I have taken a couple week hiatus from posting regularly on the site, I needed a break. Often times when you are away from something you question the need of it, and this site that I have put an ungodly amount of hours into over the past few years is no different. Then I posted this little piece, that originated from an email from a photographer buddy, asking for the identity of a strange sized submarine sitting on a barge at Naval Base Kitsap in Bremerton, Washington. Tens of thousands of hits, many comments, and about three dozen emails from folks from many different background, ranging from people who live in Bremerton to those who actually served on the submarine in question, and we now not only have our answer but a reinvigorated owner of Aviationintel.com as well! I cannot appreciate all my readers who took the time to answer my simple question and chose to interact with our little community here. Without further adieu, here is our answer, and it is more interesting than I would have ever imagined, not to mention it has a major military aviation history tie in to boot:
Meet the US Navy’s NR-1! This totally unique machine, which I had no clue existed until yesterday, is an utterly mind blowing modern marvel. In essence the NR-1 is a miniature nuclear submarine with an endurance only limited to how much waste and food it could hold. That’s right folks, a 150′ long, 12.5′ wide nuclear submarine!
The NR-1 packs a crew of about a dozen top notch Navy submariners in ridiculously cramped corders, has wheels for roaming on the sea floor, large windows and highly sensitive cameras for observing and documenting its environment, multiple remote manipulator arms, a recovery grappling claw and even outboard baskets for picking up and even recovering objects of interest. She was equipped with an array of high fidelity sonars tailored to different viewing vectors and different mission profiles, as well as laser line scanning equipment for precision maneuvering and distance measuring. The NR-1 even had a “jetting” tool for uncovering sand and silt covered objects on the sea floor.
NR-1, affectionately known by its crews as “Nerwin,” was built as a ocean “research” submersible, but as you probably have already figured out, science was only one part of its mission. This pocket sized nuclear sub was commissioned in 1969 and had a career much larger than its diminutive size. NR-1 used its unique ability to dive to over 3,000 feet to conduct some awesome science in its time. Many unique undersea features were mapped and historic shipwrecks were explored over its operational lifespan, yet the boat’s most notable utility was for salvage operations and, that is right you guessed it, espionage.
“Nerwin” was used for locating and recovering sensitive pieces of American and Soviet military hardware that had been lost at sea. Its incredibly precise navigation system and sonar arrays could find what other surface vessels, and even mainline submarines, could not. It is known to have plucked nuclear submarine components from the seabed, both American and Russian, as well as recovering combat aircraft, and their sensitive munitions, that had met their end via an impact with the sea.
Once particular mission really stands out as an amazing Cold War story, in 1976 the USS John F. Kennedy lost a then cutting edge F-14A Tomcat at sea, which was loaded with America’s state of the art long range missile, the AIM-54 Phoenix. The jet was almost entirely intact as it entered the ocean after a taxiing mishap before launch, hitting the water’s surface at very low speed. A Soviet cruiser shadowing the fleet made note of the incident and immediately the race for recovery was on. Hanging in the balance was America’s primary deterrent against Soviet attack on US Carrier Battle Groups, a weapon system Russian feared and would have done almost anything to get their hands on…
To continue with this story you must link over to Historic Wings to enjoy this exceptionally well written and never heard before Cold War tale. Seriously, this is a quick must read that really highlights what the NR-1 is capable of and is a new piece of Tomcat history for you to enjoy!: http://fly.historicwings.com/2012/09/tomcat-deep/
The NR-1 went on to recover pieces of the Space Shuttle Challenger, discover new types of marine biology, as well as conduct shadowy missions for the DoD and probably the CIA. Missions such as splicing into undersea communications networks and listening posts were rumored to have been a key use of this daring little ship and her brave crews. In the 1990’s, similar to its Tomcat and Phoenix missile recovery mission some twenty years earlier, the NR-1 helped find and pluck an F-15E from the sea floor. The little sub did not only scavenge and explore, it also built as well. The Navy utilized its unique capabilities to deploy sensitive underwater listening systems and help maintain other clandestine installations. From what I can tell a good portion of the NR-1s colorful past remains locked in secrecy. The ship was decommissioned in 2008 as her archaic subsystems were said to be to expensive to support and maintain. Representative Joe Courtney passed a bill to support the transfer and preservation of the NR-1 for museum display. Sadly, much like the similarly spectacular Cold War weapons the Hughes Mining Barge and the Stealthy Lockheed Sea Shadow, it looks like the NR-1 could not find a home or funding to get their before it met the scrapper’s torch.
Considering the incredible accomplishment that the NR-1 represents, one has to wonder why such a seemingly genius capability was not improved upon and deployed in greater numbers for more conventional missions? The NR-1 was an experimental one of a kind machine from the get go. Although it had incredible endurance and unprecedented capabilities, it also lacked performance and capabilities in other key areas as well. For a machine that could continue operations without end it had incredibly poor accommodations, bordering on WWI standards (no shower on-board the NR-1!). In fact the US Navy called the ship their “inner Space Shuttle!” Additionally, the NR-1 could not dump its waste due to its need to dive so deep (apertures in the hull weaken a sub’s pressure rating), so at a certain point it had to come up for servicing even if there was plenty of provisions left on-board. Additionally, it was slow, only being able to muster about three to four knots submerged and it used much of its power fighting strong undersea currents during certain sensitive missions. None-the-less the boat avoided hurricanes on multiple occasions by simply staying well below the surface as the storm passed overhead. For long range missions it worked best with a tender ship nearby to deploy it, especially for sensitive recovery operations in the middle of the ocean. Still, for being designed in the 1960s as a best guess experiment, the NR-1 was not only a huge success, it also seems wildly relevant in today’s day and age.
Certainly, the few issues that the boat had could have been overcome in subsequent designs and the system as a whole could be improved upon greatly. Thus I am surprised that follow on NR-1 types of mini-nuclear subs were not built, especially for clandestine operations such as surveillance and special forces delivery in littoral areas. Even as an attack weapon the deep diving, long endurance NR-1 seemed like a near perfect weapon for ambushing Soviet nuclear subs along their known patrol routes.
If you really think about it, today the Navy could really use a new class of NR-1 type submarines. Sure, modern remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) have become common place when it comes to underwater exploration, construction and salvage operations, yet America’s focus on naval warfare in the shallows, including mine neutralization and special forces infiltration/exfiltration seems to be tailored to a design like the NR-1. In fact now that some of the mammoth Ohio Class SSBNs have been converted to Tomahawk chucking and special forces carrying SSGNs maybe the perfect mother-ship for a NR-1 like mini nuclear combat sub has finally arrived, offering the capability to forward deploy, service, and recover such a vessel over long ranges while remaining totally undetected.
With the little NR-1’s wild endurance and its ability to wait for weeks on the sea floor, all the while keeping its occupants in a normal atmospheric environment, its capabilities seem just too good to pass up. If 1960’s vintage nuclear reactor and subsystem components were miniaturized using modern technology, and an airlock system was installed (which could also work as mating hatch for an SSGN in a “parasite” configuration) the Navy and the special forces community would have an asset that has been dreaming about for decades. I find it funny how so many of military’s unfulfilled solutions have already been designed decades ago with drafting tables and slide rulers. I believe the NR-1 may be the biggest example of this phenomenon I have ever seen…
Here is to an obscure and daring little submarine and her heroic crews and creative designers! We can only hope that your legacy lives on in a highly clandestine submarine program based on the success of the NR-1. If it does not than the DoD has once again decided to look everywhere but its own history books for solutions to its smattering unconventional of wants and needs…
For more on the NR-1 I found this book on Amazon!– http://www.amazon.com/Dark-Waters-Insiders-WarsUndercoverNuclear-Undercover/dp/0451211618 It has five stars from readers and looks like a fantastic read. I will order a copy and try to put in the lineup for future review, maybe you should too!
Also, it was great hearing from so many new voices concerning this mystery, please if you visit this site regularly post a comment or shoot me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) to introduce yourself, I would greatly appreciate it!