MA

Source: Hearings/ Report Joint Atomic Energy Committee, US Congress Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, 1969 [Wednesday, April 21. 1969] reference included pp.24-5; also reference p.163 re: Committee concerns for advances in Soviet nuclear submarines and need for electric drive submarines to counter Soviet threat in submarine warfare. Committee does not understand US Navy delays in developing EDS.


At a guess, this is a somewhat garbled reference to U.S.S. Glenard P. Lipscomb (SSN 685), a unique-design turboelectric drive nuclear submarine that entered service in 1975. It shared the same S5W nuclear reactor that powered most U.S. nuclear subs of its era and a steam turbine that was highly similar to theirs. The difference was that instead of connecting to the propeller shaft through the locked-train double-reduction gear drive of other SSNs, SSN 685's turbine drove a large turbogenerator which in turn fed current to a large motor that drove the prop. This complication made its secondary plant bulkier and heavier than that of the contemporary SSN 637 (Sturgeon) class, and thus resulted in lower top speed. Like its namesake, Lipscomb died young, being scrapped after only 15 years of service. 

I once had occasion to sit in on a discussion of experimental submarines with Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, USN, who directed the nuclear power program. He was at pains to insist that experimentation was of value only if it made room for failure, and that failure could teach as much or more than success. He specifically identified Lipscomb as one of his less successful experiments. As the technology of SSN 685's secondary plant had little element of novelty to it I had never understood what he could reasonably have expected to learn from it. When I raised the question, however, he brushed it off.

For what it is worth, in my estimation Chet Holifield was not one of the brighter lights in the Congressional firmament. 

The nearly-contemporary U.S.S. Narwhal (SSN-671) was a more ventursome and productive experiment whose career lasted twice as long as Lipscomb's.

William D. O'Neil


Do not know the answer to question re: VADM Rickover; do know he had the ability to ignore when he chose that route.

Yes, the EDS, believe known also as the SSE-1, was same as the SSN mentioned. In the text of Committee Hearings they were mentioned in succeeding paragraphs and in language close enough to indicate your conclusion.

As for Congressman Holifield, could not tell you anything except do not think you would want to cross him. He was accomplished enough to become a House Chair of the Joint Atomic Energy Committee.

The NR-1, USS Narwhal was planned as a next subject for posting; since you mention it, its Research and Development purpose was likely more successful. Rickover further indicated some 60 new developments were part of the submarine and he claimed its test went successfully. A then-future technology for what became the submarine forces of the US during the last half of the 20th Century.

Many more points Rickover made in his 69 statement concerned the growing Soviet Russia threat in submarines and warfare at that time, which the US Navy needs to match and exceed, were very important parts to his views then [including numbers of subs] and his views on DOD and management practices. Some of this was tied to developments in the McNamara years as SecDef.
One of the more interesting parts also, concerned his tables on Port radiation contamination from nuclear vessels as Environmental problems.