A decade that changed the world – FBM history from 1959-1969

A decade that changed the world – FBM history from 1959-1969

Nearly a decade of progress changed the face of submarine warfare and nuclear deterrence. Between 1959 and 1969, the Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarines went from concept to reality in a way that fundamentally changed the way two major powers viewed warfare and strategic deterrence.

The launching of SPUTNIK (a Soviet Satellite) ignited a race to place missiles on submarines. Land based and air launched weapons had been the primary means of offering a deterrent to nuclear war. The ability to weaponized space created a problem for both sides since over the horizon missile attacks could essentially neutralize any advantage either side held.

The answer was to finally marry the two technologies that had been created in a post war period. Nuclear energy propelled a number of submarines and provided for the first real submarine in history. These submarines could effectively operate at great depths and speeds and were not compelled to rise to the surface to replenish their batteries. Early boats proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they could stay submerged for months not days.

The advent of rockets also changed warfare. In the past, naval ships could only threaten the coasts of an enemy with their guns. While missiles were to be added, the surface fleet was incredibly vulnerable to the threat from jets powered aircraft. Even with adequate defensive weapons, the most modern surface ship in the world can still be hit by a missile or advanced jet powered aircraft.

Ballistic Missile Submarines changed all of that. Stealthy, longer endurance at sea and improved guidance and technology showed that this fierce new weapon was different. With over three fourths of the world covered in water in which to hide. A submarine that could deliver an accurate missile was an astounding achievement.

The system that could produce such a threat had to be created too. Nothing like this had ever been done in such a short period of time so a modern management system and support structure were created. It’s hard to believe that a mere 14 months passed from signing the contracts to finishing the first operation boat with weapons ready to launch.

This is their story from 1959 to 1969.

The first part of the story comes from the January 1960 ALL HANDS magazine. The second part of the story comes nearly nine years later in a Navy publication called “The Submarine in the United States Navy”.

Both stories record the progress of the FBM Program.

January 1960 ALL HANDS

A NEW BREED OF NAVYMEN sails a radically new ship. A ship that introduces a new concept of naval power and has a mission as challenging as any that has ever confronted seafaring men in peace or war.

This is the Fleet Ballistic Missile submarine. It represents a partnership between two of the most revolutionary technical developments of our time—the nuclear-powered submarine and the ballistic missile.

USS George Washington, SSB (N) 598, is the Navy’s first FBM submarine. She was commissioned on 30 Dec 1959. Patrick Henry, SSB (N) 599, is the second and Theodore Roosevelt, SSB (N) 600, the third. They will all be operational before the end of this year.

Then there’s Robert E. Lee, SSB (N) 601, Abraham Lincoln, SSB (N) 602, and Ethan Allen, SSB (N) 608. They are scheduled to be commissioned in September and December 1960 and June 1961 respectively, and will join the Fleet during 1961.

In addition, Sam Houston, SSB (N) 609, Thomas A. Edison, SSB (N) 610, and John Marshall, SSB (N) 611, are being built. They will be launched next year and will go into service in 1962.

At present, these nine FBM submarines are the only ones that have been authorized. Long-range plans, however, call for a Fleet of approximately 40 ballistic missile submarines capable of carrying hundreds of Polaris missiles. George Washington and other FBM subs now under construction have 16 vertical tubes for launching Polaris missiles.

This Fleet will comprise a portion of this country’s deterrent retaliatory strength. It will confront any potential aggressor with serious problems and make him take a second look.


Let’s take a closer look at George Washington and see for ourselves.

Physically, Washington is an unusually long and heavy submarine, even by atomic standards. This black, blimp-shaped underwater monster is 380 feet from bow to stern and displaces 5400 tons on the surface and 6700 tons submerged. It cost about 110 million dollars to build. Her hull was patterned after USS Skipjack, SS (N) 585, the high-speed atomic sub which shattered all existing speed and depth records.

An all-out effort went into building Washington. Wartime phrases like “top priority,” “urgent” and “rush” became as commonplace in the shipyard that built her as did six- and seven-day weeks and 12- hour days for the designers, engineers, construction workers and crew who completed her in jig time. Our first Fleet ballistic missile submarine went from the drawing boards to launching in just 14 months after design specifications were approved.

The urgency of the FBM program required Washington’s builders liter- ally to split open the hull of the attack submarine Scorpion, SS (N) 589—then under construction—and insert her Polaris launching tubes; then turn the existing hull into that of Washington—about 130 feet longer than the Skipjack class sub that was originally on the building ways.

The story of Washington’s construction — which packs missile-launching pads and blockhouses into a comparatively few feet amidships—goes back to January 1958 when the Navy proposed further augmentation, calling for a nine SSBN capability by the end of 1961.

The preliminary designs and specifications of Washington were completed in less than two months after the Navy awarded the contract for construction of the first two FBMs. From that point on, it was a nip and tuck race between the designers and the shipbuilders.

Requiring over 3300 separate plans, the designers were barely able to keep ahead of the yard workers.

OVER 2500 TONS OF STEEL, 70 miles of cable, 105,600 feet of pipe, 67 tons of weld metal, 118 electric motors, 50-ton gyro stabilizers, as well as the nuclear reactor and its shielding, and scores of new types of electronic computers and navigational devices went into Washington.

The SSB (N) 598 is a precedent setter. Take its name for example. The Navy broke a tradition as old as the submarine service itself, when it named its first Fleet ballistic missile submarine. (Traditionally sub marines have been named for fish.)

Washington is the first U. S. sub marine since 1900 to be named for a person.

When the Navy acquired its first submarine in 1900, it was named Holland in honor of John P. Holland, its designer and builder. Immediately thereafter, the Navy began naming submarines for fish and sea Creatures.

This practice of naming subs after creatures of the sea pre-dated the Navy’s submarine force. David Bushnell, the Connecticut Yankee who built a one-man submersible in the Revolutionary War, called his craft Turtle. Then some years later Robert Fulton built a submarine which he named Nautilus.

In 1911, with a growing submarine Fleet, the Navy abandoned the practice of naming its underwater craft, and began to designate them by a letter-number combination.

This practice prevailed until the early 1930s when the Fleet-type subs went into production. With these Fleet boats, which bore the burden of undersea operations during World War II, names of fish were again used. The advent of the post-war nuclear Navy found submarines—such as Nautilus, Seawolf, Skate and Skipjack—still named for fish and other forms of sea life.

However, the Fleet ballistic missile subs posed a unique problem for the Navy, principally because they were to be strategic rather than tactical weapons.

A variety of names for the new class of submarines was proposed, such as states, cities and submarines lost in World War II. The Navy finally settled on famous Americans known for their dedication to the cause of freedom. George Washing- ton, appropriately enough, was the first.

WHEN THE MASS of steel and machinery was beginning to take the form of a ship, George Washington was assigned to Submarine Squadron 14—making it the first ship in naval history to be assigned to a Fleet unit even before it was built.

There was sound reasoning behind this assignment since the job of the paper squadron was to work out detailed training programs and FLEET ballistic submarine sailors get to know their sub on circuit trainer. Operational tactics for the FBM submarines and their crews—a task which does not require a ship in the initial stages.

SUBRON 14 become operational in the Pentagon at Washington, D. C., back in July 1958. It is scheduled to shift to New London, Conn., its home port, in the near future.

Heading SUBON 14 is Captain Norwell G. Ward, USN, a veteran submariner; Capt R. G. Anderson, USN, a pioneer in submarine- launched missiles, is his Chief Staff Officer. Many of the details concerning this unusual squadron are highly classified since it is primarily concerned with strategy and tactics.

As commodore of SUBRON 14, CAPT Ward eventually will have nine FBM submarines, a specially converted sub tender, and over 2500 Navymen under his command.

Because the mission of subRON 14 will be primarily strategic, as distinguished from the tactical operations of attack submarines against other submarines and surface ships, the over-all assignment of the squadron’s missions rests directly with the CNO and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

ANOTHER PRECEDENT that Washington claims is her Blue and Gold crew concept. She will be assigned two commanding officers and two complete crews—CDR James B. Osborne, USN, is CO of Washington’s Blue crew, while CDR John L. From, USN, will be skipper of the Gold crew—each consisting of 10 officers and 90 enlisted men.

The Blue crew, after undergoing extensive training, reported aboard Washington at Groton, Conn., last June, while the Gold crew reported in September. Since then, both crews have been working around the clock, getting the mobile missile base ready for sea.

Before and after reporting to Washington, both the Blue and Gold crews received identical training in the nuclear power plant, the Polaris. When USS George Washington, our first Fleet Ballistic Missile submarine, was commissioned on 30 Dec 1959, the alphabet symbolizing the Navy’s Nuclear Fleet was increased.

Washington’s SSB (N) designator was added to a list that already includes SS (N), SSR (N) and SSG (N). For the uninitiated, “SS” is the designation for submarine. The parenthetical “N” denotes nuclear powered. So far, the “R” is applied to only one nuclear sub—Uss Triton, SSR (N) 586. It stands for radar-picket. The “G” designates subs designed for launching the Regulus guided missile. Now being used in the Fleet.

The latest, “B” represents ballistic-missile firing and is applied to a new class of submarines of which Washington is the lead ship. This class is capable of firing the 1500- mile Polaris missile from either surface or submerged positions.

Washington, the SSB (N), 598, and her sister ships are 380 feet long and displace 6700 tons while in a submerged position.

The two-crew concept was adopted for Washington and other FBM submarines because they are slated to be on station almost constantly. Nuclear submarine operations are limited only by human endurance as demonstrated by the polar cruise of USS Nautilus SS (N) 571, and Skate, SS (N) 578, and the 60-day submerged cruise of USS Seawolf, SS (N) 575.

While one crew is at sea, the other will be ashore for rest, recreation and training at the FBM training facility at New London.

UNPRECEDENTED, too, is the mass of new shipboard equipment. Washington’s mission requires her to stay out of sight and sound. But to do this, the CO must have reliable methods of determining his position in reference to destination and potential targets. Thus, the most comprehensive battery of navigational instruments ever assembled in one ship has been installed in Washington and her sister ships.

Basic reference for Washington’s navigators (LT William H. Cossaboom, USN, Blue; and LT William P. St. Lawrence, Jr., USN, Gold), will be the Ship’s Inertial Navigation System (SINS). SINS enabled Nautilus and Skate to reach the North Pole under the polar ice cap. Three sets of SINS are installed in Washington—each one constantly checking the reliability of the others.

Nothing is left to chance. Navigators have at their fingertips many methods of obtaining information. They also have conventional equipment such as radar, magnetic compass, gyro compass and dead reckoning tracers.

The FBM subs are also equipped with a “TV-eye” for under-the-ice operations. This closed-circuit television system enables the crews to “see” the perpetually dark underside of the polar ice pack. Although underwater TV assures Washington and other FBM subs of safe sailing under the ice, FBM subs are also fitted with special stabilizing equipment that guarantees them smooth sailing even in storm seas while on the surface. They are equipped with an automatic torque- resisting device known as a gyro stabilizer that is mounted within the ship’s hull. A sensing gyroscope picks up the first indication of a rolling motion and activates a hydraulic system which resists the rolling force of wave action and keeps the 380 foot submarine on an even kneel.

ANOTHER WATCH DOG aboard Washington is the complex of electronic brains which make up the missile control station. Here are the devices which will maintain a constant check on the operational readiness of the missiles stowed in their launching tubes. Light signals warn of substandard conditions in any part of the system.

Each of the 16 Polaris missiles and their subsystems aboard George Washington will receive regular checks by the diagnostic electronic brains.

When the Polaris ballistic missiles shoot out of the vertical launching tubes aboard Washington and are projected into space, the Diving Officer and Chief of the Boat manning a panel in the submerged ship must keep the sub from recoiling like a howitzer.

Although Washington will not become fully operational for another four months, all eight of her engineering officers have already experienced what it’s like to stabilize a 380-foot sub when the 30-foot missiles are sent aloft.

During this training, each engineering officer and Chief of the Boat’ was given a near-hurricane sea condition under which to work and they were still able to perform adequately. A maze of red lights showed which missile had been selected to be fired. When the firing system was ready, the tube doors on deck were opened and the “bird” was on its way.

At the instant of launch, dials whirled to indicate tons of water being blown out to compensate for water pouring into the space vacated by the missile. An automatic compensation system accounted for this weight differential between missile and water but wave action and temperature gradients of the water at various depths still had to be counteracted.

For example: A one-degree temperature change can make a large difference in the ship’s submerged weight and, since the water temperature changes at various depths, the ballast control operator must compensate by taking in or blowing out water to stabilize the submarine.

IN ADDITION to carrying Polaris missiles for their primary deterrent role, Washington and other FBM submarines—like all other naval units—will perform other tasks. For instance, they will be good underwater listening posts; they will have active and passive sonar gear which makes them effective ASW weapons; and they will be armed with torpedoes for defense as well as for offensive purposes.

Washington has a fire control system which features an electronic brain that controls the torpedoes fired from her four bow tubes. This system is built around a computer that can go into action instantaneously. Can be operated by one man in emergency situations.

Using sonar or a combination of several sensing devices the system can determine an enemy ship’s position, direction and speed. The geometric problems involved in calculating the best means of aiming the torpedo to hit the enemy ship are then solved by the computer.

The operator is signaled when a solution has been obtained and then all he has to do is to push the appropriate button.

This system also includes a means of activating acoustical or homing torpedoes. When they have traveled a safe enough distance from the submarine, the torpedo is activated so that it will seek out the ship at which it is fired instead of homing on the submarine that fired it.

The Mark 112 consists of two primary units—the Attack Console in the ballistic missile sub’s attack center, and the Torpedo Control Unit in the forward torpedo room. This advanced system is also being installed in all other nuclear FBM, attack and ASW subs now being built.

—H. George Baker, JOC, USN. January 1960


The Submarine Force in 1969

The latest, and perhaps most spectacular, advancement came with the Polaris Fleet Ballistic Missile firing sub marines. These submarines can launch the Polaris solid-fuel missiles from beneath the surface and strike targets up to 2,500 miles away. The mobility and endurance of these submarines make them virtually invulnerable. This potent weapon system is a major advance in the steadily increasing relative importance of sea-based power. The Fleet Ballistic Missile weapon system was brought from conception to operation in less than four years, an unprecedented feat during peacetime.

The first Polaris-firing nuclear powered submarine, USS GEORGE WASHINGTON, was launched 9 June 1959 by Electric Boat Division, General Dynamics, and commissioned the following 30 December. On 20 July 1960 she launched the first two Polaris missiles ever fired from a submerged sub marine. On 15 November 1960 GEORGE WASHINGTON made the system operational when she went on patrol with 16 ready-to-fire nuclear-tipped Polaris missiles.

By the end of 1962 GEORGE WASHINGTON was joined by a second class of SSBNs, the ETHAN ALLENs, first to be designed from the keel up as Polaris firing submarines. On 1 April 1967 the last of the still larger LAFAYETTE class joined the fleet of SSBNs, bringing the number to the assigned goal of 41.

The Polaris A-l missile with a 1,200 nautical mile range has been retired from the fleet. Today in 1969 SSBNs are armed with the 1,500 mile A-2 and the 2,500 mile A-3.

Poseidon C-3, a submarine launched missile designed to double the payload of A-3 with twice the accuracy, can be fired from the same 16 missile tubes that carry A-3 and similarly reach any spot on earth from its submerged nuclear-powered nesting place. This missile is in the developmental stage, with Fleet delivery scheduled for the early 1970s.

The advent of the FBM system has brought a change in the Navy’s traditional ship manning methods. Each of the Polaris submarines has two complete crews, called Blue and Gold. The crews alternate on two-month long patrols, thus providing maximum on-station time for the submarines whose endurance is limited only by its personnel.

These submarines give our nation an invulnerable deterrent force immune to sneak attack and always ready, if need be, to loose nuclear destruction on an aggressor.

The virtually insoluble problems such a force presents to a potential aggressor gives the FBM system a vital significance as a deterrent and may give our nation the edge that will preserve peace.

“Once one has seen a Polaris firing, the efficacy of this Weapons System as a deterrent is not debatable.”

John F. Kennedy


I was on board the USS George Washington in the early 1970’s when she test fired some rockets down range. I got a chance to repeat the activity on the USS OHIO a decade later. Both launches left me with a very strong memory. Many decades later, I still feel the deck moving beneath my feel as the birds flew from their nest and launched. Sometimes at night, I have a dream that I wish never came.

I thank God almighty that we never fired them in anger. Yet.

Mister Mac



Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s