Key Point: These submarines were a technological advancement no doubt. But this imperfect leap came at the loss of many lives.
The United States launched the first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, in 1954, revolutionizing undersea warfare. The Nautilus’s reactor allowed it operate underwater for months at a time, compared to the hours or days afforded conventional submarines. The following year, the Soviet Union began building its own nuclear submarine, the Project 627—known as the November class by NATO. The result was a boat with a few advantages compared to its American competition, but that also exhibited a disturbing tendency to catastrophic accidents that would prove characteristic of the burgeoning Soviet submarine fleet during the Cold War.
The original specifications drafted in 1952 for a Soviet nuclear submarine had conceived of employing them to launch enormous nuclear torpedoes at enemy harbors and coastal cities. At the time, the Soviet Union lacked the long-range missiles or bombers that could easily hit most of the continental United States. However, as these capabilities emerged in the mid-1950s, the Project 627 design was revised to reflect an antiship role, with eight torpedo tubes located in the bow and combat systems taken from Foxtrot-class diesel submarines.