I was about five years old when the work was started that created the Polaris Missile Submarine Program. If you think about the complexities of that time frame, there were six distinct challenges facing the Navy and their civilian counterparts. Despite the advent of nuclear power, the systems that needed to be created were all just unmet goals when the program was put into motion. The challenges of meeting so many technological advances at the same time must have been a true test of the engineers and technicians assigned to the work. The whole program had to be constructed and delivered so that a working solution could be in place in less than four years.
First, the missile itself. Up until that point liquid-fueled missiles were the only option so a solid fuel rocket option needed to be developed. There was an effort to create such a rocket for the ICBM land based missiles, but it was not yet perfected. A combination of work from the Lockheed corporation and Aerojet General resulted in the successful creation of a solution. On the 20th of July 1960 the first missile was fired from the submerged USS George Washington SSBN 598.
Missile guidance guidance was also an unknown factor and new developments were needed to accurately deliver a missile downrange. SO General Electric and MIT worked together to develop miniaturized inertial components that could be used to put the missile on target.
The complexity of navigation and estimated range to a particular target required an accurate system of determining where the boat was at any given time. If you think about it, you have a moving submarine that is constantly changing its position. You have to be able to somehow tell the missile where it is and where it needs to go and have that message updated to a very fine point of accuracy. Granted, if you are delivering a nuclear weapon, it will probably have a rather large footprint, but the accuracy of delivery does give some options to limit civilian casualties.
The fire control system and the launcher both presented their own unique challenges. Again, a missile being fired from below the surface of the sea (without destroying the submarine in its path) had never been done before. Prior to this program, ships like the Halibut could fire early cruise missiles but they needed to be on the surface.
Finally the submarine itself needed to be able to adapt to the weapon’s firing capabilities. If you launch a missile, the submarine suddenly has a completely different displacement which could result in an unplanned depth excursion. Plus, in order not to show the enemy where the boat was with any certainty, the ability to rapidly fire the missiles needed to be compensated for.
All of the various forces, combined with the crews that pioneered the boat’s operations proved that with the right common thread, a project as immense and strategically important could be put together in a relatively compact time period. The common thread was a projected threat that the Soviets had initiated with their land based weapons systems and their displayed arrogance towards national sovereignty.
The question in today’s environment is this: will we still have the ability and the will to find that common thread for the next threat? If history is any judge, there will be a next threat. We will need to continue to maintain our technological edge in the world if we are to be ready to face it when it fully appears. The shear weight of that potential threat demands it.