The space systems engineering curriculum at the Naval Postgraduate School offered only one class on manned spaceflight. The professor began the class by summarizing the accomplishments of NASA in low earth orbit.

After 20 minutes of orbit corrections, maneuver, docking, spacewalks, and other early space program breakthroughs, a student finally raised his hand and said, “Professor, you do know that NASA put men on the moon, don’t you?”

I had a similar reaction at the 26 October commissioning of the USS Indianapolis (LCS-17) in Burns Harbor, Indiana. More than 10,000 attendees sat in a cold rain listening to six nearly identical speeches. It was as if the speechwriters all drew from the same incomplete Wikipedia article. Each speech started on the right note, regaling the accomplishments of the storied cruiser of the same name, USS Indianapolis (CA-35), and honoring the four survivors in attendance. Since I have been working with the cruiser survivors for more than 20 years, I know that no matter how many times their story is told, it is not enough.

But then each speaker attempted to highlight the service of the submarine I had commanded, USS Indianapolis (SSN-697), with a short statement about the submarine’s contributions to ending the Cold War.1 Because this was the only SSN-697 accomplishment cited by any of the six speakers, at the end of the ceremony I was tempted to say to the assembled group of senior leaders, “You do know the Cold War ended in 1989, don’t you?”2

The point of highlighting the accomplishments of earlier ships named Indianapolis at the LCS-17 commissioning should have been to convey to the crew the legacy they were inheriting, and to “connect the dots” for the attending public. If so, an opportunity was missed to educate the attendees, as well as many more watching online, on U.S. submarine force contributions after the Cold War.

While this may seem a minor point on such a momentous occasion, each speech minimized or ignored the contributions of hundreds of sailors who conducted missions that were vitally important, incredibly difficult, and often even more dangerous than the Cold War missions these leaders referenced. Nearly all of SSN-697’s major accomplishments, which include Battle Efficiency awards and a Navy Unit Commendation, occurred after the Cold War ended.

While it is reasonable to expect senior Navy and defense leaders to educate themselves on the history of the ships on which they are commenting, the ceremony’s incomplete narrative is not entirely the fault pf the speakers. The submarine force has not done a good job of telling its post–Cold War history and so the misperception proliferates.

The speeches were founded on a simple, common, but erroneous narrative that can be captured in these two bullets:

  • The Los Angeles–class submarine = The Hunt for Red October (Cold War)
  • The Virginia-class submarine = everything since

That narrative is wrong.

Having served in Los Angeles–class submarines for two junior-officer tours, two department head tours, a commanding officer tour, and a commodore tour—nine boats spanning from before to well after the end of the Cold War—I can correct the record.3

While the Cold War is regarded as beginning a short time after the end of World War II and ending in 1989, the USS Los Angeles (SSN-688) was not commissioned until 1977. When I reported to my first submarine in 1981, there were only four Los Angeles-class submarines in my homeport of Pearl Harbor.4 And the early years for those submarines were rough.

Because spare parts had been underfunded so drastically in the late 1970s, three of the submarines had to be cannibalized to get the fourth underway. In the 1980s, construction of these nuclear-powered attack submarines accelerated rapidly, and, by 1984, almost all were operational. Thus, much older Permit– (SSN-594) and Sturgeon-class (SSN-637) submarines conducted the vast majority of Cold War operations from the 1960s through 1989. Most Los Angeles–class submarines had only a few years of Cold War operations before the Berlin Wall came down.

This is not to imply these submarines did not contribute to winning the Cold War—they certainly did. I served in Los Angeles boats during the Cold war for five “missions of vital security to the defense of the United States” (as they were officially referred to), and I can certify that their contribution was immense. There are no submarines I would rather have crewed at that time than the USS Omaha (SSN-692), Indianapolis, and Buffalo (SSN-715)—my boats through the end of the Cold War. But the Cold War ended just a few years into the life of the Los Angeles class itself, and the subsequent missions those submarines were tasked to conduct changed drastically.

By the early 1990s, the only fast-attack submarines left in the force were the Los Angeles-class. This is when they really began to shine, as the post–Cold War contributions of the class were even greater than during the Cold War. The SSN-688 boats were designed in the late 1960s and early 1970s to be very fast and keep up with, screen, and protect carrier battlegroups against enemy submarines. While they were very fast, by the 1990s they rarely conducted the carrier screening missions. Instead, their speed allowed them to dart from one hotspot to another to monitor evolving situations and provide “eyes on” for the National Command Authority, improving an understanding about what was really happening in those areas. Their stealth allowed them to do this in an unprovocative manner. Nobody knew where they were, unless we wanted them to know.

Their highly capable sensors allowed them to sweep the electromagnetic spectrum for every kind of signal, from weapon testing to terrorist planning. Their weapons allowed them to strike more than a thousand miles inland, while also holding any seaborne target vulnerable to neutralization. Their special-operations capability allowed them to conduct covert insertions, extractions, and interdiction missions. And their superb maneuverability allowed them to get into much more difficult areas than needed during the Cold War, a critical factor considering the targets that now needed monitoring.

The Los Angeles class is a fantastic class of submarine, straddling the twilight years of the Cold War through the present day. While details of their missions will likely be classified longer than I will be alive, the achievements of the crews who served in them after the Cold War’s end were greater than most might imagine.

This was true for the USS Indianapolis (SSN-697), and I regret not a word about this was uttered at the LCS-17 commissioning. The Los Angeles–class submarine is still serving our country today. Let us hope U.S. leaders figure that out and start giving the post–Cold War Los Angeles–class sailors their due.

  1. I actually served on USS Indianapolis (SSN-697) three times: two tours during the Cold War (junior officer and department head) and one tour after the Cold War ended as commanding officer.
  2. Based on the declaration by George H. W. Bush on 3 December 1989.
  3. From 1981 through 2004, I also served a junior-officer tour in the USS Omaha (SSN-692) and a department-head tour in the Buffalo (SSN-715). As commodore of Submarine Squadron 3, I had six Los Angeles–class submarines in my squadron: the USS Olympia (SSN-717), Chicago (SSN-721), Key West (SSN-722), Louisville (SSN-724), Helena (SSN-725), and Columbia (SSN-771). The only tour I served away from the Los Angeles–class was as executive officer of the USS Florida (SSBN-728) (Gold).
  4. The USS Los Angeles (SSN-688), Omaha (SSN-692), New York City (SSN-696), and Indianapolis (SSN-697).

By Captain William Toti, U.S. Navy (Retired)