698 had the oldest…

I was inspired by a recent Facebook post by shipmate Nate Neely who thought a meme stating “Join the U.S. Navy and work with yesterday’s technology, tomorrow!” was entertaining. As a result, I thought of an appropriate application to the USS Bremerton when I served on her from 1983-1986.

A decal from the Badfish’s Decommissioning banquet, designed by shipmate and sonarman Rich Crombie


The AN/BQQ-5 was an advanced technology sonar suite, a digitally processed system built, primarily by IBM, that incorporated many of the sensors and analog components made by Raytheon, Hughes and other manufacturers.

The IBM based Q-5 sonar system received raw data from multiple hydrophone arrays similarly to its predecessor, the AN/BQS-13, whose game changing upgrade was the transducer filled spherical array housed in the bow dome. The Q-5 took advantage of digital processing to provide several modes of operations, outputting to three identical operator stations for both multimode capability as well as redundancy. This gave the Q-5 the ability to integrate former stand alone pieces of sonar classification equipment used on early submarine classes. Along with enhanced digital audio and analog audio options, the Q-5 offered a variety of CRT based display options.

“AN/UYK-7 Computer”Control Display Units (CDCs) in a LAB environment (source: americanhistory.si.edu)

I heard back in the day, in its original proposed designs the Q-5 was not equipped with headset audio. To that Pollyannish limitation, any fleet sonarman would say, “You must be out of your mind.”

The Q-5 did have the trademark waterfall displays, which under the dark blue “mood” lights of a quiet sonar shack (back when 688s had real sonar shacks) were the most distinctive attraction for visitors to sonar who needed a nature break from the rigid environment of piping, valves, electrical conduits, green paint, commonly found in the rest of the boat.

A Q-5 waterfall display similar to the ones in 1983-1986, sometimes, if you were lucky, you could come into sonar and listen and “see” the whales nearby (source: pbs.org) Imagine six of these big screens in a darkened room with blue lights and 5 or 6 sonarmen.

THE UYK-7 – Origins stemming from 1957

At the heart of the Q-5 sonar was the systems mainframe computer, the “brains” of the system. Originally designed to virtually flawless operation with the IBM 360, the Navy opted to substitute the IBM mainframe with a stalwart computer whose design origins can be traced back late 1957 (ethw.org). The substitute computer was called the AN/UYK-7,  which began winning government contracts late in 1967 (ethw.org).

Aboard 698, the UYK-7, affectionately known among sonarmen as the “JUNK-7”, also gracing our makeshift lyrics to Olivia-Newton John’s hit “Let’s get Physical” with “Let’s get Digital (Listen to my UYK talk).”

Olivia says, “Let’s Get Physical” (source: yourworkoutbook.com) No, we say,  “Let’s get Digital”

The UYK-7 was built by Sperry-Univac and was controlled by a manual interface that is commonly mounted detached from the mainframe. Conducting diagnostics on the computer required extensive training in machine language to run maintenance and to operate. A good human memory was critical in doing any operations quickly with the system underway since without it, no Q-5 sonar signals are being processed and that presents a hazardous condition, especially in a tactical situation. The UYK-7 came with small quick reference handbooks that were often useless under stress.

The main frame itself contained a CPU unit, an IO Controller and two types of memory in huge Army/Navy bomb proof spec units. Memory could be either a magnetic core non-volatile read only that would survive without power and  a DDM (double density “film”) volatile memory that was the working area for processing the 360 degree data coming in from the spherical, hull and towed array sensors.

One thing was for sure, it looked like a computer that could feasibly take a liberal beating and keep on ticking.

A two bay model of the AN/UYK-7 main frame computers made by Sperry-Univac. A legacy of mil-spec related development from the late 1950s. (source: collection.arck-project.org) The BREMERTON’s original sonar system used only one.

By 1983, there were several revisions of the IBM system, there was even a “Q-6” used on the Ohio Class missile submarines that had all the bells and whistles a sonar needed when your main task is meant to be a far away from anything as possible, which is not the case with a fast attack. There were already major revisions to the Q-5 by the time I reported to Bremerton: the Q-5A and Q-5B and the Q-5C, all of which used multiple UYK-7’s to provide advanced processing capabilities,  but the USS Bremerton SSN-698, from its beginnings and beyond 1986 was blessed with not 2… not 3… not 4 but an awe-inspiring ONE UYK-7.


Q-5 FY-79  The Cadillac of Q-5 Sonar Systems

The USS Bremerton, the fastest nuclear fast attack submarine in the U.S. Navy was equipped with the oldest seagoing Q-5 afloat.

I’ve had a discussion with Jeff Marcey, the other Advanced Q-5 tech who served from 1982-1986, and we disagree which serial number the 698’s Q-5 had. He thinks it was A-1, I think it was A-3, possibly A-4.  What we both agree on is the Bremerton’s Q-5 sonar system was original equipment on the USS Los Angeles – SSN 688 and on the LA, it ran so terribly, it was ripped out and revamped at IBM, in time for installation on Bremerton.

There are some thoughts about where A-1 and A-2 were. A-1 could have been a prototypes in IBM Manassas, Virginia,  and A-2 a trainer at Fleet ASW Training Center in San Diego. But I would have to dig around to confirm. That’s why I tend to remember 698 having A-3, as it was stamped on the IBM ID plate on the Sonar Supervisor Console in sonar.

If you think being the oldest sonar system in the fleet was bad, think again. Called the AN/BQQ-5 FY-79, It didn’t garner a letter designation, but it was the purest form of the original design and unhindered by the revisions that caused certain un-reliabilities. Thanks to the sonar division and a command who understood the value of submarine sonar, the Bremerton had the one of the best operating Q-5s in our squadron. We called it “The Cadillac of Q-5s” being the oldest cat in the neighborhood.

698 was a fast boat, the fastest in 688 history, and she had her sensor technology pushed to the limit. Uncle SAM got his money’s worth.

Vintage Decal available free with a SASE (click image to link)

In a large team of talented and skilled sonarmen, I do not hesitate to give Jeff Marcey credit for his focused, skilled work, and technical leadership on the Q-5, a credit to his father who made the pre-Navy Jeff try to fix any broken machine or appliance they could find.  Jeff was one of the savviest sonar technicians ever to don a pair of dolphins, who sacrificed a lot of qualification time to help ready the Q-5 for the performance she ultimately was capable of.  With an attrition rate of 50% in his Advanced Q-5 Sonar Maintenance Training Course pipeline it was like the BUDS of sonar training, but he survived the very high standards the Navy had for the first “209” Maintenance Courses. Nevertheless, it took a lot of team work to straighten the Bremerton’s Q-5 out, and it does take a good team of sonarmen to maintain a big system, to operate it properly, to treat it right, and to keep it functioning well.



A fast attack is equipped with several sonar systems aside from the Q-5. Most of these systems fell under the care of the “Space Techs”. These sonar technicians learned their skills in the Navy’s Space Maintenance program where they became experts in these accessory equipments. Most of these systems were carryovers from the 637 Class and were updated versions of analog-component based systems with solid state upgrades. It was said that, by and large, the Space Maintenance techs were better electricians due to the nature of their equipment.



Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) was the name of the silent game and the Bremerton was destined to grab her share of the quiet glory. Successful U.S. Navy submarine operations helped bring an end to the “first” Cold War.

Between 1983 through 1986, with the FY-79, Bremerton was awarded two Navy Unit Citations, Two Battle “E”s, Three Sea Service awards, and the Expeditions Award. This does not include her exploits coming from Groton to Pearl and other operations between 1981 through 1982 which I cannot personally attest to. I’ll let the Bremerton plankowners, under the command of CAPT. Thomas H. Anderson, tackle that one.


During my service time, Bremerton had the honor of serving under two Commanding Officers, CAPT Douglas S. Wright and CAPT Alan R. Beam, whose sub-driving styles matched our operations very well. Sonar also served with two fine and cosmically different sonar chiefs, Ric May and Master Chief Bill Brehler. In less than a 3 year ride, the officers and crew had the privilege of being involved in a wide spectrum of ASW related operations in which the Q-5 FY-79 sonar system proved to be extremely capable from end to end.

So Nate, yes, we’ll take on all comers with yesterday’s technology tomorrow.



Feature image source: “AN/UYK-7 Computer” is from ithistory.org

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